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Reviews in this issue:
Porcupine Tree - Recordings
Recordings is the first of two Porcupine Tree CDs to be released containing rarities and outtakes. Whereas later this year a CD with 'hits' and rarities from the Delerium years (1991-1997) will be released, this CD focusses on the short period Porcupine Tree has been with the Snapper Music label so far (1998-2001, 2 albums). With a double live CD and a new album in the making, there's no reason for Porcupine Tree fans to complain about the quantity of releases. But how about the quality ?
Being a big fan of Steve Wilson's main project, I have a hard time disliking anything the band releases. Not only are their latest two album Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun among my all-time favourites, some of the recent material that was used as B-sides on singles was of high quality as well. The Recordings album - what a daft title ! - consists of two fully new tracks and 7 tracks that (in one form or another) have been released before.
Let's take a little trip back to 1998. When Porcupine Tree started to test some of the new material they had written for the album
that became Stupid Dream with a live audience, they also
played a 15 minute version of Even Less. Initially the band planned to use the first
part of the track as the start and the second half as the ending of the Stupid Dream
album, but eventually only the first half survived the final cut (and has since become a
favourite of the fans). The second half was later released on the
Stranger by the Minute CD single. The version on Recordings, which is not to be
confused with the demo version released on one of the 4 Chords That Made a Million
CD singles, finally combines part 1 and 2 of the studio version in a full-length 14 minute
version. This version includes the middle section where bit by bit the instruments come back
in and a counter-rhythm of bass and drums work towards a climax featuring an additional
vocal section with a melody not present in part 1. This is essential stuff !
Another track that was played live in 1998 but did not make it on Stupid Dream is the instrumental Ambulance Chasing, which appeared on the Piano Lessons CD single. This excellent instrumental, which leans heavily on the Signify period, doesn't only feature great native drumming (giving you the feeling like you're being cooked by cannibals) but also offers a processed sax solo and a bass melody which runs as the thread through the composition.
Disappear and In Fomaldehyde are two excellent tracks that were released on the 4 Chords That Made A Million CD single. Both songs fit very well with the style of the Lightbulb Sun album and could easily have been included on that album (as far as I'm concerned). Great close harmony vocals in the first track and a delicious guitar solo in the second.
A demo version of Oceans Have No Memory appeared on the Piano Lessons 7", but here
it appears in a version that Steve Wilson recorded 7 months after the release of that single
(November 2000). The song is very soothing and atmospheric and reminds me a lot of Albatross
by Fleetwood Mac.
Cure For Optimism is a track that Steve Wilson performed and recorded on his own in July 1999 and appeared on the Shesmovedon CD single. This Steve Wilson solo piece is rather minimalistic, lacking any bass or drums, but quite atmospheric, featuring a synth soundscape opening and vocals, acoustic guitar and echoing piano in the second half. The style leans more towards Sky Moves Sideways/Signify and sounds a bit like an unfinished work in progress. Nice, but not one of the most interesting tracks on the CD.
The fully new tracks that appear on the album are Access Denied and Buying New Soul.
The first one takes a while to get used to as it combines rather un-PT-like uptempo sections, featuring
monotonous piano and distorted vocals, with some very dreamy retro-soundinge sixties-tinged bits. The whole
feels a bit Beatlesque, although I'm also reminded of some of Syd Barrett's
compositions for early Pink Floyd as well.
The 10+ minute Buying New Soul lies somewhere between Russia on Ice and Wake as Gun. It's a fine track in which the main song is sandwiched between two more improvisational bits featuring instruments that sound like contrabass and cello. The basis of the track was recorded on March 15th 2000 in one of the bands improvisation jams. Steve Wilson later remixed it and added vocal overdubs. I was rather surprised that the original improvisation, which was released on the Shesmovedon CD single under the name Untitled is also present on this CD. Since it can be considered an early instrumental version of Buying New Soul the inclusion on this album seems a bit pointless, especially since two other tracks Novak (released on the Shemovedon 7") and Orchidia (released on the 4 Chords ... 7") are missing on the album.
The limited editon album comes in a numbered slipcase and includes a sturdy 12 page booklet including pictures of the band members and notes on the origins of the tracks. Lyrics are sadly missing.
All in all, this is another fine release by Porcupine Tree with material ranging from
interesting (Untitled, Cure for Optimism) to brilliant (Buying New Soul, Ambulance
Chasing, Even Less, In Fomaldehyde). This CD is a must-have for Porcupine Tree fans, though
not the best buy for someone who wants to have a 'first taste' of the band.
