Reviews in this issue:
John Wetton - Sinister
Seemingly this new John Wetton album was first released under the name Welcome to Heaven in Japan, but then remixed and released as Sinister in Europe. Although I don't find it very original, Welcome to Heaven suits the mood of the album much better. I expected a dark and atmospheric album based on the title Sinister and the spooky castle by sunset on the cover. I was in for an umpleasant surprise ...
I was introduced to John Wetton and his music a couple of year's ago by IQ's Martin Orford. Martin played (and is still playing) in John's band and he invited me to one of the gigs. To be honest, I hardly knew anything of Asia, UK, King Crimson and Wetton solo at the time. Since then I have seen several gigs where Wetton plays a mixture of bands from his career and have had the pleasure of reviewing Nomansland and Qango's Live At The Hood. I was therefore very much looking forward to reviewing this CD after receiving it at a recent Wetton gig.
Let's just say that I heard something very different from what I expected. With the aforementioned albums and the live gigs as my only reference I expected a dark, moody prog album filled with wonderful songs. As said, the album title and artwork only enhanced this feeling. When I played the album for the first time I almost throught they had put the wrong CD in the jewel case. What I heard was a couple of 13-in-a-dozen AOR tracks in the vein of Micheal Bolton and Don Johnson's eighties solo album.
Even though this isn't prog, there's a wide range of interesting people playing on the album. Arena's John Mitchell plays lead guitar on 4 tracks (his solos being one of the interesting things about the album), Martin Orford (IQ, Jadis, Wetton Band) plays keyboards on the ballads No Ordinary People and Silently and flute on Before Your Eyes, Steve Christey (Jadis, Wetton Band) appears on drums on Silently, John Young (Wetton Band, Qango, Fish, Greenslade) appears on keys on Before You Eyes (which he co-wrote with Wetton), Steve Hackett plays harmonica on Real World, Gary Chadler plays Spanish and electric guitars on Silently and finally King Crimson buddies Ian McDonald and Robert Fripp appear on the soundcape E-Scape.
The album was written by collaborations between Wetton and Canadian songwriter Jim Vallance
(3 tracks) and others like Jim Peterik, John Young, Fripp/McDoinald, Richard Wagner, and more.
The tracks on the album alternate between mid/up-tempo rock songs (Heart of Darkness, Say it Ain't So,
Where Do We go From Here?, Another Twist of the Knife, Real World) and ballads (No ordinary Miracle,
Silently, Before Your Eyes, Second Best). The album sounds a bit unbalanced since most of
the rock tracks are on the first half and most of the ballads (3 in a row) on the second half of the CD.
Also, the atmospheric soundscape E-scape right in the middle feels very much out of place on this
popsongs album. By the way, the start of E-scape sounds an awful lot like the start of Pink
Floyd's Shine on You Crazy Diamond, while McDonald's flute later give the track a more
Gabrielesque Passion feel.
The arrangements of Real World with (overdubbed) 12-string guitar, overdubbed vocals and the harmonica are also remarkable compared to the rest of the album. Unfortunately the harmonica seems to do it's own thing without having much to do with what happens in the rest of the song.
The album is well produced and the songs aren't that bad. I would probably enjoy them when they would
be played on the radio, though that tells you more about the other stuff they play on the stations
these days than about the quality of these songs. There's not much interesting stuff on this
CD for the prog fans, but if you are very much into the poppy tunes of Asia, Wetton's
more commercial nineties albums or AOR in general, you might want to check this album out. Personally
I prefer the stuff he plays live.
Finally. I'd like to mention that I think 39 minutes is very meagre for a CD these days. The Japanese versio featured 2 extra tracks that have not made it to this European version. Maybe they were not good enough, but they might have helped make this a more 'value-for-money' CD.
Oh and .... who is that guy in all those pictures ?
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Poisonous Museum - Let It Go
Released in 1999, Let It Go is the first release for Poisonous Museum, a group formed in January 1999 and led by Andrew Smart (guitars, mellotron, piano, bass). Making up the rest of the quartet are Andy Hurley (percussion), George Ingels (guitars, Bass), and Marc Vanhaeren (aka Max) (vocals). Also helping out on other tracks are Paul Brierley (bass), Peter Lee (trumpet), Dave Taylor (guitars) and Alison Smart (any relation?) (vocals), who has a past history as a classical singer.
