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Reviews in this issue:
Oliver Wakeman with Steve Howe - The 3 Ages Of Magick
Oliver Wakeman's keyboard style is very much influenced by his famous dad, Rick Wakeman. At times, the album has the same mood as RW's piano albums, like Heritage Suite and Sea Airs. The electric and acoustic guitars, present in every song, are played by Steve Howe, another Yes member (who also gave some guidance). His playing on this album reminds me of The Grand Scheme of Things.
The album title The 3 Ages of Magick refers to the way magic ("magick") has developed over the centuries: from the mysterious dark ages, to Renaissance science and modern technology.
Oliver categorises his new compositions in classical pieces, Celtic influenced pieces, piano solos, orchestral songs and prog rock pieces.
As for the 13 featured tracks: The first track, Ages of Magick, is a prog rock ouverture-like piece, with several movements, from quiet to exciting, a bit similar in style to Jabberwocky. It has some magical synthesised female voices, great guitar and that typical fast "Wakey" keyboard playing.
Mind Over Matter, is an uptime piece and sounds like it was developed from a jam-session. Musically it's not that strong, maybe the weakest track on the album. Drums sound a bit too digital. Although it's mainly keyboards here, I can hear quite some Steve Howe influences.
The Forgotten King is a gentle, moody piece, with nice interplay from acoustic piano and acoustic guitar.
The Storyteller starts with mysterious syn-vocals and wealthy layers of keyboards. It develops into a dreamlike piece, with some high-pitched electric solo guitar. Pity the track fades out with no real ending.
The Whales Last Dance starts of with a acoustic piano, and some nice celtic "folky" flute playing. The piece gradually builds up strength. Again, this one fades out with no real ending.
Time Between Times is a peaceful, moody piece. After the opening mysterious syn-vocals, the piano takes over, soon followed by a very nice violin. Halfway the music changes to a more progressive or classical sound.
Flight Of The Condor has some nice tempo changes. It starts with flute sounds and acoustic guitar. Then the pace changes. The quicker parts are quite progressive, again with some impressive fast "Wakey" keys and heavy organ. I also quite like the drum and bass accompanyment on this one.
Lutey and the Mermaid is a beautiful piano piece. It's inspired by an old Celtic myth of an fisherman who rescues a mermaid.
Standing Stones is another moody piece, with some very nice bagpipes and flute. Together with the acoustic piano sound, the feeling of solitude is brilliantly put into music.
The Enchanter is a great uptime track in classic prog rock style. Some great classical church organ stuff here! Also some great raw guitar playing from Steve. Lots of very fast Wakey keys, and even a "funny" interlude.
The Healer is a nice, quieter piece in classic style, with acoustic piano, and synthesised strings and trumpets, while Through the Eyes of a Child is a short interlude. Nice piano playing, some violin, and a child's voice talking about "magic".
Hy Breasail, the last track, is the epic of the album. The title refers to the celtic expression for "phantom isle" or "fairy isle". The style is mainly classical music. Nice synth-trumpets are present (not unlike RW's Return To The Centre of The Earth). Also great classic organ sounds, doomy synth-choirs, and a fantastic contribution by Howe on Spanish guitar. Great piece!
I really liked this album! I am not too fond of purely instrumental music, but on this particular album, the synthesised choir and vocal sounds are used in a very tasteful and effective way. The music is diverse and well played. Oliver Wakeman has a good feeling for moods and melody. In most pieces, the music shifts from quiet/slow to forceful/fast, which works out very well. A minor point of criticism: some of the track endings could be better (particularly the tracks that are fading out).
One can argue whether Oliver Wakeman's style is original or not. But of course, a whole generation of keyboard players were inspired by Rick Wakeman. And as Oliver says: "It's not done deliberately; it's just a style I feel comfortable with". To me it's obvious why "maistro" Steve Howe was willing to support him, as Oliver proves to be a very talented musician. I am looking forward to his future projects (and will add 0,5 point to my rating for further encouragement).
