Reviews in this issue:
Porcupine Tree - Voyage 34 : The Complete Trip
In last year's 1999 issue of Counting Out Time I wrote: "Steve [Wilson]'s music took a new direction with the release of the 12" Voyage 34 in 1992. The music on this 30+ minute EP consisted of a daring mixture of dance rhythms with ambient soundscapes, spoken narrations and Floydian guitar (obviously inspired by Run Like Hell and Another Brick In The Wall (part 1)). The topic of the record were the negative (Phase I) and positive sides (Phase II) of LSD trips. A second 12" with two additional ambient remixes (Phase III and IV) was released a year later."
Now, seven years later, the four phases of Voyage 34 are finally available on one 63+ minute CD. For me personally this means that I can get rid of that worn-out tape I've been playing for years !
Voyage 34 (Phase I & II) were recorded in the same period when Up The Downstairs was written. Voyage 34 was sort of a preview of what was to come on Up The Downstairs. Porcupine Tree, which basically was still a solo project by Steve Wilson, had exchanged the psychadelic approach of On The Sunday of Life ... for a mixture of progressive rock (heavy on the guitars and keyboards) and ambient music. As a matter of fact, Up The Downstairs is named after part of the narrative of Voyage 34.
Phase I is the most well-known and quite frankly the best of the four phases. It is still
played live quite often by the band. It features the narrative of the 34th LSD trip by a guy
called Brian. The track starts with the narrator, which has obviously been sampled from a vinyl source
originally. After about 2 minutes of ambient synth sounds a bass drum comes in, followed by a
guitar riff that will remind most of you of several Pink Floyd tracks from The Wall.
Bass, drum and percussion give the tune a very danceable rhythm, and I would not be surprised
if this song has done well in the clubs.
The narrative continues, while the music and sound effects brilliantly illustrate the ups and downs in Brian's LSD trip, while the tension slowly builds. When Brian gets caught in his trip and 'joy turns to fear' his anxiety is perfectly symbolized by one of Steve Wilson's soaring guitar solos. After this the music dies down and the narrator tells the listener how Bryan is left shattered by his 34th LSD experience.
This song is a must-have in every Porcupine Tree collection and together with Phase II worth the price of the full CD.
Phase II is longer, although it follows roughly the same pattern as Phase I. It does feature a lot of spoken samples by various people but this time, instead of a 'story' you hear several positive opinions about LSD usage and descriptions of the hallucinations that come with it. This lasts for about 5 minutes, accompanied by ambient sounds, and that's why Phase II gets off with a rather slow start. But then we are treated to another danceable rhythm, a similar guitar riff as in Phase I (this time with added Run Like Hell-like echo effects) and a section that seems to be inspired by Welcome to the Machine. We're treated to 10 more minutes of amazing solos, first on the keyboards and later on guitar again. At the end of the track there's another critical note when a voice repeatingly asks 'Was this trip really necessary ?'.
Whereas Phase I and Phase II fit quite well in the ambient rock, prog rock and
space rock genres, the other two phases that appeared on the 1993 12" are very different. It entered
the Indie charts and became an underground chill-out classic.
That should also give you a good idea about the kind of music; very ambient. Phase III, a remix by Astralasia starts with a repeated echoing sample of the ending of Phase II ('Was this trip really necessary ?'). The track is remixed to such an extend that only some of the ambient noises from the first two phases and the spoken samples from Phase II remain. Add a repeated two-tones synth sound to it, some sequencers and additional keyboard soundscapes, percussion and a bass that slowly comes in and continue the whole mixture for about 20 minutes.
I have to admit that this whole can be quite relaxing and a good experience with the lights of, but those who expect something similar to the first half of the CD will be disappointed. It's just to 'boring', stretched and repetitive to get anybody excited. But then again, it was meant as a chill-out track, wasn't it ?
Finally, Phase IV is the 'Richard Barbieri-treatment' of the Voyage. It's basically like a continuation of the first 5 minutes of Phase II. It features both old and new samples about the 'new civilisation' of LSD users in universities and colleges on one hand and bad effects of LSD usage on the other. All of that accompanied by spooky noises. The track also features a pounding drum sound in the background which, combined with the echoing guitar, reminds me a bit of Peter Gabriel's Biko. The end section of the song gives a nice indication of the direction the band was going into with the The Sky Moves Sideways album.
