1999 New Year's Special
Reviews in this Issue :
- Ayreon - Into The Electric Castle
- Timescape - Two Worlds
- Saga - Detours
- Marathon - Live
- Thomas Metcalf - One
- Jadis - As Daylight Fades
- Timesphere - Tranquility To Tempest
- Rush - Different Stages
- Citizen Cain - Raising The Stones
- Amon Ra - Precarious Balance
- King Crimson - The Night Watch
- Francis Monkman - 21st Century Blues
- Deja Vu - Baroque In The Future
- Final Tragedy - Trial Of Tears
Ayreon - Into The Electric Castle
Ayreon is not a group, and it is not a person. It is a project, by Arjen Anthony Lucassen, a Dutch multi-instrumentalist. 'Into The Electric Castle (A Space Opera)', as it is called, is the third project Lucassen has made with the help of many other musicians.
'Into The Electric Castle' is a fairy tale about 8 persons from very different eras. They have been brought together by an invisible force (yes, this story is completely 'over the top') and have to enter an 'electric castle'. They are accompanied by a 'Voice' (by Peter Daltrey). Other artists on the album are Fish (as the Highlander), Damian Wilson (as The Knight), Anneke van Giersbergen from The Gathering (as Egyptian), Sharon den Adel from Within Temptation (as Indian), Edwin Balogh from Tamas (as Roman) and Edward Reekers from Kajak (as Futureman).
Most instruments are played by Lucassen himself, except drums, played by Ed Warby (from Elegy) and piano by Robby Valentine. Guest musicians are, amongst others) Thijs van Leer (Focus), Ton Scherpenzeel (Kajak, Camel) and Clive Nolan (Arena, Pendragon). So now you know why it is called a project.
The album starts with an introduction. The voice welcomes the visitors to a 'new dimension'. Threatening background music sets the atmosphere for this 'space opera'.
The story really starts with the second track, Isis and Osiris, which really is the best track on the album and one of the best songs of 1998. Starting with an acoustic guitar this song changes into a heavy and bombastic masterpiece. Fish is at his best as Highlander and it's great to hear Damian Wilson. The Hammond-piece in the third part of this song is really brilliant.
Amazing Flight follows, which is a bluesy song, with a great raspy voice of The Barbarian (Jay van Feggelen). The third part of this composition is a great instrumental piece, where flute (Thijs van Leer) and keyboards (Clive Nolan) fight a duel. It's a pity this part is so short, but fortunately Lucassen already made an agreement with Nolan on participation in his next project.
Several of the travellers will die during the story. After his duel with the Barbarian in The Decision Tree, The Highlander is the first to die. Tunnel of Light is a beautiful song, where all characters have their own stereotype part. While everyone is singing and praying, The Highlander dies.
Another introduction leads to Across The Rainbow Bridge, where The Knight and The Roman fight their aggressive duel. These spoken introductions are not always necessary, in fact, I find them pretty annoying. They're boring breaks in between beautiful music.
Since this is a double CD, I will also pay attention to the second part of the story. But I have to admit that it listen to the first CD much oftener. Over 100 minutes of this intense music is a bit too much for me. I had this same problem with IQ's Subterranea, so it me be my lack of patience, but I think a long (74 mins.), single CD could have captured my interest from the beginning 'till the end. Although I don't know what to leave out (except for the narration).
After the narrative introduction, a symphonic orchestra leads to The Garden Of Emotions, a long track where all characters have their own part. It's nice to hear that both music and lyrics suit the different personalities. For example, The Egyptian sings of Amon-Ra, and The Knight of Excalibur. These clichés almost make this album a parody on progressive music.
Valley Of The Queens is a little, but very beautiful song. Accompanied by acoustic guitar, The Egyptian sings about her fate. She dies at the end of the song, just before the others enter The Castle Hall. This bombastic track with heavy electronic beats again bring out the best of The Barbarian and The Knight, before Futureman and Hippie (Lucassen himself) climb the Tower of Hope.
In Cosmic Fusion the remaining characters meet Death. In the second part of this song, there's Death's Grunt. Normally I hate grunts, but I think it suits the story here. Regrettably the Indian doesn't survive this encounter.
The Mirror Maze consists of two duets, one between Hippie and Futureman, the other between Roman and the Knight. Hippie is very Lennon-ish, whereas the Roman and Knight-part seems to be inspired by Pink Floyd (of a heavy kind).
The last character to die is The Barbarian. In The Two Gates, a nice, but not very special song. This track is not very necessary.
After the final narration in "Forever" Of The Stars, the final is Another Time, Another Space. Hippie, Futureman, Roman and Knight are the last to survive. This song starts a bit Beatlesque and forms a nice closer, with piano and a nice sing-a-long chorus. Very peaceful. The last instrumental bit is very bombastic. All characters return for one sentence.
