Reviews in this issue:
For Absent Friends - The Big Room
The first thing that struck me when playing this album for the first time is the fact that FAF (as For Absent Friends is also known) has been drifting away from the sympho scene from their first album/cassette onwards, even though I must admit I am not too intimately familiar with their earlier work. FAF was a household name in the Dutch sympho scene a couple of years ago, but it has been very quiet for quite some time. Now they make a kind of comeback with The Big Room, a pop/AOR album with symphonic elements (note that I do not use the term "progressive"; for a definition of the difference between progressive and symphonic, see the interview with Lana Lane and Erik Norlander where Lana explains the difference).
The CD has definite commercial potential and most tracks could easily be digested by the average pop/rock radio audience. The CD was supposed to be presented recently at a specially organized gig. However, the albums had to come from Germany by courier, and arrive during the gig. Unfortunately, the guy was stuck in traffic, and it became later and later..... After the audience had left, the albums finally arrived.... and did not contain the music. In stead something had gone wrong at the manufacturing side and a post order company data file had been pressed on the shiny silvery disks. So far for a good start!
The opener we can not is not one of the stronger pieces on the
album. It is a compact track, which features only bass and drums during the verses,
which is too bare. The choruses are more powerful and bombastic, but not very varied.
I was not too impressed by this track. The vocals of new singer van Lint are quite
strong, one of the better vocalists I have heard recently.
Silly love song, though highly sentimental, is a very good ballad. Gradually becoming more bombastic and with powerful guitar player, it is a track that sticks in your mind. Giving Up is a mix between Land Of Confusion-type Genesis/Collins and Fish. Quite poppy track, compact and not overly complex.
Things really turn
the wrong way with cameroon, which has nothing to do with sympho or even AOR,
but is just an uninspired pop ballad. The obligatory guitar solo can't save the day
here. The title track is a piece of music I have mixed feelings about. It opens a
bit like eighties IQ (Are You Sitting ...?), with drum machine and some
keyboard sounds over which a rather unimpressive guitar melody is played. The vocals
in the first section seem a bit insecure as well. This gradually grows to the
chorus, which is more bombastic. The highlight of the track is the guitar solo, which
for the first time on the album is a bit more than just plain average, mainly due to
the more driving rhythm section.
One of the examples of the easy-listening tracks is if love, a pure piano-vocal track. I believe that this track could have been much better when the whole band was used, and some interesting instrumental interludes would have been written. The next track, little things, is the depth point of the album, a kind of The Police verse, and a trivial chorus. Welcome to the eighties hit charts. Higher levels is not much better, again reminding me of Phil Collins or Alan Parsons on some of the more poppy Gaudi tracks. Don't hurt me is a bit of an odd track on this album, jazzier, more free in style. A touch of Echolyn here, though not at their level. As a change of style on the album a welcome track, but in composition, and especially tempo (it is quite slow), it is not very impressive. The album ends with the one, maybe the most symphonic track on the album, of the sing-along type, together with the opening track and the title track.
Well, the production of The Big Room is fine, it is well played and sung, but a bit too inexpressive in the compositions. The tracks are more compact pop/rock tracks where the symphonic elements are present, but not clearly. Even though I enjoyed the album as a whole, meaning it is entertaining, FAF have grown too far away from the symphonic world, let alone the progressive scene.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
MZ - Next World Will be Yours
Once again a CD comes my way for reviewing purposes that I find extremely hard to fathom as to how such a band could be actually considered as a progressive rock, or progressive metal (which seems to be the latest buzz word around). Then fact that the band quote classical composers as their inspirations and introduce a healthy dose of keyboards and fast paced melody lines into the music does not automatically make the band progressive.
I remember the eighties when a band which was heavy metal, was simply termed as such without any frills. What has happened? Emargination of heavy metal from the popular charts has seen fit for such a style to be classed with true progressive metal bands such as Dream Theatre.
A run through the inspiration of MZ one also finds bands like Stratovarius, Rhapsody and Yngwie J Malmsteen. All of these three, especially the latter are known for their breed of melodic speed metal that does have a certain classical influence, but dwells mainly on the fact that fast and furious guitar solos tend to impress. This also applies to MZ who track after track belt out one solo after the other with only the occasional breather such as Wrong Souls which has a pleasant keyboard based sound, almost King Diamond-like in nature.
There are times when the band do create an interesting sonoric effect such as on Ultra-Octets with its bombastic keyboard/orchestra accompaniment. However, the overall effect remains rather bland especially when I look at the album from a progressive rock point of view. Don't get me wrong, I like heavy metal, having been bred on the likes of Judas Priest and Michael Schenker Group, however I find no place for such music as this within the pages of a progressive rock website. Sorry guys, wrong website!
Conclusion: 4 out of 10.
New Sun - Expectations
Looking at the catalog number for this CD, I assume this is the band's third album. The band's name is new to me. [In 1998 we reviewed the band's Affects album - Ed.]
The first song tends to set the atmosphere for the album, or at least for my expectations. What an album title... Great riffs in a heavy song, although the bits with vocals are less inventive. The second song is a quiet one, and again the vocals sound a bit limited. That is not necessarily a bad thing, though. In the third song, when the music is going a bit faster, the vocals are really taking the music on. But after that, it goes back to a slow pace with little going on. Not enough going on to maintain my interest at listening level. The song tries again with a few riffs, but it doesn't help. It's not that I don't like slow music - I can listen to Nick Drake all evening. But this doesn't do anything for me.
