Reviews in this issue:
Schizophonia - Quaternaire
This debut album by the Swiss group Schizophonia (which was, if I remember well an album by Mike Batt?) already comes from 1998. Apparently, they are only now coming around to market the final product.
The production is the first thing that is striking, on a positive note that is. But then again they have a very experienced engineer in the form of David Richards (Bowie, Queen, ELP, Stones, to name a few ...). The music of the quartet can be described in 2 words: Pink Floyd. They manage to blend the entire Floydian history, from UmmaGumma until The Division Bell into one album. The first track is a long version that has that Division Bell feel. Not too threatening (no Waters), but with fine melodies and guitar work. Then we sink back a couple of years with Elements, which reminded me a bit of the pounding rhythm and structure of Welcome To The Machine, but without the spine-shivering undertone of that track. By the way, I did read some other reviews of the album which compared the Schizophonia tracks with completely different Floyd tracks than me (this one with for instance Sorrow). Of course you should not believe them since I am always right ;-), but it shows how they succeed in creating a Floyd sound without being too obviously a copy. The only disadvantage is the vocals. Although Waters' high pitched vocals are far from perfect, the high notes on this album edge to really out of tune and are not bearable at times. Really a shame, because if the vocals had been better, the album would have gotten a one point higher rating!
Quaternaire itself takes us to the venom of The Wall (or at least it tries to). Not the strongest track on the album. Something is missing, but I can't tell what. I think it is the heartfelt venom of Waters against the deliberate composition ("Ok, now we make a furious song") of Schizophonia. The instrumental Mégalites takes us a bit away from Floyd, and more to Pendragon (subtle difference, but still....) and even Mike Oldfield in style. Danse des ombres takes us back to the days of Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun and Careful With That Axe, Eugene without spacing out too much (but a little bit).
The heartbeat that starts Psyché leaves little to the imagination. L'abime starts with some expimental sounds, going over in a deep single rich synth note, that is prolonged for very long....ergo: Obscured By Clouds. As Mirage did with Camel tracks (spot the Camel track), this album is a treat for Floyd lovers trying to identify which part of which track is inspired by which album. A good track, since some Animals influences can be heard as well, and thus it is combining two of my favourite Floyd albums. Too bad about the vocals, which are particularly annoying in some parts of this track. The album ends with Aquarius, which appears to be Marooned part 2 in every respect. It shows how nice their music is without vocals....
If the vocals would have been better, more Gilmoresque maybe, and perhaps in English in stead of French (although that didn't bother me too much) this album could have deserved a recommended tag for the Floyd lover. Unfortunately, I cannot go this far now. But it is a nice debut.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Holyground - The Works Vol. 1
Tracklist Thundermother: 9 Woman (3:24), 10 Lady (Lay by Me) (3:40), 11 The People Show (3:53), 12 Come On Home (7:31) (full version), 13 Woman In My Life (4:24), 14 Mainline Woman Blues (2:41)
Holyground used to be a record label that released a bunch of albums that are very hard to find. Kissing Spell is a record label re-releasing the old Holyground releases on CD. Well, that's the info I could derive from the not so very clear website. The first releases are two compilation albums called The Works Vol. 1 - Last Thing On My Mind and The Works Vol. 5 - Gagalactica.
As far as I could find out, the Holyground label, or at least the idea behind it, was led by Mike Levon. He recorded musicians, most of which weren't professional musicians. The music is folk, with a touch of folk rock. That's what the booklet says. It's a lot of Bob Dylan (five Bob Dylan songs on Vol. 1) and a load of traditional folk songs. However, what I think of when I hear the term "folk" is Planxty. This is mostly acoustic guitar and vocals, style and atmosphere of scout campfires. Or your average pub where they give the guitar player / singer free beers for playing.
Vol. 5 contains more musicians per recorded song. A full band on most of them, actually. The songs are definitely more interesting because of this, especially when you're listening to all the songs on the CD. The playing is more interesting (guitar and organ and flute), and the songs have some instrumental bits as well. Not enough to my taste, though. The songs remain short stories of folk and a bit of blues structures. Overall, again it's boredom creeping up after a couple of minutes. But on this album too, I miss some spirit, something that grabs the attention. A poor man's Crosby Stills and Nash maybe. A lot of CSN material make me sleepy, too.