All in all, Into The Electric Castle is a great, bombastic prog-rock opera. It feature some great heavy guitar-stuff and beautiful synthesisers-solos. Most remarkable are the different vocal performances. Not to forget the artwork, which is really special.
Regrettably the strongest bits (from a musical point of view) are at the beginning of the first CD, as a result of which the whole album is a bit unbalanced. Without the narration and as a single CD this album would have been brilliant. But still it is a great album.
conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Timescape - Two Worlds
About two years ago the Godfather of DPRP, Martijn Albering, received a demo by a group of Swedish students. On this demo the basics were recorded for the album that eventually became Two Worlds. A debut-album with influences of Dream Theater and Queensryche.
Free Wild Life is the short instrumental opener of the album. It creates a Carribean atmosphere, that is followed by the heavy bass-intro of Silent Room of Time. This song is heavily influenced by Queensryche and certainly has nice moments. Especially the break with the bass-solo is great. Regrettably the vocals (in the chorus) are a bit too much 'up front' in the mix, as if they were produced seperately from the album. The dynamics of music and vocals don't match at some moments on the album.
The clock that introduced Silent Room also leads to Wispering Shadows, a heavy, upbeat song, with more silent parts between the choruses. I like the drumming on this track.
Next is the longest track (11 mins.), called Caught In Reality, which has a nice introduction, with heavy bass and double guitars. The vocals have a bit too much vibrato for me, but I have the same trouble with James LaBrie, who happens to be considered one of the greatest progmetal singers. This track features a great, jazzy interlude with fusion influences, which leads to a heavy guitar-solo. The female choir at the end, gives this song its climax towards the end.
Two shorter tracks follow, My Lonely Share, another up-beat tune, with nice breaks, and Colour Of The Fall, a ballad with a lovely piano-introduction. Personally the keyboardparts could have been a bit more creative. I tend to find the parts where the keyboards come in the most interesting.
The title track of the album, Two Worlds, is another longer track. After the introduction of crying babies, heavy guitars and heavy drums take over. Many sound-effects are used in this song, including string-sections, electronic beats and many rhythm changes. This song is, together with Caught In Reality, one of the more creative tracks.
Wild Free Life is, despite the resemblance in name, completely unlike the opening-track. This one is very fast, with guitars, keyboards an. The first, exotic track symbolises the 'ancient tribal rites for rain', the latter track symbolises the 'modern urban rights to reign'. Indeed, two worlds. Pity this last track (and with that also the album) ends with a fade-out.
To conclude, I have mixed feelings about this album. The instrumental parts of the album are well-produced and you can easily hear the skills of the musicians. Especially the bass-parts by Johan Eriksson come through very audible, which isn't always the case with prog-metal albums. On the other hand I wasn't really impressed by the vocal parts. I'm not saying Mikeal Moberg is a bad singer, I just don't like the way of singing and the way the vocals are produced. Main problem with this band, to me, is the lack of originality. It is okay to be inspirited by bands like Dream Theater and Queensryche, but with a bit more creativity this album could have brought something 'new'. Some songs show the talents to grow are there. I am convinced these guys will use those talents for a second album.
conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Saga - Detours
In 1997, Saga played a reunion/anniversary tour. The band is back together in its strongest formation and their latest albums are a lot more interesting than many album with different line-ups before. 'Detours' is the registration of some great concerts, in Germany, Austria and Holland during the 'Pain and Pleasure-Tour'.
After the classical introduction of The Hall Of The Mountain King, Saga starts with a great version of How Long. This CD if full of those great old songs from late seventies and early eighties. Careful Where You Step, Ice Nice, On The Loose and You're Not Alone, they're all there.
After the first song, 'Happy Birthday' is sung by the audience. It's great these spontaneous things and the chats in between the songs haven't been cut out. You can feel the great atmosphere of the concert yourself. Very nice is the fact that two video's have been added to the CDs. CD-1 features the live video of Pitchman and CD-2 features The Intermission. In this way you'll be able to enjoy a bit of the concert in your computer with the help of real-video. A little screen will open and show you the band in action. Saga really took effort to make this live-album something special, unlike many other live-albums.
For those who are not familiar with Saga's music, how can it be described? Saga plays short, up-beat songs, with nice melodies. A bit like Supertramp, Asia or even Rush (80's), but the arrangements are much more elaborated. Since the singer Michael Sadler also is a keyboard-player, there is much room for instrumental parts. For example Careful Where You Step, has great breaks, and a lovely guitar-solo.
The faster, 'happier' songs are alternated with nice ballads like The Perfectionist and my personal favourite Don't Be Late, which is present in a great, long version with a special role for the audience.
Saga's more recent work is featured with Welcome To The Zoo and Heaven Can Wait. These tracks have a bit rawer sound and are somewhat heavier than the older, more melodic songs. Regrettably, not many tracks of the well received 'Generation 13'-album are played. With the upbeat Humble Stance, another 'golden oldie', the concert ends. This track also features a 'hidden' drum-solo.
