Vanden Plas Special
Recently I recieved a CD single to be reviewed for the DPRP pages. It included two songs from the latest album by this band, a cover song and a french version of an earlier track. This got me so intrested that I visited my retailer at the earliest opportunity and left the store with two studio albums. Only a few days later I returned to get both the other albums. Thus my recent but passionate love affair with Vanden Plas has begun, resulting in a further tightening of my budget, but the addition of some of the best progressive metal to my collection.
The band's line-up has been consistent since 1990, including Stephan Lill (guitars), Torsten Reichert (bass), Günter Werno (keyboards), Andreas Lill (drums), and the impressive vocals of Andy Kurtz. Vanden Plas released the demo Days of Thunder and two Maxi CDs, Keep on Running and Fire in 1991 and 1992, before the release of their first studio album Colour Temple in 1994. By then the band had had 4 years in which they experienced a quite original history. Keep on Running was released as the official victory anthem of soccer club FC Kaiserslautern, who grabbed the championship in 1991. In 1994 Vanden Plas composed the official hymn of FC Kaiserslautern Das ist für Euch (This one's for you). Meanwhile the band got on stage in the theaters, performing in several plays. From October 1992 through April 1994 all band members were engaged in a theatrical production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the State Theater in Saarbrücken. The entire band also performed at several performances of The Little Shop of Horrors and Andy Kurtz went on to play a leading role in The Rocky Horror Show.
The release of Colour Temple was followed by an extensive tour through Europe, finishing with support performances for Kingdom Come and Savatage. In 1996 Vanden Plas toured in France and Italy with Brazilian band Angra and released their second album AcCult. This was an entirely acoustic collection, consisting of 4 Vanden Plas songs and 4 cover songs, such as Marillion's Kayleigh and Ray Charles' Georgia on my Mind. This filled the vacuum until the release of The God Thing in 1997, which was followed by an 8 week European tour with Dream Theater.
The new album Far Off Grace hit the shelves last year and recently InsideOut Music has released the Single CD I don't miss You from this album. And that's where I came in. In this special I present the 4 studio albums and this latest single for your reading pleasure.
Vanden Plas - Colour Temple
Vanden Plas had quite an impressive history before releasing this first album, as I described in the above preface to these reviews. It is therefore hardly surprising that the debut CD is of very high quality. Production is smooth and there's a perfect mix of all instruments and vocals. The band itself produced the album, with the cooperation of R. Kohlmeyer.
The album opens with the powerful string section from Igor Stravinsky's Le Sacre du
Printemps before guitars and drums cut in for the intro of Father. The addition of
keyboards strenghtens this powerful opening, before the vocals pick up the lyrics. As with many
of the Vanden Plas songs you quickly pick up the lyrics and join in. This track is divided by a
bridge and a break, both typical of Vanden Plas' music.
The intro to Push leads to some very prominent keyboards and the song has a good guitar solo. An anticlimax slips fluidly into the real climax. Percussion opens the third track When the Wind Blows and as guitar, bass and keys pick up the melody, drummer Andreas Lill shifts into power drums. The heavy intro leads to a quieter part with Kuntz joining in, and solos on keys and several on guitar complete to the fullness of this track.
My Crying opens in the same style, goes for a break on piano and has some powerful guitar riffs. The fifth track Soul Survives gives Andy a chance to show some raw vocals, that are also evident on Anytime. The seventh and eight tracks, Judas and Back to Me are more standard metal songs, that would fit well into the repertoire of bands like Iron Maiden or Saxon. Keyboards play a strong supporting role here and bassist Torsten Reichert dominates Back to Me with some powerful bass playing. Additional backing vocals by Miriam Bonmarchand are included in this track.
Stephan Lill plays the acoustic guitar in the intro to the wonderful How many Tears, another instant classic. After keyboards take the lead, drums and bass cut in and the tempo is sped up. Kuntz explodes in the later part of the song with highly emotional vocals that lead to a rumbling finale. The bonus track Days of Thunder is again more typical metal music, a song that is dealt with far better acoustically on the second Vanden Plas album AcCult.
The band delivers an excellent first album here, very well produced. The compositions are more basic to the metal genre than Vanden Plas' later work on The God Thing and Far Off Grace but arrangment and the inclusion of prominent keyboards add to a symphonic whole. This is not just a promise of things to come, but a great album in its own right.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Vanden Plas - AcCult
On reflection it would seem rather strange for a band that has released only one studio album to produce an entirely acoustic CD on their second outing. AcCult was released in 1996, two years after Vanden Plas' debut Colour Temple and a year before the release of The God Thing. It would be an injustice to label it a tie-over for the fans between these two albums though. There may not be any new songs on this CD, but what is included is great stuff all around.
AcCult features acoustic versions of three songs from Colour Temple and one from the demo CD Days of Thunder. On the 1998 release an acoustic version of their first single Raining in my Heart has been added as a bonus track. In addition there are four cover songs: Marillion's Kayleigh, Ray Charles' classic Georgia on my Mind, Swiss singer-songwriter Stephan Eichen's Des Hauts, des Bas and Spanish Rain of American band Saigon Kick.
