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Reviews in this issue:
Grey Lady Down - Star-Crossed
UK proggers Grey Lady Down are proud to present their fourth album. With Mark Robotham (now playing brilliantly with Thieves' Kitchen, see the DPRP review of Argot) replaced by Phill Millichamp, they show that the best neo-prog is still coming from the UK. One of the things to note is the fact that the album contains a couple of very long tracks (around 10 minutes), along with a handful of somewhat shorter ones. This promises something ! The booklet, though nicely done in terms of artwork, does not contain the lyrics and is only four pages, which is a bit of a shame.
The album opens very IQ-like
with Fading Faith. Not that it directly refers to a particular IQ track, it's just
the general feel, the particular synth loops (sometimes reminding of Marillion
as well) and the guitar riffs that remind me of recent IQ. A very strong composition,
with all the chords positioned at the correct place, with a very varied and intricate
result. In my honest opinion, this is of the same level as IQ, which I hold very
high in my esteem. The sound quality however, falls short on this album, the mixing
is not very clear, the sound is a bit muffled. This is a real shame, since it does
downgrade the songs somewhat.
Shattered is more electronically, and for some reason or the other reminded me of Fish gone IQ or something. Strange combination, I know, and it's just a weird thought that went through my mind. Talking of vocalists, Grey Lady Down's vocalist Martin Wilson has a voice not unlike that of John Dexter Jones of Jump (who won a Classic Rock Society award for his vocals... I find Wilson's vocals at least comparable) and he does not sing a single bum note on the album, splendid!
The album's tempo goes down a couple of gears
with As The Breaks Fail for a moment, where the electric guitar sound is not very
effective, the same complaint as most DPRP reviewers had with Fish' Obligatory Ballad
track on Fellini Days. The more powerful middle section has an almost prog metal
feel to it (but I'm afraid these guys couldn't write metal even if they
wanted to ;-). The short synth solo and subsequent guitar have a Landmarq touch to
it, as does the opening sequence of Fallen. The first section has the
feel of an IQ-ballad, which never really impressed me. The same goes for the
first part of this track as well. It proved difficult for me to
pay full attention throughout this long track, apart from the very good and
uptempo heavy middle part where guitar and keyboard duel on a high level with
pounding bass pushing them along. The section
after the victory of the guitar is Camelesque (Lunar Sea
slow section). The ending is again very very IQ, edging towards Subterranea
(The Narrow Margin).
The track flows into New Age Tyranny , a powerful emotion-loaded track.
Sands Of Time looses the complexity of the previous tracks, and seems to be a resting point on the album, with its 12-string guitar and vocal basis. A nice interlude on flute gives this joyful track a bit extra. Much more complex is Trust, which has a rather frantic opening, coming close to Thieves' Kitchen in a way. After that, however, things calm down and the track has a rock ballad feel to it, with a heavy guitar dominated chorus, again edging towards prog metal but not reaching it. The next section of the song featured a more complex rhythmic section with distorted vocals and a Marillionesque keyboard solo, being much more uptempo. With some great breaks and piano work this is a highly interesting section, and probably a treat to see live. The track then slowly builds up to an emotional climax. Fantastic rich sounding ending of this interesting track.
The last track on the album, Crossfire, opens with some very dissonant, almost gunshot-like, guitar chords. The atmosphere of the track is somewhat threatening and dark. A very powerful track, with a bit sudden and strange break in the middle. You can hear the cut&paste action of the master tape here...The track slowly gains more and more speed again and ends with a great guitar solo.
The question is, is Grey Lady Down an IQ clone? The answer must be no, as they do provide a lot of different, original ideas. They do, however, definitely fall in the same category as IQ. As such, the compositions are strong and the individual instruments are up to standards (however, the keyboards are not always equally convincing during solo work). The vocals, in my opinion, are outstanding and suit the music perfectly (though some people might object to the high level of vibrato Wilson uses). All in all, the album contains all the ingredients to get a 'DPRP recommended' tag. I do hope that the next album is better mixed, produced and recorded though, the music deserves that. Hopefully, Grey Lady Down will appear on the Dutch stages soon, since I think they must be able to deliver a great show with this material.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Holy Lamb - Salt of the Earth
It is not often that we receive albums from the Baltics. Now, with Holy Lamb, Latvia has presented itself on the progressive rock scene. Playing a slightly more aggressive version of Camelesque or Genesis-like compositions, the album is quite interesting. The vocals however, as often is the case, are below par. At times this is well compensated by the music, but at other times the vocals can be really annoying, especially in the upper region of the vocal range.
