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Reviews in this issue:
Radiohead - Amnesiac
News of a new Radiohead album always seems to hold all the musical world with abated breath. Possibly one of the most eclectic popular bands on the planet, Radiohead could be considered the most adventurous rock band around today and each new album seems to veer away from the success of its predecessor. Kid A surprised the whole of the musical world with the band's venture into the world of electronica and fans of their earlier music secretly hoped that Amnesiac would be a return to the alternative rock of the The Bends. This however, is not the case! Probably because some of the songs were left-overs from the Kid A sessions.
The opening notes to Packt Like Sardines In A Crushd Tin Box, immediately places the listener into perspective that the band have not abandoned their electronic trip, but instead have expanded on the Kid A venture. In fact Packt could easily have been on the Kid A album with its Aphex Twin beat coupled with Yorke's melancholic and simplistic lyrics.
Pyramid Song is the first track from the album to be released as a single in the UK, and in truth is somewhat of a misleading track when compared to the rest of the album as it does not betray the electronic influences that can be found on the majority of the album. Instead this track has a piano accompanying Thom Yorke coupled with lush Middle Eastern styled string arrangements. Apart from being the first UK single, this track has also been available the longest on the Internet and is also one of the more accessible tracks present on Amnesiac. The track merges with Pulk/Pull Revolving Doors, which could be considered as the antithesis of Pyramid Song. The warm piano style gives way to distorted vocals accompanied by a computerised beat hovers above the speakers. The electronic revolution is still taking place, and seems to be here to stay!
With You And Whose Army? there is the first distinct guitar appearance, but it is still a far cry from the guitar work that characterised the first Radiohead albums. With the passing of each album, Yorke's vocals become more and more unrecognisable and undecipherable, however he never loses the feel that he is a master at conveying. Furthermore this is the first track that has the band playing as a unit, without the electronic/synthesizer influence.
One of the promises that were made prior to the recording and release of this album was that it would be rather more guitar orientated. This is something that does not hit home during the first four tracks, however, I Might Be Wrong is the first track on the album that possesses a distinctive rock sound.The guitar riff is repeated as a loop, something that also was a feature on Kid A with the bass guitar creating the momentum that carries the track forward. Knives Out on the other hand is the most conventional track on the album and is the first (and last) nod by the band in favour of those who yearn for their old alternative rock style. Strangely enough this was not released as the album's first single, yet on the other hand one feels that the band included this track, which undoubtedly seems out of place, as a sign to all their critics that if they want to they could recreate the same sound as The Bends, but instead they want to progress forwards and explore the confines of music.
The Morning Bell/Amnesiac shows how far the band have progressed especially with regards to their production work in the studio. The track in itself is fairly basic. However, the group have augmented it with sounds and vocals that give it that ethereal feel. A piece of music that would have made Brian Wilson proud. Dollars And Cents, on the other hand is one of those tracks that requires a fair amount of listening to. I must admit that the first listen to this track left me with somewhat of a weird feeling and a sense that the track was just a mish-mash of ideas. However repeated listening has led me to consider the track as one of the album masterpieces, especially when one starts to appreciate what is happening in the background with the strings that flow in and out while the layered vocals contrast each other, to eventually merge into one. Dollars And Cents manages to convey both a sense of initial anguish and conflict which eventually leads to calm towards the end of the track.
Radiohead seem to make it a habit of always including a track on their albums that seems to have been added as a filler (e.g: Treefingers). The short Hunting Bears is one such track sounding like an attempt at some bluesy riffs while accompanied by analogue electronic sounds. Another integral part of Radiohead's repertoire is their use of backwards tracks, which on Amnesiac is represented by the track Like Spinning Plates. The ability to create something using this technique and still manage to maintain the overall feel that the whole album is conveying is indeed remarkable and proof of the group's unique creativity. For this track, Thom Yorke recorded his vocals singing the track backwards so that when the track would be reversed, he would sound as if he was singing normally.
