Reviews in this issue:
Tired Tree - The Tired Tree
This (demo) CD by the 23 year old Mattias Holmgren surprised me. In stead of the average mediocre quality these one-man recordings normally have (Holmgren plays all instruments, i.e. vocals keyboards/piano, bass and drums himself!), here is a pretty decent recording, with an artist who knows how to write a decent neo-progressive/AOR track. Since he started out as a drummer, who worked his way up to the more melodic instruments, at least we are not confronted with a drum computer, as is also often the case nowadays. The result is a demo album that should get him a record deal in the near future.
Most of the tracks are in the Jadis/IQ domain (with the emphasis on the first band). Especially the first track immediately triggers thoughts to More Than Meets The Eye (Jadis) and Chandler's vocals, although also the more poprock/hit oriented music of the eighties is visited. A very strong point is the fact that the songs do not sound like collages, but it really seems a band effort, even though played by only one man. The compositions, although fine, present nothing spectacular. They keep on the safe side, nowhere there is a really daring experiment. In that respect, the short length of the album is not a problem, since after 30 minutes I had basically heard enough. Mattias should team up with a couple of soul mates, and bring a bit more spice to his compositions. I do not mean that he should bring more of his metal roots into it, I means work more with accents and climax building, and make the tracks more dynamic in terms of (de)crescendos. Experiment a bit more, you're still young! For instance, the last couple of bars of Leaving Without A Reason hold the promise of a new movement in the track, but instead of pursuing that further, the track stops. The next track Final Chime already is more powerful, and in my opinion better, more rocky than the previous tracks. Listen to Jadis to get an idea of how these tracks are meant.
In summary, a nice debut album of someone with great talent that now should be guided and complemented by a couple of band members. I sincerely believe we haven't heard the last of him yet!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Dice - Dreamland
So here it is, the third studio album from Leipzig prog-rockers Dice. The group however is not new to the scene with their first recording dating to 1979, and musically this is apparent as they fuse elements from the seventies and eighties. the group in fact combine that hard classical rock style together with certain traits such as the ambient sounding keyboards that characterized the neo-progressive rock scene. The group is a quintet with the members being Christian Nóvé (lead vocals, rhythm guitar, programming), Henry Zschelletzschky (keyboards, vocals), Thomas Jäger (guiatr), Dirk Zorn (bass) and Thomas Bunk (drums).
The opening track from The Darkness Of The Sun is also the epic track of the album running at over ten minutes and managing to combine all the elements that make Dice. Admittedly I was not too fond of Nóvé's vocals when I first heard them though with after listening repeatedly to the album, his voice kind of grew on me and began to fit well into the mould of the band's music. The most interesting section of this track, which is mainly within a neo-progressive vein, is the central section which becomes extremely moody and dark with the music reminding me somewhat of Black Sabbath. This because of the bell chimes and dark cemetery-like atmosphere a well as because of Jäger's eerie guitar playing.
Next up is the first of seven Dreamscenes present on the album. Some of them are just short snippets of a tune while others are whole tunes unto themselves. These are spread throughout the album and act more as fillers between the main tracks. The first, The Train To Coma, has an almost Floydian feel to it mainly because of the guitar playing while Nóvé attempts to create that gothic atmosphere that musicians like Type O Negative's Peter Toole so successfully succeed in doing. The Cat Is Crying (Dreamscene II), is a short guitar lick with Linda Brown's voiceover (apparently recorded in 1984 according to the liner notes). Camels In Space (Dreamscene III) has a Latin touch added to the short instrumental, almost Santana-like in nature, while Flight Through My Computer (Dreamscene IV) is a mish-mash of sound effects accompanying Jäger's guitar feedback. Other Candles (Dreamscene V) features acoustic guitar this time with some quirky sounding keyboards while Five Minutes With Geli King (Dreamscene VI) and Midnight Tango (Dreamscene VII) seem to evoke a style that is oft associated with German prog-bands. They feature the voice (or sound effects!) of Geli King while guitars float about in an ambient setting almost as if out of an Ash Ra Tempel album.
Feelings In Dreamland has a rock feel to it though there are certain traits that surprised me. Once again there are a myriad of influences included in the track as the group play a hard rock style with the occasional keyboard lick thrown in. At times they shift gear with the musical weight thrown onto the keyboards and the style changes to one almost similar to that of those eighties electronic bands such as The Cars whilst at others their music sounds like early Marillion.