This band fortunately knows what their best material is. Not many bands play so many old songs. The result is a great double-CD. This 'concert' is a real party. I especially appreciate the care that has been taken to preserve this atmosphere, and the fact that Saga gives us the two extras (the videos). This really is 'the best of Saga'.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Marathon - Live
This year, the life of one of Holland greatest prog-rock bands came to an end. Marathon split up. As a thank you to the fans and closing chapter to the story of Marathon, the band released a live-album, containing most of the material of their two albums. Although the recordings date from 1996, they were only released after the demise of the band. Such a shame.
Ozone Layer is a fine introduction to this live-album. It is a heavy song with 'layers' of keyboards. It becomes clear that the album is well produced. The balance between the instruments, between band and audience is alright and the sound is very clear.
Red Ride starts with a riff, that reminds me of Metallica's Enter Sandman, but changes fast when the drums come in, in a great way. The vocals of Eric Ten Bos remind me a bit of Marco de Haan's, singer of that other Dutch prog-rock group, PTS. The third part of this track, Voices, features great guitar-parts, almost like Alex Lifeson's.
One of my favourite tracks is Norm which has a great drive and a great melody. The chorus is fun to sing along, which is what the audience does.
Patters Of A Landscape is, after al the heavier stuff from the first tracks, a nice ballad, with intense vocals. Heart Of Another one and Open Field are also nice ballads. The former with a fine keyboard/hammond-part and the latter with a lovely acoustic guitar introduction.
Casanovas has a funny intro with a 'fairy' organ part, which is followed by heavier guitars. This song changes from slow to fast and back again. A great organ part is combined with the heavy guitars of Ronald ten Bos.
The best one of the many rock-ballads is now to come. The Beauty of Silence really is beautiful. After this gem, A Wall seems a bit pointless, but it all turns out right at the end. Beyond The Veil is the perfect closer for a concert and a great sing-a-long. Fortunately 'e-Norm', the successor to Marathon, still plays this track.
With this album, simply called 'Live', Marathon has made their definitive document. The quality of both performance and production is high. Personally I especially like some of the ballads, so I tend to find the second part of the album a bit more interesting than the first one.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Thomas Metcalf - One
About half-a-year ago, I received an e-mail from an American keyboard-player named Thomas Metcalf, with the question if I wanted to review his album. Since I am a sucker for keyboard-albums like Rick Wakeman's, I replied 'yes'. Few weeks later, 'One' arrived in an envelope.
To put it short, 'One' is one of the strangest albums I have ever reviewed. I can't even say I dislike it, since it is so extraordinary. Metcalf himself simply calls it 'alternative', and indeed it is.
The seven songs don't have titles, but are just called 'D', 'C', 'A', etc. In random order. I couldn't even discover if these 'titles' were the key that the songs were written in.
All tracks are instrumental, the shortest, 'A' counting less than 3 minutes, the longest, 'G' counting almost 11 minutes.
Since this is a instrumental album, it is very difficult to describe the songs. 'D' had a very hectic intro-part, followed by some Japanese melody in the rain. The second song, 'C' has a bit more structure (still not much). It consists of interchanging patters of slow and faster, more hectic music. Many ideas and pictures come to mind. A title would have been helpful to know what this is all about.
'A' is a composition with more tension. It has dark moods and heavy beats in a constant rhythm. 'B' features some sweeping sounds, a bell and even some screaming people. Again, a title would have helped to imagine what this is all about. This composition ends with threatening drums, but, as you could expect, they're not real ones.
In 'E' I am in the middle of a blacksmith's shop, I think. Between beginning and end, many sounds develop around a constant rhythm.
'G' and 'F' are the two longest songs of the album. They both have a bit more structured development. At some points a returning melody can be heard in these tracks. I even tend to recognise some Vangelis-like theatrical stuff between all the experimental sounds. Trumpet-sounds, strings, it's all there, but without a central melody it is a bit senseless.
All in all, I really don't know what to think of this. If you have strong nerves and a curious mind, this might be the right album for you. Personally I regret that the possibilities of the instruments play a more important role than the creativity of the composer. I like experimental stuff like King Crimson's Larks Tongues-album and Yes' Tales From Topographic Oceans, but at least those albums have some melody, some vocals and some songs. This is not a collection of songs, but of creatures.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10 (not to be played to people with severe heart-conditions)
Jadis - As Daylight Fades
After the departure of John Jowitt and Martin Orford, guitarist Gary Chandler had to find half a new band to record 'Somersault', released on Steve Rothery's Dorian Music-label. Some missed the familiar sound of Orford, others thought 'Somersault' was the best Jadis had ever done. With these two newcomers, keyboard-player Mike Torr (who left again in '98) and bass-player Steve Hunt, Jadis also did some gigs in '96/'97, of which this album is the result.
