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Reviews in this issue:
Avantasia - The Metal Opera
Avantasia is a full length (prog) metal opera project by German Tobias Sammet of Edguy. The basic idea is sort of the same as Lucassen's Ayreon projects with many mostly vocal guest performances. Where Lucassen focuses more on the prog influences, Sammet focuses on the metal content.
Hey, wasn't that the same intro as I used for the CD single of Avantasia? Yep, this
will be a very cheap review for me since everything I wrote there appears to be true
for the whole album. The story, about some medieval monks, takes ages to read
(it contains eight(!) tiny scribbled pages in the, nicely printed, CD booklet). I
am sorry, I didn't have the patience to read the entire story, since the sometimes
bad English doesn't help in keeping your attention focussed either. The tracks
on the album are all very metal oriented, which is no wonder with
musicians of Helloween, Gamma Ray, Stratovarius and
Rhapsody. There is also an (anonymous) guest vocalist dubbed
ERNIE, which should be well known in the metal world. OK, the best guess I have
for the identity of this mysterious person is that it is Michael Kiske (Helloween). By
the way, in my opinion the best vocals on the album are from Sammet himself. He
has a wonderful metal voice, a hybrid between Dickinson and LaBrie.
The album is of extremely high quality production wise, and there is still an enormous market for this type of music, judging from the fact that the album entered on number 35 of the German album charts, a little wonder in itself. Then again, marketing and promotion, especially in Germany, around this release have been gigantic.
Apart from the melodic power-metal tracks, there are a couple of more symphonic oriented tracks as well, like Malleus Meleficarum. This is a keyboard soundscape, and reminds me a bit of Symphony X (In Nomine Patris could have been ripped from the latest SX album). The next track has a nice chorus, but doesn't go beyond average, well produced metal. Farewell is the symphonic highlight of the album, with a bit of Celtic influences, and the vocal guest appearance of Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation). This metal ballad comes close to Ayreon at times.
The conclusion on the entire album is identical to the conclusion of the single: Avantasia is a metal opera which is low on prog content but high on pure metal joy. Probably those who thought Ayreon's Flight of the Migrator was too symphonic (still) will like this, as will those who still cherish their Operation:Mindcrime copy. Those of you who are deeply into seventies sympho or neo-prog, will probably not enjoy these high speed, not very complex, compositions. I am still in doubt: the compositions are too easy, too smoothly flowing. There are a couple of objective facts: excellent musicians, truly fantastic vocals, and perfect production. Still, the album can't convince the prog-lover in me, and even the metal lover in me rebels: this is too trivial.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Ash Ra Tempel - Friendship
Ash Ra Tempel is a name that is sure to ring more than a few bells with all those who love Kraut Rock as they are amongst the pioneers with groups such as Tangerine Dream, Can, Kraftwerk and Amon Duul. Their music would serve as an inspiration that would radically change the face of music and influence not just rock music but various other genres, the repercussions being felt till this day.
The line-up that is concerned with this album lasted 3 years (1970-1973) and included a trio of musicians, Manuel Göttsching (founder and leader of the group), Klaus Schulze and Hartmut Enke. Following their amicable split, both Göttsching and Schulze have played together on albums mainly under the name of Klaus Schulze with their last collaboration being In Blue. What I find strange is that the music of Ash Ra Tempel was originally in a rock vein with Schulze being the drummer! The music on the album is more in the vein of the Klaus Schulze solo albums, where he plays the synthesizers, yet names apart, this is a great album.
What is presented on this album is just the work of Göttsching and Schulze where Schulze plays the synthesizers and Göttsching the guitars. Hartmut Enke still seems to be retired from the musical scene! Three lengthy pieces, all exceeding the twenty minute mark with a dose of electronic music backed by some spacey guitar work create an incredible atmosphere somewhere in the Mike Oldfield or the vein of albums that Klaus Schulze released as a solo artist.