The only thing that I find rather annoying is that having previously bought all those CD singles for the extra tracks, this CD not only renders them quite useless, but it also has you paying for some of the same music again ! Talking about skimming the market ....
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10.
Fábio Laguna - All Night Part At Gallamauka's Land
All Night party At Gallamauka's Land is a fully instrumental album composed, arranged, performed and produced by Brazilian musician Fábio Laguna. The only form of "outside" help that he receives on this album is in the guitar work, courtesy of Fernando Pires (Angra).
Unfortunately I have very serious misgivings when an album is totally under the wing of one artist. Musically the album has the artist performing what could best be described as Progressive Metal. Unfortunately the biggest flaw that the album has is that practically every track sound the same as the other. Add to this the fact that the drums are programmed, and no matter how good the production they always have that characteristic giveaway thin sound, the album becomes slightly tedious and monotonous after a short while.
The solos involve a number of keyboard runs, good to listen to at first but deep down the tracks lack that artistic feel that can be conveyed by a single note or a simple melody. Listening to the album over and over again imparts the impression that Laguna feels that the faster the solos and the more condensed they are, the better the whole thing would be, somewhat similar to many guitar wannabe-players from the eighties heavy metal scene.
Notwithstanding this criticism, there are a few sections of the album which tend to impart a good impression. For example on Nad Tein Tacafifa, the track undergoes a sudden shift from the fast and heavy progressive metal to a more melodious and mellow style providing an interesting contrast, an effect used on a few other tracks as well. At times, such as in Zero Hour, one notes that Laguna's compositions have potential with the constant time changes and the duels between guitar and keyboards, however there is always that something missing from the tracks.
The potential from Laguna's compositional viewpoint is there to see but creating an album with programmed drums and without the aid of other musicians, apart from the guitar work, exposes him to too many flaws. If he had a band around which he could promote his ideas, then the overall outcome would be of much greater musical value. Unfortunately there is no website dedicated to this musician, but further queries on how to obtain his album can be done by e-mailing him.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Lunar Chateau - Beyond The Reach Of Dreams
Rarely does one come across a band that has two brothers involved in the proceedings, let alone a band that is entirely composed of three brothers! Such is Lunar Chateau who seven years after their eponymous debut album return with Beyond The Reach of Dreams. The trio consists of Noval Sekulovich (keyboards, lead vocals), Paul Sekulovich (bass guitar, vocals) and Milo Sekulovich (drums).
As can be seen from the line-up of the band, one of the group's primary influences must surely be Emerson, Lake & Palmer and the opening fanfare of Olympus Mons is a testament to this. Not only does the band utilise a number of hooks similar to ELP but also shares the same management as the group in Bruce Pilato/Pilato Entertainment Group. Olympus Mons is the largest volcano in our solar system, located on Mars, and is also the opening track to this album. One of the more positive aspects about Lunar Chateau is that they do not overstay their presence by dwelling too long on various musical topics so that the tune becomes boring and repetitive. It is true that they have two tracks that go beyond the ten minute mark, but even then the tracks are sub-divided into three different sections. Thus the opening instrumental, apart from the initial ELP fanfare, is pleasant and original with some delightful work from all the musicians involved.
Far From Home is the first track that features Novak Sekulovich's vocals. The track is all about the inner strength a person must find to survive a lonely, spiritual journey and due to the nature of the vocals has a very Alan Parsons Project touch. Delicate and straightforward, this track makes a pleasant listen, though has very little of a progressive nature in it and is more of an AOR-rock styled tune, though this should not detract from its appeal. Consequences II, though not purely instrumental has a very sparse vocal section with the main framework of the track based on the instrumental parts. The track itself is based on a theme by Ennio Morricone, taken from the film 'Citta Violenta' that featured Charles Bronson. Though many of the band's reviews have given the band a neo-progressive slant, I feel that their music has much more of a closeness to the sounds of the seventies rather than that of the eighties. One of the main cases for this argument is the sound of the keyboards/organ that is much fuller with more of a organ sound than the synthesizers that are favoured by most neo-progressive bands. The vocal section also evokes memories of Jeff Wayne's War Of The Worlds. Solange In Rio, on the other hand is totally instrumental having more of a jazz-fusion feel to it than the previous tracks. One of the most appealing moments on the album is when Noval Sekulovich shifts to a classical piano sound creating a pleasant mellow effect.
