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Reviews in this issue:
Iona - Open Sky
The subject matter of Iona's music has always been very spiritual, drawing heavily from the Christian religion. This could easily have led to albums full of chants of worship, or the meaningless drivel that is popularly known as New Age. The fact that Iona have been very careful not to fall into this trap, forms a big part of their appeal. Their music is a unique blend of subdued positivism coupled with Celtic mysticism. Somewhat reminiscent of Clannad, there are parallels with that famous band, but the differences are greater. While Clannad achieves beauty though relative simplicity, which therefore probably makes it more popular with a bigger audience, Iona has a richer, more diverse sound that appeals more to people in the alternative rock scene. And while I like Clannad well enough, it's Iona that strikes a special chord within me, although I'm not religious at all. But then, it's the feeling the music evokes that's important, and that transcends any religion or spiritualism.
Back to reality, and this, Iona's fifth studio outing in five years. Despite the long gap
between this album and its predecessor, Open Sky picks up where Journey into the
Morn left of. This is of course partly due to the fact that despite several line up changes
in the last five years (see my review of Woven Cord), the nucleus of the band, formed by Joanne
Hogg, Dave Bainbridge and Troy Donockley, is still intact.
Donockley's uilleann pipes have always been a defining element of Iona's music, as is immediately apparent in opener Woven Cord. There are two extremes to the spectrum of Iona's music, being the energetic 'band' pieces, dominated by uilleann pipes and Bainbridge's guitar on one side, and the almost ambient soundscapes, dominated by piano and keyboards, on the other side. Woven Cord is a clear example of the band's energetic side, where guitar and pipes rip out in a frenzied duel.
The other side of the spectrum is represented by the triptych Songs of Ascent, a partially ambient affair in the vein of Encircling (from 'Journey into the Morn'). This song is very atmospheric thoughout, intense, sometimes gentle and melancholy, sometimes powerful and emotional, with lots of ambient keyboard over which pipes, violin and electric guitar are played, and also Hogg's crystal clear voice as an added instrument. The music carefully builds up to the several climaxes, where the multitude of instruments that the musicians in Iona use mesh into that wonderful characteristic rich sound. Only at the end of part 3 is the band allowed to show their energetic side again.
As always with two extremes, there must be something in between, and of course Open Sky
contains seven other songs, which range from the gentle A Million Stars, where Frank van
Essen shines on violin, to the more "regular" vocal tracks Open Sky and Light
Reflected. Light Reflected uses that very effective method which Iona uses a lot (think
Chi-Rho, from The Book of Kells) of starting out very laid back and then ending
with a powerful finale.
Wave After Wave showcases Hogg's incredible vocal talents, while Castlerigg is another long instrumental with a great energetic ending, in the vein of Woven Cord.
The production of this album seems to be warmer and fuller than on previous albums, which is
most apparent in Van Essen's drum sound. At times his drums sound very full indeed.
Since it's just been released it's to early to tell wether this album will become a classic like some of Iona's earlier albums, but there's no doubt that the band have delivered another very enjoyable album. Everyone whose musical tastes coincide with the ones this page stands for should have some Iona in his collection. If you don't own any Iona yet, albums like 'The Book of Kells', 'Journey into the Morn' or this one are a good starting point.
Oh, and if you're already a fan and don't have this album yet: gou out there and get it. Fast! ;-)
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
La Tulipe Noire - Shattered Image
A variation on a theme, basically that's what Shattered Image by the Greek band La Tulipe Noire is. The theme in question is early Marillion, Script for a Jester's Tear era.
The opening of the album immediately reminds of Marillion, although maybe a bit more Genesis-like than them
(funny, since Marillion was accused of being a Genesis-clone in their early days, whereas nowadays the differences
between early Marillion and early Genesis are quite obvious).
Shattered Ego is a variation on Grendel, for me the proto-type track of early Marillion, although for instance Fish doesn't like to be associated with this track anymore (I believed he once said that he'd prefer to stick his dick covered in honey in a beehive over performing Grendel again). And talking about Fish, that is also what is completely wrong with this album: the vocals are extremely weak compared to the spitting fire that Fish could give to the Marillion tracks. Combined with the unimaginative instruments, the whole album sounds flat.
