Reviews in this issue:
Leonardo, The Absolute Man: Original Cast Recording
Leonardo, The Absolute Man is a historic prog rock opera about Homo Universalis Leonardo Da Vinci. The music was written by Trent Gardner, known from his band Magellan, the Explorers Club project and some tribute albums on the Magna Carta label. On this new album, he got assistence from several guest singers from Dream Theater, Cairo, Shadow Gallery, Kansas and Ice Age. The album was produced by Terry Brown (Rush).
If you're familiar with the music of Magellan, you will know that Trent Gardner's composition are not of the usual chorus-and-verse type of songs, but complex epics, with developing melodies and reoccuring themes.
His music is quite heavy (as in demanding) and usually takes some time to grow on you. I remember Magellan's first album (Hour of Restoration, 1991) had me gasping for breath after 15 minutes (it's one of my all time prog favourites now)!
The same goes for this Leonardo album. The players are: Trent Gardner on keyboards, Wayne Gardner (Magellan) and Patrick Reyes on guitar, Steve Reyes on bass (both from Dali's Dilemma) and Jeremy Colson on drums. If you know these guys, you'll know what to expect: great musicianship, tight, overwhelming and adventurous. This album adds the "role playing" rock opera concept as a new element. Guest singers James Labrie, Trent Gardner and Steve Walsh deliver some terrific vocals. The other vocalists are also good, but their performances are less prominent.
The album has 18 tracks: 8 instrumentals and 10 vocals tracks. Most of the vocals are done by James Labrie (Dream Theater). Labrie sounds really great in the quieter tracks, like With Father and Shaping The Invisible. I'm not too fond of his voice when he goes screaming, but he sounds great when he uses his "natural, airy voice" (that you probably know from the ballads on Dream Theater's great Metropolis album). One of my favourites on the album is Mona Lisa, which starts like a Styx-style piano ballad sung by Labrie, but with a multi singer operatic middle part, also featuring Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery) and Trent Gardner.
The more heavy tracks on the album sound a lot like Magellan, with these typical uncompromising heavy guitar riffs, restless vocal melodies, shifting time signatures and "massive" chorus voices. This goes for Reins Of Tuscan (mainly sung by Josh Pincus from Ice Age and Gardner himself); Apprentice (with vocalists Labrie, Robert Berry, Mike Baker and Gardner); and Inventions (full of first class vocal drama by Steve Walsh from Kansas, Labrie and one Chris Shryack from Under the Sun).
My personal favourite track is First Commission, a passionate power-ballad, sung by Steve Walsh. His voice is in great shape and sounds like in his Kansas heydays (in fact, the song reminded me strongly of two Kansas tracks, Chasing Shadows and Dust in the Wind). Steve shares vocals with Michelle Young from Glass Hammer, whose charming doubled harmony vocals give the song a bit of an Ayreon feel.
My two least favourite tracks are This Time, This Way and Heart Of France. The first being a duet with a poppy melody, compensated by an overly bombastic arrangement, and the other -au contraire- too demanding and overly bombastic. Pity, as this is supposed to be the dramatic peak of the story...
As for the instrumental tracks: most of them serve as short interludes.
My favourite is Il Divino, with spooky synths, heavy basses, powerful drums, and very nice jazzy, yet exciting soloing on guitar synth.
The album concludes with End Of A World, a short uptime piece with a nice Jabberwocky-style hypnotising repeated chorus section.
I must say Leonardo is an ambitious project. There are no plans to put the show on stage yet, but on this album the concept works very well. The complex compositions and arrangements may take some time to get into, but at least you won't get bored.
BTW: you might have some problems finding this album in your store, as the CD cover mentions no real band name. Also note that a new Magellan album (Hundred Year Flood) is scheduled for release later in 2002.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Shades Of Dawn - The Dawn Of Time
Having been around for a number of years, Shades Of Dawn, billed as Düsseldorf´s only progressive rock band, released their first studio album in 1998. The line-up for this album consists of Theo Labs (Bass, Guitar), Hans-Jürgen Klein (Guitars, Lead Vocals), Cyrill Stoletzky (Keyboards, Synthesizers, Pianoforte), Peter Schneider (Keyboards,Synthesizers, Vocals) and Christopher Struwe (Drums, Vocals). Musically the band play a classical style of progressive rock drawing their influences from numerous legendary bands from the seventies, yet at the same time managing to infuse a personal touch to make this album a very interesting listen.