The booklet of the CD is very nice. It features all of the narratives and spoken words of
Phase I and II. It also features weird images that range from pictures that
illustrate part of the story ('saturated sugar', 'plastic flasbulbs') and many
colourful psychadelic and kaleidoscopic designs to eerily warped faces and a downright scary
picture of 'the thing with countless mouths and bare teeth'.
The recording itself has been remixed (only to the effect of enhancing the whole mix and balance between instruments) and remastered.
A must-have for long-time Porcupine Tree fans and something to check out for people who have only just discovered the band or would be intruiged by a danceable version of Pink Floyd. Phase III and IV will appeal more to people that like trancey club music, ambient or some of the spacey Ozric Tentacles stuff.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Iona - Woven Cord
When I first heard of the existence of this album early this year, I was very excited. Not
only had almost three years gone by since Iona's last recorded output, 1997's live album
Heaven's Bright Sun, it was also more than five years ago that their last studio album,
Journey into the Morn, was released. I was therefore very anxious to hear new material
by this British group, who have quickly risen to become one of my favourite bands ever since I
discovered them through their 1992 masterpiece The Book of Kells.
Therefore I couldn't but feel slightly disappointed when Woven Cord appeared in fact to be another live album. However, my disappointment lessened considerably when it became apparent that this album had been recorded with the assistance of a full orchestra, and did in fact contain a new song.
Since Heaven's Bright Sun there have been a few changes in the band's line-up. Drummer Terl Bryant and saxophonist/flutist Mike Haughton have left the band. Drummer and violinist (an interesting combination) Frank van Essen, who appeared as a guest musician on The Book of Kells and Beyond These Shores, is now a full member. The nucleus of the band is still formed by founding members Joanne Hogg (vocals, keyboards and acoustic guitars) and Dave Bainbridge (guitars, keyboards and bouzouki), thereby assisted by Troy Donockley (Uilleann pipes, whistles, cittern, guitars, and vocals), who has appeared on the band's albums since the debut album Iona but is a full member since Journey into the Morn, and Phil Barker (bass) who first appeared on the Heaven's Bright Sun album.
The concert featured on the album was played on May 29th 1999 in the Royal Festival Hall, London, to commemorate the band's ten year existence. For this occasion Iona was joined by the All Souls Orchestra, founded in 1972 by its current conductor, Noel Tredinnick.
The album opens with the orchestral Overture. This beautiful moody piece segues into Bi-Se I Mo Shuil pt. 1, from 'Journey into the Morn', introducing the fantastic voice of Joanne Hogg. She's miles above any other vocalist, male or female, in my book. The band then goes back to 'The Book of Kells', with the long Man (or Mathew - The Man, as it is called on 'The Book of Kells'). Some great string arrangements have been added to this track, which is originally already very orchestral. The orchestra also adds a haunting quality to the middle part of this song. It already was haunting, but it's more so now!
White Sands (from 'Iona') has a complete new orchestral intro. This very gentle piece was originally already very orchestral as well, so it's more a case of the band being backed by a full orchestra this time. 'Beyond These Shores' is then represented by the great ballad Murlough Bay. The orchestra's contribution is most apparent during the powerful second part of the song.
It's back again to the first album, 'Iona', with Dancing on the Wall, with the Orchestra again mainly adding strings, which in this case really fleshens out the piece. This song has gained a lot since its first appearance on 'Iona': it's much livelier, especially the second part.
When I saw that Encircling (from 'Journey into the Morn') was included on the disc, I was
very curious to hear what the orchestra would do to it, since there's plenty of opportunity to
add something to it. Not that the original is lacking - the quiet parts work very well as they
do - but there is plenty of room for embellishments. In the end this track proved to be one of
those that worked out best with the orchestra.
The orchestra does add a lot to it, mainly strings of course, but not just harmonies, also completely new melodies. The haunting part near the end of the track is largely left intact though, which is perfect: just the synth, and Joanne's voice. This shows that Iona was willing to hold back the orchestra when necessary. The orchestra then slowly comes back in for the finale, which is, traditionally for Iona, very uplifting, because they're not a band to end on a sad note.
The band stays with 'Journey into the Morn' with Lindisfarne. This song has an extended intro compared to the album version. It now builds up even more gradually than the original, with instrument after instrument from the orchestra joining in. Very nice! All in all a more laid back version than the original, with a leading role for Joanne Hogg. Luckily, Dave Bainbridge's emotive guitar solo is still in place!
