Reviews in this issue:
Groves - Branch Upon the Ground
Some of you might know Carl Groves to be one of the creative driving forces behind Salem Hill, a band that released the splendid albums The Robbery of Murder and Not Everybody's Gold. Now Groves brings us his first solo album Branch Upon The Ground on which he wrote on his web site: "I took a scattershot approach to this record, unlike my work with SH. For example, no two tracks sound alike on the album. I've given nods to virtually all of my influences on the 11 tracks. Listening to the album, I think you'll hear a little bit of King's X, Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Kansas, The Beatles, Klaatu, and even The Chieftans."
Listening to the album, it immediately becomes clear what Carl's role is within Salem Hill, since the sound is unmistakingly related to the sound of that band. Carl's enjoyable high vocals, the wonderful melodies and the close-harmony backing vocals that were also present on Not Everybody's Gold can all be found on this album. Still, this is not another Salem Hill album. The songs on Branch Upon a Tree are much more compact than the songs on Salem Hill's last album and are more straightforward, leaning more towards melodic rock that progressive rock. If I would have to make a comparison I would say that this album is to Salem Hill what Neil Morse's first solo album is to Spock's Beard.
Amazingly, Carl's album is as solo as a solo album can get: "I wrote, played, and sang everything on the album. This was done for several reasons...not
the least of which being that I actually enjoy playing other instruments. But I also didn't
want to bother with the time required for others to learn my music. SH's last album took
entirely too long from conception to completion, and Branch Upon the Ground was a reaction to
that. Whereas SH can spend as much time as three months on drum tracks alone, I recorded the
entire album in that span."
First, let me say that I admire Carl's courage to play everything himself. And as a matter of fact, he does a damn fine job. The guy is one of those rare multi-instrumentalists, feeling comfortable with many kinds of instruments. Having said that, I do have to admit that although Carl does an outstanding job on guitar, bass and vocals, some of the songs could have been even better with some more imaginative drum patterns and keyboard support. Still, this is only a very minor complaint and it will only be noticed by the most critical listeners.
As mentioned, most of the songs fall in the melodic rock genre. The songs Pompous Bastards,
Hmm, Hopeless Circles, Unless You Want It To (semi-acoustic with prominent bass), Melt Me
(wonderful processed 'watery' bass) and Walking on Diamonds are all very
accesible, almost 'poppy' songs. Highly enjoyable and featuring wonderful melody lines. Especially
Hopeless Circles, which I consider one of the best tunes on the album, has a wonderful
melody that sticks in your mind all day and a Brian May-like guitar solo to boot.
On most of these songs, Groves reminds me of Chris Rainbow, who used to sing with the Alan Parsons Project and especially his solo album White Trails. At other times however, for instance during Pompous Bastards, which also features a thunderous bass line, I'm reminded of some of the more uptempo songs by Billy Joel.
There are only two songs on the album that don't do much for me. Both are rather agressive and feature distorted vocals: the short A Prayer (which basically is Groves asking God why he doesn't end it all right here and now) and the 'epic' Mine For The Taking. Both songs feature very nice guitar and bass riffs but the vocal melodies don't work for me and I'm not that fond of Carl singing agressively because it doesn't sound that convincing. Also, the three parts of Mine For The Taking don't flow into each other as well as they should and the second part (the instrumental Pathos) is nice and atmospheric but feels rather out of place, sandwiched between the aggressive Path and Pathological.
At the same time, Carl also proves that he can be extremely sensitive and fragile as well, in the beautiful piano-vocal ballad Branch Upon the Ground (a song about the downside of freedom and independence), as well as in the melancholic album closer Over The Hill. It was probably a good decision to put this song at the end of the album, since otherwise it would break up the flow of the CD. Nevertheless, I think that the order of the tracks could have been more optimal. In it's current order, most of the accessible stuff is on the first half of the album, while the 'heavier' stuff is on the second half. This might be asking a lot from the listener.
