Reviews in this issue:
Threshold - Hypothetical
It's been three years since Threshold released its highly acclaimed album Clone (1998). So it's been a bit of a wait for the fifth studio album Hypothetical. It's the first release since the band left IQ's Giant Electric Pea label and the first official release on the InsideOut label, which already handled distribution for the previous album.
The bands line-up is again different from the time of the previous release, although this time they've retained their vocalist, Andrew "Mac" McDermott. The hard core of the band are still Karl Groom (guitars), Nick Midson (guitars), Jon Jeary (bass) and Richard West (keyboards). But Threshold changes drummers more often than Spinal Tap! Johanne James is the fourth drummer on five albums. On the last two albums, Clone and Extinct Instinct, drums were played by Mark Heaney, who left shortly after recording of Clone was completed.
This is a release I've been looking forward to anxiously. Threshold is one of my favorite progressive bands and ranks among my top-3 best loved prog metal acts. The band pleasantly surprised me with their last album, Clone, on which they trod some new and exciting paths. Of course, I was wondering if they could improve on it with their new CD Hypothetical. To be blunt, they haven't. But Threshold again succeeds in producing an excellent progressive metal album, which also shows a remarkable, though in final analyses not very promising new softer side.
Hypothetical is by no means as gloomy as Clone (one of the strenghts of the 1998 album) and could best be described as a cross between Clone and their earlier Psychedelicatessen (1994).
With Light and Space the band is off to a flying start. Solid progressive metal with good melodic vocals. Shifts to and fro from more clear cut prog to harsher metal. Turn On Tune In is another typical Threshold track with powerful intro. This hangs very close to Clone, it's feel not unlike Lovelorn. The last in a threesome of Clone-style tracks is The Ravages of Time, the first of two long (10 minutes+) tracks. Dark and moody intro gives way to splendid guitar play. Pure progressive metal, not unlike Goodbye Mother Earth in structure, but also reminiscent of earlier Threshold albums. Here we find the first use of vocoder which features on the latter long track (Narcissus) more prominently. Of the two tracks The Ravages of Time is much more a single composition than Narcissus.
Fourth track, Sheltering Sky, opens in the vein of Arena's Friday's Dream until the typical Threshold guitar play sets in. In fact, there's quite a lot to this album which reminds me of present day Arena. Oceanbound sees the band edging into Vanden Plas terrain, while Long Way Home shows evidence of strong influences of Metallica in the verses. The combination with a more standard Hypothetical style makes for a strange, though not unwholesome combination. Instrumentation is truly majestic during the bridges and solos.
With the poppy ballad Keep My Head Threshold goes out on a limp, but I feel they've lost this balancing act. Is the band perhaps hoping to score a successful single with this song? This sounds more like pre-Blues Gary Moore than Threshold. It's not half bad, but not what I would like to find after having bought this album. Not at all the typical kind of Threshold track which (former) DPRP-member René Janssen once labeled as "semi-ballad", this composition is an unnecessary addition to Threshold's discography.
But the band retaliates hard with the next track, Narcissus, which I found to be the best track on this CD. It opens instrumentally, again not unlike Arena. As composition it seems more like three combined pieces than the product of a single composition. The second part sung with vocoded vocals and the third is largely instrumental. The softer touch of the previous tracks is discarded and with that the true magic returns, while the second section has the more delicate arrangements.
Hypothetical may not be as good as Clone and does not pack a real knock-out track like Voyager II (although Narcissus comes close), but nevertheless Threshold again prove they're among the very best in the genre. I miss the kind of Threshold track which (former) DPRP-member René Janssen once labeled a "semi-ballad"; Keep My Head is but a poor substitute. Mac confirms his place as best Threshold vocalist, which is quite an accomplishment as Damian Wilson has long been a favorite of mine. The album is again professionally produced and mixed by Karl Groom and Richard West.