The compositions in themselves are not bad (although copied), as for instance In The Garden of Eden, but the performance and production is flat. The keyboard solo in this track is quite nice though, but the guitar and rhythm section is rather dull. The next track, A November's Night, is the most interesting track, with a catchy chorus and a Forgotten Sons-like end part. Image II flows into Through The Snake's Eyes, with a very early Genesis-like keyboard opening. The rest is again Forgotten Sons-like and not very interesting, apart from the middle section, copied literally from The Knife (Genesis). The ending is Chelsea Monday, and even in some lyrics the Marillion influence is audible. Listening well to your idols is fine, but blunt copying and then raping it by pulling the venom out is not what I call making music. The Haze has a bit more identity of its own, with a more driving rhythm and more variation.
By now you know what to expect and also my opinion on this copy/paste work. A nice amateur attempt to produce something similar as their idols, but alas without the drive and passion of the originals. A work that can be completely ignored by serious prog-lovers. Only Marillion addicts who want to collect anything based on their heros may give this one a try, out of curiosity.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10.
A Greek band with a French name singing in the English language. What clearer example of European unification can one give?
La Tulipe Noire has modelled this entire album on the style of early Marillion and is anything but ashamed to acknowledge the inspirational source. Take another look at the cover picture above and you'll note the resemblance to Marillion's artwork, not only in the band's logo, but in the Mark Wilkinson style illustration as well.
The music is centered around keyboards, though recorded with two guitar players. Performance by the instrumentalists is certainly more than adequate, but they lack the individual quality of Marillion's members. Female vocalist Ima's often sings extremely low key, which unfortunately tones down the more aggressively emotional vocal parts of this CD. For example the anger in certain lyrics of the tracks In the Garden of Eden or Through the Snake's Eyes is ruined this way.
Composition and arrangement both lean heavily on early Marillion, especially on Script For A Jester's Tear and (some of) the tracks collected on B'sides Themselves. Tempo changes, melodies, atmosphere establishment and vocal lines all evoke reminiscence of Mr. Derek Dick and company. Listening to some of these songs I could not but feel inclined to draw comparisons to Marillion tracks like The Web, Grendel, Forgotten Sons and even Tux On. As additional source of inspiration Genesis might be mentioned, but considering Marillion's own indebtedness to Genesis this hardly seems necessary.
Let's look at some of the compositions with these remarks in mind. The structure of Through The Snake's Eyes is quite like Forgotten Sons including it's use of narration, which is delivered by a voice that reminds one of Fish (with even a vague attempt at a Scottish accent!). The metre of the Empty Streets lyrics is so similar to that of Tux On that I could sing the lyrics of the Marillion track in almost complete synchronicity with Ima's performance. I could go on like this, for instance concerning the keyboard player's sometimes typical early Mark Kelly style, but I guess the point has been made.
On its own merrit, this is not a bad album. Shattered Ego, A November's Night, The Haze and A Scent of Spring are the songs I enjoyed most, whether taken as Marillion 'tributes' or as original compositions. Particularly good is the first of the three instrumental pieces Image I (A Glimpse On The Mirror) including a piece with almost harpsichord sounding keyboards.
This CD is supposedly a concept album, but the storyline is very slim and the songs stand on their own well enough. All tracks were written by keyboard player Alix and bassist Hyde. Contrary to the information Musea Records provides this isn't La Tulipe Noire's debut album In 1997 they released In the Gates of Dream, but I don't know if that album shows the same resemblance to Marillion. The band is currently writing songs for their third CD, Nostimon Hemar, a modern version of Homer's The Odyssey. Perhaps they could use the opportunity, when working on this piece of (their own) Greek culture, to develop their own musical style.
Low on originality, but skillfully executed with some enjoyable songs. This CD will obviously most likely appeal to those who happily recall the early eighties days of Marillion. Whether you'll really like it will depend in large part on your assesment of vocalist Ima's performance, which isn't bad, but just too monotonous.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Equinox - Spirits of Freedom
Two years ago I reviewed the untitled debut album of progressive
rock band Equinox from Panama. The CD wasn't what you would call a masterpiece but it had some
nice tracks and the band certainly had the potential to grow.
Now Equinox is back with their second album Spirits of Freedom. A couple of remarkable things are immediately noticeable even before you play the CD. First of all this new CD consists of mainly Spanish lyrics. Whereas all of the songs on the debut album were sung in English, only two of the songs on the new album are in this language. Second thing I noticed was the fact that only bass player Alan Pinzón and keyboard player Jorge Pérez remained of the line-up of the first album (and they are credited for the music of most tracks). With a new drummer (Iván Canton), a new guitar player (Pedro Caicedo) and a new female (!) vocalist (Dalys Toruño) you could almost call this a completely new band. And yes, it actually sounds like that ..... unfortunately.