The album comes to a close with Life In A Glasshouse, a track that is not entirely new to those who have attended Radiohead concerts as it has oft been used in soundchecks. Furthermore it seems to be the new sound of the new direction the group is heading in. The track itself is a pastiche of a twenties sounding Dixieland band on Prozac together with modern day Radiohead. This track is the album's masterpiece as Jazz lines performed on clarinet, trombone and trumpet race in and out, at times accompanying Yorke, at others filling in between his lines.
It seems that Radiohead have gone and done it again. Releasing two albums within the space of a year has not dented their reputation, nor has it shown a decrease in their musical capabilities. Funnily enough it feels that Amnesiac should have been the natural follow-up album to Ok Computer as it is much more accessible than Kid A and seems to show just enough of the electronic influence that appears on Kid A as well as enough guitar sound to link it to previous albums. On the whole the album is not as ground-breaking as Kid A, and not as fulfilling. True it should appeal to a wider audience, but I feel that the band have exhausted their electronic output and their next excursion would be something completely different.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Millenium - Vocanda
Poland is well known in the civilized world for the occasional prog rock gem it produces. Think of Quidam, think of Abraxas, thing of Collage (Moonshine is by now a prog rock classic!). And also Millenium sure has its moments where it comes close to excellence. Unfortunately, the level is not constantly as high across the album, but all in all it is an album I really enjoyed listening to (I have listened to it for a couple of weeks now). The style ranges for Waters solo, Pink Floyd and Marillion through IQ and Landmarq, so good solid neo-prog. It reminded me in parts of the Guy Manning albums as well.
The album Vocanda is a concept album about Daniel, a flashy yup, whose live is fast in every respect until he crashes his car against some poor tree. While floating between death and live, he is trialed. The verdict is either return to life on earth or eternal suffering in hell. The album opens with a Waters-like acoustic guitar piece with in the background the noise of Daniel starting his car and driving away. The short piece gives already a hint towards the vocal capabilities of the singer, which are quite good. That's a bonus point folks!
The instrumental It Could Have Happened To You! is a good track, but
focussed a bit too long on variations on the same couple of bars. To bad, since
the basic concept and instrumentation is quite alright. I am is one of the
best tracks of the album, even though the synthesizers seem to come from the
80's. But the composition and especially the somehow very familiar verse melody
compensate for that. The instrumental interludes features very good Marillionesque
A visit in hell opens a bit IQ-like, Subterranea, with more complex synths and saxophone playing. The track only speeds up midway through and from there on it has quite some power, but before it lingers a bit too much. A fabulous guitar solo ends the song, with a very good band effort to back it off.
You can almost hear old Marillion in Waltz Vocanda, especially in the keyboard parts, but for the rest this reference is cleverly disguised.
For The Price Of Her Sad Days opens with a nice melancholic piano piece, quickly taken over by acoustic guitar and vocals, with very good backing vocals, reminding me a bit of the way the backings are treated in Waters Pros and Cons. The middle guitar solo is also quite Gilmouresque so the reference to Floyd is quickly made. The female lead vocal later on is also very effective. She almost has a bit of a Country-feel to her voice. Very good track!
Lady Cash Cash however disappoints a bit. It balances a bit on ideas
introduced in the previous part of the album, which makes it sound a bit too boring.
It could have used some very new and fresh ideas. I Would Like To Say
Something also has a familiar ring to it, but I can't really pinpoint
from where, but here too, it lingers a bit too long on the same melodic
Funny is the sudden transition to the uptempo The Purgatory Stop, which combines a kind of prog-folk melody with more metal inspired parts. Here, the balance between melodic flow and breaks is finally reached. The Circles Of Life opens with quiet synth sounds and backing vocals, a bit Oldfield-like maybe. The first part of the track is of the rock ballad type, although very low on guitar and mostly piano and keyboard dominated. The middle section is much more uptempo and features some nice guitar soloing (left speaker guitar 1, answered by another guitar in the right speaker). Bach To Myself part I closes the album in a very calm, moody fashion. The track is most directly compared with nineties Pink Floyd, but the fabulous guitar solo that ends the track is an almost literal reference to the closing guitar solo of Comfortably Numb (so pump up the volume there!).