Reunion starts with off with an airy atmospheric almost New Age feel. Even the guitar sound seems to be modified making it hard to distinguish, at least initially, whether the sound is actually from a guitar or synthesizer. As the tracks slowly progresses the guitar seems to come more and more to the forefront. After four minutes the first beats start to slowly enter within the framework of the track and the guitar work becomes more evident. The effect is still one of an airy feeling while the rhythm starts to pick up after about ten minutes with the beat becoming continuous and bolder while we are regaled with some fine guitar licks from Göttsching's guitar. The track never lifts off from its relaxed mode, apart from a brief interlude around the halfway mark, as the keyboards serve more as a backdrop without creating anything obtrusive. At the same time there is nothing absolutely dragging about all that is going on and the time flies past with the thirty minute mark arriving without realizing.
With Pikant, there is more emphasis on Klaus Schulze and his synthesizer pads, with the atmosphere laid out reminiscent of his work in the late eighties. The rhythm is introduced via a shaker accompaniment, until the drums/percussion move in. On this track, one feels that a bass player would somehow have added that extra special touch to the music. Göttsching's guitar playing remains airy and delicate, at least for the first half of the track until the sound turns to that of a Spanish guitar. The change in guitar sound relegates the synthesizers to the background. Though the percussion is absent at the initial stages of the Spanish sequence, this progressively is introduced until the track eventually resorts to the same formula the album started off with.
Friendship, the title track, closes off this album and once again the two musicians hit it off just perfectly. This time round the opener is based on a soaring guitar, whose sound seems so much more powerful to Göttsching had been previously playing on this album. The lengthy guitar solo lasts a full thirteen minutes (the halfway mark!) until the first percussive elements are added to the track. What also differentiates this track from the previous two is the fact that there is little change in structure. Apart from the introduction of a beat, the guitar remains soaring in its solo with the synthesizers relegated to filling out the musical void with spacey chords.
This album marks a most welcome return to the musical scene for this duo. Debating whether the release should have been under the moniker of Ash Ra Tempel or not, is another matter. Musically the three tracks are a fantastic journey and though they are very long, they never overstay their presence. Great stuff, highly recommended to those who like a healthy mix of New Age and Electronic Progressive music.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Ash Ra Tempel - Gin Rosé At The Royal Festival Hall
As for the Friendship album, this release under the name of Ash Ra Tempel once again finds just the duo of Klaus Schulze and Manuel Göttsching making up the numbers with a style of music that is similar again to this year's studio release but unfamiliar when compared to their early seventies works. The album was recorded live at the Royal Festival Hall during Julian Cope's Cornucopea Festival in April, 2000. The original intention was to have the original trio that founded the group play together, and that would have included Hartmut Enke on bass, and Klaus Schulze on drums. Instead due to the reluctance of Enke to play, Schulze returns on the synthesizers while Göttsching remains faithful to his guitar(s).
With one track making up the whole of the CD, the name Eine Pikante Variante suggests that the track could be a variation on the theme from the Friendship track, Pikant. Musically the whole track features a variety of influences and in itself can be subdivided into a number of sections.
A series of spacey/sci-fi sound effects open the album/track to lead into a laid back specious sequence of moods. The guitar touches are deft and light adding further to the relaxed tone, the kind of music a film would use to depict a barren planet! A choral build up closes the first quarter of an hour, which brings about the first musical change and what could be described as the second section of the track. A bass line starts to form together with some faint percussion. Even the guitar sound changes with an almost slide-guitar/Hawaiian feel to it. The rhythm starts to slowly pick up as do the chord sequences emanating from Schulze's synthesizers
The third section seems to come about at around the twenty minute mark when the rhythm has become consistent and the keyboards/synths and guitar exchange licks with very little to differentiate between the two sounds. The interplay between these two musicians is incredible and it shows that both have a feel for each other and bond perfectly. It is probably this section that most closely resembles the Pikant track found on the Friendship album.
Just under half an hour and the rhythms slowly die away to yield a similar style that was present in the initial part of the track, a choral sequence with some very delicate guitar work. Eventually this dies away too, to be replaced by some progressive synthesizer layering which conjures up an airy feel. This gives way to another series of sci-fi effects used effectively as filler's between successive guitar licks. Progressively this section dies down until all is left is the high hat line. Those in the audience must have expected that the whole track was over as there is an all out applause, yet this was not to be.