I always find it hard to describe instrumental music. And since this is an entirely instrumental album I won't do the track-by-track review you're used to read here at DPRP. I'd also like to take the opportunity here to make my position clear on keyboard-albums: as many prog-fans, I'm a big fan of keyboards, I love the extravaganza of Rick Wakeman's moog-solos and the warm sounds of Tony Bank's mellotron. But there also exists a category of terrible keyboard music, with 'plastic' trumpets, drum-computers, etc. Finally, next to the prog-world there's a world of keyboard-music which tends much more towards relaxation music, often easily labelled as new age or zen-music. The latter category, to be honest, is not my favourite type of music, although I don't have anything against it.
On 3 Ages of Magick Oliver Wakeman - best known for being 'son of' and co-writer of Jabberwocky - visits both worlds described above. There are some quiet songs like the acoustic piano/guitar song The Forgotten King and The Whales Last Dance, with its relaxation elements and some typical prog-songs like the opening track Ages of Magick, which could easily have been featured on the Jabberwocky album. The result of this wider range of styles is a very diverse album.
One mistake Wakeman doesn't make; he's not the only "hey, I can do anything on my keyboard alone" musician on this album. Steve Howe is present on almost half of the tracks with both acoustic and electric guitars. Although his contribution is limited and mainly helps selling the album (let's be honest about that), it certainly adds to several songs, like The Storyteller with its opening combination of choir and acoustic guitars. Dave Wagstaffe (of Landmarq) and Tim Buchanan form a fine rhythm-section that delivers much more melody and subtlety than any drum-computer. The up-beat Mind Over Matter is the proof for this. Wakeman, Buchanan and Wagstaffe are right in balance, with Howe coming in every now and then for an extra accent.
Some Keltic and world music elements are introduced on the album in songs like Flight of the Condor and the Clannad-like Standing Stones by the use of flutes and pipes, played by Tony Dixon in combination with Jo Greenland on violin. Personally I found the combination of these elements with modern keyboards in Flight of the Condor very interesting.
The most 'bare' song on the album is Lutey and the Mermaid, which is played with virtuosity on the piano only. The Enchanter on the other hand, with its prominent church-organ, lovely synth-solos and rhythm-changes probably is one the 'biggest' songs on the album, together with Hy Breasail. This latter track is the longest on the album and the darkest one. Although not every sample-sound (trumpets) is right in place, the great adventure this song is and the Innuendo-like guitar-solo by Howe make up for the short-comings at the beginning.
Listening to this album I was only disappointed one time: The Healer suffers from wrong sounds. Both orchestra-samples and Penny Lane-like trumpet-sound simply don't sound real. This is exactly where keyboard-albums go wrong in my view. Keyboards are at their best when they sound like keyboards. On this album they fortunately do most of the time.
The 3 Ages of Magic is a diverse album with lots of contrasts, sounds and styles. Still, it all comes together in a natural way. There are some great prog-keyboard-tracks like The Enchanter and Ages of Magick, some more relaxed compositions like Time Between Times and The Whales Last Dance. If you like Clannad, Arena's The Cry album or you're into 'new age', you will like the slower songs as well. But even if you don't, there still is much to enjoy in the proggy tracks. Quite frankly, my favourites are in that category: Ages of Magick, Flight of the Condor and The Enchanter.Ratings:
Note: the release of The Hound of the Baskervilles (another collaboration of Oliver Wakeman & Clive Nolan) is scheduled for early 2002.
Evergrey - In Search Of The Truth
Evergrey from Sweden have produced their third album, and a fine one it is. Stylistically, Evergrey is not overly excitable, but within the prog-metal-with-a-touch-of-Goth it is a fine specimen. This, in my opinion is mostly due to the excellent voice of Tom Englund. The man seems to be able to stretch his voice to accommodate all atmospheres, from fierce to gentle. The music itself is good solid prog rock, with a couple of touches of genius here and there, but also parts that could have been made by any other (mostly German) prog metal band. Indeed, it is in the genre of Thoughtsphere, Tomorrow's Eve and GB Arts or the "Teutonic metals" as I call them. Evergrey seems to have quite a following already, as I saw several t-shirts of Evergrey on a recent concert by Ark and Threshold I visited in Helmond.
