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Reviews in this issue:
Wolverine - The Window Purpose
After quite a wait since their debut mini-album Fervent Dream, which has received many good critiques around the globe, Wolverine now presents us with what can be called their true full length debut album. My dear, they actually managed to grow into a strong band even before releasing their debut! With lots of performances, amongst which of course the Dutch ProgPower festival, they have developed their own style, and especially vocalist Stefan Zell has matured a lot. The band plays very tight on this album, under the producing supervision of Oliver Philipps and Christian Moos, both of the 90's German prog metal sensation Everon.
Wolverine has taken the wise decision to move into a more prog-metal oriented direction, only using an incidental grunt where it really adds strength to the musical passage at hand. It takes courage and guts to do this, it is much easier to go into the hard metal world. Now, composition and instrumental strengths are paramount. But they succeed very well and a very pleasurable album is the result. Powerful yet mellow, forceful yet agreeable, Wolverine has found balance in their compositions. The most obvious reference is Fates Warning, as on the first mini-album (Wolverine has also participated in a Fates Warning tribute album), but the more complex parts, like for instance the opening bars of Leaving Yesterday are very obviously influenced by Dream Theater. Also, the influence of the German producers duo may be heard: some of the tracks do remind in style of Everon or other German prog metal acts like GB Arts or Tomorrow's Eve. Sometimes even a vague Rush feeling pops up....
The album opens very atmospheric with The End, in which we can hear DPRP's Joakim Jahlmar as Priest. Then, the description of a man's life follows (not too original a concept, but ok), from his youth in My Room and His Cold Touch until death in Release and Post Life. My Room is a clear hybrid between Dream Theater (the forceful Portnoy-like drumming during the guitar solo for instance) and Fates Warning (especially during the vocal parts). A very strong track, but it all becomes even better in what approaches a prog metal lovers orgasm: His Cold Touch. Clocking in at almost ten minutes, this track leads us through an acoustic, almost pop-ballad opening, until the deepest dark yet melodic grunting in the opening of II: A Silent Outside. I think that is the strength of the album: the melody is never lost out of sight. In that respect, this track can rival Pain Of Salvation's The Perfect Element pt I (which to me is one of the absolute best prog metal albums ever made, due to the fact that it is heavy but melodic through and through). In fact, a lot of I: Within These Walls is very reminiscent of Pain Of Salvation.
The oddly titled .... is an acoustic guitar instrumental and the listener can try to regain his or her breath after the energetic last ten minutes. In the opening of Leaving Yesterday was a minor point audible: it contained some noise sparks, which could also be made visible in the Windows Media Player.... a bum note on an otherwise good production! This track brings on another surprise: a female vocalist called Jamina Jansson (unknown to me). In this heavy "love-duet" the two voices go together remarkably well. Towards Lost is one of the heavier tracks, not unlike some early Dream Theater tracks (apart from grunts that is), whereas The Storm Inside comes closer to Fates Warning again and Coma again towards Dream Theater. So they alternate these styles from track to track. Coma, in my opinion, is one of the weaker tracks on the album. It is relatively simple in melody, with a base rhythm around which constantly variations are produced, to the effect where it becomes a bit overdone. Peace is achieved in the not very inspired piano/guitar instrumental Release and in Post Life. A bit of a pity that this way the album goes out like a night candle.
In summary, a strong album that deserves attention. The stunning artwork by Mattias Norén (it seems he becomes better all the time) and excellent production and mixing leave me no choice but to whole-hearted recommend it if you like progressive metal. Don't be put off by the grunts, they only appear in about three tracks and only on Towards Love they are really prominent.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Various Artists - Progressive Ears - Earsongs
Progressive Ears is one of the main progressive rock web sites that one finds on the Internet. As most people know, it takes an amount of money to run a Website and Progressive Ears have decided to help in funding their site by releasing this compilation of material from relatively unknown musicians, all of which are members of the site, which also acts as a promotional tool for the individual artists involved.
What one definitely finds on this album is a myriad of styles, all of which help create an extremely varied compilation. Some material is relatively more accessible than others, but what is definite is that if you are a progressive rock lover, then you are bound to find one or more tracks to your liking here.
The compilation opens with a tracks from The Red Masque. Tidal was originally available on their debut EP, Death Of The Red Masque. It is indeed strange that this compilation starts off with what is definitely the least commercial of the tracks present. On the other hand the music is indeed eclectic and impressive. Taking cues from the jazz influenced Canterbury scene with bands such as Soft Machine and Gong coming to mind, this track features both Frippian-ambient soundscapes coupled with some decisive vocals. I'm dying to review their E.P.!