Last but not least I have to mention the folky Norwegian Ire, which was temporarily considered as a section in Salem Hill's Sweet Hope Suite. It's a very lively folk song full of nice percussion and melodies. It's a shame that the flutes in the song are synths and not authentic, and the song might be just a tad too long. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this track, which would not have been out of place on an album by The Corrs.
The album comes with a simple black & white 4-page booklet (which includes lyrics), but just as with the last Salem Hill album, Groves used the back inlay for credits and interesting liner notes about the individual songs. Lyrically, by the way, Carl seems to have a rather pessimistic view of the world. Fortunately, combined with some more joyfull melodies, he keeps the album from becoming depressive.
It took me a couple of spins to really get into the album, but now - with the execption of the two songs I pointed out - I really enjoy Branch Upon a Tree. The album is a must-have for Salem Hill fans and comes recommended to anybody who likes accessible rock songs with fine melodies.
Carl sells copies of the album through his website for the very reasonable price of $12 (USA) or $14 (outside USA) including postage & packaging.
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10.
Poor Genetic Material - Summerland
Poor Genetic Material are German duo Stefan Glomb (guitars) and Philipp Jaehne (keyboards), two musicians whose musical influences lie firmly within the krautrock/electronic sphere of progressive rock music. Their first two albums, Free To Random Vol. 1 and 2, only featured instrumental sections yet on this album they have changed things around. The duo have enlisted the help of two fellow German musicians, vocalist Philip Griffiths and drummer Ludwig Benedek, both of whom play in Alias Eye.
The analogue introduction to Shooting Psycho immediately made me think that I was about to review another album much in the "new" Radiohead vein, however, Poor Genetic Material play much more accessible material that at times sounds uncannily similar to much of the music that was in vogue in the eighties. The keyboards are the dominant instruments on practically all of the tracks, though one must not detract from Glomb's guitar work which adds just the right amount of interjections.
Wouldism has a strong eighties feel, and acts as a vehicle for Griffiths' vocals. (Genetically he cannot be of poor material as his father is Martin G. of Beggars Opera!). Both Wouldism and Living Desert convey a feeling of calmness as the music remains placid with occasional keyboard sound effects interjected between various musical sections. One can see the Brian Eno and David Sylvan influence on these musicians especially with Jaehne's ability to create an aural landscape that literally fills the whole room.
Just Another Me is the first track that actually has the guitars at the forefront of the music and is a great ballad. The piece also manages to pick up into a nice rocking number towards the end, in a fashion similar to what what The Police liked to do. A Secret Song is possibly the most evocative track on the album. With a keyboard sound that harks of neo-progressive influences, the track is continuously being moulded from one melody to another, with just the chorus linking the individual pieces. At times there seems to be a choir of voices, at others a string ensemble, yet the band never cross beyond the mellow feel that has pervaded the whole of the album.
The instrumental Late shows the capability of the founder musicians of Poor Genetic Material as the two combine guitars and keyboards to give a lush musical palette that soars and sways with the occasional percussive sound. At times there are hints of Pink Floyd at their most dramatic and at others I am reminded of the instrumental works of groups like Camel. The album comes to a close with the title track, Summerland, the lengthiest track on the album clocking in at close to twelve minutes. The initial section of the track is very similar to the tracks such as Shooting Psycho with its melodious hook though it progresses into a lush instrumental which has a very Mike Oldfield-like guitar solo that weaves its way in and out of the strong keyboard environment.