Remarkably only two songs of the aforementioned album are featured on this album, namely Batstein and Falling Away. All albums are presented in an almost equal way, so if you have never heard anything of this band, this album is the point to start.
Jadis plays guitar-oriented prog-rock, without falling in the 'trap' of the ever on-going epics and keyboard-solos. Singer/guitarist Gary Chandler really is the 'king of riffs' and because of that rhythm and rhythm-changes are very important in Jadis music. Falling Away, for example has a great riff, around which the whole song is built. Fortunately Steve Christey is a great drummer. Because of the prominent role of the guitar-part, I think some vocal-parts are a bit underestimated in the compositions. Gary has a fine, clear but powerful voice, but not all the melody-lines are as elaborated as they could have been. The chorus in Wonderful World, for example, is a bit 'noisy', although this is a nice song with a great drive.
"Fiendishly difficult to learn", that's how Martin Orford described Batstein, which features indeed a spectacular keyboard-part. This song has a great up-beat rhythm with an almost jazzy feel.
Besides these faster songs, 'As Daylight Fades' features some lovely ballads, such as the title track (I miss Orford's backing-vocals here), The Beginning And The End and More Than Meets The Eye. On this last song there's a special guest role for Orford on flute, which is really beautiful.
The best part of the album are the last four tracks, starting with one of my favourites, In Isolation. This song starts with a melody, played on drum-pads, that returns over and over again in the song. A very strong bit, which was once used for an intro for a Dutch news-show on radio.
Another favourite is No Sacrifice, also from 'Across The Water', which starts with an a cappella part, followed by a great melody, with a lovely bass-line and a great organ-part. There's a fine balance between guitar and vocals here, and maybe that's why I like this song so much.
Holding Your Breath is the last track of the album. This is the only instrumental track and also the longest one (about 10 mins.). It consists of several parts, of which the first is dominated by guitar and the last by keyboard. The final part is a bit quieter and had a beautiful, almost IQ-ish sound.
All in all, this album shows us once again that Gary Chandler is a great guitar-player. If you ever saw him play, it's really impressing to see all his musical 'tricks'. Steve Christey also is a very talented musician, who is the solid basis in this band. Personally, I miss Martin Orford in this record, maybe more because of his backing vocals, than because the keyboard-parts, but fortunately Orford returned to the band in '98. Although I like some tracks more than others, this is a pretty good album and gives an nice overlook of what Jadis has been doing in the past.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Timesphere - Tranquility To Tempest
Another band with the word 'Time' in its name, this time from Germany. Timesphere is a prog-rock band with two guitarists, who are, together with the keyboardplayer, responsible for all compositions. Their music is a mixture between Queensryche, Fates Warning and, a German influence, the Scorpions.
The resemblance with the Scorpions immediately comes to mind when to hear Chris Robinson sing: 'Time, only time'. I can't help thinking of Klaus Meine. The vocals are never out of tune, but sometimes a bit too nasal.
The first track Hourglass is, like the second song, called Suicidal Tendancies, a classical rock-ballad. The last one has an impressive intro, which could have made a great opening for the album, followed by a fast chorus.
Just A Dream has a nice intro with double vocals, followed by a double guitar-part. The middle part features a nice drums-section combined with a guitar-solo.
Somewhere at this point the album isn't really successful in capturing my attention. Prism magic and Pendulum lack the necessary variation and have about the same tempo as the other songs, although Pendulum has a nice, jazz influence. Between these two songs, there's a ballad, called Lonely Irony, with acoustic guitars and an important role for the vocalist. The keyboards add nice strings to this track.
Serpant is another up-tempo song, which gets interesting towards the end. The second part of this track is very dark and brings a great combination of guitars.
After Poem, a fast song with piano-introduction, thunder and rain, the highlight of the album is there: Phantom's Sigh (Part 1). This is a great instrumental, where every instrument has it's own position. The balance between the different parts and instruments is fine and I like the melody of this track.
Altogether, Timesphere has made an album that has its moments, but lack a bit variation. Personally I think the band could have been a bit more creative with the fact that there are two guitarists in the band. In some songs, especially in the choruses, the two distorted guitars are bit too straightforward to do justice to the melody. But if you like a bit heavier rock-songs, this is a nice album.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Rush - Different Stages
Rush has the habit to release a live-record after every four studio albums. After 'Show Of Hands', their latest live-CD, 'Presto', 'Roll The Bones', 'Counterparts' and 'Test For Echo' saw the light of day, so it was time again for a live-CD. 'Different Stages' really is a document of 25 years of Rush. This 3-CD (!) is not the final thing the band has done, but the band has announced a 'hiatus' for the next period.