One of my favourites from 'The Book of Kells', Revelation, is next. Joanne Hogg shines on this track again (I can't say it enough!). The only thing I miss here is the saxophone, which featured prominently on the original. In return, the track has almost doubled in length, with a great guitar solo added in, and the majestic ending is simply awesome with the orchestra, Dave's soulful guitar and Joanne's voice mixing beautifully.
The aforementioned new track Woven Cord is an instrumental, which now appears on the new album, Open Sky (which I haven't heard yet: a shame, I know. You'll read a review of it here as soon as I can track down a copy). The intro is a bit atonal, but then things get more lively, resulting in an uptempo song not unlike some on 'Journey into the Morn', like Lindisfarne and Heaven's Bright Sun. It also features a very soulful, lengthy guitar solo. This is the only track that I will hear first in its orchestrated version and then in its 'normal' version, which should be interesting.
The closer of the set is Beyond These Shores (from the album with the same name). A very moody piece, with a leading role for Frank van Essen on violin. The ending is very sad. I wonder how many people in the audience couldn't keep dry!
To conclude, I like this album better than the previous live outing, 'Heaven's Bright Sun'. Iona's music is very suitable for adaptation to an orchestra, which manages to add something extra to the band's already rich sound. The sound quality of the album is excellent, and the album truly captures the power of an Iona live performance. If you're already a fan of Iona, go out and get this album immediately: it's an essential part of your collection. If you're new to Iona, this album is an excellent introduction, containing samples from every one of their albums. Don't be put off by the fact that Iona is a Christian band. I haven't, and I'm not Christian at all (I'm an atheist).
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Some people abide to the saying that ANY publicity is GOOD publicity. Ohio based musician Rick Ray seems to be one of those people. After I had written two rather negative reviews on his albums Atomic Soldiers and The Key To The Bottomless Pit, you'd have reckoned this guy would be pretty pissed off. Not Rick. Not only did I recieve his entire back catalogue and his newest releases over the last few months, but he also mailed me a collection of artwork under his pseudonym 'The Masked Cartoonist'. This included a personal message in which Rick thanked me for taking the time to review his CDs and expressed the hope I'd grow to like his music over time.
So not a very vengeful person, this Rick Ray. To be honest, he seems a pretty nice guy. Until recentely there wasn't a lot I knew about this musician. Fortunately his CD Looking Into The Past includes some information about which bands Rick has played in and who his bandmates were. From 1973 to 1985 Ray played in Neurotic. He then founded The Rick Ray Band which lasted until 1989. Present day collaborator Rick Schultz was part of both these bands. His last band was Riot Act, from 1990 until 1996, when he seems to have quit not only playing in a band, but also performing live. The release of Riot Act's Live At Suma, a 1995 recording, on Rick's private label, Neurotic Records, led to a reunion with bandmates Jack Ambrose and John Cek, resulting in this year's second Riot Act release, Maniacal Disatrophe Tour. Presently Ray seems to focus on the release of his solo material.
Having recieved the entire Rick Ray catalogue, the question was how to deal with these cds for DPRP's review section. Reviewing each CD seperately seems too bothersome, since the praise and criticism concerning each album would be fairly identical, as will become clear below. A special was also out of the question, because we reserve specials for important new releases, round table reviews, or back catalogues with considerable interest to our readers, while none of Rick's CDs would earn a very high rating.
In conclave with the review editor, here's what's come out of the pipeline. I'll first review the quality of Ray's body of solo work, so far released on the Neurosis Records label. Some points made in the earlier reviews may be reiterated, but this will strenghten my argument that Ray's work doesn't show much innovation with each new release. After this general appraisal, the nine CDs under review will be (very) briefly described (in alphabetical order), with the accent on their various highlights.
Rick Ray plays guitar, bass, percussion, keyboards, guitar synths and RX8 and provides his vocals. He's produced, recorded and mixed all CDs. Most of the songs are by his hand, but there are some collaborations. The only other musician to appear in the newest material is Rick Schultz on clarinet.
Rick was partly right; I have grown more appreciative of his music since writing my last review. Some points of criticism stand, while others have come to the fore with my increased knowledge of Rick's repertoire. Most importantly: too much of Rick's music sounds alike. Each new album has a collection of songs that could just as easily have appeared on its predecessors. Therefore composition must be labelled unimaginative. This is not meant to say that Rick doesn't come up with some original material once in a while, but these songs are almost lost in an endless stream of identical tracks.