The lovely Dalys has provided all of the Spanish lyrics, and I assume also the vocal melody lines. And that's perhaps the biggest problem of this new CD. Although their web site claims that she took singing lessons at the National Music Conservatory of Panama, I find her vocals quite unbearable. It might be the way the vocal melodies are composed that make them sound so awful because she's doing much better in the two English songs. For me, I can only compare it to screaming cats. This a quite a shame because even though the vocals and lyrics were not genius on the first album, the vocal melodies were far better than on this attempt.
A Message From Epsilon and Fall into Imaginary World are two instrumentals. The first is a short and rather pointless piece of improvisational keyboard twiddling. The fushion-like Fall Into Imaginary World is better and actually features some real melodies. Best thing about this track is Pinzón's fine bass playing around which most of the track is build. The rest is very repetitive, uninspiring and at times even dull and quite forgetable.
Searching for Tomorrow and Spirit of Freedom are two songs in English. The first one is not that bad - read: not as bad as other tracks on the album - and features a duet between Jorge and Dalys and a quite reasonable guitar solo. Spirit of Freedom is something else; if the lyrics hadn't been printed in the booklet I wouldn't have recognised Dalys' screaming as English. Most of the music in the track sounds quite amateuristic, especially the drums (not to mention the dodgy backing vocals).
The other six compositions on the album are sung in Spanish, in itself a beautiful language, but as mentioned, not in the overdone way Dalys sings it. Most of these tracks are rather weak compositions and feature rather mediocre solos on keyboard and guitar, plus some dodgy drumming. Again, only bass player Pinzón impresses me with some interesting bass lines and riffs. The rest of the music lacks good melodies. The only bit that offers some interesting music is the instrumental second half of El Color de la Sangre
All of the compositions miss the catchy feel of the compositions of the first album, possibly because the two driving forces behind the original band (guitar players Chirino and Linares) are no longer present and their fine guitar playing is strikingly absent. Besides that, the three new band members seem to be rather young and inexperienced. The only musician that really impresses me is bass player Pinzón who does some fine work on 5-string, 6-string and fretless basses.
Compared to the first album this certainly is not an improvement, it's more like taking three steps back. A real shame because the former line-up really showed some potential. Then again, the musicians in the band are still very young (average age 23), so there's enough time to learn and grow and try to find some of the glimpses of magical moments that were present in their first album again.
For some samples of their music, click here.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Vivid - Time of Revelations
Ten years ago, a bunch of Swedes were ready to record an album with some of the songs they've written. However, due to other obligations they were only able to record it now. The result is Eighties hard rock, not quite prog.
The acoustic opening with guitar and vocals reminded me of the opening of Iron Maiden's 'Seventh Son of a Seventh Son'
album. The Maiden reference continues in the next track, although more based on early Maiden ('Killers'). Not a bad track,
with nice bass and drum work and a musical quote from Edvard Grieg.
Lost to the Wind opens with some spooky synth sounds, going over in a more mainstream hard rock track. The weakness of the vocals becomes apparent now, since in principle the melody is nice, but has nothing to do with prog at all. That is one of the main critisisms on the album: no prog [editor's note: keep in mind that this album was send to DPRP with a request to be reviewed].
Son of a Hobgoblin is dark and pounding but not massive, bombastic enough. With more keyboards, a strong voice and much better rhythmical breaks, this could have been a nice track. Now it's dragging, bummer.
Year of Rock'n Roll is an insult to the intelligence of the listener, it's even worse than Status Quo. A New Dawn opens classically, almost Camelesque with synths and flute. The guitar that sets in plays a melody that reminds me of some Sixties track like House of the Rising Sunor something. Then it's back to the likes of Kiss again with Dealer in the Night. Boring rock.
Voice of Doom features the Maiden-'Killers' guitar again. When the Twin Suns Arise is yet another hard rock track with cheap keyboard sounds.Crying is a cheap attempt at a ballad.
In conclusion, an outdated hard rock album, nice as a hobby production, nothing more, nothing less. Maybe if you adore early Iron Maiden music that you can get some pleasure of this album.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10.