'Different Stages' features 33 songs, so it is impossible to review all tracks on these three CDs. Instead, I will try to give you an impression of this album. To start with, the title of this set is very accurate, since the third CD is a registration of a 1978 concert. Rush only recently (re-)discovered these recordings and found them better (in hindsight) than at that moment.
Most of the tracks on the first two CDs are taken from the Chicago-concert on 14/6/97 during the 'Test For Echo'-tour. Bravado, Show, Don't Tell and The Analog Kid have been added from the 'Counterparts'-tour. The last two songs have been added at the latest stage of mixing, due to constant request by the fans.
Personally, I regret the absence of much of the 'Presto'-material. Especially Presto itself, but also The Pass have been played during the 'Roll The Bones'-tour of which no material has been used.
Despite this, there's much to enjoy, almost too much. To name a few highlights of the first CD: Driven, in a great version featuring a fabulous bass-solo by Geddy Lee. Bravado is present in a raw and heavy version with a great guitar-improvisation by Alex Lifeson. The Trees is back again in the setlist and this pure, acoustic song fits in with the more recent material very well. Nobody's Hero has some of the best lyrics, Neal Peart has ever written. Present on almost every live-album is Closer To The Heart. This song is different every time. The bass-part has changed a little. Climax of the first disk is the full performance of 2112, which shows that Lee might have lost the 'higher regions' of his voice, but that this epic still is very powerful and theatrical.
Disk two opens with Test For Echo which regrettably has some annoying persons shouting during the instrumental parts. Rush managed to give 'Different Stages' a pure and less smooth production than 'Show Of Hands', but this is a mistake.
Analog Kid is a pleasant surprise between the newer tracks. Older and newer tracks interchange in a balanced way on this album. Roll The Bones is less 'poppy' than the original and Stick It Out shows that age doesn't necessarily stop musicians from making heavy music. Leave That Thing Alone is a great instrumental, with a lovely bass-line. The precense of the drum-solo, called The Rhythm Method, is a bit unnecessary, since this track was also present on 'Show Of Hands'. I Like Peart's drumming best in songs like YYZ, which happens to be (I recently discovered) the code-name for Toronto-airport.
Natural Science is another surprise. Personally I like this period of Rush' career (1976-1980) the best. This epic has some nice changes it's great to hear that this track matches the more recent material, which is very guitar-oriented.
The third disk take us back to 1978. This disk is delivered in a separate 'envelope', which easily gets damaged, but has a funny picture of the 1978 Hammersmith Odeon-hall, with nice (computerised) special effects. Watch the details! This disk features some old and some very old material. By-Tor & The Snow Dog and Cygnus X-1 are among the best compositions Rush has ever written. Not to forget Xanadu, which was also present on 'Exit-Stage Left'. This version is much more spontaneous and the production is much better.
Although Lee has a little cold this evening (that's why the recordings were never used), you can enjoy the spirit of the evening. Anthem and Fly By Night cause little problems for the singer, but the rawness of these tracks is great.
With 'Different Stages' Rush did more than was expected, delivering their fourth live-album. They made it a document of 25-years of Rush history. Despite the little remarks I've made, I fully enjoyed this 3-CD set. It's full of energy and shows that Rush hasn't become another dull, self-repeating, prog-group. 'Different Stages' shows the group is alive and kicking. Hope this 'pause' they announced doesn't last too long. Gentlemen, please come to Europe again!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Citizen Cain - Raising The Stones
After Fish, Citizen Cain is the second progressive artist to put the region of East-Lothian on the musical map. This band once started as a group, but has been reduced to two persons now, Steward Bell and a person called 'Xyrus'.
First I have to say something about the production of both CD and booklet. To put it mild, I'm not enthusiastic about these. If you take yourself (and the audience) serious, you pay attention to this. First, the booklet features texts of songs that aren't on the album. I have the impression a shuffle with songs has been made at the last moment. For example Ghosts Of Jericho - Part 2 comes before Ghosts Of Jericho - Part 1, and The Last Supper has been 'cut' into track 6 and track 7, which also consists of the next song. Very confusing. Besides this, the band is also called 'Xitizen Cain' on the backside of the booklet. This may have been the former name of the band, but still is a strange mistake. Even more confusing are the many titles all the tracks have, the longer tracks sometimes consist of 6 parts (sometimes numbered, sometimes 'lettered'), but lack a 'central' title.
To the music then: since I don't know which instruments these two persons play, I guess much has been done on keyboards. As a result, many of the bass- and drums-parts sound a bit too mechanical. There's not much 'dynamics' in the sound.
The first track, Last Days Of Cain has a promising theatrical opening-part, after which the singer appears 'on the stage' accompanied by a harpsichord. He sort of 'tells his tale'. His voice resembles Peter Gabriel's vocals (like in 'Battle of Epping Forest' or 'Moribound The Burgermeister') in a striking way, although this singer sometimes more 'speaks' than sings. The Germans would call it 'Spraechgesang'. These 'folksy' atmosphere, combined with Genesis-inspired sound returns at several moments on the album.