There are some minor flaws that Millenium needs to overcome. The main ones are on the composition level. Especially the keyboard parts are not overly exciting. Also, most of the songs tend to balance on one or two melodic ideas and there are not very many interesting breaks. On the positive side, most songs do stick in your mind, the guitar solos are excellent and it seems that in these parts the band is at its tightest. Neo-prog lovers may very well give this album a try. The packaging (a double cart board sleeve, in one is the CD, in the other the booklet), reminding of the Dark Side of the Moon LP (where also the light beam, here the bleeps, continue in the inside of the sleeve), is very stylish. Well done! Another point is the high quality of the vocals, both lead and background. But the somewhat meagre compositions at times, force me to give it a grade just below the DPRP recommended level. Take a bit more time to make some more innovative breaks and sections and you're there guys! The instrumental and vocal quality are definitely there!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Air - 10 000 Hz Legend
"We are the synchronizers.......We are electronic performers......we are electronics" Those are the words French duo Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel say on the first track of 10 000 Hz Legend, their follow-up studio album to 1998's successful debut, Moon Safari. What does one expect from this eclectic duo? Their music has remained firmly embedded in the electronic realm with obvious references to bands such as Kraftwerk, Neu! and Tangerine Dream. Of course bands like Pink Floyd cannot be left out of the picture, but the overall album is a dark and mysterious one replete with synthesizers and machine sequencers.
The opening track, Electronic Performers shows that the band have resorted to a darker album than their (major label) debut, but at least on this album they are able to project some of their humour, unlike what happened with the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides. Throbbing beats accompanied by delicate piano while the vocals are slowed down and distorted. The finale offers a pleasant twist with the inclusion of a lush orchestral arrangement. This is classic Air.
How Does It Make You Feel? is traditional Air with whispered vocodered vocals accompanied by an emotionless backing guitar and keyboards. Just as the track seems to falling into a rut, the music suddenly expands with angelic harmonies, very Pink Floyd-like in nature. The warm nature of the harmonies comes to an abrupt ending and the return of the synthesized vocals. This then leads into Radio #1, the first single from the album. Air are NOT a singles band, but they have aptly chosen the most ear-friendly track from the album, and admittedly an addictive album. However the band still retain that seventies throwback with Brigitte Bardot-like narration and a David Bowie (Low-era) meets Roxy Music style.
The Vagabond is possibly the track that has been given most mention in the press, mainly because of the collaboration of Beck together with Air. Laid back, and typically Beck-like the track is more Beck than Air, though the duo add those delicate synthesizer insertions that give it that extra special touch.
With the instrumental Radian, Air return to the dark and harrow music that they had so clearly embodied in The Virgin Suicides. In fact the group reflect this musical style over the course of the next few tracks. Once again this track retains much of that seventies element, similar to what one would have expected in a soundtrack from that era. With Luck And Unhappy, the vocals return. In fact this track poses a duet between Jason Falkner and Lisa Papineau creating a sensual environment accompanied by a basic yet at the same time powerful bass beat.
Sex Born Poison features the vocals of Buffalo Daughter (SuGar & Yumiko) and comes as a contrast to the solid beat that Lucky And Unhappy presented. Yet the track itself, due to the effects and sounds created comes across as being tense and fragile. People In The City is the second track, after Radio #1, that has an obvious Bowie/Berlin reference with that classic organ sound. The track itself is minimalistic in approach as the vocals are kept to a drone-like tone with single drab words used to describe city life. Wonder Milky Bitch on the other hand is one of the few tracks that I felt was a bit of a let down when compared to the rest of the album. There is a return to the Barry White-like vocalisation, as used on the opening track, something which French crooners love to revert to! Though pleasant and placid, the track itself is uneventful and devoid of any major shifts, except for the quirky Jewish harp-like sound effects that give the introduction and the end of the track a Spaghetti Western touch.