Here Inside The Universe presents us with more of the same thing as did Feelings In Dreamland, while Under Candlelight shows some diversification from the rest of the tracks with a lengthy Camel-like intro. The track in itself is pleasant with some good guitar work as well as some good vocal harmonies. Black Dreams has that seventies stoner rock feel to it while the remaining I Wanna Know features much of the same as the other tracks.
On the whole, repeated listening has, I must admit, enabled this concept album to grow on me. On the other hand I was none too impressed with the vocals as well as the musical arrangement on the album and thus the album does not figure too high in my ratings.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
A-theta - Seeds Of The Dream
So here we have it, another Japanese band from Musea Records and once again I must admit to being surprised at what this country seems to be producing from within the progressive rock genre. Seeds Of The Dream is the first album for this Japanese band led by Yoko Royama (vocals, keyboards) (Vermilion Sands), Yuko Tsuchiya (keyboards), Kazuhito Kawakami (bass) and Naoyuki Harada (drums). Interestingly all material for the album was written by non-participating member Shizuka Nakata except for the occasional exception. Furthermore the band was aided by various guest musicians such as Masahiro Yamada (keyboards), Junko Minobe (violin), Akihisa Tsuboy (violin) (KBB), Eiji Nishigori (guitar) and Keisuke Al (guitar).
The music presented on his album verges on the mellow with significant classical influences with a similarity to bands such as Renaissance and Solstice. The violin takes center stage on many a tune while Royama's vocals give the album that gliding feel.
Footprints opens the album as Royama sings in English (she alternates between Japanese and English) and immediately shows a resemblance to Annie Haslam. In fact what causes her voice to be endearing is the fact that though high pitched, she manages to retain a certain smoothness rather than enrich the voice as do many Japanese female vocalists, coming to resemble Kate Bush. The track itself moves along a jazz fusion line as instruments each have their individual spots at soloing.
Though The Toy-Airplane has an English title, the vocals are in Japanese, yet they are unobtrusive and in no way do they interfere with the beauty of this track which is one of the highlights of the album. Starting off in a ballad-like fashion, the track picks up with the violin solo as the keyboards catch up and drive the track into a neo-progressive piece of art. An excellent piece of music. Beyond The Wall Of Time verges on the traditional with the addition of the flute within the musical structure, while the track itself remains acoustic.
Mourning For A Falling sees the band returning to a symphonic progressive rock style with the piano taking on a front role thus drawing comparisons with Renaissance while Tasogare No Nakade (Held In The Twilight) has Royama's voice and Minobe's violin complementing each other to perfection. Here the music is a mixture of traditional and jazz as there is a certain amount of the abstract with no definite direction, however the ends all tie up creating a track with interesting influences.
Afterglow is the only instrumental on the album with Royama utilizing her flute in much the same way as would be expected from a classical musician. This contrasts with the way this instrument is often used within rock bands with the breathing and sound changed considerably thus giving the timbre and tone of the instrument a harsher sound. A perfect example would be Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull). In this case the instrumental reminds me of late sixties progressive rock bands that utitlised wood instruments and probably the most famous track from this period would be King Crimson's I Talk to The Wind, which has the great Ian McDonald on flute.
Summer Night Dream has the group returning to an almost traditional stance, and the track sounds very very British. In fact it sounds like a cross between June Tabor and Sandy Denny as the violin of Akihisa Tsuboy weaves in and out of the harp-sounding guitar work and Royama's ethereal voice. The traditionally Celtic tin whistle replaces the flute as a solo instrument on this track, and the solo blends in perfectly with the rest of the tune.
With Izumi: from the dark side, the group cross the channel to infuse a Parisian touch. This comes with an accordion sound as the tune has a waltzy feel to it, yet Royama's voice never veers away from the folk-roots touch. The album comes to a close with Musical Box Of Nostalgia which is the most "symphonic" track the band have on the album. There is a baroque feel to the music with an orchestral arrangement accompanying the vocals on this gentle ballad.
As many know, there are many different subdivisions with the progressive rock genre. Unfortunately many people consider progressive rock to involve a series of lengthy bombastic solos with running keyboards and guitars and the occasional vocal singing about trolls and elves! A-theta dispel this notion with an album that has its fair share of musical diversions, yet never is over pretentious maintaining a constant mellow feel throughout, at times verging on the progressive-folk. An album I'd recommend to those who are looking for something soft yet complex.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Daniel Gauthier - Above The Storm
Though a new name on the international musical scene, Daniel Gauthier is not a newcomer to music. His musical endeavors started in the seventies and included a stint in a Yes cover band called Parallels. Above the Storm is the second album for this multi-instrumentalist on which he plays acoustic guitar, bass, keyboards as well as sings. Helping him out on electric guitar is Gaston Gagnon while Bruno Dubé plays drums.