In closing, you might find the references above to various other bands somewhat redundant, but they're here for a reason. I get the feeling Threshold has been looking across boundaries of the genre in composing this album. While the end result is overall quite good, I hope they don't take this too far. Leave the mushy ballads to someone else, guys.
Of interest to Arena fans also, much more than previous albums.
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10.
Dark and heavy keyboards open Light and Space. Although typically Threshold, it
somehow is most remote from the Threshold I know of all tracks on the album
(I am most familiar with their first album Wounded Land, which has a very
special place in my heart, as it was the only tape I carried with me to my first
observing trip to Chili seven years ago, when I still was a student of astrophysics.
I had Threshold rip trough the silence of the Chilean night sky, blasting out of
the telescope dome...a sight and sound not easily forgotten).
The structure is similar to the opening track of the latest Pain of Salvation album, The Perfect Element pt.1, with a heavy verse and a more mellow chorus, although Threshold never take it to the musical extremes that Pain of Salvation does.
Turn on tune in comes much closer to old Threshold. I do really miss
Damian Wilson's voice with this music, but in this track the vocals are really ok.
It is a track that sticks to mind quite easily, with a very powerful chorus.
Especially the middle section could have come from Wounded Land as well. That's
a more general conclusion I have come to while listening to this album: they have
done it all before. There's hardly a new idea on the album, it is based on the
same basis as their early works. But that worked fine, so why bother for
something new, hey?
This retro-style is worked out even further in the heavy The Ravages Of Time (reminded me a bit of Days of Dearth). Don't misunderstand me: it is a fantastic dark prog metal track. The deep pounding rhythm guitar, the various vocal effects, some well-balanced breaks and flashing keyboard/guitar soli all add up to a solid composition.
Sheltering Sky is
more ballad-like. Calm yet threatening, a very moody track. Then it's back to
heavy with Oceanbound. It is more uptempo and features more
dissonant chords, making it a sharper tune. The chorus is not too strong however,
being based on two chords. It is quite a difficult track to judge. One second
you think it all becomes too trivial, the next a subtle new passage is set in.
Finally some good ol' piano to open Long Way Home, but after the first couple of bars it's metal of the Metallica level! However, the melodic structure turns and twists and bounces back and forth between metal and prog. Good track, stays interesting all the way through.
Of course, no prog album
is complete without a track that reminds the reviewer of ELO or
Alan Parsons. This album is no exception, with the ballad Keep My Head.
It provides the necessary break from the heavy stuff, and serves as an upbeat to
the album's closing mini-epic Narcissus, but other than that, it could well
Narcissus to me shows eleven minutes of Threshold at its peak. Deep pounding bass and rhythm guitar, a piercing electric guitar over it and intense vocals. A track that tells a story through its music and needs to grow. At a certain moment, I am sure, you will become hooked to this track. Halfway through we are treated on a piano/vocoder part. The piano melody is almost completely identical to Pendragon's Paintbox, where the vocoder reminds us of Mr. Blue Sky (or one of the two million other vocoder tracks that followed). Fortunately this is followed by one of the more interesting instrumental breaks I've heard on this album. A relatively complex bass/drum interplay and the guitar and keyboards taking turns in rapid soloing. Cool! The main chorus is featured one more time, and then the album ends.
In conclusion, Hypothetical is a good solid Threshold album, with nothing spectacularly new. If you enjoyed previous Threshold albums, you will enjoy this one too. The musicians are all excellent, the compositions solid, the vocals are okay and the production is fine too. So, I will recommend it to the prog metal lover. But otherwise, nothing new on the horizon.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
The official release date for Hypothetical is the 26th of March. A limited edition version (IOMCDLTD 073) will also be released with an extended 24 page booklet and digipak packaging. This CD will include an acoustic version of the 1997 track Life Flow as well as a 9.30 minute video diary featuring interviews, studio footage and live video clips, and a screensaver based on the artwork from the album.