The guitar changes and so does the style. An acoustic guitar with a Spanish flavor takes over while the synthesizers are practically absent. Eventually the synths and backing percussive elements move in, yet the build up in both tone and timbre is extremely gradual, as is all of this track! Of all guitar effects utilized, I must admit that it is with the simplest of guitars that Göttsching seems to excel. The space/sci-fi effects gradually move in to take over the whole of the musical environment and create a backdrop that you feel is waiting to erupt at any moment, similar to a cat when it is growling. That dominated, the laid back atmosphere returns with the electric guitar erupting to a series of synthesizer arpeggios. The finale is the most powerful sequence of the whole track as the beat suddenly picks up with both synths and guitars responding each other furiously, lick after lick.
The utilization of the name Ash Ra Tempel on this recording (as on Friendship!) might be debatable, yet one cannot deny that on this album there are two master musicians whose technique and sense of timing is impeccable. Hearing this album makes one regret not being able to witness such a spectacle. A great return for a great duo.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Colin Wilson - Strange Weather
Colin Wilson (in no way related to either Damian or Steve Wilson) is the bass player of one of the best tribute bands around, the Australian Pink Floyd Show. Colin is the first person of this band to release a solo-album. On the album Colin wrote, arranged, produced and sang all songs, and played acoustic and electric guitars, bass and stylophone. He is accompanied by Paul Burgess (10CC, Chris Farlowe, Joan Armatrading) on drums and percussion, Nigel Stonier on keyboards and some acoustic guitar and someone (or thing) with the mysterious name of Dr. Rhythm, who drums on the track N x NW.
Strangely enough, none of his Aussie Floyd buddies can be found on the album. Maybe Colin didn't want to mix work and pleasure, but it would have been interesting to see what it would have sounded like with a few guest appearances by the other band members.
Now usually when people who play in prog bands release a solo album, the album contains music that they normally don't play when they are with their band. Recent examples are Steve Rothery's Wishing Tree project, the classical outings on Martin Orford's solo album, or even the first half of Neal Morse's solo album.
So it comes as no surprise that someone, who has a dayjob of impersonating Roger Waters, comes with an album that sounds in no way like any Floyd album and -most important- doesn't seem to have the desire to do so either. These are eleven well-written songs, encompasssing nearly every possible subgenre under the rock denominator.
As Colin himself states: "I've always enjoyed albums that don't sound the same from start to finish, and when I got the chance to record Strange Weather, I decided to put 11 very different songs together. The finished result, I think, is varied enough to hold the interest of the listener all the way through, no matter what your taste in music.
And different styles, that's exactly what you get. For example the opener Big Bad Wolf is a bit of a straightforward bluesrocker, which, fortunately, does not set the tone for the rest of the album. On the other end of the spectrum there's Hellos and Glad Goodbyes which is a genuine Bluegrass ballad - a great fun track - while Diggin' it up is a heavy rocker again, but with a surprisingly mellow (and proggy) guitar part in the middle.
Heavy rockers and more mellow ballads alternate on the album. N x NW for example, inspired by Hitchcock's North by North-West, this song has a powerful rhythm and a guitar sound, which wouldn't be out of place on the Pulp Fiction soundtrack. Or Adelaide, of which the roaring guitars sound like a merge between Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Clash, and The Troggs (Wild Thing). Another great fun song, and purely coincidentally also the city where I am writing this review! :-)
These two heavy tracks are alternated by the very ambient Decisions, which features some delightful (fretless?) bass and a very psychedelic atmosphere (the closest it ever gets to Pink Floyd) and the very personal The Lucky Ones.
Every Other Day has a very Beatlesque feel, which becomes clear from the start, when Colin sings "Here comes the sun", which indeed sounds a lot like a certain Beatles track. However, the rest of the song does have its own identity and sounds more like a Paul McCartney solo track.