When one considers the strong electronic element that features throughout Poor Genetic Material's music, it seems strange that the album could be considered as being warm and relaxing. The music is soothing and leaves the listener with a feel good feeling. On the other hand, if your definition of progressive rock is solely based on the material played being technical and totally uncommercial, then this album will not do for you. Unfortunately the group are unable to tour because of commitments from Griffiths and Benedek with Alias Eye, though recordings are underway with the release of another album by the quartet.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Cinema - Into The State Of Flux
The Japanese band Cinema was founded by ex-members of Fromage, a band that fans of Japanese prog will probably remember from the eighties. Into The State Of Flux is Cinema's second album after they released their debut, The Seven Stories, in 1997. The band consists of Hiromi Fujimoto (vocals), Tohru Ohta (guitars and synthesizers), Masaki Mashimo (bass and synthesizers), Hirozaku Taniguchi (drums), Yushihiko Kitamura (synthesizers and ocarina) and Tokiko Nakanishi (violin and viola). Special guests on Into The State Of Flux are Yuki Nakamura (violin on track 4), Eri Miki (cello on track 4) and Mariko Itoh (violin arrangements on tracks 2 and 3).
As you may have noticed above, Cinema features some rather unusual instruments like the ocarina, violin, cello and viola, apart from the more traditional ones used in progressive rock. These give the music a somewhat classical flavour at some points, and a more folky atmosphere at others. Another noteworthy point is the fact that female vocalist Fujimoto sings in an opera-like way, but more about that later.
I must say that I really like the cover, a colourful picture of a (astral?) body floating upwards in an evening sky filled with what seem to be hundreds of fireflies. The back of the CD, depicting an intricate shell, and the way the photographs of the band members are presented are much to my liking as well. The text in the booklet is, however, presented very soberly; white letters on a black background.
There are instrumental songs on Into The State Of Flux and ones with vocals; the latter ones both containing lyrics and wordless vocal melodies. The songs are rather versatile in style, sometimes within the tracks themselves. A few songs are ranging on classical (the instrumental, fast acoustic piano piece Flux I, the string ensemble in the intro and end of A Dayfly And A Sunflower and - paradoxically enough - the sequencer loop-based Flux II), whereas others are more new age-like in atmosphere (parts of A Dayfly And A Sunflower, the entirety of the instrumental tracks A Breeze and An Evening Of Calm). As mentioned above, one can also spot some folky influences (parts of A Dayfly And A Sunflower), but there are certainly some more traditional, neo prog-like sections on the CD as well (e.g. parts of Memories Of Amber, the guitar solo in A Dayfly And A Sunflower, and the intro and middle of Color Of Soul).
At the first sound of the vocals, high and quivering, in Memories Of Amber
I cannot help but uttering a heartfelt "O my God!" I had read in the accompanying
fact sheet that the vocals were in opera style, but I had obviously not expected
them to be that opera-like! Knowing that my not being used to this kind of
vocals would probably influence my judgement of the CD quite a bit, I decide to give
it many spins before writing a review about it. The thing is, though, that I just
cannot get used to Fujimoto's vibrato-laden way of singing; it is clearly not my
cup of tea.
The vocals are in Japanese, but that does not mean that people who do not understand Japanese will not know what the lyrics are about. The English translations are printed in the booklet, something which I really appreciate. The lyrics are rather abstract; a stream of impressions that have a somewhat new age-like feeling.
Apart from the typical vocals, Memories Of Amber features a quiet, soundtrack-like atmosphere alternated with some heavy guitar and organ bits and irritating percussion. However, the vocals have been mixed to the front so much that the rest of the instruments almost drown in the background and sadly, that is something which is the case in most non-instrumental songs. Still, the track also contains a very nice and clearly audible guitar solo, which reminds me a bit of PTS, towards the end.
Track 3, A Trick Of Waves, has a more straightforward approach. The keyboards in the intro have a slight IQ flavour, but the rest of the track is rather poppy and reminds me of some eighties hit I cannot put my finger on. The violins give the track a Celtic flavour at the moments they are allowed in the foreground, although the lead guitar sounds a lot like Gary Chandler (Jadis) does.
Confusion has a very nice intro in which the tension is built up gradually by the keyboards and the guitar. It does, however, not follow that line through, but flows into a much quieter part in which Fujimoto's voice sounds a bit like that of The Gathering's Anneke van Giersbergen, only with much more vibrato. The nice guitar solo, on the other hand, seems to be inspired by Steve Rothery's (Marillion) characteristic sound. There is not that much interesting happening in this song apart from that and the intro, though.
