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Reviews in this issue:
Arena - Breakfast in Biarritz
Tracklist Bonus Disc: Chosen (6.33), Elea (2.37), Friday's Dream (4.38), Arena Documentary (30.49)
Arena seems to be following a clear pattern; two studio albums, one live album, two studio albums, one live album, etc. After releasing The Visitor and Immortal? the band now treat their fans to a new live album Breakfast in Biarritz, which might be slightly confusing because the gig involved was recorded in the Paradiso in Amsterdam on October 17th, 2000. The title of the album refers to the place where the band had a day off during the Immortal? tour.
Breakfast ... comes as a special limited edition package with one full length CD plus one bonus CD with 3 extra tracks and a multimedia section (more about the bonus disc later). The atmospheric artwork and 16 page booklet were designed by DPRP's old friend Mattias Noren, who's quickly becoming a real big name in the prog rock/metal artwork scene.
It's probably no big secret what I think of Arena. I really like the albums the band has released and that's probably the main reason why I'm still translating stuff for the Arena fan club The Cage. On the other hand, I'm often less enthusiastic about the performance of the band on stage. I've seen some pretty dodgey gigs, some of which were - unfortunately for the band in my opinion - released on fan club videos and CDs. As far as I'm concerned the band often failed to recreate on stage that which they have recorded in the studio. When John Jowitt left the band I realised that I had lost the main reason why I was still seeing the band play live. I haven't seen the band live for quite a while, and I have to admit that I was quite curious about this album.
After having played the album a couple of times, I also have to admit that the band doesn't
do bad at all. The whole performance is actually a very descent gig ! Even Mick Pointer,
who I always found a rather disturbing factor in the band, with his too straightforward
drum patterns, has definitely improved his play in the last couple of years.
New bass player Ian Salmon does a good job; he isn't overtly present in the mix though. The absolute star of the live album is without a doubt John Mitchell. What a marvellous guitarist he is, something which is clearly shown in the many splendid guitar solos and the instrumental pieces Elea and the Floydian Serenity.
Rob Sowden, Arena's new vocalist, does very well on the tracks he sings on Immortal? and most of the older material is performed quite good as well. Only occassionally do I miss the voice of Paul Wrightson, who had a much wider vocal range and more 'drama'. The only time Rob's vocals really bother me are during the extremely silly high sqeaks by in the end of Midas Vision, ruining an otherwise fine version. A State of Grace also sounds much less convincing than Paul's venomous version.
I will not get into describing all of the songs in detail; you'd better check out my reviews
of The Visitor and Immortal? since
all but 2 songs are taken from those albums. This is actually a good decision since now only one
song appears on both of the band's live albums (Midas Vision, on this CD featuring a
nice acapella intro).
The other 'old track' Crying for Help VII, which is acapella in the original version, gets a stomping, full-band, 'We Will Rock You'-treatment on this album, while the audience keeps on singing 'help me ! heeeeelp me !' when the song has ended. This makes the song one of the few special surprises on the album. Most of the other songs closely follow the originals, something I always consider a bit of a shame for a live performance since it doesn't add much value compared to the studio versions.
The only other song that is extended is Moviedrome. This track, which I already considered a bit too long and repetitive, features a long 3 minute intro with atmospheric keyboards and a female voice welcoming the audience to an experiment for which the listeners have been chosen. A nice opening tape for a concert, but I'm not sure if it will continue to be exciting after hearing it a couple of times on the CD. The rest of the track is very well played, but adds nothing to the studio version.
The same goes for most of the other tracks on the album; they are played very well, but they don't add anything to the superior studio versions. Chosen misses the spooky percussion which is heard in the intro of the studio version (bad!) but sound of Clive Nolan's keyboard solo is much less penetrating than the one on Immortal? (good!).
When inserting the second (bonus) disc into your computer, it will automatically start Internet Explorer, play an intro tune and will offer you several options. You can visit the Verglas & Arena site or the site of Legend Productions (the company who produced the interactive section of the bonus CD), or you can drop these companies an e-mail. Most interesting however is the fact that you can start an MPG documentary about the band. This fine piece of work turns out to be no less than 31 minutes long (being the longest multimedia file I have come across on an enhanced audio CD so far).
In this documentary, the band members (mainly Clive and Mick) take you through the history
of Arena, the writing process, portraits of the band members (including one of the most
enjoyable bits of footage; Ian Salmon's portrait) and the new album Immortal?. These
'monologue interviews' are shot backstage at a concert, in a pub and in
what I presume is Clive's Thin Ice Studio.