Most of the tracks, like Bad Karma, First Gate and Corcyra have many alterations in style, tempo, and instrumentation. At some point a song is acoustic, with Scottish influences, few seconds later it's heavy, symphonic and theatrical. All these alterations can be very interesting, but can also be a bit boring at the same moment. In some parts, the rhythm even changes about every bar!
Citizen Cain suffers from the same decease early Genesis did. According to Tony Banks himself, they were 'bad composers' since 'they had thousands of ideas to start a song but lacked creativity to complete it'. The many long tracks on 'Raising The Stones' also consist of many parts. Some I really love, like Fixing Broken Hearts in the last track and Dreaming Makes The World (part 1 of track 5), but they never have the chance to fully develop.
To conclude; On this CD there's lot's of great ideas and nice parts, but not a single great song. It's a mixture of styles and instruments, which I've never heard before, that makes this a very interesting album. Regrettably, that's not always the same as a beautiful album. This album loses 1 point for messy production alone.
conclusion: 6 out of 10
Amon Ra - Precarious Balance
Amon Ra started in an era that was very confusion in Germany. The Wall came down and 'ossies' and 'wessies' came together. This group from Bamberg, Germany also combines the different cultures of the country. The singer even has his roots in America, and as a result his vocals are without any accent. With the inspiration of Rush, Dream Theater, Kansas and Rick Wakeman (according to the booklet), a great mixture of musical ingredients and fantasy is the result.
Precarious Balance immediately starts with vocals and a piano. The Way gives a gives a good impression of what is going to come; powerful, melodic and theatrical music. Most of the songs are written by Thomas Wenzel (guitars) en Dierk Nelder (keyboards), as a result of which the compositions combine powerful en melodic parts. Besides that, there's a 'precarious balance' between the instruments, every musician has his own position in the music and every part is audible in the production.
As the name of the group already shows, the group finds inspiration in the ancient Egyptian culture, but as many symphonic rock groups also in the writings of J.R.R.Tolkien. This time not the well-known novel 'In The Lord Of The Rings' but 'The Story of Beren and Luthien' was used.
The song of the latter title is a very nice instrumental epic of almost 10 minutes, with many changes in atmosphere and has a lot of place for different groupmembers to show their talents. Especially the part where the howling wolves come in is great. Besides this composition "Precarious Balance" features some other very theatrical songs, like In the Name Of Ra and the closing epic Illu-Vata.
The album also features some more straightforward songs, like Two Suns, which is a nice slow rock song with great backing vocals and a fine bass part.
In The Name of Ra may be considered, looking at the name of the band, as the main, first statement of the band. For me it should have been the opener of the album. The song brings us a complete story with heavy guitars and daring vocal parts. Influences from the Middle-East, create the right atmosphere for this 'tale of the Gods'. After the Priest has told his message a great passage with guitars follows.
The Forest is a short and quiet instrumental that leads into Waterfall that starts like a ballad with acoustic guitars. Singer Scott Balaban has a fine voice and shows in this song that is able to reach great highth, when not screaming too much. I like his voice especially in the more fragile parts of the song. In the higher parts he loses a bit of the power, which he sometimes tries to overcome by screaming a little, which is unnecessary. But not many times, I am so impressed by the variety of colours in a singers voice.
All in all, Amon Ra has the potential to grow big. Their debut album was a pleasant surprise to me. It's a pity I couldn't find a home-page on the internet, so there's not much more to tell about this young promising German group. With Precarious Balance, Amon Ra made the best debut of 1998!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
King Crimson - The Night Watch
Over the years King Crimson has known several 'versions'. Only recently, Robert Fripp (only remaining member of the original line-up), dug up some old live recordings. With the release of these, the live-history of the several versions becomes clear. The Night Watch (recorded in Amsterdam, hence the title), is a registration of the 73-74 line-up, which included Robert Fripp (guitars), John Wetton (vocals and bass), Bill Bruford (drums) and David Cross(mellotron and violin).
King Crimson always tried to discover the boundaries of creating music. Improvisation is a very central aspect of making music. Even to the extent that much of the material of this 23rd November 1973 concert has been used (with some overdubs) for the 'Starless & Bible Black'-album. The concert-hall functioned as the recording studio.
Since there are no less than three long and complex improvisations on this album, it is difficult to describe the album. In fact, almost every song is an improvisation to the original. Easy Money for example has a great middle part, where Wetton really seems to be pulling the strings out of his bass. It's fun to hear the audience applaud politely.
What was 1973/4 King Crimson about? Well, about exploring boundaries. The music is less accessible than that of the 1981/4 version, which is more melodic. It also is less atmospheric than the 1969/71 version of the band. The music is complex, hectic, but very interesting and powerful.