Double Helix - Watch the Code (single)
With this CD-single from their debut CD The Butterfly Effect, Double Helix announce themselves to the world. Dealing with the human genome project (where the chemical structure of all the human genes are unraveled), Watch the Code glorifies this result.
Although I am happy that finally there is a progband that is not ultimately afraid of scientific discovery (due to overdosis of bad science-fiction that these artists often read), the music is not quite as entertaining as the subject. The vocals are out of tune and the song itself is as boring and dragging as reading the genetic code of the first human chromosome out loud. Basically it is a single drumriff and some keyboard effects over it. Hopefully their full album is a bit more diverse and better recorded: the sound is soft and muffled.
Conclusion: 3 out of 10.
Virgin Steele - Magick Fire Music
I had actually never heard Virgin Steele before this mini-CD, even though they have been around since 1983. The band currently consist of David Defeis (all vocals, keyboards, keyboard-bass/guitars & orchestration), Edward Pursino (all electric & acoustic guitars and bass guitars) and Frank Gilchriest (drums). In order to describe the music of Virgin Steele, I find David Defeis's explanation of the meaning of the band name to do that better than I could hope to do; "a fresh approach, a new lease on life; pure metal, baptized in the flame of life; full of hunger and power, rich with dignity and majesty, with an awareness and respect for tradition, but with a desperate need to carve out new frontiers of expression. To take the music as far as it can possibly go, to break the boundaries wide open." As for what genre they are playing, Defeis prefers three different labels, "Romantic expressionism", "symphonic blues based metal" and "barbaric Romanticism"; all of which fit the music well, in my opinion.
Magick Fire Music is a mini-CD containing six tracks; two of which - Wings Of Vengeance and Flames Of Thy Power (From Blood They Rise) - are from the forthcoming album House Of Atreus Act II, one new - Agamemnon's Last Hour (Silver Sided Death) - and the remaining three being alternative versions of songs from the albums House Of Atreus Act I and The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell Part 2. The album is obviously meant for the fans who are waiting for the new album, but that does not make it a bad album.
Wings Of Vengeance, which opens the mini-CD, surprised me with its clear harmonies and very soft vocals which contrast the obvious metal guitars and drums. The tempo is fast and yet the track carries something tender and fragile in its core. From the very start it was the vocals that pulled me into the fray. Somehow this should not fit together and yet it does so remarkably well. At times the vocal idea reminds me of Queen, but the music is more metal than Queen ever were. The lyrics go back to Greek myth and tragedy in the cycle of Agamemnon's murder and the vengeance wrought upon his murderers by his son, Orestes. A really excellent track.
The second track, Flames Of Thy Power (From Blood They Rise), continues the theme of Orestes. The drums in the chorus are very fast, almost making it power metal, but Defeis's soft vocals make it into something else. There is still an element reminding me of Queen, especially in the piano based interlude. Together with the previous track, this track predicts an excellent upcoming full length album.
Prometheus The Fallen One originally appears on The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell Part 2 and is here released in a "savage - unbound mix." The song has an oriental flavour and reminds me a bit of Iron Maiden and Dream Theater in their more oriental moments. The song is the longest on the CD and contains a slow melodic middle section with a very good symphonic build up which very much reminds me of something that I, for some reason, cannot put my finger on. The song has a very nice progressive structure whereas the lyrics deal with the tragic story of Prometheus as the chained Titan himself sees it. If the rest of the tracks on The Marriage Of Heaven And Hell Part 2 are anything like this one, I will definitely be looking into buying that CD. It would also, of course, be interesting to hear the actual album version of the song and compare the differences.
Track four, Gate Of Kings, takes us back to the tragic cycle of Agamemnon as it originally appeared on House Of Atreus Act I. Here it is included in a new alternate acoustic version and I would love to hear the original version just to compare the two. However, I find it hard to believe that the album version could be better than this one. The song is a wonderful example of soft melody gaining a certain bombastic feature which seems almost paradoxical. Yet it does not fail to raise the hair on my arms every time I play it. It is quite possibly the best track on Magick Fire Music and definitely the most beautiful one. At times, Defies sings in a fashion similar to Steven Tyler in Aerosmith, but the wonderful harmonies beat Tyler's capacities any day. A very strong track.
Agamemnon's Last Hour (Silver Sided Death) is the only entirely new track on this CD (well, at least in that it seems to be made for this mini-CD, since both of the tracks destined for House Of Atreus Act II are new ones as well). It is a very short piano based piece with very soft high pitched vocals. The lyrics tie in with the House Of Atreus theme and it is an exquisite example of the fact that a song does not need to be exceedingly long to be brilliant.