The most important part of Rick's music that has grown on me is his typical style of playing the guitar. In my review of Atomic Soldiers I still referred to his solos as being "often simply awful." Fact is that most instrumental tracks seem to serve the sole purpose of showing off Rick's talent on electric guitar with drawn out solos, while the rest of the instruments (also by Ray) provide nothing more than wallpaper. This excludes Rick Schultz on clarinet, who makes for a very dominant presence on quite a few tracks. Often Schultz' involvement comes off as if it was added as a second thought; more than once the clarinet stands apart from the rest of the music. Worse still, it often distracts from the overall themes and melodies with its frenzied instrumental onrush. Schultz has his more subtle moments and some songs derive their strenght from his participation, but mostly I find myself wishing he'd been left out alltoghether or at least mixed in less obtrusively.
Rick's vocals aren't the best around, but can't be said to diminish the basic quality of the songs. However, the vocal patterns are identical in most songs which grows annoying soon enough. Even when a guest vocalist makes an appearance, as on Clone Man, this pattern is upheld. The scarce songs that break free from this vocal melody make a welcome relieve.
On to the individual albums.
Abnormal Road (16 tracks/69.49) More than half the tracks on this album are instrumental. No Air To Breathe takes a sample from Pink Floyd's Money as its basis. Some tracks feature weird seventies space sounds, like Sea Of Tranquility and Rick's rewritten version of the Rick Ray Band track There's A Riot Outside.
Balance of Power (15 tracks/59.12) Again more than half the tracks on this album are instrumental. Dance Of The Sinners works from the basis of the Peter Gunn Theme. Rick puts in a ballad with Back In Time and plays the blues in Blues Of Ignorance. Both pretty good.
Cast Into Our Dimension (16/72.27) Some awful performances by Rick Schultz. Freedom No Longer centers on a speech predicting a future Big Brother state in the U.S. Rick's favourite character, Old Man Satan, returns in the atomic nightmare of the title track.
Clone Man (14 tracks/69.09) Only three instrumentals. There are guest vocal appearances by Riot Act's Jack Ambrose and John Cek. Neither is an exceptionally gifted singer, but the substitution of vocals makes a nice change. Another plus are two featured ballads: Sands Of Time and Tell Me Where. These come off very well. Satan is back in Front Seat In Hell. Divided We Fall is a bleak song about the destruction of the United States. (Detecting a pattern in the lyrics yet?)
The Great Antagonist (13 tracks/70.37) Fairly good album. No Schultz! There is the familiar use of speeches in the title track, which deals with the devil and Adolf Hitler. A Different Time uses radio edits about Mark Chapman's cold blooded murder of John Lennon.
Living In An Insane World (14 tracks/69.43) Some very good tracks, both instrumentals and vocals. Excellent guitar play on Poured Into The Mold and Guitarmy Ants.
Looking Into The Past (13 tracks/66.32) An intresting album, which features songs from Rick's bands Neurotic, The Rick Ray Band and Riot Act. This album opens with an expertely performed 8 minutes version of Copland's Fanfare For The Common Man which rivals the Emerson, Lake & Palmer version. Unfortunately the sound quality is downright awful, which shouldn't come as surprise when you know it was recorded in Rick's basement in Ohio. The Neurotic track Where The Wild Things Are suffers from equal sound problems. Follow The Blind Man seems another variation of Michael Jacksons Billy Jean, like Put Your Ears On on Atomic Soldiers.
Neurotic Tendencies (13 tracks/70.56) Good guitar play on Nothing Is, Nothing Was and Contortion Drive. Forgotten Dreams is a love song, unexpected from Ray. Unfortunately, this cd has more Schultz than I can handle.
You People (12 tracks/60.06) Good guitars solos at the end of the title track. Some very good songs, notably The Nasties Are Coming and The Big Bad Wolves, while The Garden has to be rated one of the best instrumental tracks by Ray...if Schultz hadn't appeared to mess it up! The last track Bizarre Sprangled Banner is Rick's indeed bizarre version of Star Sprangled Banner.
Four of these albums include one or more fairly ridiculous 'secret' bonus tracks which include a speech about the dangers of psychedelic drugs, reversed or sped up voices. The only really interesting of these bonus tracks are included on Looking Into The Past, namely a radio edit on Neurotic and a tape of the audience calling out for more Neurotic at a concert. Hey, I didn't say they we're that worthwhile...just interesting!
