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Reviews in this issue:
Ayreon - Ayreonauts Only
Ayreon hardly needs an introduction. The album Into the Electric Castle was voted third favourite album in the 1998 DPRP Poll and his most recent project, the two Universal Migrator albums got highly positive reviews on DPRP. It's a sure bet they'll do well in this year's poll, while I myself included Flight of the Migrator as the number one entry. I also noted on the Ayreon Website that Arjen Anthony Lucassen received a Best Musician of 2000 Award from Rick Wakeman in England.
Arjen Lucassen has been working on a new project, called Ambeon, which will deviate from his earlier Ayreon work as this is more than ever a real band release. (You can read more on this below.) In the meantime, Arjen has released the limited edition and smartly priced Ayreonauts Only, a 63 minutes album containing unreleased versions of Ayreon songs, home demos and newly recorded material. It features many well-known Ayreon tracks, sung by alternative, but familiar vocalists. All these tracks have one or more new components, which make them different from the previous album versions.
Ayreonauts Only kicks off with Into the Black Hole, my favourite track from the Universal Migrator CDs. This version features a mix of the vocals of Lana Lane and Damian Wilson (ex-Threshold) instead of Bruce Dickinson. I've never been a big fan of Lana Lane, whose voice has never made a real impression on me (while elsewhere on this website her vocals have been described as sweet and angelic). Damian Wilson, on the other hand, has been a big favourite of mine since Threshold got me interested in progressive music again. He puts in a solid performance here, but I do miss Bruce Dickinson, especially the ranting cries: "Feed me light!" He is said to be included on backing vocals, but it's managed to escape me through several listens.
Robert Soeterboek has sung on almost every Ayreon album, for instance the song To the Solar System on Flight of the Migrator. His rendition of Out of the White Hole from the same album is different from Timo Kotipelto's version, but not as much as Wilson's is from Dickinson's in the previous track. Hard to decide which version is better, although I am inclined to pick Kotipelto's. Nonetheless a feast of recognition, thanks to a great vocalist.
Through the Wormhole is the third and last of the tracks from Flight of the Migrator which differs primarly through the performing vocalist. It's interesting that on this album Arjen has decided to reverse the order of this song and the previous one compared to the original tracklist. This version sees another cooperation between Arjen and Ian Parry (Elegy). Fabio Lione, who sung the original version, can still be heard on backing vocals. As with the previous track it's hard to decide which version has the upper hand, which underlines Parry's class performance. Hearing these songs again also serves to remind one of Ed Warby's truly marvelous performance on drums.
A previously unreleashed demo, Carpe Diem was recorded in 1992 with Arjen's newly formed band Plan Nine, with a familiar line-up for Ayreon fans in Robert Soeterboek (vocals), Peter Vink (bass) and Cleem Determeyer (keyboards). They never released an album, so this is one of the few chances we get to hear their music. This composition was renamed Chaos and rerecorded as part of the intro of the Flight of the Migrator album. The present version, of course, lacks the drums of Ed Warby, Arjen (unfortunately) using a drum computer back then instead. Overall it's pretty similar to the 2000 version, which does pack even more of a wallop.
Things are getting more interesting as we have the first opportunity to hear a performance of Astrid van der Veen, fourteen year old lead vocalist with Arjen's new project Ambeon. It took me a few listens to really appreciate this acoustic version of Temple of the Cat, me being somewhat of a secret Krezip fan, the band of original singer Jacqueline Govaert and therefore tuned in to her vocals. Of course this song has been recorded and mixed in numerous ways by Ayreon, as a single and acoustic version and with the vocals of Lana Lane, but this has to be rated one of the best with the original album version. Van der Veen's rendition is more playful than Govaert's, quite a difference from the Ambeon track featured later on. Now here's a voice I would describe as angelic!