Hawkwind - Spacebrock
Billed as the latest Hawkwind album, I must admit to being a bit perplexed about all this when hearing the CD as well as leafing through the booklet accompanying the CD. To me it sounds and looks more like a Dave Brook solo album. The only other notable member of this legendary band, apart from Dave Brook, is drummer Richard Chadwick (and he appears only on three tracks!, tracks 3, 10 and 14) while the remaining members are relative unknowns with some appearing under pseudonyms, leaving open to speculation the fact that they could actually be Dave Brook himself!
Musically there is a difference from what we find on this album and on other Hawkwind material though the bottom line still remains space rock. What could be a confirmation about this misnomer of an album is the fact that a Dave Brock solo album title Brockspace was to be released during the Hawkwind Reunion concerts over Christmas. However after a number were sold, it appears that the wrong master tape was used and the whole CD was to be scrapped. Instead the finalised version was reworked with a new cover and booklet under the title Hawkwind (possibly assuming, and rightly so, that a CD under the name Hawkwind would sell more than one under Dave Brock!).
Anyway, what is it that we find on this particular album? In fact the majority of the album consists of instrumental music with tracks of varying lengths, some of whom serve as mere fillers, yet which when heard in a global context constitute a fine album. The album kicks off with two tracks that have been taken from two separate films. Life Form (from the film "Any Given Sunday") had originally appeared on PXR5, yet this version makes a great opener and sounds much more powerful than the original. Some People Never Die (from the film "Assasinations") is based on the track Church Of Hawkwind though it features commentary taken from the film itself.
Dreamers is a lovely piece of electronic music while Earth Breath verges on the New Age. You Burn Me Up retains that synthesizer based music though this time there is some nifty guitar work creating that classical Hawkwind sound. The Right Way could be considered as an introduction to Sex Dreams, as many of today's dance tracks possess. In fact Sex Dreams has a definite trance beat to it, something which could deter the classical Hawkwind lover, yet at the same time could help in winning a few younger fans, though admittedly there is little to say about this track.
To Be credits Shakespeare as one of the co-writers of the lyrics since there is use of the famous "To Be Or Not To Be" line. Apart from that it features power chords being blasted out with the occasional narration. Kauai is a short New Age musical snippet while Earth Calling acts as a form of reprieve as finally we get a seemingly whole tune. This could be a live classic track, of course with the added detail of classical Hawkwind members added to it.
The remaining tracks are evidence of this album being more of a solo effort with the backbone of the instrumentation being synthesizers, though Space Brock has some great guitar riffs. 1st Landing is a track that has appeared previously on the "In Your Area" album while the closing number, Do You Want This Body, is a return to the techno/trance music.
I must admit to having been terribly excited when faced with the prospect of reviewing the new Hawkwind release and feeling cheated after having heard it a number of times. This is not Hawkwind, but a reflection of what Dave Brock's input to Hawkwind's music really is. Sorry Guys, bring back the classic space rock of the classic band, that is the music that deserves the title of Hawkwind.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10.
Nangyala - Eyes Open Wide
Eyes Open Wide is Nangyala's third mini album, after Spheres (1997) and Born Gifted/Paragon (1999). Besides these three EPs the band also released a recording of their performance in the Omniversum in The Hague. It's about time these guys release a full debut album !
Among their influences the band names Pink Floyd, Marillion, Porcupine Tree, Ozric Tentacles,
Massive Attack, Pearl Jam, Radiohead and Faithless. And indeed the band sounds like a mixture of
most of these bands. That's also one of the biggest weaknesses of Nangyala; after 3 mini albums
they still haven't developed an easily identifiable own sound. On their web site the band
describes itself as 'Progressive Trance Rock', but this might give you the wrong expression.
Well, at least for this new mini album that is. The music on Eyes Open Wide balances
somewhere between symphonic prog rock and prog metal; Floydian and Porcupine Tree influences
are mixed with grungy vocals and Iron Maiden-like guitar solos and vocals.