The story is alternated with footage of the band live on stage or soundchecking, although some of the music is completely unrelated to the period or albums discussed, which I consider to be a bit of a shame. Unfortunately all of the footage also features the new line-up, and therefore is a bit out of context with the historical persepective. I would have liked to see some film material with the right line-ups (which definitely is available, as is also proven by the presence of the old merchandising guy Matt Goodluck in one scene). I can understand that the band wants to focus on the new line-up, but this being a documentary you would expect some information about ex-band members as well. Still, not even their names are mentioned.
As mentioned, I haven't seen Arena live for a while but I heard some complaints about the lack of charisma of Rob Sowden as a front man. Some of the footage confirms these rumors. Especially his performance during the footage of Solomon lacks vocal power and theatrical strength, something we've come to expect from Arena's period with Paul Wrightson. It's almost like looking at a rather mediocre cover band playing Arena tunes. Rob might be doing well on vocals, but as a front man he's still got a lot to learn.
The documentary is very nicely designed, with lots of floating images, flipping collages and
even a nifty animated version of the Immortal? CD cover.
The sound quality of the documentary and synchronisation of the sound and images was sometimes a bit off. Initially I thought that this might have been a problem with the speed of my CD Rom player, but copying the file to my hard disk didn't really help. It might play a bit better on a faster computer (mine's a Pentium I, 32 MB) or the problem is in the file itself. I'm not sure.
All in all, not a bad release at all. I've got a few bits of criticism regarding the music, as you've seen above, but the band scores some bonus points with the extra disc and interesting Arena documentary. Mainly because of these extras and the very reasonable price of the double album (for the price of a single CD) makes me give this CD the DPRP recommended tag.
Oh, and yes ... the madman jumping around in the crowd at 12:32 is DPRP's very own JJ. ;-)
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Ensemble Nimbus - Scapegoat
Finally a Scandinavian band that has succeeded in sounding like no one else that I have previously heard! Formed in 1992, Scapegoat is the second album from Ensemble Nimbus following their 1994 debut album Key Figures. How best to describe this band? Theirs is a fusion of avant-garde and improvisation bringing to mind artists such as Frank Zappa, Henry Cow, Magma, King Crimson and Sammla Mannas Manna (for obvious reasons!). Drummer/percussionist Hasse Bruniusson used to be drummer for the latter group and today is percussionist with The Flower Kings, with Roine Stolt having mixed the debut album for Ensemble Nimbus. The group is formed of a quartet which apart from the afore-mentioned Bruniusson, includes the leader and composer Hakan Almkvist (guitar, bass, keyboard, tapes, loops, voice), Lars Bjork (clarinets, loops) and Kirk Chilton (viola, violin, voice). Guest musicians include Stefan Carlsson (keyboard, accordion), who till 1996 was a member of the group, Stomu Imazawa (bass) and Flower King member Tomas Bodin (keyboards).
Avant-garde is the name of the game and this is omnipresent throughout the album. Experimentation is rife throughout with the unusual use of instrumentation as well as uncharacteristic time signatures and lack of ear-friendly tunes. In fact it is near impossible to give an accurate description of each track such is the uniqueness of the music here. The group traverses a variety of genres taking into consideration classical, jazz and rock music.
Burning Arrows, the longest track on the album immediately shows the listener that this is to be no ordinary trip as the music invokes a Middle Eastern theme but utilizes the clarinet, which at the same time is not too much of a Middle Eastern instrument! Three Figures retains that enigmatic unclassifiable style that this group manage to produce which leaves the listener somewhat at a loss. At times the track seems to achieve an almost ear-friendly trait especially with the introduction of Kirk Chilton's violin playing. This however tends to break down in areas into a free form of jazz playing with descents into a almost medieval setting.
The short Empty Chairs sounds like a modern piece of classical music with introduction of various musique concrete elements fused with gypsy elements. On the other hand Algrebra Of Needs has more of jazz feel to it as the group explore the free jazz spectrum with each instrument exploring its own space joined only by the percussive rhythm generated by Bruniusson's playing.
Useless Passion has more of a structural element to it with an interesting duet between clarinet and violin backed by an impressively powerful rhythm section. Sometimes there are tracks that seem to be produced for the headphone environment and Offering is one of those, offering the listener a veritable trip. A church organ heralds the entry of this symphony of effects as "regular" instruments slowly joined in yet are accompanied by strange effects and also an amount of narration.