Next up is Original Hippie's Amazing Trip. This is great stuff which makes an album like this one worth buying. Nearly all the vocal parts of The Hippie of the Into the Electric Castle album are bonded into a 6.38 minute medley, vocals performed by Mouse, who sang The Shooting Company of Francis B. Cocq on The Dream Sequencer. Due to unforseen problems Mouse's performance wasn't used on the 1998 album, and Arjen ended up singing the part himself. Mouse's vocals resembles Arjen's, so it's mainly the arrangement as a medley which makes this a great collector's song. Anneke van Giersbergen and Edward Reekers are still heard as on the originally released versions. And see if you can identify the (drunken?) Scot blabbering at the very end of the track.
The rendition of Beyond the Last Horizon from the Actual Fantasy song features vocals by Gary Hughes, whom Arjen did a small promotion tour with in Germany. But although Hughes puts in a good performance, unfortunately this fails to grasp the magic of the original team-up of vocalists Soeterbeek, Reekers and Okkie Huysdens. Soeterbeek and Huysdens are still heard on backing vocals, but these sound awfully muffled. This acoustic version is also more guitar-oriented, more straight-forward than the original. As Arjen explains in the footnotes, all that remains from the original version are the guitar and synth solos. I find it lacking in strength, it falls somewhat flat. And well, I kind of miss all those freaky synth sounds! Drums are played by Stephen van Haestregt (another member of Arjen's new band Ambeon).
Next comes a trilogy of songs from Ayreon's debut album The Final Experiment. First up is a 1994 home demo of The Charm of the Seer, originally sung by Ruud Houweling with an important role for a chanting Lucie Hillen. This version offers a chance to hear it with Arjen's own vocals, which sound quite good actually. It does miss the more grandiose atmosphere of the 1995 album version.
The featured version of Eyes of Time is another alternative studio recording with vocals by Leon Goewie, with whom Arjen played in the metal band Vengeance. It previously featured on the single Sail Away to Avalon, as did the home demo of the next track Nature's Dance. As I do not own this single release, it's a great way to get hold off these pieces.
In the booklet Arjen notes that he thought this version of Eyes of Time was "a bit too much over the top" and I must agree. Goewie goes somewhat overboard and turns it into a screaming contest, while the synths at times seem too prominent in the mix.
As Arjen explains, he processed his voice for the 1995 album version of Nature's Dance, but the version on the present CD has him performing without effects. This sounds much better, to be honest. The only problem is there's a bit annoying (guitar?) twinge throughout most of the track; hard to say what it is exactly. This also has somewhat different sound effects/samples. As always the guitar melody reminds me of Pink Floyd's Goodbye Blue Sky.
The last track, Cold Metal, a preview of the upcoming Ambeon release proves the icing on the cake. The song commences like an incoming storm when first keyboards, then the other instruments pick up the melody. It eases as Astrid van der Veen starts to sing. Here she does even better than on Temple of the Cat and her vocal perfomance, which strongly reminds me of Tori Amos, manages to send chills down my spine when played real loud. Drums and bass are highly reserved in this section, adding to the Ambient style. Instrumentation picks up again after the first vocal section and Arjen puts in a guitar solo. The same pattern follows through and after the second vocal section. Then follows a great duet between a chanting Van der Veen and Arjen on guitar. Once more the verse, after which she magnificently free-styles it towards the keys-carried end of the track. The composition has a very eery sound, highly atmospheric, due in large part to keyboards. It's hard to believe this vocalist came out of nowhere and then puts in such a professional performance, admittedly one of the best on this album!
I should mention the band's line-up. Astrid van der Veen (vocals) and Stephen van Haestregt (drums) have already been mentioned. Jolanda Verduijn plays bass, and Arjen, off course, everything else. Arjen evidently was planning to transform songs from earlier Ayreon albums into new tracks with added sounds, instruments and vocals in a more Ambient oriented style. But while this track features numerous recognizable Ayreon-style arrangements, this is a completely new song and a different atmosphere. I hope the band decides to put the album together this way instead of using too much earlier material. Worthy of a final note: Astrid van der Veen will write all the lyrics for the Ambeon songs, like she wrote the lyrics for this track. And who knows, we may see Arjen taking this group on the road! The latest news on the Ayreon Website is that Arjen hopes to release the Ambeon CD in April.
