Reviews in this issue:
John Miner - Heaven's Café
It's been some time since I have come across a Rock Opera based on a progressive style of music, and this is the first that I have come across for reviewing purposes. The progressive rock genre has long been associated with Rock Operas, though almost all of these date back to the seventies. Thus the prospect of hearing (and reviewing) a Progressive Rock opera was very enticing.
The two albums have been released on Tributary Records, a progressive rock label based in Las Vegas. The studio version of the album has only been released in limited numbers while the Live version that is more commercially available. Recordings of the live album took place at Flamingo Theater, Las Vegas. Though presenting the same tracklist, the two albums have their differences and after hearing both, I must admit that the live version comes across as being warmer and somewhat more accessible. Though the tracks are the same, the line-up on both albums is very different. The studio version has John Miner performing all instruments while the live version has Art Rock Circus backing him and they are Jon Cornell (bass) and Jon Weisberg (drums) together with Melanie Grimmet on violin. Strangely enough, though labeled as Art Rock Circus, the group is different from that which appears under the same name in A Passage To Clear!
The two albums also have different vocalists performing the various parts in the Rock Opera with the studio version having Julie Meadows (Robin), Ken Erickson (Classical Man), John Miner (Lark), Kelton Manning (Kral), Miché (Guardian Angel) and Mike Lewis (Devil). The live version has Alison Gifford (Robin), Sean Critchfield (Classical Man), Todd Ashmore (Lark), Timothy Burris (Lark), Miché (Guardian Angel) and Josh (Devil/The Dark One).
The storyline is based on the life of the tale's hero as he moves from his hellion days as The Classical Man, all the way till his afterlife destination (Heaven's Cafe). The album starts off with Last Smile Sunshine where he is The Classical Man and musically the track is set in a folk vein with the introduction presenting a pleasant rumbling bass line. A happy track making a great opening for this concept.
Astralography has The Classical Man transformed into Lark and greeted by the androgynous Kral who keeps things in order within Heaven's Cafe. The introductory segment to this piece has its origin in the final part of Last Smile Sunshine and is very early Marillionesque in nature. Astralography on the other hand is a more rocky affair. The studio version seems to benefit from additional guitar work, but for some reason there is a tighter feel to the live version of this track.
Thus start a number of scenes wherein Lark faces a number of characters that have to do with his past life. In Heaven's Cafe, he is introduced to the Guardian Angel, the lovely Robin in Never Alone and finally in Classical Man, he comes face to face with his old self. Heaven's Cafe has a neo-progressive feel with Miché's vocals while Never Alone, also featuring a female vocalist is one of the most delicate tracks on the album. Though not definable as a progressive track, it has a country-rock flavor with hints of Shawn Colvin in it. Classical Man is a more aggressive sounding track. Though slightly repetitive at times, it is one of the more musically complex tracks on the album with the occasional variance in time signature.
The encounter with his old self leaves Lark confused and he realises that he has to continue his journey (Labyrinth) to find his answers at the Tower Of Information. Labyrinth is a variation on the theme of the opening track Last Smile Sunshine, though the tempo is slowed down considerably with singing replaced by narration. The track also has a lengthy instrumental section with the bass guitar taking over the brunt of the melody lines as the guitar is relegated to the creation of sound effects. Tower Of Information is the reflective track of the album with Lark accompanied by both female vocalists who create a series of beautiful vocal harmonies. The live version of this track is augmented by some delicate violin playing.
The short Thus Again sees Lark returning to earth to try everything all over again, once again being a version of the theme of Last Smile Sunshine. The feel is of a British sixties band, something that The Small Faces would have come up with!
The Dark One who has been watching from behind the scenes tries to interfere with Lark's return to earth on Flowing Home, but the images of Robin and his love for her save him as he finds the necessary energy to reunite with her and thus complete the cycle (The Dark). Flowing Home is unfortunately very short as it is one of the most promising (progressively speaking) tracks on the album that could have been developed further while The Dark has an almost King Crimson feel to it with a series of moods created both via utilisation of vocal effects as well as the Fripp-like guitaring. For some reason the live version of this track is split into two sections.
