Salem Hill - Not Everybody's Gold - Round Table Review
Salem Hill consists of Michael Ayers (keyboards), Michael Dearing (guitars, vocals, additional keyboards),
Carl Groves (guitars, vocals, additional keyboards), Patrick Henry (bass) and Kevin Thomas (drums,
percussion & vocals). All of the band members also provide backing vocals on various tracks.
Not Everybody's Gold is the band's 5th album. After hearing the marvellous Robbery of Murder in 1998 - an album very well received by various members of the DPRP Team - it's wasn't difficult to gather volunteers for a roundtable review of the new album. On top of the opinions of the three DPRP Team members we have also added some comments from the band, as found on their homepage.
Remco: Salem Hill is a new band for me. Their highly acclaimed previous album has gone past me, so I look at them with a fresh view and will treat them in the same way as I do other bands that I don't know. This track reminds me very much of Yes (Big Generator style), including the multi-vocal parts and subsequent synthesizer DX7 sounds. Midway it is quite AWBH like (Brother of Mine). This is not particularly my favourite Yes-era, but all in all it opens the album with a some power.
Mark: Though there is some vocal chanting this is basically an instrumental track. Opens with percussion that soon begins to sound like a typewriter. A vocal chant in typical Yes fashion follows. This track immediately shows we're not dealing with a repeat of The Robbery of Murder. Guitar also sounds like Yes at times; I'm thinking of Yours Is No Disgrace here.
Ed: The fact that Salem Hill already released two concept albums previously plus the title of
this instrumental album opener first made me think that this was another concept CD. Still, it isn't. As a matter of
fact the track doesn't have a link with any melody elsewhere on the album and could therefore
have had any other title.
The main melody of this energetic opener is first introduced by a close harmony acapella section, which reminds me a bit of Who Are You by The Who. Another remarkable thing is the multitude of percussion that was used for this track. After this percussion we get a rather Camelish guitar solo and some very bombatic sections that reminded me of Prey by Casino. A splendid album opener.
Riding the Fence
Remco: A very uptempo and catchy track, but with terrible vocals. In terms of composition, this track is also not quite the peak of the genre. The way it is performed/produced is also not up to standards, quite chaotic instrument mixing. The most positive note is the piano solo halfway the track, although the keyboard player obviously is no Rick Wakeman. Let's just quickly forget this track, because some quite good tracks follow.
Mark: A speedy track, notably on guitar and the temperamentful drumming. Vocal intonation seem a bit disconnected at times, especially in the verses. There's a long instrumental section, with a great piano solo. The retro Seventies keyboards sound like Rick Wakeman at several spots. Good lyrics, too: "Like pacifist soldiers or blood-thirsty doves, Our lives are only pretense". Not the music I expected from Salem Hill, but bloody good!
Ed: A very fast and energetic track, probably the heaviest one on the album. The song features a catchy chorus with harmony vocals plus a nice instrumental intermezzo with solos for piano, bass & percussion and finally guitar. One of my favourite tracks on the album to play on the highway and scream along to (yep, that's me in your rear view mirror). Unlike Remco, the raw vocals by Dearing don't bother me at all.
The Last Enemy
Remco: A slowly pounding track, heavier guitar work, ala the Hanging Tree of Arena, or some later Pendragon tracks. A type of track done a million times before, but if done well it never loses its power. In this case, it does not reach the quality of the mentioned references, but the general impression of the track is positive. The vocals are much better now, the mix is still weak though (a guitar solo with the guitar almost muffled in the background). The climax building halfway the track is done nicely. The choir is a surprise but the instrumental section that follows just starts. It is too obvious that this track is composed using cut and paste techniques.
Mark: This track (re)kindled my interest in Salem Hill, when I heard it on Progressive DisDURPance Vol. 3 some weeks back. I immediately sampled Salem Hill's album The Robbery of Murder again, then purchased it. And this track sounds most like the material on that previous album, both where vocals and instrumentalisation are concerned. And even lyrically. An introductory section, missing from the DURP edit establishes atmosphere with wind, bells and softly whispered words. The heavy bass is very noticable. In the instrumental section the winds and bells return and there are some noticably retro keyboards, like Arjen Lucassen is likely to use. Overall the neo-progressive label I earlier had expected to stick on Salem Hill's material fits this song best.
Ed: A beautifully sensitive and melodic ballad, which is a nice change from the two more powerful tracks that open the CD. After a short Floydian guitar solo that opens the track we hear Thomas' frail vocals in the melancholic verses, while Dearing and Groves share vocals in the chorus. The song contains more delicious bits and pieces, like a guitars duet, a piano break, a choir (giving the song a bit of a Light flavour) and a dramatic, slightly a-tonal section. At the end the song returns to the main melody of the verse, but this time with acoustic guitar and a new rhythm. All in all another splendid and diverse track.