Opening with a mellotron-backed short vocal passage (Sea) the album immediately moves into full throttle with The Waiting Room. What struck me from the very first notes is the lack of depth from the production point of view. The timbre is a bit too thin for my liking with bass and drums at times inaudible causing some tracks to lack that crunch that could have given them that extra kick. This happens with The Waiting Room where some nicely introduced power chords seem to float around rather than deliver that killer blow. This was one of the first tracks written for this album with the earliest version dating from 1997, albeit with a different line-up.
In stark contrast to the harsh King Crimson-like guitar playing featured on The Waiting Room, Wizard Magic Stars has some delicate acoustic guitar. In Max Vanhaeren, Poisonous Museum have a great vocalist possessing a soulful voice with a varied range. From Here On In was the track that convinced Andrew Smart to take on Max as vocalist for the group after hearing him sing on the home-demo tape. The song retains that acoustic touch, with the vocal's reaching a range that somehow reminded me of Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson, though not related in style!
Good Times picks up where The Waiting Room had left off. A rock based structure featuring some pleasant interchanges in time signature, once again the production on the album causes this track to suffer. Even Me has just vocals and acoustic guitar while Fine Line offers a completely new direction. The bass line reminds me of State Of Mind (Fish) with that staccato playing, while Peter Lee's trumpet playing adds a new dimension to the group, creating a Latin touch during the solo licks accompanied by a boss nova-like rhythm.
Head, Heart & Hammer once again goes into acoustic territory while Hymn is an instrumental track. Once again (and I know I am sounding repetitive!) production work is a let down. The interesting part of this track is the use of Alison Smart with her rich classical voice, filling the void of a keyboards, accompanying the group who are playing in a King Crimson-like fashion with minor chords et al.
No Surprise sounds so much like something that Steve Hogarth could have sung with Marillion, while on the other hand we have Run which is the black sheep of the album. The group sound as if they are coming from a British pub background playing that kind of rock music that is almost verging on the punk, such as groups like XTC and Elvis Costello And The Attractions.
A Dream has Max returning to sing with Andrew Smart on the acoustic guitar while Saved features a duet between Max and Alison Smart. This song is haunting and it takes a certain amount of listening to figure where Alison Smart is singing until you realize that what seemed to be a bamboo flute-like sound was actually a female voice creating an almost surreal atmosphere. When she does move in to sing, her voice is of an impressive strength, nearly overpowering the group. At just over six minutes this is the longest track on the album and by far the most adventurous that the album possesses. With Sun, the group close the album in much the same fashion as they started it, Max's vocals backed by a simple mellotron.
On the whole this album proved an enjoyable listen. No extraordinary material in terms of lengthy solos and complex time signatures, yet on the other hand the group offers a variety of styles that should keep the listener hooked. If only for the production....
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
The Underground Railroad - Through And Through
The foundation of the first Underground Railroad album was laid in January 1996 when Kurt Rongey (keyboards and vocals) and Bill Pohl (guitars, guitar synthesizer, bass pedals and vocals) decided they wanted to put a band together which would sound like Genesis. After having reworked some material which they had written before they joined forces and having written their first new song, they noticed that they had unconsciously left the Genesis path, upon which they loosened up their initial idea a bit. Pohl and Rongey completed the demo for Through And Through in 1997, handling bass and drums themselves, but recruited John Livingston and Matt Hembree to handle drums and bass and backing vocals respectively on the actual recording of the album.
The album cover, created by Allen Toney, at first seems to be a part of an old painting depicting some kind of biblical scene. However, a closer look reveals that the whole scene seems to whirl out of a snail's shell, hence probably its name "Meta Ta-Ta Apocaliptoid". The rest of the album's artwork consists of - in one case stretched - parts of the cover. It is funny that the photographer responsible for the band photo is credited, even though the photograph itself is nowhere to be found.
Based on the remark made above you might wonder whether The Underground Railroad
ended up sounding like Genesis anyway. Well, I would say yes and no. One can definitely
hear many references to Genesis's Gabriel years, both in sound as in melody,
but there is something very different about it all as well. Whereas most of Genesis's
music is very melodious, the songs on Through And Through often consist of rather
dissonant sounding combinations of chords and melodies as well as some pretty wild
rhythm changes, which remind me strongly of King Crimson. It is well known that
after Anthony Phillips left Genesis, the band would have liked to hire Crimson's
Robert Fripp to play guitar with them. The music that would have spawned from
that interesting combination might have sounded somewhat like The Underground Railroad.