The Cross Of Infamy has the feel of a mouse scurrying across the pantry floor as Brunisson takes over the marimbas accompanied by various effects to eventually merge into Trial By Error which re-evokes that Middle eastern feel to the music merged with some great jazz-rock playing. Middle Of The Moment retains the same musical touch and feel as Trial By Error though the mainstay of the track is Chilton's violin playing to a weird percussive backdrop.
Wooden Tuxedo picks up the pieces of the last couple of tracks and has a feel similar to the opening Burning Arrows, though there is once again that ethnic touch to the melody line. This time however, the feel seems to shift from the Middle East to the North African, Maghreb basin.
Strangely enough the closing track, Epigram seems to be out of place when compared to the rest of album. By far the most accessible tune present here, there is a touch that reminds me of Clannad as the backdrop features a constant melody that weaves in and out of the mix with punctuations from various instruments that occasionally duet and at other times flit off on their own. To the casual listener, this is the highlight track on the album.
Zappa, Beafheart, Sammla Mannas Manna and Henry Cow are all elements that come to mind when trying to describe Ensemble Nimbus, but in truth they stand on their own. A fusion of jazz with rock and ethnic influences thrown in with good measure make this album an experience for only those who are able to digest what is in actual fact totally uncommercial music. But yet again as Morgan Fisher told me a while ago, isn't that what progressive rock is all about!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Phil Miller/In Cahoots - Out of The Blue
Phil Miller is one of those musicians closely and intricately associated with the Canterbury Progressive genre, that section of progressive rock which probably more than others managed to fuse jazz with rock. Phil Miller's C.V. does back to the late sixties and his work with Delivery, Matching Mole, Hatfield And The North, National Health and more recently his own band In Cahoots.
The album sees Miller return to his musical roots and the album can be divided into two sections, the tracks played as a sextet and those tracks were the group is a quartet sometimes augmented by the presence of a guest musician. The sextet also includes musicians who have a predominantly Canterbury background and who on more than one occasion shared bands with Phil Miller yet under a different name. Thus the quartet includes bassist Fred "Sonny" Baker who has played on Miller's solo albums as well as a stint in Gong as well as various other bands, drummer Pip Pyle who has worked with Miller since Delivery as well as with Hatfield And The North, National Health and Gong and keyboardist Pete Lemer who has been a mainstay with Phil Miller, having also played in Gilgamesh with Miller. The two extra musicians to make up the sextet include one of Britain's finest free music soloists on alto sax and saxello, Elton Dean (Soft Machine, Centipede, Ark) and trumpeter Jim Dvorak. Guest musician and guitarist Doug Boyle (Caravan, Robert Plant) also plays with the quartet.
As can be expected the musical style borders on the jazz fusion though it should prove of interest to all those who like Canterbury styled progressive rock. There is a lot that reminds me of Delivery which is a band that had its roots firmly within the blues/rhythm and blues though there is also an element of adventurousness thrown in. Furthermore one would expect the emphasis of the music to be on Phil Miller and his guitar work which is simply exquisite. However I was pleasantly surprised by the amount of space each musician was given with a special mention to Pete Lemer who not only has a lovely piece of introductory piano in Pharyngian Intro but also has a great solo on Delta Borderline.
Phil Miller's guitar playing, though always clean without elements of distortion, this time round sounds even cleaner with hints of BB King at times especially on opening track Early Days as well as on Open Sea. Fred Baker manages to instill some great bass runs and solos whilst at the same time manage to retain that element of the unexpected which together with Pip Pyle's consistent drumming helps constitute an amazing rhythm section. The BB King link also hails to the Delivery days as the group had then toured as support to some blues legends such as Otis Spann and BB King.
On a final poignant note one must remark that the album is dedicated to Phil's late brother. Steve Miller who started his career with Phil in Delivery before moving on to Caravan. When recordings for the album had started it was hoped that Steve would join, but he succumbed to cancer in December 1998. This makes Phil's return to his bluesy musical roots all the more touching as he revisits the musical style that he started off playing together with Steve.
Overall this album is an excellent addition to the collection of those who are into Canterbury styled-progressive rock as well as to those who like that blues tinged jazz approach which these men are masters of. Admittedly it is a case of a love/hate relationship, but if you like long instrumentals, try this one out.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Ken Baird (With Sue Fraser) - Orion
Orion is Ken Baird's third solo outing and what a fine album it is. Together with Baird one finds Sue Fraser (vocals) who on the previous album was relegated to background vocals, yet this time round she is present as lead vocalist. Also playing on the album are Chris Lamont (drums), John Mamone (bass), Jacob Moon (guitars) and Steve Cochrane (guitars).