Remco: This is a relatively good track. Pounding, complex rhythms, a bit Flower Kings like, good interplay between the instruments. The middle section is quite bare, with only electric (rhythmic) guitar and drums. Could have done better on the composition side there, as well as the keyboard solo. Much more power was desired here, the bass guitar (which does as good as nothing) is better audible then the flat keyboard sound. The chorus is a relief in that respect: catchy and powerful.
Mark: Musically, a much simpler piece as instrumentalisation goes, in the sense that it's more straightforward than the other tracks on Not Everybody's Gold. Starts with some lashing guitar strokes that continue throughout. Again a long instrumental section, which is standard through tracks 2 to 4 and track 6. Notice also the heavy bass again. No favourite of mine this one. Whoever's playing keyboards here seems to be just fiddling away, except in the instrumental part, which is undoubtely the best section of this track, with a far better arrangement and clearer performances then elsewhere during January. Vocal performance in this song also comes last when rating the album, as do the lyrics.
Ed: Nope, this one - composed by bass player Henry - doesn't really work for me. Although the vocal melody in the verse and chorus and the George Harrison-like singing isn't bad there's other things that spoil the track for me. For instance, the heavy guitar riff that's repeated endlessly and makes the song too repetitive, or the rather irritating fiddling of the keyboards that accompanies this riff. The instrumental break is very nice though (again, Remco and I disagree here). If only it had been incorporated in a more interesting song.
Let Loose The Arrow
Remco: An awful keyboard sound opens the track, which enters a standard rock composition, but soon typical IQ like rhythmic measure changing tricks follow. The rest is a bit modern Yes like, Open Your Eyes, you know the thing. The (real) church organ middle section is very cool though (I have a weak spot for church organs).
Mark: Starts with some high-pitched keyboards, then a deliciously simple but effective bass picks up the tune. And from there it's onwards with nicely arranged instrumentalisation towards the two minutes mark. Yes, the long instrumental section I've come to expect starts off this track. The lyrics are brought by two vocalists, probably Groves and Deaning. This again has some very Yes like attributes, for instance in a returning vocal bridge between verse and chorus, though keys are more like in the vein of a later day Tony Banks. And electric guitar has been traded for acoustic at times. A late addition of pipe organ ends this one.
Ed: Now this sounds really retro ! The vocal harmonies in canon, the 'hippy-ish' topic of the lyrics and the whole feel of the song has got early Seventies written all over it. And it sounds mighty good ! After a long instrumental intro of almost 2 minutes we are treated to a duet of Dearing and Thomas in the verses, while the rest of the band joins in for the close harmonies in the chorusses. To add a bit more of a Close to the Edge feel a church organ solo is also featured, followed by a guitar solo with that typical distorted Brian May sound. This song has that powerful and energetic 'lively' sound you can also hear in Spock's Beard's music. Marvellous ! Fiercely disagree with the Open Your Eyes comparison ! Blaphemy ! ;-)
We Don't Know
Remco: A rock ballad, maybe the best track of the "short" ones. Powerful Hammond work, passionate vocals and more massive than the previous tracks, but not very varied, it's sort of one big chorus.
Mark: Strange clicking sounds over some white noise at the start. Then keys play bells from what sounds like a nursery rhyme. Some good Hammond sounds, though I'm not sure a real Hammond is used here. In the guitar solo I'm reminded somewhat of Brian May's play. It took some time, but this one has really grown on me. It's not a complicated track, but it's brought with fervour, with special kuddos to the singer. Again a bit of heavy vibrating organ to top it off.
Ed: Hmmmm ..... I don't know either. Another one that's not among my favourites. After an opening section in which we hear someone winding up and play a nursery rhyme from a musical box (where have we heard this before ?) we are treated to a very Soundgarden-like track with a sad vocal melody and Dearing going into 'Paul Stanley (Kiss) screaming mode' in the chorus. Not really my cup off tea.
Sweet Hope Suite
Remco: An almost 30 minute long track. Being disappointed in these long tracks too often, I listened with prejudice, but this, I must admit, is one of the more interesting 30 minute tracks. With a Yes-like, maybe even TransAtlantic/Spock's Beard like opening, it quitens down with only keyboard chords and vocals, Awaken/Turn Of The Century style. The keyboard soli here are in my opinion much better than on the rest of the album (oh, and the church organ returns, hurray ;-)! The middle section is almost Spock's Beard like, with this sort-of-folky tune and multi-vocal backings, evolving into an unplugged acoustic part, which is excellently performed and quite varied in terms of composition. A reference with Kansas in general for the whole track pops up here, with the heavy organ/keyboard use. The last ten minutes of the track are very nice, better even, are beautiful. Warm sounds of chello, piano and souring electric guitar, a bit (lot) Camel like, as is the uptempo section that breaks the two slow sections.