The first year of the new millennium was for some reason the year in which many long songs were released. Following in the footsteps of, among others, Spock's Beard (The Great Nothing) and Arena (Moviedrome), Cinema have created a chunk of music of around twenty minutes in that year as well. In 19:48 minutes, the listener is led past a harpsichord-like intro (which reminds me a lot of Arena's short instrumental track Stolen Promise, the other version of Crying For Help VI on The Cry), some very nice John Mitchell-like (Arena) guitar work, semi-acoustic guitars and organ outbursts; but also past a lot of new age atmospheres based on classical-sounding melodies. The rhythm is slow during most of the song and that, plus the fact that there are not that many climaxes in it, is probably why it seems that the song just lasts forever. During most of the track, the music is accompanied by vocals and the stretched opera vocals seem to slow it down even further. In other words, like so many long songs, Color Of Soul would probably have worked much better if it had been somewhat shorter.
There are certainly some very nice moments on this CD, but Fujimoto's opera-style vocals spoil those entirely for me. Still, the tracks that do not feature her voice, the instrumental tracks, do not really do it for me either, since they are a bit too much like new age music to me. They would possibly make great music to relax to, if it were not for the somewhat cheesy choice of instruments and rhythms that I have often spotted on new age records as well. Apart from that, the mix is not very balanced - the vocals are just too much to the front - and the CD is rather slow because of the low speed the rhythm section keeps to during most of the CD. However, if you are someone who does like opera and also has a taste for new age music with some proggy and classical edges, this may be a CD worth checking out for you.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10.
Palace Of Conception - Palace Of Conception
German band Palace Of Conception have been around for almost a decade, but this is their first release on CD. The band however, have been recording throughout their career and in fact this album is a collection of works that spans an eight year period (1992-2000).
The band is composed of a duo of musicians, Stephan Heidemann and Joachim Kunze, who play a variety of instruments on this recording. As can be expected, the passage of time is reflected in the musical influences and output of a band, and eight years is a long time when talking in musical terms. Thus the music found on the album is varied and the band themselves separate the tracks into four distinctive sections.
The first section is called The Stand, inspired by a Stephen King novel and this encompasses the tracks Captain Trips and Vegas. Captain Trips features both musicians playing cat and mouse on the guitars. As the title implies the guitars have that space rock feel, a sensation maintained also on Vegas. This latter track has more of a keyboard influence with some nice Middle Eastern rhythms and sound effects, but on the whole the track is a bit repetitive and becomes somewhat dragging after a while.
Trail Of The Jackal is a story fabricated by the band themselves, involving a mysterious plane crash and a journey through time and space. The tracks associated with this concept are Dead Horse Mesa, Rapido Con El Fusil and Gringo. Dead Horse Mesa is a tribute to North American Indians, a point driven home by the continuous Indian percussive backdrop to the synthesizer dominated instrumental. Rapido Con El Fusil (Fast With The Gun) features acoustic guitar that slowly increase in both rhythm and strength to give the impression of something getting closer, and faster. Starting off with an acoustic piece accompanied by an Oriental sounding piano, Gringo fails to impart that South American feel that, as it's name implies, should have. However, the twangy guitar sound towards the end of the track does manage to evoke a bluesy, almost Western feel. Of particular interest on Trail Of The Jackal concept is the fact that all tracks and instrumentals were composed and played solely by Stephan Heidemann. The same could be said for Deus Ex Machina, the only track that is not part of any of the concepts and which is the most avant-garde (and interesting!) piece of music on the whole of the album. The saxophone contribution from Uli Becker gives the track that special touch, and possibly should act as a guide vis-a-vis the musical direction the band should adopt.