Having played in a Yes-cover band is an immediate indication as to what musical styles are Gauthier's main influence and one can safely say that this is an album with classical progressive rock with some neo-progressive tendencies.
The album starts off with the title-track, Above The Storm which sets the pace for the rest of the album. Musically I think this is a great album but I am a bit disappointed with both the mixing which has the drums set way back, while Gauthier's vocals have a limited range which can make the tracks at time a bit monotonous. The opening notes have a Mike Oldfield/Vangelis touch though as the track moves on, there is a shift towards a more familiar Yes territory, a feeling conveyed mainly due to the Howe-sounding electric guitar.
Such a feel is maintained even in Empty Space, though this track has some very pleasant time signature changes that create a sense of unexpectedness in the album. Of note is the fact that the keyboards seem to slightly more prominent on this track, though never creating insomuch as an ambient backdrop. Evening Of A New Romance has a lovely bass run. In fact one must say that the bass is the most prominent instrument on the album featuring very high up in the mix, and one must admit that the bass work on the whole album is of very high quality. Great time changes coupled with minor chord structures make this track one of the album highlights.
Quartet Solo is the album instrumental which allows the band members to showcase their musical prowess. The track starts with a Marillion-like cue and is the first time the keyboards actually play a role in creating licks and not just acting as a filler. Though initially pleasant, the track itself features nothing to write home about as it tends to become slightly repetitive after a short while.
The short keyboard Vangelis-like introductory Soft Souvenirs of 184 leads into Real Love which once again sees Gauthier borrowing from classical progressive rock bands such as Yes and in this case Genesis. Apart from the folky acoustic interlude, the track remains a bit bland. Silent Years follows pretty much a similar format to the tracks that have gone by with the bass guitar playing a prominent role within the band and the guitar playing delicate yet effective.
The album highlight is the closing track, Cross The Bridge which runs at close to eighteen minutes. Once again the music follows a classical progressive pattern, though the duration of the track itself allows for exploration of different musical avenues with a variety of fluctuations in time signature as well as melody.
On the whole I was none too impressed with the overall album. There are a variety of good ideas spread over the whole of the album but admittedly, Gauthier's voice fails to appeal to me remaining rather monotonous and lacklustre. The production of the album also leaves me with a bitter taste as Gauthier goes to great lengths to include a live drummer on his compositions, yet the final mix fails to produce a drum sound with a kick, leaving it drab and almost electronic sounding. On the positive side, there are many a fertile idea that leaves room for improvement and hope for the next album.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Fish - Candlelight In The Fog
CD 2 (73.29): Plague Of Ghosts (35.36), Cliche (6.39), The Perception Of Johnny Punter (3.40), intro - The Company Address (6.42), The Company (5.39), Bonus tracks: Hotel Hobbies (4.37), Warm Wet Circles (4.19), That Time Of The Night (6.17)
Since a long time Fish has had the good habit of releasing a double live CD from each of his tours. Apart from the fact that he rereleases many of them a bit too many times (see also the previous review column) I quite like the idea of a 'souvenir' of each tour. It usually gives the fans some good memories and enables Fish some financial security, which he usually doesn't have with the concerts themselves.
For his last tour, promoting his Plague of Ghosts album, Fish has actually released two albums. The soon-to-be released Sashimi, and this one, a limited edition (3000 copies) registration of his 2000 mini-tour in the United States.
During the final part of his European tour in 1999, Fish had been plagued by what he himself calls "the Fog", an unbelievable string of bad-luck, which forced him to cancel some of the concerts. The American mini-tour was set up around guitarist John Wesley's wedding in order to both cover flight and hotel costs as well as to please the American fans some gigs as plans for a previous US-tour had been cancelled in 1999.
However, as Fish elaborately explains in the liner notes, "the Fog" hadn't left him just yet and the night before the first rehearsals he got terribly struck by a virus, forcing him to stay in bed for all three rehearsal days.
After already losing the end of the European tour to a virus, and having no insurance or whatsoever for these gigs, Fish had no other option than to do them in this state, as cancelling would certainly mean the end of his career in the US.
This album is a registration of the third night of the tour, the fanclub gig in Philadelphia. And as Fish already points out in the liner notes, his performance is very, very poor indeed. His voice, suffering from the virus, is worse than ever, which caused him to drop some songs of the setlist and to have plenty of rest in between the songs. So the usual between-song banter has grown to more than 26 minutes of this album and many times it becomes more of a stand-up comedian show than a rock gig.
