Reviews in this issue:
Yngve Guddal & Roger T Matte - Genesis For Two Grand Pianos
There have been quite some Genesis tributes the last few years, like Supper's Ready and The Fox Lies Down (both cover albums by various artists), LSO's We Know What We Like and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays Genesis Hits and Ballads (two orchestral tributes). This new album lies somewhere in between. It's the music of Genesis, arranged for two Steinway Grand Pianos.
Being a great fan of both Genesis and unplugged music, I had some doubts before listening to this album. I expected an hour of easy listening "elevator music". However, the tracklist looked quite promising.The simpler poppy songs were avoided and instead, a selection was made of six of the more complex and epic songs from the band's catalogue. A wise decision, because I don't think songs like In Too Deep or Throwing It All Away" would have worked in a setting like this.
Genesis For Two Grand Pianos was arranged and performed by Yngve Guddal and Roger T. Matte. The album was recorded in the Concert Hall at the Norwegian Academy of Music, Oslo, Norway. The album has a smooth studio atmosphere, as no audience is audible and the sound is very clear. The CD comes in a cover by Paul Whitehead, who also did the artwork for albums by Genesis (Nursery Rhyme, Foxtrot), Pink Floyd, Van Der Graaf Generator and Renaissance.
Listening to the album, it's remarkable how well the chosen songs were translated into piano arrangements. The new versions are quite long, but they never sound boring or overly repetitive. This has to with the rich musical content of the original songs. They are full of melody lines, harmonies, riffs and solos. In the new arrangements, most of it is still there. Maybe the translation of some bass parts is a bit "forced", and sometimes the duo seems to struggle with the mainly drum-driven parts (like the "funny" quick part of One for The Vine). But most of the time, the excitement and tension of the original parts are exactly preserved. And sometimes you even start wondering if it's really just two pianos you're hearing.
As most tribute albums, Genesis For Two Grand Pianos makes you appreciate the original music even more. But these guys did a great job on both playing and arranging these tracks. The new versions are never too classical, or too easy listening. Even the more simpler songs, like Down and Out and Evidence of Autumn sound interesting and musically surprisingly "rich". The original Genesis atmosphere is very well preserved.
I can really recommend this album to all classic Genesis fans (and of course to everyone who loves proggy piano music in general). There are not many albums like this. The ones that come closest are Steinway To Heaven by Keith Emerson and others on the Magna Carta label (which is a lot more classical) and The Piano Album by Rick Wakeman (which also has piano renditions of original band pieces).
As a last note: the album was dedicated to Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks. I wonder how he feels about it, because -in a way- this should have been "his" project...
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Seven Reizh - Strinkadenn' Ys
This debut album from Seven Reizh is most definitely a first for me as it is the first time I have come across a progressive rock album that is predominantly sung in Gaelic. In fact the fulcrum of the band is Breton duo Claude Mignon and Gérard Le Dortz. The former is responsible for the music of this rock opera while the latter penned the lyrics and story line. This duo brought in a number of well known Breton musicians to help them in their musical journey, some of whom are rather more well known for their contribution to the folk scene. Thus we have the Mével brothers Gwendal (flute), Gwenhaël (trombone, flute) and Konan (midi uillean pipes) (Kad, Tri Yan), Cyril Froger (vocals), Farid Aït-Siameur (vocals (Maël)) and Olivier Carole (bass) (Tayfa), Bagad Penhars (arrangements), and vocalist Bleunwenn as Enora (Glaz, Tri Yann).
This album was originally issued as an independent release by the band together with a 52 page booklet and has now been made available in a toned down version (minus the booklet) from Musea Records. Though written in a mixture of French Breton and French, the album deals with the story of a stone cutter called Enora, who cuts granite used in the building of cathedrals, and her journey into the city of Ys.
What does one expect to find in musical terms? Labelled as a rock opera, this album features a lush blend of classical progressive rock together with distinctive celtic folk overtones. The progressive rock lends much from the neo-progressive scene with band such as Marllion and IQ at the forefront while the folk elements come courtesy of the many musicians who play on the album and whose main background is that of the folk music scene. The opening track, Selaou, sets the scene for what the album has to offer. Starting off with a rhythm very similar to Marillion's Punch And Judy, the rock edge of the band is let loose as they indulge in an instrumental opening four minutes till an eerie calm creeps over the listener. Bleunwenn's angelic voice comes across in a most impressive way. Her voice is so unorthodox for a rock band, much like Dolores O' Riordan and The Cranberries, yet it manages to fit snugly within the context of the album as the track moves from a neo-progressive slant towards one that befits bands such as Pink Floyd.