Not only does the music act as a reflection of the band's influences, but also the layout of the whole album which has eight tracks, all of which run at over eight minutes in length, with topics that deal with daily life as well as Greek mythology! Going back to the music, the band as I mentioned have their roots deeply embedded in the seventies. Take their opening track I Don't Understand with its bombastic keyboard and guitar introduction. The music has its neo-progressive overtones, yet in the midst of the track, among the guitar and keyboard solos, the band also manage to find space to refer to Kansas' Dust In The Wind. Comparatively one could drop another few names and one that definitely comes to mind after hearing the way the way the keyboards are structured is Pendragon.
One of the main drawbacks and problems that German bands tend to have is the heavy accentuation when they sing in English. Thankfully, none of this happens on with Shades Of Dawn though at times they do sound slightly strained. Another feature of the band is their broad use of the keyboard sound which percolates throughout the whole of there recording. Tracks like Threads Of Reality move at a much more languid pace when compared to the rest of the album relying on exchanges between guitar and keyboards to create some form of variation.
On the other hand, tracks like these act as breathers for the rather more energetic pieces such as Lost In Reverie which once again has that distinct Camel touch, though the keyboard solo does remind me of Marillion circa their Clutching At Straws period. Plenty Of Gold is another track that falls into a similar category as Lost In Reverie though the track possesses a much deeper melody and atmosphere.
The pinnacle of Shades Of Dawn's album is definitely Ulysses Rollercoaster which in itself spans two tracks and is divided into five sections. The initial section introduces another influence, namely that of Renaissance as the introductory Toccata Con Fuoco features some delightful classical piano. The remaining sections feature various influences and styles ranging from Pink Floydian guitar work to the now customary Camel touch with the occasional foray into Alan Parson Project territory. An excellent piece of music. The album comes to a close with Sometimes and March For Love. Sometimes, is in my opinion the weakest track on the album with the initial section sounding slightly too stagnant, though amends are made with the decisively upbeat and bluesy March For Love. Once again the emphasis is on the atmosphere created by the organ-sounding keyboards that really create a full sound with the rest of the band racing along at an impressive pace.
I must admit to have been impressed by this album and one of the facts that made me realise that I was enjoying each and every track was the fact that though each one runs at over eight minutes in length, one never notices this. Definitely a sign that the music on this album is never boring.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Prime Mover - Put In Perspective
They say you can't judge a book from the cover. Well, maybe the same goes for CD's. The cover of Prime Mover's debute album shows the "ultimate freudian archetype of prog rock"... a unicorn drinking from a pool. But if you expect this to be a traditional progressive rock album, you're wrong.
Prime Mover is a young band from Finland. Put In Perspective is their first official release. Their music is described as melodic progressive rock.
Having listened to the album, I can hear the prog influences, but I must say it didn't strike me as true "prog rock".
Prime Mover sounds a lot like one of those new rock bands that you can hear on "MTV Alternative" (or whatever). Partly this is caused by the singer. However good he may be, his voice is remarkably unproggy, and in fact he reminds me strongly of Pearl Jam and Alice In Chains.
The music on the album is a strange mixture of "alternative rock" (quite unusual and dark melodies) and prog influenced rock (mainly the arrangements). In half of the songs, this combination works pretty well. But I think the band fails to lift the other songs to a convincing prog level, despite the fact they use many elements that are taken directly from the prog rock idiom (including crazy keyboard solos, creative technical guitar riffs and some unexpected complex pace changes).
To me, the best moments on the album are: Why Do You Think You Are (with some atmospheric Pink Floyd guitars), The Agenda For Instant Truth (perfect blending of styles), Laughable (some Rush in chorus) and the epic The Experience (beautiful melodies and complex arrangement).
Least favourite tracks are: Pitiful, Never like It Seems, and See It For Yourself (all quite simple melodies, and rather grungy than proggy).
Put In Perspective is a unique marriage of two musical styles. The overall feel of the album however is rather alternative/grungy than prog rock. The combination of styles would have been more effective with some more proggy song material. Because now, real progressive shivers appear only every now and then. But still, this is an interesting debut album.
Conclusion: 6,5 out of 10.
Motorpsycho - Phanerothyme
This is already the sixth full length studio album of Norwegian formation Motorpsycho. With a band name like that, I expected to hear some deafening metal, but the contrary was true: a pastoral album with hints (very, very obvious hints) to The Doors and early progressive music like Camel, Caravan and Canterbury. They apparently came up with their band name while watching a Russ Meyer triple-feature in London. The name "Motorpsycho" was the only one not yet in use by a band (the other two were "Mudhoney" and "Faster Pussycat"). In their home country they are apparently very big, with their 2000 release "Let Them Eat Cake" hitting number 1 in the Norwegian charts!