The longest song on the album is ten minutes, divided into seven parts. A slow start with the vocals that now start to show limits in melodics as well. It's an intro to a long song of course, so let's wait what is to come next. Riffs that sound familiar as well, and are repeated just a few times too often. The heavier section sounds a bit like Rush's YYZ melodies, and could be more interesting if it was taken a step further, but instead it ends. The sections don't have a lot in common, thematically speaking, so it's more patchwork than a real long song. Track 6 also has a bit of Rush, but after a very nice start, pace decreases, and with the speed goes the attention.
And that's it really. A limited number of tricks, riffs, and melodies, with a few creative ideas for melody, but too few to make a full album. The playing is good, though. Nice guitar melodies and good drumming. Vocals are a bit limited in range, and it's a bit tedious. A short album sounding too long is not a good sign. It's a bit like good pop music. Well done, well played, but it doesn't touch me, and leaves me cold. Of course this is not pop music. It's rock, melodic rock with progressive influences, and the musical guests provide some nice extras. But it still lacks to be good music.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Spaced Out - Eponymus II
Eponymous II is the second album from jazz-rock band Spaced Out. The album features a total of nine instrumental tracks with band leader and composer Antoine Fafard on bass, Martin Maheux on drums, Louis Côté on the guitar and Éric St-Jean on keyboards. Musically the band play a technically demanding style of music with some incredible shifts in time signatures making the album a demanding task to fully absorb.
Of course one does try to categorise sounds and styles in order to make necessary comparisons when in reality it is very difficult to actually descriptive styles such as the one Spaced Out portray. Trying to give the band a jazz slant would detract from their obvious rock sound while on the other hand they are too technically demanding and abstract to be able to classify them as a rock band. What is definite is that the dominant instrument is the bass guitar with Fafard executing some glorious runs and solos while Maheux keeps the rhythm going in a mesmerising fashion (check out The Alarm for a fine example of this). Guitars and keyboards, unlike on "normal" albums act more as fillers, though one does get the occasional abstract guitar solo such as on Sever The Seven - Revisited.
One could think of bands such as Mahavishnu Orchestra and Jaco Pastorius' bass playing, but Spaced Out do lack that relatively easy listening, slightly commercial touch that the above mentioned had. On the other hand one could also compare them to Soft Machine and various Canterbury bands in their approach to their music. The repetitivity that one tends to find on certain tracks does lend slightly to the King Crimson approach to music in exploring various rhythms with the utilisation of loops and ambient sounds.
Tracks such as Jamosphere with the inclusion of narration and tenor saxophone tend to help in breaking what can become a relatively monotonous sound, as the bass has a rather narrow range. Tracks like Glassosphere - Part II give the music an almost space-rock like feel with the keyboards given more prominence, though the overall album is based on Fafard's bass runs and rhythms, ably complemented by Maheux' drum playing. The latest news from Spaced Out is that work has already started on the band's third album with a possibility of Fafard doing away with the guitar thus allowing the keyboards to come out more. The musical world will have to wait and see! In the meantime all those who like their music with a heavy rhythmic dose mixed with elements of jazz fusion would do well to listen to Eponymus II.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Maeve of Connacht - Imaginary Tales
Originally this album was send to Mark, but as he decided to leave the team because of other commitments, the album was forwarded to me. This Italian metal album proved quite entertaining, with a commercial undertone, but also quite a symphonic attitude. Never too heavy, never going over the edge, they stay on the powerful, but safe side of progressive metal. I believe they can be compared a bit in style with a softer version of Symphony X. They present quite a nice album, with Hubi Meisel (ex-Dreamscape) doing guest vocals on the entire album (and writing the lyrics). His voice sounds a bit like Tracy Hitchings (!) voice with a masculine touch. It is at times quite hard to imagine this is actually a man. On the other hand: no complaints about the overal quality of the vocals, although the mixing could have been better, the vocals sound a bit muffled.
The instrumentals are in the capable hands of (ex-)Black Jester and Asgard members. I like this style a bit better than the music on Drachenblud, which was more an experiment into old prog.
In case you're wondering about the band's name, here is what I could find: "Táin Bó Cuailnge (The Cattle Raid of Cooley), the great epic of Ireland and the oldest epic in the vernacular in Europe, tells of Cúchulain's single-handed defence of Ulster against the invasion of Queen Maeve (old spelling "Medb", pronounced "mave") of Connacht to steal the Brown Bull of Cooley." So far for the useless info ;-).
The feel of some of the tracks are a bit in the style of the Avantasia album, especially for instance Broken Memory. There are also more intersting tracks, like What Does It Mean?, where metal stomps are interluded with classical tunes, and which is rhythmically much more interesting. However, the general sound is quite bare here, which I also felt with the Asgard album. As you can judge from the length of the tracks, there is plenty of room to let the compositions grow, and most of the time the band succeeds in that. A track like The Sun basically has all one could look for in terms of progressive metal. Power chords, fast driving rhythms, but also intricate chord changes, subtle acoustic guitar and references to classical music. Not all of the tracks are so varied. For instance the third track, Forever, is a redundant ballad.
In summary, the album contains quite entertaining compositions, a good vocalist, but a bare production, and a not too professional feel about it. So it ends up in the not-good-not-bad category.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.