Nevertheless, although the band misses an individual style, their music has definitely matured since their first release. When playing the CD multiple times, the compositions really start to grow on you. The band manages to combine emotional, quiet parts with heavy rocking sections perfectly.
The CD closes with a 'single edit' of Paragon. This short version of a song that appeared in a 12 minute version on the previous CD seems a bit of an unnecessary filler to me.The other 16 minutes of the CD are filled with three new songs.
First of all I need to say that I still cannot get used to the voice of vocalist Daniël Wöltgens.
His vocals are a bit too winy and grungy and a bit too Pearl Jam- and Kane-like for my taste,
which isn't so strange since he used to be in a band that played covers of Pearl Jam, Live, R.E.M.
and Nirvana. As always, vocals are a matter of personal taste, but for me it kind of spoils
my enjoyment of Nangyala's music.
The rest of the musicians do a fine job, with special notice for drummer Geronia Welling who does an absolutely wonderful job. A good example of his skills can be found in the intro to the first track Solitude. The rhythmic play of the repeated drum-roll and catchy bass lines remind me a lot of Porcupine Tree. This is further enhanced by the spooky Richard Barbieri-like synth effects that give the song a sinister mood. The rest of the song consists of various tempo and melody changes, as well as a great guitar solo.
Feelincognito is a nice melancholic ballad that speeds up half-way through the song and features an excellent guitar solo and double bass drumming (the latter not really my cup of tea).
Eyes Open Wide starts as a rock ballad with acoustic guitar and vocals. After 2 minutes the rest of the band kicks in and the tempo increases, developing the track into the heaviest composition on the album. As in the first track, more tempo and melody changes follow and the song also contains a fine early Marillion-like keyboard solo.
Unlike the previous EP, Eyes Wide Open comes as an official CD with 4-page booklet with atmospheric artwork, inlay and printed CD. The CD can be purchased through the band's homepage for 20 Dutch Guilders.
Well done guys ! Not quite there yet, but getting near !
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10.
Cafeïne - Nouveaux Mondes
Noveaux Mondes (New Worlds) is the second release from this French group following their 1994 debut, La Citadelle. What is indeed heartening is that the group have capitalized on all the criticism that they received for their debut in that their music lacked a certain amount of maturity and that the vocals where beyond any shadow of doubt the group's weakest point. This time round they enlisted the help of various well known artists to assist on the vocals and it seems that the years gone by since the debut have served to further mature their musicianship resulting in this most excellent album.
So who are Cafeïne? Essentially they are four French musicians with a vast musical background and they are Christophe Houssin (keyboards), Patrick Jobard (guitars), Jean Christophe Lamoureux (bass) and Régis Bravi (drums). Guests vocalists involved on this epic concept album are Christian Decamps (Ange), Sonia Nédélec and Jean-Baptiste Ferracci (both of Minimum Vital), Cyril Grimaud (Hauteville), Pierre-Yves Theurillat (Galaad) and Julie Vander (Magma), together with other guest musicians.
As I have already remarked, this album is a concept album dealing with man's drive to explore and possess all that surrounds him with people such as Alexander The Great, Don Juan and Icarus referred to throughout. Onto the first track of the album, Hubble which has already been presented on the Musea Records compilation, Un Voyage En Progressif 5. A pure instrumental, this track showcases the original members of this group allowing them space without relying on the intervention of a guest vocalist. Immediately one is struck by the musical capability of this quartet as they execute a track that is well within the classical progressive rock sphere with some interesting complex time changes with the occasional leaning towards the jazz-rock style of music.
L'Or Des Indes (The Gold Of The Indies) features the vocals of Philippe Ladousse and verges onto the neo-progressive style of rock in its initial sector with some nice interchanges between keyboards and guitar to move into a more relaxed setting in its mid-section assuming a more classical approach as keyboard sound is traded for that of a piano. Voler En Éclats retains that neo-progressive touch assuming more of a rock sound, possibly due to more power chords being played as well the structure being more melodic and ear-friendly. This coupled with the last two instrumental minutes of the track make it one of the standouts of the album.