World Apart is based on a graphic novel by E.E.Davis about the end of mankind and features Sarus, Opening and Finish Of A Good Day's War. Sarus with its morbid lyrics, has Martina Römert, who sounds uncannily similar to Sinead O'Connor, on vocals and comes across as one of the more progressive tracks found on the album. The music is very basic with just a distorted guitar and simple percussive effects, however, this goes to prove that one does not require a whole orchestra of instruments to create the effect. World Apart - Opening features an array of synthesisers and tedious drum machine while Finish Off A Good Day's War has Heidemann singing/narrating in a Lou Reed drawl backed by occasional synth-effects and guitar licks.
The final concept is Crossroads, and includes the tracks Rat Prophet, Anthem Of Doom and Last Gas Station before Hell. Rat Prophet was the first track written as a collaboration between Heidemann and Kunze, and has a hard rock feel to it, mainly due to the distorted power chords that the group use. Once again Heidemann resorts to the vocal style used on Finish Off A Good Day's War. The involvement of Kunze also means the introduction of proper drums rather than the thin sounding drum machine and this adds an extra kick to the band's music. Inspired by the poems of Jim Morrison, Anthem Of Doom is rather similar to Rat Prophet, though worth noting is the vocal ending that also has Martina Römert joining in. With Last Gas Station Before Hell the group create a ZZ Top-like sound that has that fusion of synthesizers and heavy blues, though not with the same catchy groove the Texans have.
Most of the album is instrumental featuring a series of synthesizer solos that at most times become rather tedious. On the other hand when both Keidemann and Kunze collaborate on a particular track together, the music, as the sound, takes a new twist that auger well for the future. Unfortunately the album itself is too disjointed with a lack of flow between the various concepts that does not allow the listener to truly grasp and appreciate the band's music. Maybe if next time the band had to fully exploit one concept and concentrate on it, the outcome would be more successful.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Jethro Tull - The Very Best Of
Following by two years Jethro Tull's 1999 album j-tull.com, Chrysalis has released a compilation album with the title The Very Best Of Jethro Tull. It's a bit of a mixed blessing. While capturing some of the grandeur of one of the finest bands ever to grace our fair Earth, it adds nothing to raise real interest.
The Very Best Of Jethro Tull features songs from the entire breadth of Tull's career, from This Was (1968) to Roots To Branches (1995). The songs represent the range of Tull recordings from the bluesy beginnings through the superb progressive early seventies, the middle seventies rock and the period following which saw Ian Anderson's boys in a see-saw motion touching various styles and genres, right up to the nineties which are actually underrepresented with Roots to Branches the sole contribution from the last decade. Not all albums are represented and those familiar with the band might miss some personal favourites when examining the above tracklist. (But then isn't that always the case with compilations?)
Ian Anderson was integrally involved with selection of the tracks and the process of updating the material. Besides overall re-mastering from the original tapes (at the Abbey Road Studios), three songs (Too Old to Rock'N'Roll: Too Young to Die, Heavy Horses and Minstrel in the Gallery) have been through a bit of editing. The Aging Flautist also adds some tongue-in-cheek commentary on the inception of this compilation, whilst musing on the value of "best of" albums: "Cash in on the odd hit single and album title track to attract the less than committed-not-quite-a fan...." A revelation that might be seen as coming a bit late considering the earlier number of Tull compilation albums.
The present album benefits both from it's approach in covering a wide range of Tull material and from it's length (over 78 minutes), yet it adds little else. I'd say there's little reason for the Tull fan to buy it besides a desire to complete a collection or the idea that re-mastering equals improvement. Having said that, The Very Best Of Jethro Tull does have strong potential as an introductory album to the world of Jethro Tull. The chosen tracks are overall highly accessible, so this might be a golden opportunity to unleash Tull on your doubting friends at their birthdays!
While The Very Best Of Jethro Tull is easily recommended, I do consider this compilation inferior compared to the 1993 double album The Anniversary Issue: The Best of Jethro Tull. It contains nearly all the songs featured on this latest compilation and quite a few besides. If you're looking for a good introduction to Jethro Tull, that would be a better place to start.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10.