The musicians and singers are not bad, though. Especially the Dylan songs - no one sings worse than good ol' Bob. And I must say the recordings sound very good. Amazing that recordings done on a mono track of a two-track recorder can sound so clear. A job well done! Also the booklets; they contain many old photos, most lyrics (why not all?) and some info (why note more?).
The historical relevance of these albums eludes me. Interesting for people wanting to hear early recordings of the people featured here. Nice songs for aforementioned situations, but many of the songs sound so old and tame. Especially the traditional songs, or Dylan tunes, have been played so many times, and these are definitely not the best versions. Only for people that already know the material on these albums and still want it. Nothing new to be found here.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10.
Cruz De Hierro - Cruz De Hierro
Cruz De Hierro from Mexico makes a kind of Nasi Rames prog (a term that only Dutch people will probably understand). What I intend to say is that they merge and use many different styles, from jazz to metal and from folk to fusion into their music. The good thing about it, as with Nasi Rames, is that it is not blended to an unidentifiable pulp but the separate tastes are clearly identifiable in the different bits and pieces. This is their debut album, although the band has been around since 1988 (!). This age definitely shows since the album sounds mature and does not sound like a debut album (with its usual small flaws) at all.
The first track is a good example of their general style. Mostly Dream Theater style
prog metal, they succeed to mix in some parts of pure jazz, and fusion.
The second track, Montezuma's Revenge, is more folky. In fact, it is a lot more
lovely than my personal first encounter with Mr. Moctezuma. When I was travelling
in Bolivia, I probably ate something funny, because the next day, I had to stay
close to a toilet, if you catch my drift. When taking another run for it at a
bus station, I remember a big Aramayan Indian coming out of it, handing me his
personal role of paper, smile big at me and say "Esta Moctezuma's Revenge".
Anyway, this has of course nothing to do with the folky tune on this album.
Benefit of the Doubt is "power prog". Forceful, but no metal, this track once again shows the strength of the rhythm section. The final section features some good guitar melodic structure, Dream Theater style. A Place In Heaven, has a melody not unlike Het Was Een Nacht, from Dutch singer Guus Meeuwis (my God, I never thought I would use that fellow in a review...). Anyway, it is a nice rock ballad. Things get more frantic with the uptempo (read: *fast*) Renaissance, which is bound to become a audience favourite, since here they approach the complexity and compositionally skills of DT quite closely. Well done!
Next a bit of a Floydian part follows with Sounds Of Earth. A darker and more
pounding rhythm sets in, classical/Middle Eastern style, which reminds of Symphony
X. Due to the various rhythmic changes, this track is indeed a kind of
SX meets DT. The Guardian of the Flame opens with a variation on the theme from
Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells II, or so it seems. This track is not
as strong as most of the others due to lack of power in the vocals. As a whole the
vocals are quite all right, but in this particular track, they could have used a
lot more power.
Again a fast piano opening in Leaves By The Road, an indication of the potential of the keyboard player. The rest of the track is weak.Chameleon 177 is more daring and powerful in its opening, bringing some power back. Annoying though that the keyboards feature the main melody which is no less than "Push It" by Salt'n Peppa (yes sir, I know my classics ;-), although I doubt that that was the intention of the band. The middle section features some fine funcky fusion work, pretty cool. The album ends with a 32 second unlisted bonus track.
I believe this is a band that knows how to handle their instruments. This is obviously their strength. Their weakness lies in the compositions. Most of the time they lack the force to convince me. The first and last tracks are quite alright, but they fail to keep up that level, and the very dry mix doesn't help either. Especially the guitar should be much more juicy and powerful. The rhythmic use of the guitar is okay, but the melodic use is not up to the level it should be. Anyway, for not too demanding Dream Theater fans this will be a welcome asset in their collection, I believe.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Scythe - Divorced Land
This is a sad tale. The tale of a truly delightful album, progressive rock in the purest sense, that I will nevertheless not play very often in the future, but will often have set aside on a shelf gathering dust. The music is great and the instrumental performances intense and full of skill, compositions are top-notch. But in the end it largely comes down to a make-or-break deal concerning a single, yet crucial factor. Fact is, I can't appreciate the vocals (which is a mild understatement). An important factor anyway, with a texty album like Divorced Land, vocals are that much more important.