Another familiar sounding track is Procrastination Song, which has such a naggingly familiar melody that you can hum along instantly. It has a slight resemblance to Pink Floyd's If and it is this track where Colin's Roger Waters alter-ego comes along to sing the last verse. The resemblance is so striking that you'd wonder whether this isn't the real Waters doing some guest-vocals - incredible.
And last, but not least, the sweet ballad When I Smile. This is a track that features acoustic guitar, accompanied by a drum computer and sounds quite like some of the ballads Porcupine Tree has produced on their latest albums. (in fact, you could almost sing the lyrics of The Rest Will Flow to it). This song is one of my personal favourites on the album. Colin's pleasant voice really carries this song, while a faint Floydian slide-guitar completes the atmosphere.
Strange Weather has grown to become one of my favourite albums of the past year, because of its diversity and also its accessibility. Most tracks are light-hearted and easy to listen to, yet they're interesting enough to listen to them again and again. Colin's voice is very pleasant to hear and his style of singing changes with the styles of the various songs. His playing is solid and the production is crystal clear. Also a note has to be made of Paul Burgess' solid drumming, especially on tracks like Adelaide, Diggin' it up, or Big Bad Wolf.
And while it may not be prog rock in the strictest sense of the word, it will definitely appeal to many fans of the genre, or fans of good rock music in general. And if you really start looking for them, the Pink Floyd references can be plentiful.
But most of all, the album is not as over-pretentious as many new bands in the genre seem to be, but an in general highly enjoyable album, made by someone who seems to know clearly what he's doing.
Strange Weather is available at all Australian Pink Floyd gig and through mailorder by sending a cheque, payable to 'APF Marketing' to: Strange Weather, 11 Warmingham Road, Cheshire, CW1 4PU, UK. The price is £10, which includes p&p.
Alternatively the album is for sale at the merchandise stand at Australian Pink Floyd Shows.
Various Artists - The Best Of Progressive Rock
Compilation albums containing progressive rock are quite rare. Apart from the occasional sampler from prog rock labels and a one-off attempt of a Dutch label, years back, I can't think of any proper prog rock compilation albums. The fact that I picked this album up in a sales-bin, which contained mostly the typical kind of CDs you would find at gas-stations, makes it an even more interesting item and the fact that it contains all original artists (or at least almost original artists) and live versions of all songs, makes this an almost unique album. And that for a mere US$8!!
To my shame I must admit that I am not familiar with any of the bands featured on the album. Of course I know all the names, but being an eighties' kid I'd never had the pleasure of listening to these bands before. Therefore I won't comment on the particular songs featured on the album, nor can I say whether there's any difference between these versions and the original studio versions.
The only exception to this is Roundabout, on which I seriously miss the voice of Jon Anderson. I don't know who sings on this track, but he just can't seem to cope with Anderson's high pitches. Even the fact that two guitar-legends Steve Hackett and Steve Howe play on this track can't save the track - a pity.
Speaking of guitar legends, one of my personal favourites, Gary Moore plays on the two Greg Lake tracks, unfortunately, without his distinct and o so recognisable sound. Nonetheless these two tracks (and especially 21st Schizoid Man) are my favourites of the album.
Of course, it is still a cheap gas-station CD, with three artists appearing twice on the album (which features only 10 tracks anyway), there are no liner notes or whatsoever and the inlay is a single sheet of paper. But then again, it is dirt cheap, so what do you expect? The sound quality is fine on most tracks, the performances pretty good and some effort has been put in the design of the cover, which looks like a traditional prog-rock album cover, complete with Roger Dean-style lettering and all.
The Centrestage Live series also contains The Best of Hardrock, The Best of Unplugged, and less interesting The Best of Country and The Best of Pop. However, with the two Greg Lake and the Dixie Dregs tracks appearing on The Best of Hard Rock and Lake's Lucky also appearing on The Best of Unplugged, this doesn't really make it a collectable series. But nonetheless this particular chapter is a pretty fun item. And a cheap one as well, so buy it should you come across it!
Unfortunately I haven't got any information as to where you might be able to find this album. It's on a Canadian label, yet I came across a whole shipload of these series in downtown Sydney, Australia. I guess you have to keep an eye open at your local gas-station or junk-store.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.