The album and rock Opera come to a close with Robin's Lullaby which has Lark returning to earth as baby Robin. Here all we have is an acoustic guitar and violin (on the live version) playing the bass line that the album started off with accompanied by Robin's narration.
On the whole the albums make interesting listens though the progressive element is slightly sacrificed to be able to reach a wider audience. There are times when one feels that certain sections could have done with more expansion, while at others the sound of the instrumental sections is a bit thin and could have done with some augmentation. However, if you are looking for a musical/Rock opera set in an art-rock/progressive vein, then this outing from John Miner should do just fine.
Conclusion (Studio Version): 6 out of 10.
Conclusion (Live Version): 6.5 out of 10.
Autumn Tears - Promotional Sampler Compilation
Weird stuff. Autumn Tears are a US band that have released three CDs and a mini CD on Dark Symphonies. The band is Ted (arrangements, piano, keyboards, and vocals), Erika (vocals, keyboards), and Jennifer LeeAnna (vocals, vocal arrangements, keyboards), and on a few tracks they get help from James West on percussion.
I have never heard any of the CDs from the Dark Symphonies label (I do have another of their discs to review later, though), but names like Autumn Tears, Novembers Doom, or Rain Fell Within don't make me think of flowers, birds, and a beautiful sunrise. No, this is the dark side of the emotional rainbow. I don't know about the other bands (yet), but as you can see from the line-up, Autumn Tears use a small number of instruments to create their music.
OK, their music. Well, they state, among others, Dead Can Dance, Enya, and classical music as their influences. The result is lots of easy piano, keyboards for string layers, and a lot of falsetto vocals. I make it sound like it's very simple, but the compositions are well-written. I guess it's hard to make compositions like this, in a limited range of possibilities. Without exception, the atmosphere the songs create is either melancholic or plain sad.
However, after a while, this is getting on my nerves. I love sad and melancholic music, but there are more ways to make music with that effect. Whatever emotion can be expressed in different levels, and the almost constant level on this CD is getting boring. Fortunately the percussionist comes along in a couple of songs to stir things up a bit. The neoclassical approach of writing and playing is rather limited. The vocal arrangements are often very nice and very well worked out, but can't hold my attention for long.
It reminds me of a project called Evidence. There's sadness and melancholy in Autumn Tears, but with Evidence it's expressed in a great number of ways. To hear this kind of music, both Autumn Tears and Evidence, you need to be in the right mood (and you probably know which that is) to hear it, but Autumn Tears is a lot less exciting. I'll use this for background music.
The lyrics are overall hard to hear for someone to whom English is a second language. Also on their website I couldn't find the lyrics, so I couldn't check the so-called poetical content of them. If there's a story to tell, I'd like to be able to hear, understand, or at least read it.
The band have written and released a trilogy called Love Poems For Dying Children. The songs on this promo sampler are all taken from those three CDs plus a mini CD. I am not curiuous to hear those. Maybe I just don't understand, but people knowing and liking the Dark Symphonies CDs probably know what this is about.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Krabat - 22
This is weird stuff. At least, for me it is. I know very little about this kind of music, so it's hard to compare. First some names that came to mind when hearing this: Present, Frank Zappa, King Crimson, Blast. Could be RIO (Rock In Opposition) or Art Rock, but I am not familiar enough with those type of music to know all their characteristics. The musical structures are uncommon to say the least. An uncareful ear might think the structure is "variable" or even absent at times.
I think the King Crimson influences are the most obvious. But they're also the very first thing you hear. It's like a form of art that is not pre-defined. The lyrics too, they're more poems than lyrics, and describe thoughts, moods, surroundings. Surreal, almost. The lyrics are another part of the items that make up this music together. Don't expect a lot of KC stuff - it's just an influence.
Krabat are less heavy than Blast, more like Present. Everything between the ranges between minimal and heavy are covered with those bands, but overall Krabat are not as heavy. Less complicated too, I think. Some pieces are building up slowly to create more of an atmosphere.
It's obvious this band is playing the music they like. You don't play this when you want to become well-known. To me, it sometimes sounds like they've been thinking too much about it, but that's less of a problem with this kind of music than with others. This is musician's music, composer's music.