I'll start with the Vanden Plas songs. These are all excellently performed. My Crying is
preceeded by a short instrumental track that slips into the piano intro. It has a fine
instrumental part with Gunter Werno and Stephan Lill solo on keys and guitar. The guitar and
drums dominated song Father from Colour Temple gets a more piano oriented approach
here. The first half sounds almost like a U2 song (don't take that as criticism!), before
Kuntz shifts to harsher vocals in the strong second part. They've kept the vocal bridge from the
The acoustic version of How Many Tears can easily hold its own against the original. Stephan Lill adds to the fun with some funky sounding guitar play, and in a smooth instrumental break he, Gunther Werno on piano and Torsten Reichert on bass all get in a shot going at it solo. Kuntz also delivers another stunning vocal perfomance.
Days of Thunder actually sounds better than the bonus track version on Colour Temple. The addition of cello (Paul Schneider) to piano and guitar from the second refrain adds a whole new twist to this song. Schneider even gets to throw in a solo, executed in a subtle way. I don't know the original version of bonus track Raining in my Heart, but if it sounds anything like this it must be great. Werno accompanies the emotional vocals of Kuntz on piano, before he adds keyboards with Stephan Lill joining in on guitar.
On to the cover songs. Kayleigh is preceeded by an excerpt from Pseudo Silk Kimono,
oddly titled "Theme from...". This flows smoothly into the Marillion hit song. A good cover,
though it perhaps adheres to the original a bit too rigorously. Maybe Vanden Plas could have
played around with it a bit. Great to hear this in a version other than by Fish or
Marillion with Steve Hogarth though, of whom I have heard it enough at concerts over the
Georgia on my Mind is an old Ray Charles classic and quite a step from the usual Vanden Plas material. Andy Kuntz shows his command over high vocals. Des Hauts, des Bas is another showpiece for Kuntz, who is accompanied by piano only. The vocals are again full of emotion in this to me hitherto unknown, gripping ballad. If these two songs showcase Kuntz' talent as a singer, than Spanish Rain can be considered a showpiece for Stephan Lill on acoustic guitar, with several solos and an outing into counter melody to boot.
More than anything else this album shows Vanden Plas' versatility. There's no new material here, but some classic songs are delightfully arranged for acoustic perfomance. The addition of diverse cover tracks proves this band's talent beyond the metal genre. A must-have for all Vanden Plas fans and perhaps a perfect way to introduce the band to your non-metal oriented friends.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Vanden Plas - The God Thing
In 1997, three years after the release of their debut Colour Temple, Vanden Plas released The God Thing. This album is nothing less than a revelation. While Colour Temple was a very good CD, it remained more basic power metal. On The God Thing Vanden Plas has shifted definitely to progressive metal and produced an album that establishes their place among the top perfomers in this genre.
The influence of Dream Theater on the course Vanden Plas takes here is obvious, and it is hardly surprising that they followed the release of The God Thing with an eight week trip as support act on Dream Theater's Awake Tour. There's no real break with the previous music though. Strong melodies and technical quality are maintained. But there's a rougher edge to the music and keyboards and piano play a larger part in overall arrangement. The sound is heavier and there are more changes in tempo and melody.
Fire Blossom opens the album. A strong instrumental piece that makes the new direction
apparent. Strings are added to create a more symphonic whole and some real power playing is on
display. This track ends with the sound of falling rain, dissolving into Rainmaker, a
favorite track of some band members. To the keyboard intro drums, guitar and bass are added
before an upbeat tempo shift with heavy guitar riffing. Power chords are accompanied by Kuntz'
equally powerful vocals.
Next is the first ballad of the album Garden of Stone, which starts with piano and keys, then adds vocals. A typical opening of a Vanden Plas song. After the first chorus Stephan Lill slips into solo, drums pick up the pace and this quite ballad suddenly gains a violent edge. Torsten Reichert puts a strong bass line under Kuntz' voice as they work towards a long instrumental finale that ultimately restores the subtlety of the intro.
In You I Believe has a definite Dream Theater sound and incorparates a fine instrumental break. Vanden Plas' instrumental parts aren't usually as long or full of variation as in some of Dream Theater's pieces, but they have the same quality. There's another subtle intro to Day I Die, this time by bass and Andreas Lill on drums, but as this song reaches the chorus it powers up. Gunther Werno throws in a counter melody on keyboards towards the end.
The strings are back for Crown of Thorns, a masterful ballad, with P. Achim Schneider on cello and Gunni Mahling on violin. Kuntz demonstates the full range of his vocals in this emotional song, one of the best on the album. We're not Gods is a song in which Vanden Plas seem to rub shoulders with Threshold, both musically and lyrically. It could easily have been a track on Threshold's latest, Clone. Vanden Plas' latest release Far Off Grace seems to me even closer to Threshold (see below). We're not Gods is carried by strong and diverse basslines, with several solos on guitar.
Salt in my Wounds holds the basic feeling of the album with a strong melody. Last comes You Fly, where strings again add to the fun as Reichert plays some of his most powerful basslines yet. Kuntz provides the icing on the cake with an emotional perfomance.
