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Reviews in this issue:
Blackmore's Night - Fires At Midnight
Blackmore's Night likes to perform in castles and churches, with their audience dressed in renaissance and medieval clothes. If you listen to their albums, it is easy to understand why: this band is strongly inspired by the music from the Middle Ages...
Blackmore's Night is a project by Richie Blackmore (formerly of Deep Purple and Rainbow). After years of playing hard rock, he radically changed direction. Together with singer Candice Night he formed this new band.
Their music is an interesting mixture of folk, rock and renaissance music. Don't expect no Dubliners party folk here: this is all very moody, mysterious and darkly romantic.
The band's concept worked very well on their two earlier albums, Shadow of The Moon (1997) and Under A Violet Moon (1999). The new album, Fires At Midnight, is the band's third release.
The first song, Written In The Stars starts like a sweet Clannad or Anya-like ballad, but then some doomy heavy guitars and trumpets are introduced and the song becomes more progressive (a bit similar in style to Jethro Tull's Broadsword album).
The Times They Are A Changin', is a more quite and folky cover of the well known Bob Dylan's (also released on single). I Still Remember is a haunting renaissance ballad, with great electric and acoustic guitars and interesting progressive "against-the-beat" drums.
Home Again is a more tradional acoustic folk tune, with flutes and an audience joining the sing along chorus.
Crowning Of The King has a majestic celebrational feel, with medieval trumpets and flutes. Fayre Thee Well is a quiet acoustic guitar piece. The title track, Fires At Midnight, may first seem a mysterious ballad, but it soons turns into a wild and exciting song, with electric bagpipes sounds, and Blackmore rediscovering his old electric six string. Hanging Tree is another good acoustic piece, with beautiful singing by Candice Night.
Storm starts quietly with acoustic guitar, but quickly turns into an exciting and fast song, with oriental influences. The arrangement - with thunderous strings, wild violin and drums - gives it a progressive feeling. One of my favourites on the album!
Mid Winter´s Night, sounds like a Gaelic folk piece. All Because Of You, is an uptime modern sounding poppy folk song, not unlike The Corrs. Waiting Just For You starts like a folky ballad, but halfway the trumpets come in and the pace goes up. Praetorius Courante is an instrumental guitar piece. Benzai-Ten is a slow ballad with some Japanese influences, but not the best piece on the album. Village On The Sand, again is a more progressive track with some Tull influences and some heavy electric guitar. The album concludes with Again Someday, a short folk ballad.
I really enjoyed the first two albums of Blackmore's Night. The songwriting, musicianship and singing: it's all very good. The same goes for this new album, which has a minor change of direction. It's a bit heavier and more electric, has more variations in styles, and even a more "progressive" approach.
Although this is not a true progressive rock band, I am quite sure the moods and arrangements will appeal to most prog listeners. Several songs have the same sound and style as Jethro Tull's Broadsword album (and indeed Ian Anderson did a guest appearance on the first album). If the description above appeals to you, I would strongly recommend you gave this band a listen. This album would be the best start for most prog rock fans.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Census Of Hallucinations - Opus 2
The Stone Premonition crew are back with a new Census Of Hallucinations album, Opus 2. Unlike the first album, this one is more of a complete release, though lacking in individual tracks, it's much more of a continuous effort resulting in an overall more accessible listen.
The lineup on this album is virtually the same as the debut minus the number of guest musicians with the compositions being a collective effort involving all the members of the group. The album opens with the lengthy Spirit Of The Cat, a track which immediately indicates the musical maturity that this line-up has managed to attain despite this being only their second album. Stylistically the group have not betrayed their primary love, and that is space rock. In fact this track is heavy in the keyboard section with a sound that creates an element of ambient sonority. This, coupled with the echo effect on the vocals and guitars cause the track to rush past. In truth there is very little in variety on this track, but the combination of effects used, allow it to pass by without becoming tedious.