Great Sword Of Flame, which ends the mini-CD, is also originally from House Of Atreus Act I and appears here in a "psycho-rough mix." It is probably the most metal sounding track; it definitely rocks. It has some of that metal edge that makes Iron Maiden what they are, and at occasions in this song, Defeis uses his voice in a slightly Dickinsonian style. It is not the most innovative track on the CD, but it nevertheless appeals to me.
In conclusion, I must admit that I have been happily surprised by Virgin Steele and I certainly aim to look into more of their music. Anyone into bands like Iron Maiden, Dream Theater, Queensrÿche and Fates Warning could most likely benefit from giving this mini-CD a chance (if they are not already into Virgin Steele). So could any open-minded Queen fan. Clearly recommended.
Conclusion: 8,5 out of 10.
Anomaly - Anomaly
A progressive mixture of metal, fusion and classical themes, with varied focus on electric guitar or keyboards. This description ought to fit the debut CD Anomaly of the Dutch instrumental quartet of the same name. Formed three years ago by Rory Hansen (guitars) and Ivar Pijpers (keyboards and piano), these composers were joined by John Aponno on bass and John-Paul 'animal' Munoz on drums. In 1997 they released the demo cassette The Rorschach Test. Anomaly recently gave a concert in Sittard alongside Alan Case.
The music of Anomaly often seems very improvisational, and if not for the strictly outlined guitar sequences or keyboard melodies, it could come across as a jam session. Their sound at times feels a bit 'crowded', when guitar solos and keyboard melodies move to variations at the same time. This may result in the music taking a while to sink in. Overall it sounds very mature. With a few exceptions, the compositions never really result in a real climax, but most move through several sections and intermezzos to an level ending.
Sound effects, like white noise and water, introduce the first track, B-YOND 2K, which gets underway with guitar and a double bass drums, that remains throughtout most of the album. The main variety comes from Hansen on guitars. >4TH&X focuses even more on guitar, which is a bit too much in the spotlight here.
101101001 shows obvious classical influences in keyboards and guitar. This track also proves a return of earlier themes. Variation often lies in the package around Hansen's guitar playing rather than in it. Then, in Xtreme, Anomaly opens with piano then adds guitar, far smoother than before. A quiter piece with keys follows, before drums and guitar return with the earlier harshness, a bit of an overbite, and later keyboards quite unexpectedly fade away. Though the momentum of the earlier tracks is lost somewhat here, diversity of used keyboard sounds more than make up for this.
A delicious piece of bass playing establishes the main melody of Mt Chamber. This track also uses recordings of muddled voices to add to its character. A piece with clear structure, two differing keyboard melodies holding the pace, while guitar is played with noticable reservation. Underneath a high toned keyboard solo at the end, the bassist gets the opportunity for a bit of jamming.
In XS D-NIED guitar player Hansen returns from his little sabbatical during the last track, but by now his lines are becoming a bit too familiar and his solos have become, well ... obligatory. Keyboards have defenitely taken over as the tool for the introduction of variation, early on with some seemingly tongue-in-cheek playfulness. VIR2AL again keeps focused on Pijpers' keyboards, but now its Hansen's turn on guitar to put in a bit of jamming. More vocal recordings are mixed in. Some keyboard pieces evoke the idea of the flute, which may be due to drummer Munoz's former association with Dutch flute player Berdien Stenberg (though I'm almost certainly stretching logic here).
The last track, None Of The Above, couldn't quite hold my attention through repeated listenings of the album. The boys have used up their gunpowder, and there's really nothing new here. A bit of an obligatory track to fill out the CD's time slot perhaps.
Kudos to bass player Aponno who puts in an excellent performance, plucking away or going at it 'slap-bass'. His stability often outshines the other players' experimental performances. The keyboards are sometimes very close to fusion, but have very symphonic moments in parts of most tracks, more and more as the album progresses and shifts attention from guitar and drums to keys melodies.
The shades of Dream Theater in the earlier half of the album can't lead me to recommend this to fellow DT fans. Not that I want to shy them away from this promising foursome. Given a bit more experience in structuring compositions and a smoother foundation through production, the right use of the already evident pleasure in varied application and handling of instruments could result in a quite good follow-up to this album.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.