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Reviews in this issue:
Vulgar Unicorn - Jet Set Radio
After the impressive side-project Pineapple Thief and the one track of Vulgar Unicorn I knew (Lost Forever/Supersmoke on Cyclops Sampler II) I was quite excited to review this new album. Although I must admit I quite enjoy it, I find a hard time convincing myself that this is progressive rock, in the definition that most of us have. The progressive part is not a problem, its the rock part that is shoved under the carpet at many times. Let's call it progressive dance?
It is already clear from the first bars onwards: this is not your regular prog rock album. They take off where they left with Pineapple Thief and took it one step further ahead, pushing the boundaries of rock and entering the world of dance and ambient. The funky piano and bass intro give the whole thing a jazzy feel. Distorted vocals work quite powerful here and it is a very good example of the style on the album: long worked out compositions, jazzy and with experimentation. A bit like the inevitable references of Porcupine Tree and Radiohead, but much more towards the dance oriented side of groups like The Orb. It trances you until a really nice piano piece sets in, slowly accompanied by more and more instruments to reach the climax of the track. The whole idea is progressed for another couple of minutes until It Didn't Used To Be This Way starts. This is a bit more rock oriented and is similar in style as some Porcupine Tree works although a bit more bare in instrumentation and compository not as strong. The same can be said about the next track, where PT is approached even further. Then it's back to ambient and dance with I Saw The Messenger Of The New God There. A nice ambient track but for the average prog lover there is not much to discover here in the opening part of this jazzy dance track. One of the stronger points are the dissonant sax blasts that occur now and then and are quite hypnotising. But the second part of the track contains some beautiful vocal parts, which reminded me strongly of Echolyn and even Fineus Gauge.
Secret Spot opens with two minutes of psychedelic soundscapes, before a drum'n bass part starts, the overture to another Orb-like ambient piece. Ok, by now you get the idea. The rest of the tracks are is the same style. Some more highlights are the opening of Diabolical Scheme, with an almost New Wave-like guitar melody, or even Echolyn or Porcupine Tree (Last Change To Evacuate Planet Earth Before It Is Recycled). More Money Than I Know What To Do With sounds enormously eighties. Tierce De Picardie features some nice dynamics, with loud pieces and soft ones, including violins. Scherzo In C Minor, finally, closes the album with a frantic violin playing, over which other haunting instruments are played. A modern classical piece to end the album.
In conclusion: the album definitely has its moments where prog rock victors over dance, but in other parts, the album is mostly hypnotic, dance like music. People liking both will very much enjoy this album, rock admirers will not.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10.
Madsword - The Global Village
The Global Village is the second CD by Madsword, an Italian prog metal band which was founded in 1987 by guitarist Gianni Guerra. Apart from Guerra, today's incarnation of Madsword consists of Walter Pod (drums), Andrea "Bedo" Bedin (vocals), Lorenzo Castellarin (keyboards) and Simon Rosani (bass guitar). With their second CD, the guys have managed to create a concept album of rather high quality about the influence of computers and the internet on mankind.
The first thing that got me interested in this album was its brilliant cover. It depicts a fettered woman staring at an alien-looking city while spaceships (which could easily have escaped from an episode of Star Trek) are drifting over the strange buildings. It was no coincidence that this picture caught my eye, because well-known fantasy artist Luis Royo (creator of the covers for series of fantasy novels like Raven, Conan and Silverglass) was responsible for it and I happen to own a book about his artwork. The beautiful, unearthly landscapes (obviously inspired by Roger Dean's disintegrating planet theme featured in his artwork for Yes's CDs Fragile and Yessongs) inside the booklet were made by Mhoriz and are an excellent addition to the cover.
After the sound of a modem has opened the way to the "global village" (i.e. the internet) in Connect, the musical journey begins. The first-person narrator seems to find out how misguided his views on the importance of today's technology were in Time In The Ice. Towards the end of the track it seems that his frozen beliefs are starting to thaw and, in How Much Progress, he starts realising how mankind lost his connection with nature. In the subsequent tracks, the narrator seems to ponder on the different ways in which the internet has influenced his life, until he seems to get at peace with the situation in the final track, A New Beginning?.
The music on The Global Village is a nice mixture of the typical sounds of
both Dream Theater (around the Awake era) and Queensrÿche
(Operation Mindcrime era). Some tracks, like Time In The Ice and the rather
complex instrumental track Living Hexadecimal, bring the former to mind, whereas
some other tracks, like How Much Progress... and the great Travelling
Through A Wire, have more in common with the latter. This is not to say that
Madsword's music sounds unoriginal, because they have enough to offer to be able to carve
out their own niche in the prog metal genre.