Scott Mosher's Re-Define is taken from his Virtuality album. There is a neo-progressive touch to his style especially in the way the keyboards are presented and dominate proceedings. On the other hand one cannot fail to notice the faint Rush influence creeping in, possibly also because of Mosher's relatively high-pitched vocals. Tiempo De Volver originally appeared on Menayeri's 2000 album, Tiempo Fugitivo. As can be deduced from the title of the track, the vocals are in Spanish. However, music is a universal language and Menayeri play a heavier style than what we have heard so far though they cannot be categorised as a definite progressive metal band as they infuse a variety of styles especially regarding the guitar work. At times they do utilise quite a lot of distortion though this is often contrasted by some delightful shifts in time signature. The main drawback on this track was the slightly muffled production which diminishes the overall enjoyment of the music.
Mindworm's Trolley is one of my favourite tracks on the album, possibly because it is one of the more accessible and readily identifiable tracks presented on the compilation. Of course one has to make comparisons when hearing this track and the very very obvious name to come to mind is Genesis, though there are some subtle differences especially in their attempted modernisation of the Genesis sound. Thus another comparison to make with Mindworm would be new wonder boys Mark 1. John Curtis' short Get Thee Behind Me, Santa sounds so very out of place on this compilation. Rather than being a progressive rock piece, it is actually a keyboard doodle in a light jazz vein, very much the piano bar kind of music.
Lyle Holdahl is a one man band and the track he presents here is the Labyrinth Suite. Hearing his vocals, one is immediately led to think of Peter Gabriel, though his are somewhat slightly strained on the higher notes. The music moves along at an unobtrusive pace with changes happening ever so slowly. One of the main disadvantages of this track is the fact that being a one man band, with everything played out on the synthesizers, the music tends to have too much of an even sound due to the lack of guitars and the drums sounding too obviously artificial. This is something which also afflicts Phil McKenna's A Gift Unopened. One can sense that these artists have some greatly imaginative musical ideas stemming from their musical roots in bands such as King Crimson and Yes. However their lack of band members precludes them from fully exploiting their musical talents.
Random are an Italian band, around since 1997 and they are represented by the track Castaway. As can be heard from this track, their roots are firmly entrenched in the neo-progressive rock scene with the tempo moving at an ever so languid pace. Though retaining their progressive nature, courtesy of the airy keyboard sound, the band play what could be the most commercial style of rock on this compilation, and are a welcome break from the lengthy keyboard pieces present elsewhere.
With Eric Kampman, we come across another piece of work presented entirely by one artist. Suffering from much the same as happened with previous solo artists present elsewhere on this compilation, the track The Desert at least has the great vocals of Kampman. At times there are hints of Alan Parsons Project though the track does become slightly overdrawn after a short while. The album comes to an end with another contribution from John Curtis with the help of notallwhowander. The track Kirchenrahmen runs at a ridiculously short span (just over 1 minute) and hints at many promising ideas that were never fulfilled!
Overall this CD allows the works of many unknown artists to be presented to a wide audience. Not all tracks are top grade, but when one realises that all songs, artwork, mastering and materials were donated by the artists to Progressive Ears, one realises what a commendable cause this is. The CD can be purchased directly from the Progressive Ears Website for $12.99 plus shipping.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Torman Maxt - The Foolishness Of God
Led by the three Massaro brothers, The Foolishness Of God is the second album from prog-metal band Torman Maxt. It seems that lately there has been a resurgence in so called Christian rock bands, with Torman Maxt being just one of these. The main concept of the album, and hence the title, describes how being a Christian and believing in Jesus seems foolish to people.
I must admit that sometimes certain Christian rock bands do tend to go overboard in drumming their message home. However this band play some extremely complex music that would allow them to appeal to any progressive rock fan irrespective of creed. The fact that they mention bands such as Queensryche, Rush and Dream Theater as their main influences is reason enough to understand what their music is about.
The album is subdivided into four distinctive sections which in themselves have their own sub-plots. However, the music does not vary much from one section to the other thus allowing the album to flow in a very smooth fashion. Musically the band do not play their metal in the more jazz influenced mode that bands as Dream Theater tend to do. They do not over indulge themselves in lengthy solos and instead prefer to concentrate on their individual songs which when brought together create a pattern of ideas.
Funnily enough one of the bands that I was reminded of a number of times whilst hearing this album was avant-garde alternative metal band Jane's Addiction, rather than a progressive metal band! One of the main reasons for this comparison is the way Tony Massaro utilises his vocals which have a similar pitch as that of Addiction's vocalist Perry Farell, though at times there is also a hint of Ozzy Osbourne in his delivery, such as on the opener Discovery. Furthermore the production and guitar sound lends a lot to the sound the same band (Jane's Addiction) also used to favour on their momentous albums.
Another feature of the band is their alternation between the distorted metal sections and the more melodic and open distortionless guitar based pieces. Also, their non-indulgence in lengthy solos and boring unnecessary runs is a definite plus, allowing the listener to fully appreciate what the band can offer without being distracted. However, it is not just straight forward rock music that Torman Maxt belt out. Tracks like City Of Man feature some guitar work that would almost categorise them in the speed metal genre with a sound that is more like a cross between the Metallica of old and Slayer!