At just over three minutes Les Conquérants (The Conquerors) is the shortest track on the album and is more of a laid back affair, even when a beat kicks in towards the end of the track. It involves mainly a duet between voice and piano with the other instruments acting as fillers for the track. Don Juan on the other hand opens immediately with an almost jazz-rock touch merging into a classically influenced progressive rock. The backing band is almost orchestral sounding while the offbeats are excellently punctuated by some great harmonies.
Atomik is musically the most complex of the tracks on the album with a regular structural rhythmic backbone maintained throughout the track interrupted at intervals by various alternative musical events such as some great female vocal harmonies as well as the occasional discordant piano chord. An excellent instrumental which once again shows the musical prowess of this group. Alexandre opens with a Renaissance meets The Enid style merging classical piano with orchestral sounds, sounding like Aerie Faerie Nonsense (The Enid). Vocals on this track are provided by Cyril Grimaud (Hauteville) and should prove to be a hit to those who like progressive rock filled with a lush orchestral overtone.
My Only Quest, the only English-titled track on the album, features vocals from Julie Vander (Magma) and once again shows how well this group fuse the classical with rock. What is strange is to hear a vocalist from Magma, singing in a language that can be understood (French), other than Zeul! This track together with Cathédral possesses some beautiful harmonies which fill the track creating an impressive almost haunting atmosphere. Cathédral has Sonia Nédélec and Jean-Baptiste Ferracci (both of Minimum Vital) providing the vocals, on a track which till just past the midway mark shows nothing of a notable mention apart from a nice instrumental section. However the track takes a twist and suddenly changes to an acoustic mode with the music becoming almost folkish with the introduction of wind instruments and some lovely vocal harmonies, including Gregorian chants. This coupled with the upbeat feel that it conveys makes this track an excellent way to close the album.
The possible drawback that this album seems to possess is that the vocals are in their entirety in French and this could pose a drawback to those who are intent on listening to and understanding lyrics. On the other hand French is lovely language to sing in, and the music presented makes up for this problem. If you like classically influenced progressive rock, then this is sure to be a hit with you.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Uncle Gut - Uncle Gut
Uncle Gut is a new addition to the fusion/progressive metal scene, a young trio from Baltimore featuring Mike Pizza (guitar), David Grollman (drums, samples, megaphone screams) and Mike Galway (bass). As is noticeable when seeing the line-up, there are no vocals involved in what the group does because they are a purely instrumental group.
This is the group's second album following their 1999 debut, which incidentally also has the same name as this one! It seems as if they intend doing a 'Peter Gabriel' on us with just a different cover for the albums, yet carrying the same name.
How best to define this trio's music? They are definitely set within a metal style though they have a strong number of influences which appear throughout the album. What seems to be the trait of this group is their improvisational approach. In fact two of their tracks are called Improvisation.
In Mike Galway, the group possess a strong bassist capable of holding it up on his own with the opener One Of Five simply a showcase for his virtuosism. Describing the group as a fusion based band would not be far off when one listens to them. On Wrong Number they just seem to move on edged on by Grollman's megaphone screams with the guitar riffs let loose in all directions, occasionally joining up with the rhythm section to eventually move off leaving the remaining members to fend for themselves.
Actually it is extremely difficult to give an individual track interpretation of each track. At times the group seem to be influenced by Black Sabbath (Without Colour) with some deadly riffs moving at an agonizingly slow pace while at others they seem to be emulating Living Colour with some colourful lead breaks and bass playing (Trail Of Doubt).
What is definite is that the group seem to be open to all forms of experimentation (Improv I "Dedicated To Ietty Stein"). Seemingly Baltimore can currently be compared to the Canterbury progressive scene of the early seventies with groups such as Kurgan's Bane, Dark Water Transit and The Dark Aether Family at the forefront. If that can be said to be the case then Uncle Gut are up there and could be considered as the Soft Machine of this area!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.