Apart from a delicious dose of heavily distorted guitars, keyboards play a very important role in Madsword's music, which is something I like a lot. Some prog metal bands have a keyboard player who can hardly be heard on their albums, but that is certainly not the case here. Behind The Consciousness Of Memory, for instance, features a soulful acoustic piano intro as well as a beautiful guitar solo which reminds me slightly of John Mitchell's lovely solo on Elea (from Arena's The Visitor album) and there are more of these quiet, more sensitive moments on The Global Village that nicely balance the heavier parts. There is also some great bass playing to be spotted on various tracks (the end of Living Hexadecimal is magnificent in that respect) and together with Pod's powerful drumming this forms a solid foundation for Madsword's compositions.
Singer Andrea Bedin has a brilliant voice, which reminds me at times of Queensrÿche's Geoff Tate. Sadly though, the way he is pronouncing the English lyrics brings Manuel (the waiter in Fawlty Towers) to mind. Bedin talks about "opes" instead of "hopes" and "nater" instead of "nature". Even though he puts a lot of sincerity and emotion into his vocals, the flaws in the pronunciation (as well as the errors in the written lyrics) make it all sound rather silly in my opinion. Which is a big fat shame, because the quality of all the other elements of this album is very high!
To sum it all up, I would certainly recommend this album to people who like music in the vein of Dream Theater and Queensrÿche. The Global Village unites many of the best elements of these bands, but Bedin's erratic pronunciation and accentuation of the lyrics drags the result down quite a bit for me (I would certainly have given the CD a higher grade if it had not been for that). I would therefore strongly recommend the band to either switch to using Italian lyrics or to invest some time and money in language lessons. Hey, it is the only thing that keeps this album from being really great, so why not put some effort into it?!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Darshan - Innersanctum Of A Modernday Bughunter
Darshan is an interesting band from Holland consisting of Amber Baartman (vocals), Sjack Peeters (drums, percussion and programming), Ron Claassen (fretless and fretted basses, synths, samples) and Barend Tromp (Chapman stick, intro samples) who is known to some people as the bass player of Lemur Voice (a band which sadly no longer exists). Their music is playing in the borderline regions of progressive rock, psychedelic rock and more electronic music (e.g. trip hop). Innersanctum Of A Modernday Bughunter is a mini-CD presenting some mighty interesting stuff for those not afraid to explore new regions of music.
Clocking under half an hour and giving us six interesting compositions, this mini-CD is something to relax your mind to. Anyone who (like me) enjoys good and prominent bass playing should give this music a chance. Some good references would be Porcupine Tree, Liquid Tension Experiment (at times), some King Crimson (later, experimental stuff), Vulgar Unicorn and Portishead. The music is, as hinted, very much built around bass lines, surrounded by interesting keyboard sounds and samples. On top of these nicely constructed soundscapes, Baartman's ethereal vocals just soar. These vocals lack edge (something I normally prefer in a singer) but they are also redeemed by the fact that edge is not what they should be expressing. The vocals are merely another instrument, another sound to complete the soundscapes.
One of my two favourites, so far, is the opening track, Messed Up in which the prominent bass features are introduced and I just love that bass work (especially in this track). The other favourite track is the orientally flavoured UFO, which starts off acapella and probably contains the best vocals on this mini-CD. The final track, Gummipuppen, is an almost instrumental track with only some spoken phrases by Hans Polman.
The mini-album comes in a quite boring blue package, but the package should not be cause to avoid this CD. The content is definitely worth checking out if you are open-minded... and especially if you are into psychedelic music. Personally, I will keep my eyes open for any full-length albums that the future might bring.
And once more: excellent bass work !!!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Twilight Guardians - Tales Of The Brave
Famous outfits like Gamma Ray and Stratovarius are musically related to the young, Finnish power metal band Twilight Guardians. At least, that is what they claim in the fact sheet accompanying their first full length album Tales Of The Brave (their first official release, Land Of The Kings, was a mini-CD). I am sorry to say that I cannot judge whether this claim is justified, because I have only heard of mentioned bands.
The first track, Eternal Glory, is a rather misleading piece of music compared to what is still to come. Some quiet, classical music, obviously played on keyboards, is the metaphorical calm before the storm. From the second track onwards it is full speed ahead. Fast, pounding drums, played by Henri Suominen, are accompanied by equally fast, heavily distorted guitars and bass, played by Carl-Johan Gustafsson and Mikko Tång, respectively. The keyboards, played by Antti Valtamo, deliver a strong classical flavour to it all, while Vesa Virtanen sings about gods, Vikings and different manifestations of heroism.