The second half of the album features just two tracks, but both are lengthy tracks which in themselves are subdivided into three sections. First up is the instrumental title track Beyond The Reach Of Dreams which is composed of Sayadina, Eridu and Farewell. The group venture into the musical world of atmospheric moods with a hint of New Age. Sayadina features just atmospheric keyboards coupled with a haunting soaring female voice while Eridu starts off to the sound of surf breaking, but still remains well within the New Age mould. The same goes for Farewell, though this time it features a more of a melody, but still it is only keyboards that one gets to hear on this track.
Zeta Reticuli is the name of a star system that is 37 light years away from Earth and this closing track deals with the presence of extraterrestrial activity throughout man's history. The epic track opens with Overlords that has a similar style to the opening tracks of the album with a clever fusion of neo and classical progressive rock. In The Name Of A Star is dramatically slower and could quite well have been a track unto itself while Encounter is a form of continuation of Overlords featuring a similar musical structure, and a return to the fanfare-like Emerson keyboards.
The album marks a welcome return to the musical scene for Lunar Chateau with an album that is bound to please most fans of progressive rock. On the other hand one of the questions that I ask is that in the space of seven years this band has only come up with a "short" album. Yet again better a short album with quality than a long one that has mediocre tracks just put in to fill in the time. Just don't take seven years for the next one lads!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Land Of Chocolate - Unikorn on the Cob
The Land Of Chocolate story is a bit strange one. The band was formed when drummer Jonn Buzby, after the breakup of Finneus Gauge, wanted to do something like a solo album. He had met with John Jens (Chapman Stick and bass) and Brian O'Neill (guitar), who needed a drummer for their new project. However, surprise, surprise, Buzby did not want to drum! He wanted to play keyboards and sing (so the audience can see his ugly face for a change, as their website puts it). He had already a bucket full of ideas, but they still had to attract a drummer. Enter John Germuga, one of Echolyn's rhythmic geniuses (Jonn, by the way, is the younger brother of Echolyn's key-man Christopher Buzby). This quartet finally formed Land Of Chocolate, a band composed of, and composing in the style of, Echolyn and Finneus Gauge members. Since these are the most obvious references, I will not mention them again in the rest of the review. If for a song no style is mentioned, well, then it's this one! The Echolyn link is re-enforced by Brett Kull, Echolyn's guitar player, co-producing the album.
The album opens with a testimony to the musical inheritance of Buzby in
Musical Findings. A powerful uptempo track with enough tricks and breaks to
keep you hooked for a while and quite a catchy chorus. In the Echolyn tradition
there is quite heavy use of vocal harmonics, though a bit less effective than
in Echolyn. Waiting for the Go is a simpler track, but with a more
elaborate, bit jazzy middle section in which a subtle guitar solo is played,
interrupted by some weird organ and a couple of chorus lines.
A more mystic, calmer sequence of chords opens Double Standard Booth (somebody told me it sounded like a Pulp track, but I can't confirm that as I do not know them). The song then progresses in the now familiar way, with complex rhythms, dissonant chords and vocal harmonics. Buzby in his lyrics, not only in this song but throughout the album, is basically complaining about other people/someone in particular who is not to his liking (cheating, lying, not making contact etc.). Had a hard time recently?
Walk Fast is, contrary to what the title might suggest, one of the
slowest tracks on the album. It has a bit of a jazz-ballad feel to it, with
good subtle solo work of the guitar. Back to business with Upping The Ante.
Complex and uptempo, with a prominent percussion role, the jazz-fusion prog
is rising to one of the local heights. There is a strange keyboard solo in
the middle section, with a kind of artificial brass setting, of which I am
not sure if that really fits in with the rest of the track. Despite that,
it is a good track.
We Love You Lots has this frantic chorus and really fast rhythm, which sticks in your mind for ages, but still it is quite impossible to sing along due to the many different breaks and changes. After this tiring song it is time for a rest, which we get with Broken Record, the first and only melodic, legato, track on the album. The instrumental Unicorn On The Kob is very dark and threatening and reminded me a little bit of Aragon's Rocking Horse in atmosphere. The use of the same quasi-Hammond organ throughout the song is a bit annoying though, a bit more variation in keyboard sounds might have done the track good. But as a composition the track is one of the more accessible tracks on the album and a pleasure to listen to.