The description of
the genre fits the whole album, for instance the first three tracks could have been made by any of
the aforementioned bands. Watching the Skies is the best of these three, quite a thrilling prog metal track. Still the album is quite varied, with an excellent piano based ballad
called State of Paralysis, which thrives on the vocal skills of Egelund. This flows into the
powerful The Encounter, where for the first time the rhythmic guitar parts so typical of the
genre are exploited to their max.
Mark Of The Triangle is a varied track, with fast and slow parts. With Dark Waters, the most interesting part of the album starts. Slowly, the album goes more and more towards Fates Warning in style, and the last three tracks are the absolute highlights of the album, with more choir-like singing, and Gothic influences reaching a peak. These tracks represent the best of symphonic metal. Different Worlds, for instance, is a sensitive ballad, with a good composition, which builds up in tension, and then explodes in a fabulous Pink Floyd like slide guitar solo. Played loud, this is music you get absorbed by, fantastic. The same can be said about the last track, which is also wonderful and truly does its job as a conclusion of the album (both musically and lyrically).
Oh, did I mention this is a concept album? Since the promo did not include lyrics, I couldn't quite follow the story, but I bet it is quite interesting. Not all tracks are superb, the first part of the album could not excite me very much, but the last part is really good. If you dig prog metal in general, and the releases of the B-Mind records (the German branch of prog metal) in particular, I am sure you will like this album.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Matching Mole - Smoke Signals
Recorded in Europe during the spring of 1972, this Matching Mole live album gives a small insight into what a MM concert was all about. The line-up for this recording included Robert Wyatt (drums, vocals), Phil Miller (guitar), Bill McKormick (bass) and Dave McRae (electric piano). Thus this concert does not feature Dave Sinclair, the band's original guitarist, but rather Dave McRae who would also be with the band for their second and last album, Little Red Record.
Of further interest is the relative lack of material from the band's first album, 1971's self-titled Matching Mole which was Wyatt's attempt at breaking away from the improvisational material of Soft Machine and return to the structured song. However the presence of the other band members, who came from the Canterbury jazz-rock scene caused the music to shift towards a jazz fusion style. Thus the majority of tracks would appear later on Little Red Record, though in a different presentation.
When one tries to describe the music on such an album, it is virtually impossible to go into the details of each individual track. Instead one can attempt to portray the styles of the various musicians involved, especially when one considers that the whole concert is more or less one whole track. Mention should be made of McRae's playing. Contrary to many progressive rock keyboards, McRae developed his electric piano into an instrument of sound effects that made full use of the stereo sound system. In fact he would have a telling effect on the more experimental keyboardists such as Brian Eno. Of particular interest is the fact that although the latest addition to the MM lineup, six of the ten tracks on the album are his compositions.
As always Robert Wyatt is the unobtrusive drummer who manages to shift beat and create a myriad of complex time signatures without going overboard in his delivery. His use of the cymbals and tom toms towards the end of March Ides I is indeed a pleasure to listen to and also a lesson in drumming, as is the solo on Smoke Rings. Bill MacCormick is constantly scaling on his bass guitar as Phil Miller indulges in some great solo guitar work.
At times the album does tend to become a tad bit too heavy for the listener as the band indulge in a series of improvisations whilst at other times one can sense that the band also have their roots in rock music such as on Nan True's Hole with its heavy distorted sound. Brandy As In Benj also has references alludes to various Caravan tunes within its structure.
The band do try to find a compromise between the abstract nature of their improvisations and the relatively more straightforward progressive rock style and on some tracks such as Smoke Signal, the band manages to incorporate the two styles. However, one senses that the free jazz influences, the very influences that drove Robert Wyatt away from Soft Machine, had started to take over the musical nature of the band and it is no surprise that the band would not survive for much longer.