The album consists of three smaller tracks and two epic tracks. The opening track is a bit of a mix in style of Sebastian Hardy/Camel and Marillion. Quite nice prog therefore, but nothing great. The Lingering Dream is simpler, a bit Floydian in construction, but maybe oversimplified. At least, it could not grasp my full attention. Quite a lot better is the first 10+ minute track My Star Untouchable (although the vocals are a true pain here). The composition is based on early Genesis compositions, and the powerful middle section is really worthwhile, starting to sound more and more like Marillion and it even gets more experimental. This track is followed by Rainfall in your Heart, sort of ballad, but not very interesting.
The album closes (well, there is a hidden "bonus" track of 17 minutes silence...) with The Sea, an almost 17 minute piece, with some female vocals, which are also not very brilliant. The opening is a kind of simplified Thieves' Kitchen track, but it has some nice ideas in it, especially in the piano part. The guitar part is not as interesting though. Slowly the track gains momentum and the middle section is quite up tempo and fast, almost ELP like. The track continues for a few minutes more, introducing some more experimental complexities, with lyrics based on the Bible. A relatively nice track, compared to the others.
In general, the CD is relatively well played, but the vocals are not up to standards and the compositions are not tremendously exciting. Not a necessity for the prog fan, but it might be a nice addition to your collection.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Holy Lamb - A Fantastic SeeDee
This album is a Fan (hence fantastic) CD (SeeDee). So far the explanation of the title for the less intellectually gifted among us. It contains a couple of tracks from the 'Salt Of The Earth' album I reviewed above and a couple of older tracks. However, all of them contain something special.
The Intro is just some backward
played voices or something, followed by The Lingering Dream, a nice little
prog track not featured before, with a prominent place for the guitar melody.
Next in line is The Sea. However, it is a different, more stripped version, than
that on 'Salt Of The Earth'. According to the liner notes, the band wanted to come
closer to the way they sound live (no narration, no female voice). In fact I
like this version somewhat better than the one on the studio album, despite
the fact that the female vocals are missing and replaced by the insecure vocals
of the regular singer.
Eternal Winterland is a smoother track, coming from 1994, when the band was still young. In some respects it reminds me a bit of Twelfth Night, but it is much more bare in instrumentation. Crying Eyes Seen Through Ice is a vocal experiment, with a melancholic melody. Dating from 1993, it is the oldest track on the CD. Probably nice as a curiosity for fans, but I personally wasn't too impressed by it. Mikä yö!, a jazzier track, was also released on a Finnish Prog Tribute album. Actually, this is not a bad track at all, reminding me a bit of Finneus Gauge in terms of the complex melodic and rhythmic structure. Also the recording of this track seems superior to the other tracks. The last section is a bit too long and boring with long lingering organ chords though.
Next two live tracks from 'Salt Of The Earth' follow. It is good to hear that they are able to maintain an acceptable level live as well. In fact, the vocals seems a bit stronger here than on the recordings! Rainfall In Your Heart is recorded quite harsh and is not too convincing in the instrumentals. But nice additions to a fan CD, for sure. A weird little rock track ends the album. But no! There is an unlisted bonus track with a choir and stuff at the end of the album. Quite a nice track actually. Why not list it then?
For a fan CD absolutely not bad and it contains nice little curiosities. The band, I think, could sound much stronger with a more secure and powerful vocalist, and better recording/mixing facilities (though I understand that that is something that most bands would like, and costs money). For now, I would encourage them to become a bit more heavy in some respects (and thus go back to your roots?). Most songs would benefit from some more powerful guitar chords, I believe.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Axel Manrico Heilhecker - Fishmoon
Guitarist Heilhecker worked on projects like Holo Syndrome, Sunya Beat, Phonoroid and collaborations with musicians of Ash Ra Tempel. Fishmoon is his first solo album, although on a few tracks he gets a helping hand from Steve Baltes (Sunya Beat, Ashra), producer/composer Helmut Zerlett and Bertil Mark. Unfortunately I am not familiar with Heilhecker's previous work, so I can't compare his solo album to the other stuff on his resume.
Fishmoon is a fully instrumental album, centered around Axel's guitar play, which is accompanied by bass, keyboards and percussion. Many of the rhythms have a rather ethnic and native feel to it, resulting in an atmosphere that can easily be compared to some of Peter Gabriel's world music influenced work. As a matter of fact, tracks like Belle Du Jour could easily have been instrumental versions of tracks by Gabriel.