As always with Ayreon, Ayreonauts Only is expertly produced and mixed, again by the team of Arjen Lucassen and the great Oscar Holleman. The packaging also again is top-notch, with extensive footnotes by Arjen and lots of photographs. The artwork features elements from all previous Ayreon albums.
The album is aptly titled, as I'm sure most devoted Ayreon fans will get this one. It contains enough interesting material even for less avid fans and while not all these tracks attain the standard of the previously released versions, it's interesting to see how some songs have progressed during writing and recording. In the end, whether or not you'll want to buy this CD does depend in large part on interest in hearing different vocalists on known songs. I guess many people will want to wait for the release of the Ambeon album instead. Personally, after the preview on Ayreonauts Only, I can hardly wait for that one.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Various Artists - Un Voyage En Progressif Volume 5
Musea Records are back with another sampler, their fifth in the series, Un Voyage En Progressif. This time around it seems that the emphasis of the recordings presented here are instrumental works. The countries represented are five, France (Jean-Pascal Boffo, Cafeine, Noetra), Japan (KBB, Six North, Gerard, Theta), Germany (Versus X), Mexico (Cruz De Hierro) and Russia (Decadence).
The opening track is from French artist Jean-Pascal Boffo, who was the first ever signing to the Musea Records label, and is a piece of music with a strong classical background. In fact it sounds as if a whole orchestra was employed together with a choir to create this track, Invizible, taken from his album Parfum D'Etoiles. Stylistically speaking it reminds me of Robert John Godffrey's work with The Enid as well as certain soundtracks such as the work of Wojcic Kilar on "Bram Stoker's Dracula".
The French connection is retained with Cafeine's Hubble taken from their album Nouveaux Mondes. This group are just musicians utilizing the services of guests to supply the vocals when required (something quite a large number of bands should have the guts to do!). In this case the track is purely instrumental and thus we can hear what these guys can do best. The influence from the symphonic rock era is omnipresent but the music is extremely well executed and interesting with a large number of changes in both time signatures and structuring.
Lost And Found is the debut album for Japanese instrumental band KBB, led by guitarist/violinist Akihisa Tsubuoy. Once again we are regaled with an instrumental track in the symphonic rock style yet what stands out here is the great sounding violin work of Tsubuoy in the second half of the track, bringing to mind the works of groups such as Kansas, Curved Air and UK. A most welcome breath of fresh air!
German group Versus X bring with them the first vocals on this compilation with the track In The Phases of The Night from their album The Turbulent Zone. The album itself consists of just four tracks and is based on the classical progressive rock structuring of an album with long tracks making up almost a side of an original LP. Most of what I have read and heard of this group brings about comparisons with the classical prog-groups from the early seventies. Most of this track however is a duet between keyboards and vocals, with very little musical interplay to be able to make such comparisons. A pleasant slow track nonetheless, but not indicative of what Versus X are all about.
Six North bring a large dose of jazz fusion into play with Kundabuffer taken from their album I'm Here In My Heart. Kundabuffer with its lush guitar introduction brings about a certain degree of improvisation creating that element of surprise in their music. The piece is of a complex nature featuring continual time changes with the keyboards and guitar, while bass and guitars keep at the jazzy rhythm. Possibly the most interesting piece of music on the album.
Definitivement Blues is the unlikely title a prog-rock band would give to their album. Yet French band Noetra have done just that. The track Venise - which is definitely not a blues track! - is culled from this album. Featuring a fair amount of jazz-tinged progressive rock, Noetra sound like the jazz-influenced Canterbury bands such as Soft Machine and Hatfield And The North mixed with a measured dose of classical music.