There are four members in this young German band: Thomas Thielen (guitars and vocals), Udo Gerhards (keys), Ingo Roden (bass) and Martin Walter (drums). Scythe plays in the tradition of seventies progressive rock, whilst incorporating many elements from the latterday neo-progressive style. Genesis and King Crimson seem to provide the foundation, the second of which is recognizable in the more challenging instrumental parts, but comparisons to Marillion and IQ lie often more readily at hand. The well structured whole of Divorced Land certainly calls to mind some other great (concept) albums, notably Arena's The Visitor. At respective times, you'll find quite a bit of Steve Rothery in Thielen's guitar performance (am I really here, one step further, denied).
The very antithesis between overall quality and quality of vocals made this album hard to review, so I've taken some time to let it sink in properly. I managed to get my hands on Scythe's demo release Each Others. It turns out Thielen has improved as vocalist since the demo release, but I wonder why they didn't get someone else to fill this position since, vocally, he already proved the weakest link. Repeated listening of Divorced Land mellow the senses, but an unease remains. Having made this point, let's not linger on it, but focus on the strong elements of this release.
It's off to a promising start with outro - a striving after wind. A melodic piano-bass intro leads to expanding musical landscape as the other bandmembers join in and an approaching storm bursts into the room. Though an original composition, this has the feel of an overture.
Thielen's earliest vocal performance in am i really here is his best, bursting with emotion from the sullen to the intensely aggressive, but quality is still below par with the music. There's a long, early-Marillion-esque instrumental section.
On to faded, a convincing bass-drums duet in jazz-tradition, but with a clear and entwining melodic structure. one step further is an engrossing musical tapestry with guitar sort of in countermelody to the rhythm section. Shades of IQ abound throughout, but the various melody, time and style changes also reflects the band's originality, including a sort of carnavelesque middle section in one of the instrumental sections. Vigorous action from drummer Martin Walter and varied keyboard use both contribute to its strength. The multi-layered end vocals are extremely gripping, turning a-capella; but again Thielen's drawbacks as a singer devalue the concept in execution. The strength of the rhythm section is again shown in the weight of the wind, a symphonic Genesis-like track, whether in the jazzy interlude or the rumbling finale, while Udo Gerhards provides strong melodic top layers.
After the short instrumental interlude access, which is described as a variation on the denied themes, it's on to discussed which has its share of organ themes and some vocal tricks, both seemingly out of Genesis. Worth checking out for the impressive use of bariton guitar.
naivety is your typical neo-progressive short instrumental with the sounds of a running train beneath the echoing wail of guitar, which itself is at the centre gently nudged back by a short erupting synth solo.
In run familiar themes return interwoven in new melodies. Some frantic instrumental interplay, which the bandmembers correctly describe as creating a feeling of paranoia. Even the more mellow, jazzy sections retain this feeling of unease, mostly through Ingo Roden's crafty bass play. Guest performer Verena Buchholz provides some additional atmosphere on flute.
Finally, settle down for the seventeen minute long closing epic denied. It features most of the elements that proved strongest in the earlier tracks. A noteworthy set of keyboard variations, strong rhythm on bass and drums, exquisite guitar handling. No free-wheeling here but hypnotic interaction in the best neo-progressive tradition.
A word about the package. Not only does it contain all the lyrics, but it has the bandmembers describing in detail the conception and subsequent structering of each track, which adds a nice and personal touch. Production has improved a lot since the recording of the demo, undoubtedly due to the contract at Galileon Records, while the basic outlines of the songs that featured on both releases has remained to recording of Divorced Land.
Considering my reservations about Thielen's vocals, I've decided to give the album a decent rating nonetheless, since I feel the vocals are really the only thing wrong with this production. If Scythe should rerecord Divorced Land and change only the vocals, this album would get a solid recommendation. I must grant Thomas Thielen that a lot of the vocal parts are quite demanding. My advice to you all is to give this one a try (see above link to Samples) and see if you disagree with me on this crucial point. I hope you prove me wrong, because these promising musicians deserve respect and a growing audience.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.