The twangy slide guitar on some of the tracks reminds me of Eric Clapton's work on Roger Water's Pros and Cons of Hitch-Hiking, while at other times the music brings Clapton's soundtrack for The Edge of Darkness to mind. Another guitarist that comes to mind when listening to the Fishmoon album is Mark Knopfler, probably because of the similarity in feel and sound compared to songs like Dire Strait's Ride Across The River in tracks like One Man Tango. Still, the guitarist of which I'm reminded most is one of my all-time favourites Snowy White since Heilhecker's playing has that same bluesy feel to it (e.g. in Fishmoon Rising/Fishmoon, reminding me of the instrumentals from Snowy's early albums, or in Is, Isn't).
Probably the weirdest track on the album is Been There Done That, which doesn't only
feature sound samples from the 'Moby Dick' and 'The Treasure of Sierra Madre' movies, but a
reworked version of the melody from
Ghostriders in the Sky as well (you know, that 'yippy-ah-yeeeeee ! yippy-ah-yoooooo'
song). A heavy dance-like sequencer and percussion loop accompanies this remarkable mixture.
Elsewhere on the album Heilhecker also uses other samples.
Another interesting track is Last Picture which mixes western and eastern influences. American Zonata, which was cowritten with Baltes, on the other hand mixes modern dance rhythms with Heilhecker's steal guitar, creating a strange blend.
Overall I found the album quite enjoyable. Most of the time the music is atmospheric and soothing and, with the exception of Been There Done This, which falls a bit out of place with the rest of the album, can both be played full volume or as relaxing background music. For those of you who like bluesy instrumental guitar work and world music influences this might be an album to check out !
The booklet is a (rather ugly) simple 4-pager with tracklist and credits. The album will be officially released on the 1st of September.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10.
Thønk - Earth Vision Impact
Swiss band Thønk are a trio of musicians consisting of Marc Grassi (pianos, keyboards), Flavio Mezzodi (drums, percussion) and Fredy Schnyder (bass, guitar). They are Galileo Record's latest signing and with their debut album Earth Vision Impact present to us a totally instrumental album which is rich in classical progressive rock music. Production of the album was entrusted to Pär Lindh with recordings taking place at his own Crimsonic Studios in Sweden.
Musically the album should be of interest to all those proggies who like to listen to keyboard/piano rich instrumentals in the vein of bands such as Emerson Lake & Palmer or Renaissance. In truth, however, the album does not really live up to these expectations as it does tend to become slightly overdone with much of the same ideas being rehashed and represented in a slightly different mode, basically a variation on a theme. The fact that all tracks (except Track 5) were written by Grassi immediately indicate that the brunt of the instrumental solos and runs is taken up by his pianos and keyboards. This tends to become monotonous with the resultant sound of each track pretty much the same throughout.
Having said that one must also add that the band do introduce various interesting themes within their musical structure and their ability to mix classical piano together with a heavy rhythmic background is a refreshing sound which has not been heard too often of late.
The album open with the atmospheric introductory Sulm which starts off as a spacey keyboard piece that has a slow crescendo to drive into Thonkland whose initial sound shows the band trying to rival that of various seventies trios such as Greenslade and the afore-mentioned ELP. Only towards the end of the track is there a slight amount of variation to the track with the inclusion of classical piano that creates a number of runs. This is possibly the biggest problem that this album faces. The limitation of being an instrumental trio, without a fixed guitarist seems to have caused the band to fall into a rut and dwell on various musical ideas for too long a time that the music becomes tedious and repetitive.
Square Root has the band livening things up a bit with even Schynder's bass also making an impact on the solos. Once again the highlight of the track is when Grassi reverts to the classical piano sound that acts as breather to the bombastic organ sound. With Pomme, the band (albeit for a short while) introduce a guitar into their proceeding that only serves to highlight the need for another instrument to provide another way out for the band. The mere sound of the guitar serves as a breather for the listener as it provides a change to the almost atonal sound that the album was providing.
Insharp presents more of the same, though it is also one of the heavier tracks on the album with the band threatening to break into the Dream Theater musical sphere, however, sadly this does not occur. Garden follows a similar theme to Insharp, though I must mention the rhythm, section on this track which slows them to stand out and receive their due recognition. With Ela, in my opinion one of the album highlights, shows Grassi's prowess on the classical piano. Once again I was reminded of the instrumental sections Renaissance used to provide on their albums. The closing Rak has the band returning to a similar structure that characterised most of their album.
With this album Thønk have shown that they possess the musical quality to progress further and present an album of greater diversity. Possibly their problem is that the brunt of the musical ideas seems to be coming form one person only, who is also their keyboardist, which inevitably shifts the balance of the band's instrumentals too far towards the keyboards/piano. With more involvement from the other musicians and possibly also more musical involvement from the other members in the lengthy solos, the band could well break into the sphere of being one of the top instrumental bands around.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.