Madness strikes at its fullest in Making Friends, the tale of a psychopath, with a lot of weird lyrics mixed through the song, which is song in a particularly strange way. Just read the lyrics on the website! It is a kind of strange humor that makes me laugh each time I hear it. A truly unconventional song, but I like it. Musically, it is not to complex, but it has some nice sudden outbursts. The album ends with Self Control, a more serious song, and a nice one as well. It edges more towards "regular" prog music than the other songs on the album, and could have been on e.g. a Flower Kings album as well (the other tracks are a bit too extreme for that...).
For those of you who appreciate the complex style of Echolyn and Finneus Gauge, this album is a must-have. For those of you not yet familiar with them, I would recommend listening to Echolyn's Cowboy Poems Free (of which the second pressing is available now, and apparently the lyrics in the booklet are readable now). If you can get into that one, then you will definitely want more, and this album is a good one then. All in all, an album made by excellent musicians, good compositions, but for the lovers of complex, a bit jazzy, prog only, as it is not easy to listen to. Buzby is definitely not a wizard on keyboards, he still needs to work a bit on that in order to get some more exciting solos and sounds (especially on the title track).
Summarizing, for those of you who dig the Echolyn-scene,
it is definitely recommended. To use a phrase from the album,
" I don't want to sound like a queer or nothin', but I think
Unicorns are kick-ass! ".
Ordering info at their web site.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Nathan Mahl - Heretik Volume II: The Trial
The second part of the Heretik trilogy from Canadian band Nathan Mahl takes us to The Trial setting. Once again all compositions and arrangements are in the hands of band leader Guy LeBlanc, who interprets a musical style that is relatively bombastic and uncommon in today's musical circles. Of particular interest to all Nathan Mahl fans is that this album also sees a return to the fold of Daniel Lacasse on drums, whilst the remainder of the lineup remains unchanged from Volume I.
The album opens with the Entrance Of The Judges. As the name implies one expects a bombastic and noble piece of music. Thus the fanfare introduction heralding the entry of the judges comes as little surprise. The brunt of the music is borne by the keyboards and synthesizers of LeBlanc who tries to capture the medieval setting with the utilisation of the organ sound. After about six minutes we hear the first contributions from the other band members signaling the beginning of Malleus Maleficarum. Musically little has changed from the style the band presented on Heretik Volume I, in that there is a healthy dosis of instrumental parts with each members being able to contribute to the solos. On the downside it seems that the production is not that clear with the drums sounding very thin and set way back in the mix depriving the music of that added kick that would have added the necessary power and bass when necessary. At times the keyboard solos do seem a bit lengthy and tend to get slightly tedious, but round the corner there is always the rest of the band to intervene and shift the track in a completely different direction.
The instrumental De Praestigiis Daemonum, though of shorter duration, has a much fresher sound than the previous track. Even the production comes across as being brighter while the utilisation of Hammond clearly sends the listener to the glorious days when the Hammond ruled the roots of classical progressive rock bands. The second half of the track sees a shift to synthesizers that catapults the style clearly into the neo-progressive rock field. Without a shadow of doubt this track is possibly the standout track on the album.
Heretik Part IV continues along similar lines as the rest of the album with a stronger emphasis this time being placed on the guitar as a solo instrument, whereas previously the keyboards stood out as the main solo instrument. This is the first track to make a reference to a medieval setting of the story in musical terms. This stands in contrast to Volume I where the music often shifted to a folk-tinged style. Ad Judicium picks up the pace when compared to most of the album, and features a number of time signature changes as well as some delightful duels between guitar and keyboards. This band excels when the the band members seem to be competing with each other whilst playing lengthy solos.
The album comes to a close with Moral Values Part II that seems to be a culmination of musical events. With this track the band have managed to bring together much of the positive notes on the album and gather them under one track. A good underlying melody characterised by some colourful solos make this album a worthy conclusion.
Overall this album is a valid sequel to Volume I, though the opening track sticks out like a sore thumb when compared to the rest of the album. The appeal remains as that of Volume I, and that is a heavy dose of symphonic progressive rock with an accentuation on keyboards. Unfortunately the epic Entrance Of The Judges/Malleus Maleficarum tends to be the main low point of the whole album resulting in this album being of slightly less quality than Volume I.
Look out for Volume III: The Sentence in late 2001.
In Benelux, the CD is distributed by Disque.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.