All the artwork is from Ray's own hand, off course under his alter ego The Masked Cartoonist. Some of it is quite good, especially the covers of Cast Into Our Dimension and Clone Man. Rick's published collection of artwork Picturesque Views From The Mind Of Rick Ray aka (The Masked Cartoonist) holds more gems, ranging from splendid portraits to drawings of some bizarre personages. This last category shows likeness to the work by Dutch artist Gummbah.
The best of the albums are The Great Antagonist and Living In An Insane World. The first not only stands out for its absence of Rick Schultz on clarinet, but also provides a good perspective on Ray's repertoire in a mix of instrumental and vocal tracks, as does the second album. An 'honourable' mention should go to Clone Man with the guest vocals of Ambrose and Cek, making a nice change from Rick's all too familiar and not all that strong vocals. In addition it's shows a side we rarely see from Mr. Ray in the form of two ballads.
Looking Into The Past could also have been among the best picks, but it's sometimes dreadful sound quality prohibits this. Disregarding this, it gives an interesting insight into the earlier days of Rick's musical career, even though the material doesn't stand that much apart from his later solo compositions. This leads me to believe he was the driving force behind all the groups he's been involved in, in the writing proces anyway.
I still have my doubts as to whether this music will have much appeal to the readers of this website. It's not all that progressive, though it proves hard to label it at all. On the other hand, I have grown to like it (somewhat), and if you enjoy seventies rock like Harvest used to release, then maybe so will you.
The mentioned four albums get a higher rating than the rest of the currently reviewed CDs. The lower rating for these other CDs is in part a reflection of the fact that Rick Ray dissappoints with the release of material that's just too similar on each album. It might have been better if the best songs had been gathered onto two or three cds, instead of this constant stream of repetitious material. In closing, I should note that in retrospect I would have given the earlier reviewed The Key To The Bottoless Pit a higher rating with my grown appreciation of Rick Ray's music.
All Rick Ray and Riot Act cds can be ordered through the mail at $7.00 each by contacting Neurosis Records, 2557 Madison Ave., Painesville, OH 44077, U.S.A.
In the next DPRP review update both of Neurosis Records' releases from Rick's (former) band Riot Act will be reviewed.
The Great Antagonist and Living In An Insane World: 6 out of 10.
Clone Man and Looking Into The Past: 5 out of 10.
All Others: 4 out of 10.
Fugu - Harmonia Maudit
Don't be confused by the Japanese cover: Fugu is French through and through. Combining the typical French prog-fusion sound of bands like Spheroe, or Benoit Hindemann, with a somewhat thicker prog-sauce (of the more jazzy style, a bit Focus-like) in a fully instrumental album.
The opening track immediately reassured me: plenty of keyboards (which means I don't have to plough through 50 minutes of pure bare jazz-rock). In fact, the piercing guitar with the keys and drums reminded me a (little) bit of Pressure Points (Camel). Sinistre opens in jazz-rock style, like the music of the bands mentioned above. It becomes more and more prog, until a Camelesque piece is reached. The next track is a more complicated jazz-fusion piece, with a dominant role for the complicated drumming and a nice acoustic/spanish guitar piece (ala Rosenberg Trio). Impressive show of skills here!
From Barletta opens much more relaxed, focussing on melody, a bit like Soon (Yes). Then a gorgeous electric guitar (of the likes of Jan Akkerman) spits out its melody. A really relaxing track and very well performed. A hybrid between Caravan, Camel and Focus. The next track is somewhat jazzier again, without crossing the border between jazz and prog too much. Quite uptempo and gay.Papyrus is acoustic and more laid-back with a focus on the acoustic guitar. Nice little interlude. A M'on's Domicile is pure fusion/jazzrock, not my cup of tea. Features some nice key solos though. The long track Ectoplasmes that follows is more or less in the same way (notice I begin to lose my initial enthousiasm by now). The mildly psychedelic middle section is somewhat more interesting, with rapid guitar work that deserves admiration. A sort of impressionist piece closes the album
The conclusion can only be: an album that is on the border between prog and jazz, well played but not always equally interesting. People liking the French style of jazz/fusion prog will find this album a wonderful addition to their collection. Those who would like to try an album of this school of music making, I can recommend this album as well. If you (like me) are more into more mainstream prog (rock), this album can be missed.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.