May-Fly, the first track on the album is a good example of that sound. It is one of the three shorter tracks on the album and although the verses have a very definite Crimson feel (dissonance), the rest of this track leans more towards Genesis's early years - close harmonies in the chorus, use of an acoustic piano and soft, almost whispered vocal sections. Most tracks feature some very nice guitar and/or keyboard solos and here too it seems that Steve Hackett and Tony Banks have had a hand in the creation of the melodies (The Doorman and Mars). Some of the other songs, on the other hand, remind me of completely different bands. In The Comprachicos Of The Mind the keyboards remind me of Dream Theater, whereas the soundscape enfolding in the middle of the song brings Porcupine Tree's The Sky Moves Sideways to mind.
Genesis's more experimental side, as featured on their album The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway, seems to have been explored in The Doorman and in the instrumental In The Factory. The chaotic sections in both songs remind me strongly of a track like The Waiting Room, while the music carries the same kind of threatening atmosphere as many of the tracks on that famous 1974 album do.
The year 2000 seems to have been the year in which many songs of around 20 minutes
were released (e.g. Spock's Beard's The Great Nothing and Arena's
Moviedrome). Whether intentional or not, The Underground Railroad seem to have
followed this trend with the 20:13 minutes long Through And Through. Whereas the
aforementioned two songs consisted of several parts which could, in a way, be regarded
as separate tracks, Through And Through seems to be more of a continuous piece
of music. I considered that to be a strength at first, since I would argue that
several shorter tracks are often (though not always!) to be preferred over one long
track with some more or less artificial sounding connections between the different
parts. However, after having listened to the piece a couple of times, I noticed that
I was unable to stay interested the entire 20:13 minutes, even though I had become
familiar with the music by then.
After a while, I realised what bothered me about the track and why it did not keep me tied to the loudspeakers: it just did not seem to go anywhere. My guitar teacher often used to say about songs and solos that they had to be like stories; they needed a beginning, a middle which would include one or more climaxes and a logical ending. And that is the problem with Through And Through: one can find many really interesting ideas, but they do not lead to real climaxes and they do certainly not tell a story, in my opinion.
Only after 8 minutes into the track, the vocals come in and they disappear again at 12:10 minutes. If one thinks of other tracks with long, instrumental intros (take Genesis's Firth Of Fifth), one realises how well such an intro can set the scene for the vocal part. Here, the intro is not really an introduction to the rest of the song (the various themes introduced in it do not return) and that is probably why it ceases to be interesting after a few minutes. The same applies to the end of the track (the section after the vocal part). Marillion's Grendel is a good example of a track where the instrumental ending tells the rest of the story. In Through And Through, however, the end does not seem to have very much to do with the middle. Since there are no real climaxes there either, I lose interest rather fast. Still, the track ends rather unexpectedly, since the actual end does not logically evolve from the part before that.
The lyrics, written by both Pohl and Rongey, read pretty much like poetry. The
imagery used in them is rather nice, in my opinion, but is sometimes a little too
abstract to understand what the lyricist wants to get across. In a perfect situation,
the addition of lyrics to music results in something which is more than the separate
parts. I tend to miss that at times on Through And Through (the album).
The vocals remind me slightly of Peter Gabriel in his Genesis years, but Rongey's voice (at least, I think it is Rongey who is handling the lead vocals; this does not become very clear from the credits) often lacks depth and variety, in my opinion. The vocal melodies have a strong reminiscence to Genesis's more story-like songs (The Return Of The Giant Hogweed comes to mind).
The Underground Railroad have very obviously listened very carefully to Genesis's
early albums. Many parts reminded me of quite a few different Genesis tracks,
but the fragments were usually over before I could put my finger on which track it
actually was. Other reviewers have also mentioned Echolyn, ELP and
Happy The Man as references, but since I am not very familiar with their music,
I cannot comment on that. It might help you to decide whether this band may be within
your musical taste, though.
Although I like many parts of this album, I cannot really decide which song is my favourite; there always seems to be a section in it that puts me off. Apart from the fact that the vocals are not very strong, the problem I have with the album is that it feels a bit too fragmented to me. There are many interesting ideas on it, but instead of developing each of those ideas into a (part of a) song, the band adds even more interesting ideas and then it just becomes a pile of interesting ideas instead of a song. The track Through And Through (which is far too long, in my opinion) suffers most from this problem, whereas the shorter tracks appeal much more to me, probably because of the fact that they sound more like "proper" songs.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Fish - Acoustic Sessions
Tracklist Disc 2: (Krakow Acoustic Set 27/10/1995) Somebody Special (5:15), Jumpsuit City (6:52), Lady Let It Lie (6:16), Out Of My Life (4:11), State Of Mind (8:19), Kayleigh (4:55), Solo (5:33), Company/Giz A Bun (7:17), Lavender (8:18)
Another Fish release, and another set of live music. Both discs that make up the Acoustic Sessions album have been previously released under one guise or another. The first disc is a remastered version of the original 1994 Acoustic Session CD while the second disc is a remastered soundtrack of the 1995 Krakow Acoustic Set video.