Due to the fact that Matching Mole had only released two studio albums, material by this great band is relatively limited and thus any new recordings from this band is indeed a welcome and immensely exciting experience. Furthermore when the material is excellently recorded and packaged, as is the case with this album, then one cannot but be thrilled with such an album. On the other hand, this album will only prove appealing to those progressive rock listeners into the jazz-fusion influenced section of the genre and for these particular people, this album is a gem.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Colin Masson - Isle Of Eight
Recorded during 1998/99 at Greenacres Farm in Wiltshire, Isle of Eight is the first solo album from Colin Masson, who is no stranger to the world of progressive rock, being a member of one of the foremost progressive folk-rock bands in circulation, The Morrigan. Regarded as an excellent guitarist as well as a multi-instrumentalist, Masson demonstrates his musical capabilities on this album, which though only containing three tracks, runs at over one hour in duration.
Musically this album resembles in more ways than one the musical output of Mike Oldfield especially with Masson's ability to fuse folk elements, especially Celtic ones, with some great symphonic rock. He is not alone in creating this album as two of the tracks, namely Isle Of Eight and Total Eclipse features the voice of Cathy Alexander while Return To the Northern Wasteland also has Cathy Alexander and Ryan Masson contributing to keyboards and random noises respectively. Apart from that the electric, acoustic, classical and 12 string guitars, bass guitar, recorders, keyboards, percussion, trombone and drum programming are all in the hands of Colin Masson.
As you can expect it is very difficult to try and describe a whole track that runs over twenty minutes in duration, but in synthesis Masson does manage to create masterpieces with his works. The electric guitar is very very similar to that of Mike Oldfield especially when one compares the styles of playing of both guitarists. There is no flurry of notes along the fretboard, but each note is calculated and delayed, giving it the necessary emphasis and importance.
Another similarity is the introduction of various instruments at various sections of the track which play a short tune that is immediately picked up by the guitar and continued from there. Also the common love for folk music, especially what seems to medieval music can be felt throughout the album. At times the music has tinges of Gryphon or Amazing Blondel, not to mention The Morrigan. Cathy Alexander's voice, one of the most beautiful voices in British folk music, further adds to the folk roots feel. Much like Oldfield did with Maggie Reilly, Masson does with Alexander as her voice adds to the depth of the tracks she is present on as well as add to the variety within the track.
Having said that there also times when Masson lets his rock roots take over with his guitar work changing slant (see the introduction of Return To the Northern Wasteland). The use of twin guitar playing, as well as guitar harmonies, similar to Brian May's style of playing, comes as a surprise when compared to the mellow nature of much of the music on the album. On the other hand it makes a great contrast, never straying away from the underlying musical theme of the track while at the same time serving as a bridge between various musical ideas.
On the whole this album is a great album to listen to and should appeal to all those progressive rock listeners who are enamoured of Mike Oldfield's solo output. As I have said there is alot of similarity between Masson and Oldfield, yet at the same time Masson has managed to create three tracks which have their own individual identity, making this album worthy of anybody's collection.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Nice Beaver - On Dry Land
Nice Beaver is a Dutch band which was formed in 1997 by members from Scotty! and For Cryin' Out Loud. On Dry Land is their first album and contains 7 tracks, all of which are over 6 minutes long. I must say that especially the first few songs on it made a very good impression on me already the first time I listened to them. The other tracks seemed to be somewhat less interesting and repeated listening did not change that feeling for me.
The cover is a combination of a New York street scene (some bright yellow cabs driving in the background), a mysterious forest and a "nice" beaver prominently in the foreground. Apart from the lyrics, you can find a photo collage in the booklet with more or less silly pictures of Ferry Zonneveld (drums, percussion, backing vocals), Peter Stel (bass, fretless bass, backing vocals), Erik Groeneweg (lead vocals, keyboards, percussion) and Hans Gerritse (electric and acoustic guitar, lead and backing vocals).