This 2-CD comes with a nice booklet, with many stories on the group by several members. Robert Fripp describes the group as follows: "Between 1973/4 KC had an increasingly loud bass-player of staggering strength and imagination, arguably the finest young English player in his field at the time. The drummer has the temperament of a classical musician who wanted to be a jazzer and worked in rock groups. I'm not sure Bruford/Wetton were a good rhythm-section but they were amazing, busy, exiting, mobile, agile, inventive and terrible to play over. The King Crimson in 1973/4 was not a balanced group, or perhaps it was balanced in disarray. It was sometimes frightening and not a comfortable place to be. Increasingly it needed improvisation to stay alive. But that didn't show much in studio-albums. In concerts, it stepped sideways and jumped. This team looked into the darker spaces of the psyche and reported back on what it found. The 1969 Crimscapes were bleak and written, the 1973/4 Crimscapes were darker, and mainly improvised."
A better description of what 'The Night Watch' is about cannot be given. It is indeed a dark, improvised album. It has to be mentioned, some of these improvs are very messy, and I do not like them all, but they're at least interesting to hear.
Some highlights to me are the lovely Book Of Saturday, with a beautiful melody-line and a lovely violin to accompany the raspy voice of Wetton. Also great is the live-version of Fracture. Although it's already structured, this performance was done before recording the album. Personally I think this version is much more powerful than the final, overdubbed version.
On the second disk I especially like the last part. The bass-line of The Talking Drum is one of the best to improvise on. It has a lovely, fast drive and combines in a great way with Bruford's jazzy style of drumming. Larks' Tongues In Aspic (Part II), also has a very 'hallucinatic' atmosphere and is among the best compositions this line-up has created.
21st Century Schizoid Man is the final track, and the only remainder of earlier versions of King Crimson. I love the aggression in Wetton's voice. To hear a violin instead of a saxophone it really funny.
All in all, like many KC-albums 'The Night Watch' brings interesting, complex and intense music. The sound is much clearer than many of the studio albums. It's great to hear the originals to many 'Starless & Bible Black'-tracks. The complete DGM-catalogue (with soundfiles!) as CD-Rom track is a nice extra. Fripp always is a man of his time, whether it be the 70's or the 90's. This album is fine document of the 70's.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Francis Monkman & The Virtuous-Reality Band -
21st Century Blues
Francis Monkman is a keyboard player who has played in the famous band Sky in the late seventies / early eighties. Also, he used to twiddle some keys with The Shadows (yes, the seventies guitar group) and on the Alan Parson Project's original "Tales of Mystery and Imagination". Now, on the loose, he has filled a CD with almost 80 minutes of music, his vision on how blues is going to be in the next century. Don't expect a lot of keyboards (although they are present) on this album, apparently in the 21st century we still use the good old guitar, drum and bass. On the other hand, it isn't a real blues album either, it definitely has some "progressive" sides to it as well. That is to say: it has an early Pink Floyd/Camel/Caravan feel to it.
I will not discuss al 14 tracks in depth, since a lot of them have more or less the same basic idea: blues. If you like blues-rock, not in its pure form but manipulated, more like Sky did to classical music, maybe you want to give this album a try. Don't be put off by the strange, almost Sanscrit, cover! The first track, Poisonality (9:42) has a very nice theme, but it is repeated so often that after 7 minutes I got fet up with it. Almost all vocals on the album are more or less spoken through a distortion machine, giving it a "spacy" feel and sounding like the "Caveman" in Mike Oldfield's "Tubular Bells". I personally preffer this approach to having people trying to sing and failing. In a couple of songs there is a female vocalist as well (who is she? She's not on the credits! Or is it just Monkman singing in a high voice?), with a very nice voice, adding some emotion to the songs. But apart from blues-rock in the hybrid form decribed above, there are a two songs worth mentioning : Another Day (7.08) is a "space" song, a mixture of early Floyd (Set the Controls....) and early Camel (yes, it is possible). No blues in this one! Just imagine you're floating on clouds... Found in Space (6:06) is a beautiful blues ballad, adding a quiet note to the album. Nice guitar in it as well.
As you may have noticed, I had a bit of a difficult time reviewing this album, since it cannot simply be caught under the label "blues-rock". It is more than that, but I cannot exactly pinpoint what. People likeing blues, and especially what Floyd used to do with blues in the late 60's, early 70's, will probably like this album (I hope I do not upset Mr. Monkman by labelling his 21st Century music as late 60's!). Finally, you have to listen to this album a couple of times in order to get its "feel", but then it is really enjoyable. You can order this CD at his website, which worked fine two days ago, but doesn't have a DNS entry today (don't ask me why !).