Musically this album features a gentle and soft style of progressive rock leaning towards the progressive folk reminding me at times of the tracks Mike Oldfield produced on albums such as Crises and Islands. In fact one can say that Baird seems to have gone along the same path that Oldfield did as his first albums had long instrumental pieces and this time round he has cut them down to a shorter length thus condensing his musical ideas into four minutes or so, though he could not contain himself on Orion and Shadow Walls!
The album opens with Waving Goodbye, a track that both opens and closes the album, with Sue Fraser showing off her vocal prowess. Sounding like a cross between Annie Haslam and Sonja Kristina, Fraser possesses a powerful voice that carries across well with the band obligingly letting her take centrestage as they remain in the background.
Dolphins has Baird taking over vocal duties though the music retaining that mellow feel with a delicate seventies touch. Actually it is the whole of the album that has that retro-feel to it as he instruments are never over indulgent allowing the music to flow freely without any obtrusive effect. One could easily cite Renaissance as a guide to this album, yet Renaissance had a more classical touch with piano running throughout while Ken Baird and his group have a more folky feel to them especially on this track with the inclusion of the recorder which makes them sound like cross between Amazing Blondel and Blackmore's Night.
Fields open with a sound that is reminiscent of Mike Oldfield and in fact the liner notes state that the fadeout section of the track contains a section from Oldfield's Incantations. However it is not just in the fadeout that the Oldfield touch can be felt, but rather throughout the whole of the track as Baird and Fraser duet while backed by a delicate arpeggio of guitars and pianos.
Open Doors returns to the folk scene with Sue Fraser leading the band this time round and here her voice seems to have shifted from being operatic, akin to Annie Haslam, to a more delicate and approachable voice such as Nathalie Merchants or Candice Night's.
The first of the two epic tracks on the album is Orion. Together with Shadow Walls, these two tracks make up the bulk of the album. Both tracks are full of the classical progressive rock elements with shades of Genesis, especially the guitar work of Ken Baird which reminds me of Steve Hackett, Jethro Tull in their blending of traditional with rock and of course Mike Oldfield.
This album was a pleasant surprise. Its blend of mysticism, traditional and classical rock have created would in the seventies would have termed as a classical album. If you like Mike Oldfield, especially the early Oldfield, then this album will be a delight. Never taxing on the listener in terms of complexity, but nonetheless still replete with delicate masterful touches, the album suffers from two problems in my opinion. For some reason Shadow Walls is cut abruptly, as if the tape were cut when the track begs to be expanded on, which brings me to the second problem. This is one of the shortest albums of late that I have come across, yet again I should not grumble too much about this because it is better to have a short album filled with excellent material than a longer album half of which is filled with rubbish. An excellent album and a must for those nostalgic for the seventies.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Ezra Winston - Ancient Afternoon
Erza Winston is one of the most influential Italian prog bands of the 1980's. This re-release of their second album, after the debut A Myth of the Chrysavides brings the distinguished listener subtle harmonies, intelligent breaks and romantic soundscapes, combining the likes of Steve Hackett, Mike Oldfield, Genesis and Camel in one blend. The booklet is a thick and stylish fold-out, which contains both the (hand-written) lyrics and the stories behind the music.
The music itself is sometimes almost jazzy, the next moment it
is classical, the next medieval. Very nicely done! For instance the opening of the
first track, where a lonely flute (the Painter?) is answered by the whole band (the
King?). The vocals are used as just
another instrument and are hardly exciting, but also not problematic, they
are mainly used in the way Hackett's solo albums feature vocals, more murmured than sung
out full, as can be heard in the second track, the romantic (despite the title)
Verge Of Suicide. This track balances on the line between a pastorale and
The track Night-Storm is more of a band composition than the previous two, more chamber music-like. It is also a bit darker and somewhat more powerful, without losing subtlety.
The main track, the 26 minute symphonic poem of Ancient Afternoon also combines all previously mentioned style-figures. It is quite chilling in atmosphere, calm yet threatening, despite the classical opening, which reminded me of some wedding track. Wonderful movements flow seamlessly into each other.
The 1996 bonus track Shades of Grey is also very nice, indeed sounding a bit more modern.
In conclusion, this is an album that Hackett fans, fans of early Genesis and even Camel fans will most probably like, proof of this comes from the fact that the Brazilian prog-rock page in their annual poll voted this album as the best re-release of last year, if I remember correctly. The abundant use of acoustic instruments like horns, trumpets and other brass give the album a very symphonic nature.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.