Don't Be Light is the last track with vocals on the album and once again features Beck Hansen, though his presence is not as prominent as on The Vagabond. With a string theme that seems to be straight out of a science fiction film, Don't Be Light is one of the more upbeat tracks on the album with distorted guitars and a moving back beat. Most of the track has beck singing just the title, though the conclusion has him narrating a poem and a return to the lush introductory strings. The album itself comes to a conclusion with a track that is possibly all that the fans of Air had been waiting for on this second album. Caramel Prisoner is an instrumental track that manages to bring within itself all the elements that the group utilised on the album ranging from their characteristic analogue synthesizers to the Beach Boy vocal harmonies, acoustic guitars to swirling sound effects. A great way to close an excellent album.
10 000 Hz Legend is an intriguing album and should be of interest to anybody who likes good music that has its hefty dose of electronica. The music has become darker, showing that the soundtrack to The Virgin Suicides was not just another album but an important stepping stone for the band who used it to progress from the feel good nature of Moon Safari. This album has put them on the same pedestal as bands such as Radiohead, in that they are popular bands that are rekindling a strong interest in electronica, something progressive rock discovered over twenty five years ago!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Joelmusicgroup - Six Degrees Of Freedom
Joelmusicgroup is in fact a one man band, namely Joel Maslakowski and Six Degrees Of Freedom is his third independent release. In fact one must admit that one of the main events that the advent of the Internet has brought about is that it has allowed independent artists to reach a wider audience from all over the world. Musically there is nothing innovative recorded on the album, but instead it is a tip of the hat to various classical progressive rock artists, the majority of whom reached their peak in the seventies.
The album opens with Mito 006 and one immediately senses the musical throwback. Maslakowski seems to be influenced by John Wetton, both from his solo exploits as well as form his work with Asia and UK. In fact this is one of the main drawbacks related to this album. Unfortunately Maslakowski does not possess a wide-ranged voice and after a few tracks the vocals tend to become monotonous and tedious. Mito 006 tends to be one of the heavier tracks on the whole of the album, though the music seems slightly strained with the track overstaying its presence. The fact that Maslakowski is working on his own becomes evident on certain longer tracks as one senses that the transition from one instrument to another during solos is a bit jarred.
With Round In Circles, the Wetton influence starts to come to the fore as the track has a distinctive UK (Danger Money era) feel to it and comes replete with plenty of signature changes and uncommonly used chord structuring, though I must admit that a few of the guitar solos sounded slightly off to me! In The Name O' The Father starts off with a different slant to what was presented on previous tracks, in that there is a slight Celtic feel (Jethro Tull influence!), though this promising introduction slowly shifts to a similar style as was presented on previous tracks. Unfortunately the sound becomes slightly muddled and the keyboards too overpowering throughout, but I guess that this is the main drawback of having an album produced independently.
My Inferno is one of the more promising tracks on the album, though it is let down by the production with Maslakowski's voice being lost amongst the guitars and keyboards. Milton's Tales Of Fall maintains the same musical quality as My Inferno while Invisible Man falls well within the UK-influenced niche. Starting with the Holdsworth-like guitar work, coupled with the guitar at times being made to sound like an electric violin. One other thing that affects me negatively is the use of drum machines, especially the synthetic cymbal sound that these create. Once again this is the drawback when an album is created solely by one person, and one must not detract these negative points from the positive creative output of Joel Maslakowski.
Crimson Blues has probably the most misleading title on the whole album. The inclusion of the word Crimson might lead the first time listener to expect a King Crimson-like track. instead the track has a bluesy feel with a nod in the Jimi Hendrix direction, a guitarist who Maslakowski admits to having been of influence. The album comes to a close with Home Free, one of the better tracks on the album. The synthetic drum sound comes to the fore and ruins for me what could have been an interesting introduction, and for the first time on the album the music sounds disjointed and off cue. The ideas, on the other hand are great especially when the track shifts from a laid back melodious stance to a more up-beat rocking number.