The lack of a keyboardist would lead one to think that the band would have difficulty in filling certain musical voids as well as having too much of a homogenous sound when playing out their solos. However the band ably manage to curb this problem (If it can be called a problem!) with various guitar effects as happens on Off This Planet, much like the bell sounds Michael Schenker likes to create with his guitar. The guitar solos are exquisite with the band managing to maintain a perfect musical balance. This is one problem they would probably face had they to play live as the lack of a second guitarist would preclude the band from maintaining that full sound present on their studio offerings.
Not all tracks have their full share of heavy metal guitar work as is demonstrated on The China Song which has the band moving in more of that Soul Asylum styled rock. The progressive highlight of the album is surely the closing, and title track, The Foolishness Of God which gathers into the context of one track all the features of the album. The track itself is subdivided into five sections and is constantly shifting between various degrees of metal work with some great shifts occurring throughout. A masterpiece of a track, and a fitting closer to a great album.
Apparently the band already have a third album prepared which is based on the book of Job from the Bible. We'll have to wait and see where unto the band will move from this masterpiece of a progressive metal album. A must for all you progressive rock fans who like your music loud and hard!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Hubi Meisel - Cut
Hubi Meisel is a power-rock vocalist from Germany. He was previously involved in the German prog metal band Dreamscape, and more recently he has done the vocals as a special guest on the Maeve of Connacht album Imaginary Tales. There I had the side remark that his voice seemed rather feminine. On this album he proves that he can sound quite masculine as well. But what's with the track listing? It's all 80's pop songs! Indeed, Meisel has chosen to cover those 80's hits in a more rock fashion, with his pal Marcel Coenen of now demised Dutch prog rock/metal band Lemur Voice (which I had the pleasure of seeing once in a tiny pub... this was after they had already opened for Rush) on guitar.
wouldn't have reviewed such an album, but due to the connections with the progressive world, and his upcoming
prog rock opera "Orfeo" with Shadow Gallery guitar man Gary Wehrkamp, I thought it might be of interest to
describe what Hubi has done with these pop tracks (even though the pop tracks of the 80's sometimes have more resemblance with symphonic rock than some of the albums produced nowadays under this denominator...).
Indeed, the selection he has made, with Aha, Mr.Mister, Frankie Goes To Hollywood and Rush, must be one that still appeals to the persons my age who had their high school career during those days. Like I said, he has given the tracks a bit of a rock sauce, though that basically means some extra heavy rhythm guitar and some extended solos (the only place where Coenen shows some of his strengths, the beating rhythm guitar in all tracks becomes a bit annoying). The problem is: the tracks do not get spiced up. Instead you want to play the original. In that respect the experiment has failed. His voice is good, and as a showcase CD to get people interested in him for a vocal project it is fine, but most progressive music lovers can do very well without these interpretations of what once were great songs.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Fruitcake - A Battle a Day...
"A Battle a Day" is the new album by the Norwegian band Fruitcake. This may seem a strange name for a prog band (they used to be called "The Fool"), but they are definately prog rock. The band was formed in 1990, and this album is their sixth release.
This is a great album if you like prog rock in "retro style". Lots of bombast here, and majestic slow parts with heavy organs and mellotron sounds. In a pleasant way, it reminded me of the old Genesis sound (the great "Trespass" album). And hey: they even have a singing drummer...
Fruitcake's music sounds not too modern (but still more timeless than outdated). It seems the band tries to "recreate" the classic prog rock sound. The album contains eight strong tracks, all composed and arranged in classic progressive rock style. The melodies are good and it's all well played.
The vocals are not the band´s strongest part. Most of the lead vocals are double tracked, to make them sound more "solid". However, the lack of a technically powerful singer never bothers me, and to me the vocals have a special charm.
The drums and bass are tight and used in an effective way. They form a powerful backing of the band's organic sound. As I mentioned before, the keyboards are the main pillar of Fruitcake's sound. Also the guitar player is quite good. Unfortunately, his parts are a bit down in the mix sometimes. That's a real pity, because he plays some nice aggressive parts (that compensate well for the mainly slow and moody tracks).
Musically, the best moments are: Mopery And Dopery In Deep Space (with a nice "morse code rhythm" that reminded me of Watcher of the Skies), Reaching Out (with the band going wild at the finale) and The Old Man (with a nice hypnotising melody and keyboard line).
I haven't heard other albums by Fruitcake, but this album made me curious about their other works. It's good to hear a young band succesfully paying tribute to old masters (or "absent friends") and using all these classic keyboard sounds. As a minor point of criticism, it would be good to have some more up-beat parts, and more guitar-keyboard interaction, as these moments seem to work really well.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.