The album opens very quitely with the acoustic pastoral Bedroom Eyes, where the experience of the band becomes apparent in the way they use simple means to create an optimal effect. For Free is an up-tempo, progressive track, mildly Spock's Beard like. In that respect the band sounds more American than European. But after that the level goes down to salon-rock in the very kitsch B.S.. With its silly flute melody it sounds like the opening tune of The Love Boat! They pursue that style, albeit a little less extreme in the next track, which then starts to sound like a late sixties Yes track (the style of the first Yes album). The same can be said about Go To California, which is a mix between early Yes, Caravan, Focus and The Doors (it has a very very Light My Fire like rock organ solo in it). Painting the Night Unreal is a jazzy track, of the sort that Pink Floyd could sometimes produce in their early years, with some sharp guitar playing in it. The Slow Phaseout on the other hand reminds me of Rod Steward. Say no more. When You're Dead, finally, is a jazzy Tom Waits like track. The half drunk saxophone melody gives this track some "cachet".
The thing is, it is a very diverse album where some fine tracks are interlaced with some mediocre compositions (of course, all viewed from a proggers perspective). The production and packaging are quite good and the instrumentation and skillfulness of the band members is also top-notch. It is a fabulous album to play when you are driving in your car going on a holiday to some sunny country for instance. It has a bit of that Route 66 nostalgia feeling to it. But as a progressive album it does not do much for me.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Sun Caged - Dominion
Following the unfortunate break-up of Lemur Voice, Marcel Coenen wasted no time in gathering around him, musicians who would allow him to develop his musical vision and to continue making music along the lines of the heavier output of Lemur Voice. He had already hooked up with drummer Dennis Leeflang and bassist Rob Van der Loo but the other musicians proved harder to find. The band experimented with session musicians in a number of formats but it was not until early 2001 that the line-up was finalised. Keyboard player Joost van den Broek and permanent singer Sascha Burchardt being the final pieces of the jigsaw. With material already prepared, the band were able to enter the studio in August 2001 after several months of rehearsals and the result is Dominion. The second of two EPs that the band have recorded so far.
Musically, the lineup retains many of the hallmarks of the style of Lemur Voice. Marcel Coenen's chunky riffing and fluid solos would be instantly recognizable to fans of that outfit. Dennis Leeflang's powerful drumming and Rob Van der Loos thumping bass give the band an overall heavier feel while the interplay between guitar and keyboards is excellent. Vocalist Sascha Burchardt is more of a 'classical' progressive metal singer in style and the end result is a heavy, guitar-driven, Technical Progressive Metal with a little bit of a jazzy twist.
The disk opens with the EP's longest cut Curiosity Kills which begins with an instrumental intro before Sascha and the main melody make an entrance. From there onwards, the sung sections alternate with guitar or keyboards led instrumental breaks during which all members get the chance to shine. Four Guilders, the only pure instrumental number, sees the band moving into jazzier territory, alternating between heavy riffing and jazz-style keyboards and guitar, culminating in a beautifully melodic guitar solo.
Sides, the shortest track, is perhaps the most immediate with the warm piano and soulful guitar of the intro being replaced by the heavier main theme. Sascha's vocals accompany the lighter moments and become more aggressive as the music builds to the heavier chorus sections. Joost's delightful piano playing really shines on this number.
The final track, The Escape, is perhaps the most typical prog-metal tune. It begins with a monster riff from Marcel over a powerful rhythm, but as the number mellows, there is some fine drumming and guitar playing to enjoy.
The production is good and one hears all the instruments very clearly which is just as well, since the band's style sees them often weaving together several themes in which one or other of the musicians is in the spotlight. A powerful rhythm laid down by Dennis and Rob might be emphasized by Joost's keyboards or Marcel's chunky guitar or it might be ignored completely as the music suddenly switches focus to some delightful piano or a memorable jazzy guitar run. Whatever, the band never let any one of these themes dominate and always keep things interesting. Sascha's style appears to better suit the quieter sections rather than the heavier, more forceful sections, but his singing never becomes strained.
Musically the band are individually strong yet blend well with a style which is classically heavy enough to appeal to Prog Metal veterans yet individual enough to mark them out as having a style of their own, rather than a clone of one of the better known bands in the genre. That being said, the music retains a lot of the feel of the heavier output of Lemur Voice and anyone who enjoyed their music cannot fail to find the music of Sun Caged similarly enjoyable.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.