Cruz De Hierro on the other hand bring up another face of progressive rock, that that leans closest to the heavy metal genre. Originating from Mexico, the group feature original/current Cast drummer Antonio Bringas as well as his brother, Ernesto, on lead guitar, who was also the founder of the group. KeyII: The Last Warning is taken from their self-titled album and is the longest track featured on this compilation running at over ten minutes. Unfortunately the production work on this track (and possibly the album) leaves a lot to desire with a rather muted sound that results in the track sounding like a bootleg recording at times. The group take much of their cues from groups such as Dream Theater but opt for speed when performing their solos rather than finesse. Once again a proper appreciation of this group would have to be done with proper production work, as the end result is a half-baked affair!
Emerging from the eighties is Japanese group Gerard who are a prominent feature on these Musea samplers. Led by Toshio Egawa (keyboards), this power trio that plays in an Emerson, Lake & Palmer style are always a safe bank on them being able to deliver the goods. Fast paced seventies style prog-rock with a good dose of Hammond organ and rolling bass together with some excellent drumming. If you are a fan of ELP, then Gerard will keep your appetite satiated.
Decadence are a Russian progressive metal band that hail from Arkangelsk and their album Dreams Of Nekton features a set of seven dreams. Dream 6 is an instrumental track with some interesting interplay between keyboards and guitars as well as rapid changes in time signature. On the whole this is progressive metal with a dose of symphonic rock, yet at the same time there is no new groundbreaking material here.
Closing this sampler is Japanese group Theta which is fronted by Vermilion Sands vocalist Yoko Royama. Unfortunately I am not too much a fan of these high pitched Japanese Kate Bush-sounding female vocalists and that does not help much in my judgement of the track. Musically the group are interesting with a strong classical influence sounding like a cross between The Enid and Renaissance.
Once again Musea have managed to release a sampler that can appeal to most of the progressive rock gathering. There is bound to be at least one track that should strike at the heart of the listener and is an excellent way of being exposed to many diverse groups.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Karys Spilberg - Just a Taste
Peter Karys, born out of Greek Parents, started playing guitar at the age of twelve. He grew up with Greek music and fell in love with the Bouzoukis complex music. Growing up in the 70's he fell in love with bands/artists like UFO, Scorpions, Mahogany Rush, Rory Gallagher, Thin Lizzy and Kiss. Many echoes of these past influences are presented in his debut-album Just A Taste. On this album Karys, playing lead/rhythm guitar and bass, is accompanied by Rick Spilberg (Wargasm), on additional lead/rhythm guitar, bass & the drum programming and Dave Alexander on keyboards.
Openingstrack Stealth takes off as a bad Joe Satriani ripp-off and includes several distant Van Halen references. It is an example for the things to come. Karys likes to show his skillness on the six-string, but ends up in copying the masters. Tracks like Days In Stockholm or Big Joe's Jam, to mention some, lack the melodic sound to be called progressive and are simple vehicles for boring guitar solos of a couple of minutes.
Hand Surgery is one of the few tracks showing a different side of Karys.
The melodic lines are played both on electric and acoustic guitar at the same time, and the
song contains some interesting style and atmospheric changes.
The acoustic And They Became Gods must be mentioned as well. In this track Karys creates his own version of Steve Howe's The Clap.
Overall this isn't a progressive album at all. Okay, Peter Karys combines elements of rock, jazz, classical and Greek music in his writing, but overall the mentioned "freshness" (in the letter that came with the CD) is much out of date. This is stuff which the real six-string masters like Joe Satriani, Micheal Schenker or Yngwie Malmsteen used to make more than ten years ago and made it on a much better base.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Legacy - Where We Go
Ever longed back for the progressive sounds of the seventies? The members of U.S. band Legacy must have, as they set out on an effort to return to the herald days of prog. The driving force behind this outfit is Mitch Hensdale, who besides playing keyboards, acoustic guitars, drums, percussion and performing some vocals, composed and arranged all songs, wrote all the lyrics with lead vocalist Frank Hartis, and engineered and produced the album. Lead guitarist is Ricky Chaffin, Dale Black plays bass, bass synth and does some vocals. Kevin Best guest performs on saxophone while backing vocals are provided by four female singers.