Culley On Bleecker Street (I am not entirely sure what is meant by "culley": it could be a "cully", a pal, but that does not become clear from the lyrics) starts with New York street sounds (honking cars, people on the sidewalk, the typical sound of the siren of an American police car, a pneumatic drill). While those sounds fade out, a wave of keyboards rolls in, followed closely by a combination of drums and bass which sounds remarkably much like the throbbing of a machine. The three instruments build up to a climax, erupting into a fast instrumental part which also features electric guitar. The basic sound of the faster sections of this song remind me very much of IQ around their Subterranea-time, whereas the quieter bits have some strong Genesis vibes (Trick Of The Tail-era). Very nice track with some cool guitar solos and strong bass work.
The lyrics of the second track, Oversight, consist of only two lines of text which seem to be repeated endlessly. This may sound boring, but the music creates such a great, haunting atmosphere, that I did not really consider this a problem; I actually did not notice it at all the first time I heard the song. Apart from a delicious, heavy guitar/bass/drum combination that forms the main structure of the song, there are some more, both fast and slower IQ-ish moments in the middle. The end of the song, on the other hand, is surprisingly jazzy. Great track!
A dark, fluctuating keyboard sound opens the next, equally dark, track, Wintersong. It is soon accompanied by a guitar riff, the sound of which reminds me of the main guitar riff from Van Halen's Ain't Talkin' 'bout Love. The vocals are on the edge of being below Groeneweg's range, and sound a lot like Dave Gahan from Depeche Mode. Around the middle of the track, the vocals switch to the entire opposite. I cannot say I was very thrilled by that switch; high, hoarse on the verge of whining, but still containing emotion. I guess that it is a voice that is like IQ's Pete Nicholls's; you either love it or hate it. The music is very nice, though.
Hope You Don't Mind begins very quietly, with a soft, descending keyboard line and some guitar parts that sound like a mixture between Marillion's Steve Rothery and Pink Floyd's Dave Gilmour (e.g. Comfortably Numb). Very nice! The vocals sometimes seem to be on the verge of being out of tune, though. After an even quieter intermezzo in which especially the use of cymbals and drums bring the intro of Marillion's Bitter Suite (from Misplaced Childhood) to mind, the song changes radically. The guitar becomes distorted and the basic rhythm brings Black Sabbath's Paranoid to mind, whereas the Hammond organ/guitar combination rings a heavy Focus bell (think Hocus Pocus). After a reprise of the beginning and a nicely worked climax played on the faster rhythm, the song ends with a repetition of the Bitter Suite-like part. Not a bad track at all, but I think I would like it a lot more if it were not for the crowd-like backing vocals in the faster section. Apart from them not sounding very English, they give a somewhat messy feeling to the song.
The beginning of IQ's Subterranea (the track) immediately springs to mind at the first notes of Like This. The rest of the song is quite different, though. A great guitar lick that returns several times in the track transforms into a ska-like rhythm after a "hey!" which sounds somewhat out of place. Once again, the lead vocals put me off somewhat, although the bass lines and guitar solo are really nice.
Where The River Runs basically has the same build-up as Like This: pretty quiet verses and faster, heavier choruses. The song contains nice moments, but - maybe because of that likeness - I tend to lose interest after the second verse.
The last track, We Are The Sun is much more interesting, but some of the words are held so long that they sound like (annoying) howls to someone who does not like the basic sound of Groeneweg's vocals. However, the bass lines (often bringing Porcupine Tree's Colin Edwin to mind) and the fast instrumental parts are great. The song builds up to a great, noisy instrumental climax which is also its end. Well, "end"... the actual end consists of some Arabic snake charmer's flute played softly in the background. Its significance eludes me and I think that it would have been better to leave it out.
In conclusion, I think that people who are into contemporary prog with a wink to the 70s (avoiding the much-discussed term "neo prog") should definitely check this band out. Even though I got a bit annoyed by Groeneweg's voice at times, I do not think everybody will feel the same when hearing it. Apart from that, the musicianship demonstrated by the other band members is very good. Therefore, I believe that this band has great potential and I will certainly look out for their next release.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.