Vanden Plas' second real studio album has more variation, strength and technical quality. These guys have decisively turned onto the road of prog metal, without losing their originality or power. There's nothing to keep me from highly recommending this piece to anyone, but especially to those who like Dream Theater or Threshold.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
Vanden Plas - Far Off Grace
Power seems to be one of the words I have used most often in describing Vanden Plas' music and the latest entry in their discography, the 1999 album Far Off Grace has plenty of it! The band continues the progression they showed on The God Thing as one of the best progressive metal acts around.
Far Off Grace was again produced by the band itself, but with the help of Dennis Ward (Pink Cream 69, D.C. Cooper). Do I really have to go into the fact that the high standard of arrangement and production is maintained here? I didn't think so. Compositions are once again more diverse and I feel I detect a distinct influence of Threshold here. Nonetheless it is the originality of Vanden Plas that makes this album so worthwile.
Starting with the first track I Can See this album gripped me, alternating the kind of
rough power metal of this song with emotional, though sometimes violent ballads like the second
track Far Off Grace. This song has a total rhythm change in one part, typical of this
Concerning power: Into the Sun is one of the most powerful songs by Vanden Plas yet and incidentally the first track to attract me to this band. Some typical metal grunts are added to Andy Kuntz' vocals and Gunter Werno leads a keyboard solo into a long instrumental finale. Where is the Man has Torsten Reichert's by now familiar heavy basslines and Iodic Rain has Stephan Lill pick up those grating guitar riffs.
For the ballad I Don't Miss You Werno and Kuntz go at it alone, dropping the standard Vanden Plas approach to ballads as there is no shift to a more guitar oriented second part or ending. Remarkably though this quite simple piece has become one of my presently favorite songs.
Inside of your Head starts with a slow melodic intro but several times the band picks up the pace, oscillating between slower and more forceful parts. Stephan Lill produces an oriental sound from the guitar in Fields of Hope, that also has more of Reichert's dominating basslines.
The last Vanden Plas song on the album, I'm In You would have been a perfect finale for this album, fading out in a piano reprise of the intro. Nice acoustic guitar play is counterbalanced by a solo on electric guitar. The real closer of the album Kiss of Death is a cover of this Dokken song, speed metal fed through Vanden Plas arrangement. Now I'm not saying this is a bad song, and it is listed as a bonustrack, but personally I'd rather have heard one more Vanden Plas original to top this album off.
Concerning Andy Kuntz' lyrics I feel I can best quote the biography on the InsideOut homepage: "Lyrically the new album deals with extracts of epic short stories written over the past two years. In each story, the main character tries to reach one of the oldest human dreams, but is still far away from his ultimate destination. He is far off grace."
For me this is the only CD released last year that comes close to Dream Theater's Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory in the race for best album of the year. Give it a try and let me know what you think.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10.
Vanden Plas - I Don't Miss You
This CD single includes two tracks from the album Far Off Grace, the title track I Don't Miss You and Into the Sun. Both tracks are taken directly from the album; no radio edits here. For a description I refer you to the above review. The two extra tracks are a cover of the Sting song Shape of my Heart and a French version of How Many Tears, which originally appeared on Colour Temple and which is also included on the acoustic album AcCult.
I Don't Miss You had a rather gripping effect on me. This song seems to deal with someone who has recently suffered a breakdown in a relationship and is filled with ambivalence towards the former partner. The lyrics "I don't miss you, I don't even love you, I want you to die in my arms" are a perfect example of this ambivalence. I was recently deeply in love with a girl myself, but saw no chance for pursuing a relationship with her. Nevertheless I enjoyed her company and often sought her out. Having done a fair job of surpressing my romantic feelings, I learn she's become involved with another man. Now I'm left with the same ambivalent feelings I discern in this song. I can't really say if I miss her or (still?) love her. Anyway, maybe I've gotten the meaning of the lyrics all wrong anyway. Don't mind my whining. :(
The Shape of my Heart is one of my favourite songs from Sting and Vanden Plas have made a very good cover, though it perhaps is a shame they didn't play around with it, instead of faithfully copying the original track. I've said pretty much the same about the Kayleigh cover on AcCult. The here included version of How Many Tears has its lyrics translated to French, a country where Vanden Plas evidently has had some successes. Vocalist Andy Kurtz had already proven his command of the language with the rendition of Des Hauts, des Bas on AcCult and doesn't falter here. A nice addition to the collection of the French fans, but personally I still prefer the original and the earlier acoustic version.
All in all this is a good CD single, but it doesn't add very much to the existing discography. My advice is to buy the album instead.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Vanden Plas is currently finishing a European tour and it looks as though they'll be visiting the studio upon their return to Germany. There are rumours abound concerning a second AcCult album, that will again include cover songs side by side with acoustic versions of several Vanden Plas songs.
Titles for this AcCult II I've come across include: Inside Of Your Head, You Fly, Into the Sun, Rainmaker, Far Off Grace and I Don't Miss You, along with: Gino Vanelli - Brother to Brother, Eagles - New York Minute, Journey - Who's Crying Now, Mark Williamson - Alone
You can keep up to date about new developments on The Web Thing.