You may have got the impression from what I wrote above that there are no quieter sections on Tales Of The Brave, but that is certainly not true. Many tracks contain softer, sometimes acoustic, intermezzos (Land Of The Kings and Forgotten Land are good examples) or intros (Night Of The Black Swan and Twilight Guardians, for instance) and there is even a power ballad on the CD (Just Let Me). Still, the bulk of the music is built around the fast drum rhythm typical for power metal.
There were a lot of moments when the music reminded me of other bands. The power ballad Just Let Me, for instance, makes me feel as if I have travelled through time back to the eighties. Both The Scorpions and Europe (keyboard sound and the feel of the track) come to mind and I get a feeling of déjà vu even more when the song changes key (twice!) during the repetition of the chorus towards the end of the track. References to Iron Maiden do also appear a few times, like in the intro of Running Wild and in the guitar solo of Night Of The Black Swan. The intro of Last Of My Kind, on the other hand, reminds me of Metallica.
Some songs feature the progressive (metal) element more than others. The main part of Snowfall, for instance, could have been a track from a Dream Theater album. It contains a more "ordinary" prog metal intro, but then moves on to some very subtle vocals accompanied by acoustic guitar in the verses. Only the middle part features the fast power metal rhythm. Forgotten Land, the longest track on the album, does also contain power metal sections next to "ordinary" prog metal parts. The use of oriental scales (you can almost see the snake emerging from the basket) makes this one very interesting.
Singer Virtanen is able to put down what I have come to know as a typical metal
voice (i.e. often reaching for the higher registers), but I do not mind at all that
he does not use it all the time because I am not very fond of them in general. The
Finn has a slight accent, which becomes most apparent in Just Let Me and in some
other, quieter parts, and sometimes his pronunciation is a bit off, but I have
definitely heard worse. The vocals are often a little bit too far back in the mix;
it seems at times as if Virtanen is drowning amidst the other instruments, especially
when he is reaching for higher notes.
The lyrics are a bit too pretentious and bombastic to my taste, but that seems to come with the genre. The booklet has a fitting cover and back: a hand holding a sword breaking out of a grave with the ruins of a church at the background and a Celtic cross respectively.
I might be wrong, but I often think that power metal is music that one either loves or hates. It is not my cup of tea at any rate, but that does not mean that the music is bad. There is some good musicianship on this CD and the melodies are definitely not very monotonous. Some of the keyboard sounds (most notably the strings and harpsichord sounds) do not always sound as real as they could have, and the vocals could have been mixed more to the front, but those are only minor points. If you are a fan of melodic power metal, it might be a good idea to check this band out, because Twilight Guardians might have some nice stuff to offer you.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Thork - Urdoxa
Sometimes as a reviewer you receive an album that at first listen sounds like an overkill of styles. Earlier this year the band Greyhaven showed the result of such a mixture can lead to a terrific album, and this time with Urdoxa the French band Thork is doing the same.
The first track Taedium Vitae takes of as something like Minimum Vital, but soon it seems the sky is openend and a rainfall of styles role out of your stereo. Ultravox and No-Man alike violin parts, heavy sessions like Dream Theater and symphonic references towards French (singing) bands like Galaad, Ange and Arrakeen. All references in a different progressive vein. Add a classical approach to all the above and you're listening to Thork. A band who likes to discribe their music as "dark progressive folk".
Thork is a relatively new French band, founded in Annecy le Vieux in 1998 and consists of the following members: Antoine Auresche (guitar, vocals, flute), Sébastien Fillion (piano, keyboards, flute, backing vocals), Michel Lebeau (drums), Samuel Maurin (bass, backing vocals) and Claire Northey (violin). Unfortuantly my French is terrible so I wasn't able to read the information on their website. Hopefully the band is willing to put an English shadow site on it as well very soon, 'cause this album shouldn't just be available in French speaking countries.
Having said that, one must admit that the music is really great and very complex, and takes quite some time to get into it. At first the breaks seem to sound unnatural, but when you grow more and more into the album it gets a more familiar- and natural groove and as a listener you start to appreciate the musical directions of the songs. Parts of these songs sometimes are very violin orientated. The violin is used not only as an atmospheric instrument but as solo instrument as well. Claire Northey sometimes uses the agressive techno appoach of Bill Curry (in Taedium Vitae), keyboard and violin player of the band Ultravox. At other times the more classical way of playing (for example in Arche d'Ebène), like Ben Coleman used in No-Man, results in beautiful atmospheric resting point during the song.
It's not only the electric approach of the musical direction which intrigue this band. A track like L'Enlèvement de Psyché contains beautiful acoustic parts with guitar, percussion and violin, church organ parts and spoken words or just a piano intersection. Overall the balance of the songs is very good.
The total result is a great album, well balanced in sound and in artistic approach. An album that grows when you take the time to listen to it. With each time you play it you will discover more and more nice bits and pieces.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.