Infinite Potentialities starts off with tantric-like chants, and the whole of the track is characterized by a vocalization that verges on the ethnic accompanied by a percussive backdrop. Once again the sound that the group creates is incredibly full, this thanks to their use of keyboards to fill any possible voids. Following the initial and relatively long tracks, the group revert to shorter and more direct tracks. Salvation is a short instrumental while See also involves narration. The ambiguity of the text as well as the humour involved is decisively British, and this is further reaffirmed in the track Merlin...You Left Your Hat. Here the track is characterized by the effects or "rude noises" of Terri B.
Karma and Begin seem to be out of place as they do not feature any of the backbeat that the previous tracks included, yet on the other hand they maintain that spiritual, airy feel that the group utilize as their trademark sound. Retching Retarded Rectors verges on the electronic with the band's characteristic ambiguous narration while The Serpent Race Is On (Again) has the group utilizing elements of musique concrete. This track is also the first time that the band include an number of ear-friendly hooks making this track one of the more readily accessible tracks on the whole of the album. Hearing this track does lead one to feel that Genesis must have also had some form of formative influence on the band.
Light On The Horizon/The New Worried Order is one of the few tracks that is a reminder of the music that the band portrayed on their debut release with the roots firmly entrenched within the space rock genre. This track then merges into Bloodflow which is a three minute instrumental which once again epitomises the world that Census Of Hallucinations inhabits. One immediately thinks of Pink Floyd and various other similar bands whose music consists of building a track out of layer upon layer of effects.
The dominant sound of Beelzebub is the didgeridoo that roams the track which in itself consists of layer upon layer of keyboards. Nightmares on the other hand portrays the eccentric nature of these musicians with its horror-laden narration. The same could be said about Painted Stone and Office Block while the closer Eight Pointed Star shows that the band can draw from the classic rock influences such as David Bowie to come up with a good rocking number.
Census Of Hallucinations have shown that the space rock genre is still very much alive and kicking as they have come up with an album that manages to bring across the zany characters that the band possess within its ranks together with a healthy dose of space rock.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Teru's Symphonia - Fable on the Seven Pillows
Fable on the Seven Pillows is the latest album from Teru's Symphonia, but it is not the newest. In fact, this is a rerelease of Teru's fifth album which was originally released in 1990. The line-up is quite different from 1999's The Gate (which I reviewed last year), but not in essentials. Frontman Terutsugu Hirayama (guitars, keyboards, all compositions) and singer Megumi Tokuhisha appear on both The Gate and Seven Pillows, while Yasushi Inoue (bass), Sunao Hikida (drums) have left the band somewhere in between.
First of all, something about the lyrical content of the album. Unfortunately I have no idea what the story is about. The lyrics provided in the booklet are all in Japanese, a language I unfortunately have not mastered. There's very little info on Teru's Symphonia on the web, and the official page is all in Japanese as well. I can only try to glean some meaning from the songtitles, and these give me the impression that it's a sort of fairy tale, a bit akin to the 1001 nights (not coincidentally also the subject matter of Renaissance's classic album Sheherazade and Other Stories!).
Having now heard two Teru albums, recorded about ten years apart, I think you can definitely speak of a Teru's Symphonia sound. I have no idea what Teru means, but Symphonia gives us some (unnecessary) hints! Because that is one of the defining elements of the band's music. Symphonic and orchestral. Add to this a measured helping of the Japanese preference for bombast (most apparent in the opening of second track The Princess is Gone!) and a sense of happiness, and you basically have the gist of this album.
The name Renaissance crops up from time to time. Not only because of the female vocals (that would be too easy!) but mostly because of the quirky use of orchestral arrangements. Teru however is much less piano oriented, relying more on diverse forms of strings. Electrical guitar is featured, albeit in sparse doses, which is not that strange considering the fact that apart from Hirayama, the album features contributions from two additional guest ivory tinklers!
My only main gripe with the album (and even then it is a minor one) is with Tokuhisha's vocals, which in some places sound a little too childish (for want of a better word) to me, especially in The Princess is Gone!. However, this has not refrained me from once again recommending a Teru album. This band is simply one of the best Japanese bands out there at the moment, and they have been for some time.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Ars Nova - Android Domina
I had not yet reviewed an album of Japans premiere keyboard Goddesses Ars Nova, though I have heard some of their works now and again. Ars Nova are three Japanese woman, who have been around quite a while now, this is their fifth album. Also one of them, Keiko, has played on Ayreon's Flight of the Migrator (Sleeper Awake). I must always think of the surprised description a friend of mine once gave after having seen them coming to stage: "suddenly three small, shy, Japanese women walk onto the stage, disappear behind their instruments, and the next second you get blown away by a wall of sound".