While reffering to the seventies above, I must admit Legacy's music calls to mind comparisons with symphonic and progressive music both from that decade and from the eighties. For instance, the first track, Take A Look At Yourself. The early sections with Hartis on vocals are more like Yes than anything else I can come up with. He has a peculiar accent, sounding rather Italian! He does have a very powerful voice. Then at the two minute mark it smoothly changes melody, which, bridged by a guitar solo, turns it into a completely different song. (Which is typical of these compositions as I will point out.) There's a saxophone piece which would not have been out of place on Roger Water's The Pros and Cons of Hitchhiking.
Several songs have long instrumental intros, for instance Choices and West World: Object of Desire. In Choices it is riddled with lots of spacy sound effects. This song has good vocal sections, interwoven with bombastic instrumental bridges. Keyboards carry the main melody, while counter-melodies are played on both keyboards (at times very harpsichord-like) and piano. The intro to West World: Object of Desire is more in the vein of Laren d'Or or Japanese symphonic artists. Then some Floydian Atom Heart Mother style bombasticism commences. At the three minute mark this suddenly turns into a wholly different piece of music, noticably unconnected from the first part. Again focus is on keyboards (there's that "harpsichord" again). There's two further time changes in what can best be described as the second movement, each with it's own vocal melody. This second section is broken up by a keyboard solo.
Next is Trappings: Ocean Of Light/Cosmic Waltz. The first part, Oceans of Light, is more up-tempo without the usual instrumental opening. When keys (twice) suddenly pick up pace they sound a bit like Queen's The Fairy Feller's Master-Stroke, but soon there's a change again as focus shifts to guitar. The vocal melody reminds one somewhat of Kayak. The second part of the track, Cosmic Waltz, is primarily a keyboard performed instrumental piece, which halfway through the track fades out and another instrumental piece commences with the by now familiar harpsichord-keyboards overlaid with (synthesized) strings and with prominent bass. The Power on the other hand is much more guitar oriented, but with a keys and drums up-tempo central instrumental piece, bongo. At its start this song reminds me slightly of Asgard. With Time Travelers, a short instrumental, focus again shifts to keyboards in a composition with clear classical influences.
The last track, No Where To Run: Trois Theme, at first comes off as a flowing together of several elements from the previous songs: the first part has the vocal melody of Choices, there's a return of the aforementioned bombast of Atom Heart Mother and it shows the overall melodic keyboard orientation. But the remainder of the song makes this interesting with Hartis and the female chorus in a short but strong vocal cooperation. Halfway through, this track seems to end with a roll of thunder, but an extra section is added with keyboards playing themes that reflect the earlier material (followed by a second roll of thunder).
All in all, it's a mixed bag. This band is unlikely to get categorized under a single label. The keyboard-orientation gives Legacy's music the sound of eighties Japanese symphonic bands, while the compositions tend to have more a feel of seventies European symphonic rock. This makes for an interesting combination. Legacy focuses heavily on keyboards, which sound ok, but at times a closer unison of instruments would have made tracks better, in my honest opinion. So there's room for improvement in arrangment. Some tracks tend to sound more like pasted short runs than like one whole composition. With improved arrangment and production, I'm sure Legacy can improve on Where We Go, but as a debut album it certainly qualifies as a success.
MP3 audio clips of all songs are available here.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Various Artists - The Best Of Manikin Records
Manikin Records is on of the most prominent record companies present that promotes electronic music. Owned by Mario Schönwälder, himself a prominent musician, the company has on its books classic artists from the seventies electronic era such as Ash Ra Tempel and Klaus Schulze as well as lesser known and newer artists, many of whom are featured on this compilation that is a collection from the best releases by Manikin Records over the last year.