But all this chatter does create a very relaxed atmosphere, with plenty audience-participation, or, as Fish calls it, group therapy. At times his chatter is quite funny, but after a while it gets utterly boring and makes you skip it for the next track. A shame, as Fish's chatter has always been his best charm on these live recordings, but when making up nearly 20% of the total time, it just gets a bit too much.
The performance of the band itself is a bit better. After a shakey version of Faithhealer and the horrible, overplayed Lucky, it becomes clear that John Wesley has only two types of playing his guitar: heavy and worse. His Heavy Metal style playing works on tracks like Faithhealer, or Brother 52, but is completely out of place on a ballad like Just Good Friends. Hearing his failed Yngwie Malmsteen interpretation go completely out of time here, I can't imagine what posseses Fish to call Wesley "the finest all-round guitarist he every worked with".
But worse than Wesley is backing vocalist Elisabeth Antwi, who barely ever manages to produce the right tone. Her voice is way to low for most of the backing vocals, not to mention her version of the Sam Brown part in Just Good Friends.
The rest of the band plays actually surprisingly well. Tony Turrell, who could barely be heard in the mix at the gigs and had the unthankful task of stepping in fan-favourite Mickey Simmond's shoes isn’t half a bad as you'd expect. His showcase is of course the epic Plague of Ghosts, which he co-wrote, but he also copes pretty well with the older tracks.
Steve Vantsis has been with the band since 1996 and is the veteran of the lot here (as Fish's normal drummer Dave Stewart wasn't able to come to the US). I quite like his warm playing and at least he is high in the mix here, which isn’t always the case live.
Special mention goes out to drummer Mark Prator, who is filling in for Dave Stewart. He's had to learn the set from a tape, and with Fish's absence from the rehearsals this is only his third time with the band and he does a remarkable job here.
It takes the best part of the first hour for the band and Fish to get into shape and after some hick-ups in the Warm Wet Circles trilogy, Tumbledown is the first more or less flawlessly played track of the evening.
The second CD starts with the highlight of Fish's last studio album and it's needless to say that the 35-minute version of the Plague of Ghosts suite is easily the highlight of this album. This is the track the band seems most comfortable to play and even Fish's voice manages to get through, apart from some horrible moaning in the Chocolate Frogs-part.
Especially note-worthy is the ending. Like at the European tour (and on Fish's Issue 30 CD) the band finishes Wake-up Call by introducing the band-members one by one, after which they leave the stage one by one, until Fish is left all by himself, chanting "make it happen, we can make it happen." When Fish finally leaves the audience picks it up and continues singing. And they are still singing when the band returns for the encores, which results in an impromptu full-band reprise of Wake-up Call - classic!
As the last notes of Wake-up Call fade the band starts the mellow tones of crowd-favourite Cliché. The first half of this song is performed excellently, until John Wesley utterly destroys this beautiful ballad with his over-the-top guitarsolo.
His aggressive playing style is more appropriate in the snippet of The Perception of Johnny Punter, which follows Cliché. I never liked the crossover between the two songs, but the bit of Punter they play is played exceptionally well. Maybe because Steve Vantsis takes care of the lead vocals in the chorus.
The last song of the concert (after another 6-minutes blah-blah) is The Company, which was John Wesley's least-favourite song to play during the tour. The original acoustic guitar lines proved too complicated for him, so here too, the overdrive guitar has replaced all subtle notes.
As a bonus the album is filled with three songs from the New York performance, which apparently was far superior to the Philadelphia gig, but recording equipment failed that night. The tracks, Hotel Hobbies, Warm Wet Circles, and That Time of the Night really are superior to the version of the same tracks from the Philly show, present on CD 1. The band plays tighter, Fish's voice is better and even Wesley shows that his private lessons with Marillion-guitarist Steve Rothery weren't completely a waste of time, as he even takes off the overdrive for a couple of minutes during Warm Wet Circles.
To conclude, this is such a bad performance that Fish had better wish that no music journalist will ever get hold of this album. But as Fish explains in the liner notes, the album is certainly not meant as a best-of collection of his career, but more a souvenir of one of his worst, yet bravest performances of his career. The album is actually only interesting for the real fans, and then mainly for the ones that have been to any of the gigs on the American tour.
It is available only through the official merchandise for £14 (£12 for members) and comes with a £2 voucher for your next purchase.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.