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Deja Vu - Baroque in the Future
Deja Vu is a Japanese Sympho-band formed in 1985 in Tokyo. The band members have a background in progressve rock and have played in various progressive bands in Japan. This album, Baroque in the Future, is a re-release from 1988. So, 10 years after the original release, Europe can finally meet this part of Japanese prog-history.
The album consist of seven tracks that originally made up the "Baroque in the Future" album, plus two live bonus tracks. Since there is no guitar player in the band (in fact it consists of a keyboard player, a drummer and a bass player/vocalist), it is a very keyboard dominated album, but using synths they are able to mimic some electric guitars on the album. Deja Vu have focused on bringing classic, indeed baroque tunes, in a progressive fashion. I think they succeded in not making a "put-some-drums-under-Vivaldi" album, but an album that sounds classic and progressive at the same time. A bit more variation between the tracks (why not put a ballad in it?) might have lifted the level of the album, though. One minor point of critisism is that they sound too "electronic" at times, lacking emotion in the songs.
The opening track, Prelude (3.50) is an almost classic piece, with lots of choir synthesisers and paino. As it should be with a prelude, it is the foreplay of what is to follow on the album.
Next World (5.52) is a good solid prog-track, needless to say containing baroque influences. It is uptempo, with well-chosen breaks, tempo-changes and melodies and even a distorted guitar (i.e. keyboard) solo. Unfortunately the vocalist, not the strongest member of the band, cannot be understood. I pick up some words, so I know the song is in English, but lyrics included in the CD-booklet would have been nice. Fortunately, the songs on the album are instrumental unless stated otherwise.
Baroque in the Future (3.33), the title track of the album opens with dark, rhythmic synth-sounds, moving into a very baroque theme indeed. Alhough I stated in the introduction that they did not simply put drums under Vivaldi, this song may qualify for that description and is therefore not my favorite (I like Vivaldi "pure").
Daydream (5.29) leaves Baroque behind and is simply a progressive song. The lyrics are fortunately more understandible here.
Flash! (3.42) is the most interesting song of the album, from a musical point of view. It has a Jazz-rock intro, followed by a really uptempo part, with double bass on the drums. Then the songs enters into a more romantic part, with piano and the like. Then it's back to the intro and BANG! the sound of a car-crash ends it all.
My favorite track of the album is Byzantium (6.37). It paints a picture of the old Byzantium through music, just close your eyes and see the sun set over the Aya Sophia. The song opens with a quiet melody on a sitar or something and becomes progressively more bombastic, entering a piano part that works up to a climax.
The track with the melody that is easiest to remember is Deja Vu (7.53). This is one of the songs that include vocals. Here, they do not sound like the more electronic songs Japanese apparentely love (it is a tell-tale sign that the keyboard player later wrote songs for computer games...). Instead, composition and performance are more European than in the previous songs.
Concentration (5.50) is the first of two live bonus tracks recorded in 1989 during a double gig with Atoll. On these tracks they have an extra keyboard player, who is also responsible for the vocals. His voice is somewhat deeper and more theatrical and I prefer it over the original vocalist. I have the impression that this song is in Japanese, since I don't understand a word of what he is singing. In this song the vocals determine the melody and the instruments follow, not the other way around as was the case in all the other songs on the album. With some strange organ solo's in the middle section, this song is more experimental and daring than the other songs. Perhaps they were still working on it at the time of playing it.
Deja Vu (live) (8.06) ends the album. Although this song is indeed suitable to end a concert, you have heard the song 6 minutes ago already and this is annoying. Apart from that, the live version does not add to the recorded version. They could have used this CD space in a better way!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Final Tragedy - Trial of Tears
Final Tradegy is a French duo, consisting of Jean-Luc Millot, responsible for the music and Delphine Cochand, the female vocalist. The EP consists of 4 songs, On A Fall's Night (5.06), Evil Game (5.53), Cold Sun (5.20) and The Wait (5.20). Jean-Luc Millot is solely responsible for composing, arranging, programming and performing the music, and this is worth a compliment. The musical background of this man is rather interesting, coming from a techno-thrash quintet called Etheric Soul, from which he slowly moved towards progressive metal (or maybe a new genre, progressive thrash, has arisen ?). The music in itself is not bad, it reminded me a bit of Faiths Warning, some Dream Theatre and a touch of Gothic (as the band's name already suggests). But there is not much difference between the individual songs, all of them starting with a "classic" intro, i.e. piano or acoustic guitar, and then moving to the more heavy, low electric guitar parts thrash metal is so famous for. The title "progressive" is earned by the rhythmic variations and more melodic parts in the songs. The big disappointment in all the songs is the vocalist, Delphine. In her low voice, she is able to follow the melodies rather well, but in the higher, more screaming parts, she is plainly out of tune and sometimes really destroys some movements. In fact, I personally believe a good male vocalist would do the music much more justice and could raise Final Tragedy (or should I say Jean-Luc Millot) to a higher level and maybe even the full CD he is dreaming of.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10