Indeed, the powerful ELP like music is very much of the wall-o-sound type, but of higher quality then the other Jap-synth albums I have reviewed in the past. The album opens with some sexual moaning...hmmm what to think of that? Then the dark synthesiser music starts and doesn't stop until the album ends (it does have variation in mood, don't worry, there are quite some different tunes, ranging from happy, to medieval, to classical, to dark, to ELP).
What is very, very apparent here is the fact that, despite the heavy use of keyboards, it is a band. Where solo projects often fail, because the soloist is actually a master at only the guitar, or the keyboards, and play some uninteresting drum or bass, here all the instruments are handled by skillful hands, and it shows. I firmly believe that if either one would have played one of the other instruments, and did this as a solo album, the album would have been qualified as musac. Now, however, they are able to lay so much craftsmanship into their respective instruments, that it feels like a complex entity, indeed a composition. I won't go into detail about the individual tracks, as I believe this album is a consistent whole. A good album for people who enjoy the better, heavier and faster synthesiser music, created by professionals.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Abacus - Fire Behind Bars
After a lengthy absence from the recording scene, German band Abacus are back with a new album, Fire Behind Bars. Unfortunately I am not familiar with what their style was on their previous albums and thus am unable to make any form of comparison between the Abacus of the past and that of today. What is definite is that the name of Abacus has been assumed by one person only and that is Jürgen Wimpelberg who takes it on himself to play keyboards, guitars, drum programming as well as vocals.
The last album release from the band dates back to the seventies, though there was an attempt to release an album in the early eighties which however fell through. Strangely enough there are no members from the original band lineup and even Klaus Kohlhase, bassist and fulcrum of the band is conspicuously missing. Musically speaking the album presents a set of tracks that for some reason or another sound slightly outdated with a very eighties sound and I would not be surprised if this album features a number of tracks from the ill-fated aborted eighties recordings.
The album opens with Avalanche Part 1 starts off in a very mellow style with a flooded neo-progressive sounding keyboard sound creating the atmosphere. One of the features of this album is the number of vocalists which seem to rotate between one track and another. On this particular track the vocalist possesses a voice reminiscent of Roger Chapman (Family) while the chorus has an almost Floydian touch to it. Nightflight opens with an ELP fanfare, though as the track progresses it seems to acquire more of a GTR touch than a classical seventies feel. In fact this is a feeling that prevails throughout the whole of the album as the music is decisively very keyboard orientated but more in an AOR style rather than a classical progressive rock style.
Rien Ne Vas Plus seems to combine a feeling of the latter day Phil Collins dominated Genesis with the Trevor Horn era Yes. Once again the emphasis is on creating an ear-friendly tune along the lines of bands such as Toto rather than try to break new ground. Don't Look Back starts off with a lengthy keyboard solo that seems to get things going, however all hopes are dashed with the entry of vocals which turn the track into a ballad. The keyboard solo which appears midway through the track does save the day for this particular track, though it fails to set off any sparks. Looking back at the history of the band one cannot but fail to notice that the band's early albums were recorded at the studios of Giorgio Moroder and this could possibly explain the musical direction one finds in the music here. Tracks like Helping-Hand-Song and Loser are more in place alongside musicians such as Don Henley and at times even Meatloaf with the music being too predicable, polished and easy listening for my liking. Granted that such styles are popular, but I do not see what place such styles have in the progressive rock world. At least the title track Fire Behind Bars does have a crescendo feeling to it while the closing Avalanche Part 2 has a bluesy Peter Gunn-style bass line, though once again I fail to find anything overly exciting about it all.
Musically speaking this remains a pleasant album but fails to hit any high notes when looked at from a progressive rock perspective. This album would be better off classified with those of AOR bands such as Toto.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.