The compilation is opened by Fanger & Kersten, also known as Mind-Flux, with New Times taken from their album Interkosmos. The title of their album, which refers to the now defunct seventies Russian Space program, is a sign that the group are interested in a seventies influence with space references. Of course times change and so does the target audience. One of the main musical derivatives of seventies electronic music is today utilized on the dance floor under various guises such as progressive (!sic), ambient, trance etc. Unfortunately few youngsters seem to realize this, yet listening to the opening sounds emanating from this CD, the influences are there for all to see, with Kraftwerk, Tangerine Dream and Ash Ra being at the forefront. Atmospheric effects, sequencers, loops and rhythms combined with a dose of melody brings a certain amount of nostalgia though the music is undoubtedly fresh and new.
A soft sequence together with a hihat introduces Pulse Transmission No
5 from Rainbow Serpent, which for the first three minutes of the
track is almost laid back with the moog synthesizer slowly building up the pulse
and anticipation in a very Klaus Schulze fashion! Rhythms are then
changed with the beat progressively picking up accompanied by the almost anachronistic
moog which is laid back and complacent.
Label boss Mario Schönwälder teams up with Detlef Keller for Rho Choronae Borealis, of which we are only regaled with an excerpt, and once again the music of Klaus Schulze seems to be invoked reminding me of the Body Love era! Swirling atmospheric effects convey a sense of relaxation, this is excellent music for a darkened room after a hectic day.
Detlef Keller goes solo on the next track, Tear 4, from his
album Behind The Tears and here the artist combines the work of both classically
influenced keyboardists like Vangelis together with the atmospheric rich
sound of Tangerine Dream. This track could easily have been used for a
soundtrack to a film such is the beauty of the combination of string instruments
Phasenverzerrung by Ramp takes us into a different world of electronic music. Whereas Detlef Keller's music was relaxed and rich in orchestration, Phasenverzerrung is rhythmic and hypnotic. Recorded in 1996 at the studio of TV station Marl, the track has an underlying rhythm that creates a sense of speed interrupted by synth overlays.
Arcanum bring a more commercial feel with Timehunter from the album Man In the Mirror. Filled with rhythm, the track seems to have a more commercial appeal with a distinctive modern dance beat to it, something which was not too much to my liking! On the other hand the melody was immediately accessible, which probably causes it to stand out from the other tracks as this is one that you either love or hate the first time you hear it without requiring time to have it grow on you.
Next up is a collaboration between Broekhuis, Keller, Schönwälder and Friends, who are no other than the members of Rainbow Serpent, with an excerpt from the track Ghost In The Machine/731 taken from The Anazaal Tapes. Ghost In The Machine (not a Police song!) starts off with a New Age feel to it full of atmospheric sound effects, with a delicate rhythm which slowly moves to the forefront to become a chugging beat with a hihat sequence interspersed with occasional lead lines
Future Of The Past, the title track from Spyra re-evokes the music of Klaus Schulze from the Mirage era with some great atmospheric music. Rolf Trostel's New Age Of Intelligence was originally released in the eighties and the track has that distinctive feel similar to Jean-Michael Jarre where the basic rhythm remains the same yet different leads are constantly being added and layered on each other.
Steve Hug closes the compilation with Timespace Victory from his album Organics. Unlike what we have heard in previous tracks, this particular track is not inviting and warm but one that gives the image of a barren landscape and ice-cold conditions. The effects are harsh and brutal eventually giving way to a beat which seems to melt the coldness of the introduction. Some nice leads are interspersed with the occasional harsh effect, but a great way to conclude this compilation.
Basically, this album should appeal to all those who like electronic music. It is a good introduction to "newer" artists especially if the last time you heard and bought this kind of music was a couple of decades ago!!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.