Since the album involves two acoustic sets released around the same period, there are a number of tracks that are presented to us twice over the course of the double album and these are Kayleigh, the Marillion standard, together with three offerings from his then latest solo offering Suits: Somebody Special, Jumpsuit City and the single Lady Let It Lie. The line-ups also show some differences. Dave "Squeaky" Stewart (drums), Frank Usher (guitars) and Robin Boult (guitars) feature in both discs. The Funny Farm CD has David Paton (bass) replaced by Ewan Vernal in Krakow together with the addition of keyboardist Foster Patterson.
An important difference between the two discs seems to be that the first (Live At The Funny Farm), has absolutely no live atmosphere in that there does not seem to be a crowd present. Presumably the tracks were recorded in one take live in the studio. On the other hand the Krakow Concert is a straight ahead live concert.
Starting off with the Funny Farm disc. This Acoustic Session was the first release on the now defunct Dick Bros Record Company. Lucky and Internal Exile remain true to the original versions. The interplay between the guitars of Boult and Usher are intriguing especially in an acoustic version. Kayleigh together with Sugar Mice are the two tracks from Fish's Marillion era present on this disc. Kayleigh sounds so much more laid back and relaxed compared to the original while Sugar Mice is restored to the version that it was originally meant to be done in. There is a strong resemblance between this version and the original demo version of the song that the band did prior to releasing Clutching At Straws.
Fortunes Of War is the first track from Suits, the album from which the bulk of the songs are taken. This is understandable as the original version was released the same year as Suits and on this disc we also find Somebody Special, Jumpsuit City and Lady let it Lie. These last three tracks also appear on the Krakow album. Here they vary very slightly from any of the original versions, except for the fact that in the acoustic mode, the tracks become more laid back and mellow with an almost medieval leaning.
Onto the Krakow disc, where the opening three numbers are the same as the last three numbers on the Funny Farm disc, with the sound of the group this time augmented by the addition of keyboardist Foster Patterson. Furthermore there is some great audience participation from the Polish crowd at this acoustic set. In fact it is the track Out Of My Life, that gets the album rocking. This B-side track seems to have been tailor-made for such a set.
In stark comparison to the first disc, this live section also features tracks that were found on Vigil In A Wilderness Of Mirrors, yet fails to feature a track from Internal Exile! State Of Mind is the masterpiece that it always is while Company is simply magical. Unfortunately this then degenerates into the traditional sing-a-long Giz A Bun. The Sandy Denny track, Solo, features an interesting duet between Fish and Foss Patterson while Kayleigh and Lavender are as always crowd favorites.
On the whole both discs make an interesting listen and should prove a hit with Fish fans who still do not possess acoustic versions of some of his most popular tracks. On the other hand, knowing Fish fans, they probably own everything already and this album will prove of little interest as the material has already been released in one form or the other.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Athena - Twilight Of Days
It seems that power metal bands have discovered DPRP. I am not sure I am very glad with this fact. The progressive influences on these metal albums are often far away, even though many of them qoute Dream Theater or Queensrÿche as their influences. Athena is one of these bands. In itself a good band in their genre, but their genre is not mine. I like prog metal, but this power metal is just plainly not very interesting to me. The general trent of the album is comparable to Avantasia which I reviewed earlier, also with references like Stratovarius and Rhapsody, a band with which some members of Athena have a more intimate connection.
The vocals are a strong part of this band, the voice of Francesco Neretti is very powerful, and in high speed tracks like The Way To Heaven's Gate very effective. In fact, this is one of the tracks that edge to prog, with some strong tempo changes and a good use of instrumentation (two guitarist and a keyboard player!). Tracks like Hymn, which sound like a eighties Europe track are completely redundant in my opinion. Of higher statue is Fear, which actually contains a nice melancholic piano solo! This is quite a good track, composition wise as well. In a couple of other tracks, I think I can hear some Iron Maiden, but at times they go way beyond that and into the pure heavy, almost speed, metal.
Well, the conclusion can only be that this is a release that is mostly uninteresting to the prog lover. If however you are into power metal, this might be just the album you are looking for. It is well played, good vocals and good production. But unfortunately for Athena, we are not a power metal site.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10.