A clear production. This kind of music can't do without that. A bit cold I would say, but that's what the music is like. Like I said, I can't compare this to other CDs in this genre, simply because I don't know enough of it. That's why the rating is purely what I think of it, what the music is doing to me. This CD does not appeal to my musical preferences very much, but it does a little bit in some way. If you want something really progressive, in the vein of King Crimson, complex Zappa, or what I think is RIO, don't hesitate.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Peggy's Leg - Grinilla
Peggy's Leg was a band from Ireland. It seems they were an instant success and still are an important part of the history of Irish rock music, although they recorded only one album (1973). An original pressing of the album can cost up to a thousand pounds, so collectible they surely are.
At first, I thought they were just another progressive blues/rock band from the early Seventies. The opening tune starts very Sixties-like, musically and lyrically. Nothing special, really. But when things start to get rocking, I knew it was more than that. A lot more. The compositions are a lot more progressive than the blues most of their contemporaries based their music on. Although there are no keyboards on the album, there are influences from Yes and ELP. More complex structures and very interesting guitar work during the instrumental parts.
I must say that the lyrical part of the band is not their strongest. Also, I noticed that in many of the songs, the lines are mostly two and a half measures long. Fortunately the lyrics aren't the most important with this kind of music, they're just another part of the whole. I think the parts with lyrics would even stand out on their own without lyrics. You need good composers to accomplish that.
Of course, there's Cream, Blind Faith, Hendrix, and other Sixties' blues/rock bands among their influences. And people reading more of my reviews know I really love that stuff.
Peggy's Leg take it a step further into the progressive direction. More types of music were fused, like jazz, and the melodic emphasis that defines progressive or symphonic music is also used. But mainly because of the foundation of the blues, this appeals to me more than Yes or ELP. More subtleties and feeling.
The second track is a slow and sweet one. But Variations For Huxley, although mainly a quiet song, too, is more progressive again. It reminded me of the first Spirit album. Like playing rock in a melodic jazz way. Into The Nightmare follows in roughly the same way, although it is more progressively structured, and getting a heavier in the middle. Here you hear some classical influences as well in the arrangements. It's the way the whole band sounds - a small orchestra with a very full sound. I really love this!
Just Another Journey is more than just another musical journey. The two guitarists are playing where other prog bands are using a guitarist and keyboard player. Not very heavy, but still powerful. Great drum and bass work in the complex parts, and the interplay of electric and acoustic guitars are great. Very clever bridges and the vocal melodies fit perfectly.
Peggy's Leg were not the first to record Sabre Dance. Not too long ago, I reviewed a 1972 album by Swiss band Spot, who also recorded this. Although the Leg's version is very good, their guitars are less aggressive, which would fit this piece of music better. No doubt Slevin is a great guitar player, but I think it's more the arrangements that make me prefer Spot's version. However, this is still a powerful, driving piece of music, which must have been a live favourite.
The bonus track is a previously unreleased song. It's a live version of Son Of Girilla with great guitar work, and a drum solo. I am not fond of drum solos, especially when the drums sound a bit limited, like it's been played on a small kit. Still, using a lot of techniques and alternating soft and heavy parts (which reminds me of Ian Paice of Deep Purple) it's listenable even to me. But a drum solo for more than half of the ten minutes is too much for me.
This song (well, the song around the drum solo) sounds heavier than any of the songs on the album. A lot more Hendrix in the sound here. The sound quality is less than the studio recordings, but that was to be expected of a live recording this old.
The production is great. I don't know the original album, so I can't compare, but I am sure the LP doesn't sound like this! A great job was done in mastering this for CD. The guitars might have been more up-front for me, but even in the heavier parts, the bass is audible. The booklet contains the lyrics, old photographs, and a band biography. This release has been done with a lot of care.
I didn't know about Peggy's Leg before, and I don't know if I can acknowledge their acclaimed important part in the history of rock, but I really like this album very much, and it will remain in the player a long time! If you like the original album, this CD is a must. If you don't know it, but you like the Sixties' progressive blues bands I mentioned before or the more jazz-progressive bands like Spirit, I recommend this CD to you too!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.