Without a shadow of doubt Joel Maslakowski is an artist who possess an incredible musical talent that needs to be exploited. Unfortunately working on his own allows him to be exposed to too many pitfalls. Muddy production, poor drumming and disjointed solos do not help in the evaluation of this album. This guy needs a band around him and without a shadow of doubt this album would have been a masterpiece as he shows that he possesses the ideas. Instead what we get is an album that sounds more like a bootleg copy of some band's demo-tapes.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Nathan Mahl - Heretik Volume 1: Body Of Accusations
The first in a trilogy of albums, Heretik Volume I: Body Of Accusations is the follow-up album by Nathan Mahl to 1998's excellent The Clever Use Of Shadows. The album was meant to be released earlier on in the year, but Guy LeBlanc nowadays is also the keyboard player for prog-legends Camel and the release was delayed due to his touring with the band. The majority of the pieces on the album are instrumental sections, with the vocals being relegated to very short parts of certain tracks. However, whatever this band do, they seem to do very well. The line-up for this album include band leader and composer Guy Le Blanc (keyboards, vocals), Claude Prince (bass), Marc Spénard (guitars) and Alain Bergeron (Drums).
The whole album is written about the trials and tribulations one man has to endure because his beliefs are contrary to that of the system. Though not explicitly said, one could assume that the whole album is set in medieval times with reference made to the time when The Inquisition ruled with an iron hand over most of Europe. In fact the opening When All Was Well is a short instrumental introduction that has a folky yet medieval flavour, comparable to what you would expect from bands like Amazing Blondel, Gryphon or Blackmore's Night. A delicate piece, it mainly involves keyboards and synthesizers, something which occurs throughout the most part of the album.
The folky interlude of When All Was Well leads into the lengthy Heretik Part I which manages to include within it a variety of musical styles ranging from classical progressive symphonic rock to jazz-fusion. Another aspect is the continuous duelling between both keyboards and guitars. The music manages to flit between eras and the group at times sound very seventies in style, with a nod towards the Kansas style of progressive rock, whilst at others the sound of the keyboards is changed to resemble a more or less neo-progressive style of rock. Space is also given to the other band members (bass and drums!) to display their prowess and provide their own individual solo.
Heretik Part II is less complex than Part I, and this shows in the duration of the track. More importance is given to the vocals, and during the vocal sections the music is toned down and the music picks up during the interludes between one vocal section and another where the guitars really let rip and the music gets really turned up. Crimen Excepta starts of with a wonderful introduction that has keyboards and bass playing cat and mouse as they respond each other. Here the music takes a turn to the jazzier side of the band's music, a feat aided by the continuous off beats in Bergeron's drumming. The keyboards play a variation on the theme to When All Was Well, possibly as a contrast between the difficult times our hero is passing through and the times when all was well.
With Heretik Part III, Nathan Mahl assume a stance very similar to Emerson, Lake And Palmer, with the initial section containing some very pleasant vocals that occupy the foreground while the music is not as complex as on most of the other tracks on the album. This holds only for the vocal sections, and with the solos comes the bombastic keyboard playing. This track also shows another side to the band as there's a funky/fusion touch both in the guitar work as well as the keyboards. Carpe Diem closes the album and is in my opinion one of the strongest tracks present. Though running at close to fifteen minutes, it also features the longest set of vocals when compared to the rest of the tracks. For some reason the production on this track does not sound as clear as the rest of the album and in certain areas the vocals become a bit muddled. This is a pity as the track itself is as I have already mentioned one of the standout tracks. It features a different style of music to what we have been presented with as keyboards are replaced with a piano and the solos are relatively slower with the accentuation being more on sustaining the notes rather than running through the solos. Notwithstanding the track in itself does have its momentous moments, but the variations between soft and loud make it a great piece of music.
On the whole Nathan Mahl seem to have moved away from the jazz fusion style that they seemed to have been adopting on their last album and instead have moved more towards the classical symphonic progressive rock that should appeal to most progressive rock listeners. This album is highly recommended to all of you who like your progressive rock with a healthy dose of keyboards. I can't wait for Part II which should be released later on this year.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Note: in The Netherlands the CD is distributed by Disque On-Line.