Mark: A magnificent three-part progressive opus, divided in sections of eleven, eight and ten minutes respectively. The first section again has those familiar Yes-influences, most especially in the instrumental intro. Listen to the guitar and you'll be sure to recognize Steve Howe's style. This first part is enhanced through the application of violin and pipe organ and the truly wonderful quality of some of the vocals! The second part again uses violin and adds mandoline. The last section is, like The Last Enemy very much in tune with the music of The Robbery of Murder. In an instrumental piece in this third part the boys return to some earlier themes, while the haunting vocals are best on the album throughout this section; some true emotion is poured into these. This track alone warrants an interest in this album; a definite contender for Best Song of the Year if Salem Hill prove able to reach a large enough audience, which they should as they show talent, craftmanship and imagination.
Ed: After being treated to some good and two mediocre tracks we come to the real treat
of the album; a 27 minute prog rocker's wet dream. Wow !
The song consists of three parts. The first part, Eternity in Our Hearts, starts with a fast guitar lick that will return several times and runs like a red thread through the song. After 3 minutes the vocals start and we are treated to more of those wonderful retro close harmonies. After a slow version of a theme that will return in part 2 we get a bit of early Genesis with a The Knife-like section. Great instrumentation with chuncky bass guitar and later on that majestic church organ solo Mike Ayers referred to.
Part two, And We Wait, starts after eleven minutes. The melody of the first section of this part reminds me a lot of Worn Down Piano by the Mark and Clark Band. The other half of this 8 minute long part is one of those 'happy' Spock's Beard/Yes-like compositions with nice 'clanging' bass, acoustic guitar and also feature the wonderful talents of Kansas' violin player David Ragsdale, who was an important factor in the great sound of Robbery of Murder.
Part three, the 10 minute The Hill of Peace, is an incredibly sensitive ballad. After some chello-like instrument (which might be Ragsdale's baritone violin mentioned in the credits) and a short guitar solo we get another reprise of the fast guitar lick from the opening before we go into another lively instrumental section. After a second guitar solo the opus ends with the opening close harmony verse from Eternity in Our Hearts.
This song - which alone is more than worth the price for this album - is the only track on the CD that sounds like the material on the previous album here and there, mainly during the third part.
The Blind Place
Ed: A hidden track that follows after some 5 minutes of silence. A rock 'n roll like stomping little thingy with sound engineer Ron Foster on muted trumpet. Nice little lighthearted surprise after having been able to catch your breath following Sweet Hope Suite.
Mark: In some ways this is a very retro album, and the YES-influences are very evident.
Perhaps a comparisons with the Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, Howe album is stretching
things a bit too far, but this thought hardly comes from out of the blue. Song structure on
Not Everybody's Gold is rather basic in tracks 2 to 4 and 6, as it was on The Robbery
of Murder. The focus on the new album is not so much on melodies as it was on that previous
outing, which often results in a somewhat crowded instrumental arrangment. This is less true of
the other songs on the album.
While The Robbery of Murder was very clearly neo-progressive, this album fuses neo prog with good old symphonic styles and influences. Salem Hill has therefore succeeded in surprising me. As The Last Enemy was the first track of this new album I heard, I was expecting a second The Robbery of Murder, but I'm not displeased with the product the boys from the U.S. have turned out. Let's face it, noone wants a band that keeps repeating itself. This has strenghtened my interest in the Catatonia album, which I'm sure to try and pick up soon.
I do question the long term attraction of Not Everybody's Gold. After owning The Robbery of Murder for just one week I had memorized all the lyrics through the sheer joy of singing along. I haven't gotten that from any of these songs, not even the ones I really like, notably Sweet Hope Suite. It remains to be seen if this album has solid durability. I've you've enjoyed SMPTe's Transatlantic album this year, be sure to give this album a try.
Ed: I have always been very impressed with Salem Hill's previous masterpiece The Robbery
of Murder. I was quite shocked when playing Not Everybody's Gold for the first time because
it's completely different from its predecessor. Whereas Robbery featured mainly shorter songs
that were very accessible, this new CD contained some long tracks and songs that needed a while to
get into. But after playing it a couple of times it really grew on me.
I still don't care that much for We Don't Know and January; they are good songs in themselves but just don't live up to the high standard of the rest of the material.
On this CD we hear a much more diverse Salem Hill. The album combines the best of Seventies with contemporary prog music. Comparisions range all the way from Yes and Spock's Beard to Klaatu, Barclay James Harvest and Styx, and on top of that, the occassional section wouldn't have been out of place on an IQ or Arena album. The album is also very heavy in close harmonies, which seem to be making a come back in prog (just think about recent Spock's Beard and Porcupine Tree albums), great as far as I'm concerned as long as it doesn't turn into a 'Bee Gees go Prog' thing, which fortunately is not the case on this CD.
The packaging features a nice collage drawing where the faces of historical figures are combined with friends of the band (DPRP's own Rene Janssen is also among them !).
All in all a highly recommended album. Oh, and want to get a clue about the title of the album ? It is a misinterpreted lyric from one of the songs from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Happy puzzling.