Dornskrid sees the mood shift towards an acoustic style, as the folk element starts to creep in progressively. Such a setting only helps to further enhance Bleunwenn's vocals, much like bands such as Capercaille and Clannad do with their female vocalists. This mood is maintained in Sovajed-a-feson, which is adorned with nifty percussion work.
Naer Ar Galloud sees the band return to a more rock orientated approach with some Steve Hackett-like guitar work to then lead into Hybr'Ys, which for the first time sees the music taking on a medieval tinge. Sounding like a cross between Blackmore's Night and Vital Duo, the atmosphere is further enhanced by the addition of effects such as church bells pealing together with some delightful piano work.
Kan Kêr'Ys is possibly the only track on the album that sounds so very out of place when compared to the rest of the album. It is true that the bag-pipes are a staple feature of Breton folk music, yet at the same time their addition at the end of the track rather spoils the whole Enid-like piece of music. For the first time on the album, a male voice (that of Farid Aït-Siameur) takes centre stage as his Berber background and accent gives the whole track a North African touch. Even the structure of the Liñvadenn is distinctively North African.
Tad Ha Mamm is the main track in which Seven Reizh fuse progressive rock with Celtic folk music. The track opens in the neo-progressive style with hints of Genesis and Camel, a blend with which they had started off the album, to then slowly introduce more ethnic sounds, starting off with the flute. This then progresses into what sounds like a jig or reel, much in the a Davy Spillane/Moving Hearts style as the uillean pipes take over.
The ballad Enora Ha Maël features the vocals of Bleunwenn and is replete with string arrangements and lush surroundings, leading into the closing track Mall Eo Monet Da Ys, which with its industrial sounding introduction shows that it strays very far from the usual closing tracks one finds on rock operas. In fact it is customary to find the final track including a leit-motif that gathers various melody lines that were present throughout the work. Instead we get one of the most powerful tracks on the whole of the album that once again fuses the traditional folk instruments such as the uillean pipes with a rock orientated sound reminiscent of early Genesis. A stunning unexpected conclusion to an impressive album.
Strinkadenn Ys is the first of a trilogy of albums from Seven Reizh and if the remaining two are on the same standards as this debut album, then they are surely going to be a blast. One of the most impressive albums I have heard in a long time, Strinkadenn Ys will surely please those progressive rock lovers who can also appreciate a certain folk touch. Whether you opt for the CD only release from Musea Records or the lavish CD-bound book from the Seven Reizh website, do yourselves a favour and get this album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Anathema - A Fine Day To Exit
A Fine Day To Exit is Anathema's sixth full-length studio album in over a 10 year period and marks a further step in their developement. 1999's Judgement won the band many plaudits and opened up the band to a new audience attracted by the clever combination of their doomy ancestry melded with Floydian prog-rock. Afforded a bigger budget this time around by Music For Nations, the album features cover art by none other than the great Travis Smith and a production by Nick Griffiths (Pink Floyd, Cast, Roger Waters).
The band currently consists of brothers Vincent (guitar, vocals) and Danny (guitar) Cavanagh, John Douglas (drums) and Les Smith (keyboards), having parted with bassist Dave Pybus during the recording of this disk. However what the band have lacked in stability over the years has been more than made up for in terms of vitality, with each line-up change coinciding a subtle change in the band's sound. This time, the change has them moving in a 'post-rock' direction. The Floydian influences which have been evident on their last three releases are less pronounced here with the band constructing their sound in layers of instruments and vocals. Usually this takes the form of keyboards and perhaps samples layered over Vincent's strummed guitar parts with Danny's electric embelishing the sound further, sometimes with driving riffs and at other times with anguished sounds drawn from his guitar.
This time the songs are loosely based around a concept with which the albums artwork is closely integrated. Unlike 1998's Alternative IV which looked ahead to a bleak future on an increasingly unhabitable planet Earth, this one is very much grounded in the present day and concerns some sort of truck driver who is driving one night when he is confronted with the image of a young boy (actually himself as a child) in his headlights.
The disk begins with Pressure, which is anything but a traditional brisk opener, but it sets the tempo for much of what follows. Release which had been intended for release as a single in the UK, is more laid back than much of what airs as rock music on TV these days, but it is nevertheless one of the more driving tracks on this disk, combining a simple repeating acoustic theme, burbling synth sounds from Les and anguished guitar sounds from Danny which mirror the torment of the subject as he confronts the terrible reality of his life.
Looking Outside Inside has the subject voicing his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs, shifting from quiet contemplation to a more aggressive mood as he voices his frustration with his predicament. The lyrics of Leave No Trace seem to indicate where all this is leading as cries of "The moment is passing you by" and "No Future, No Warning" build up to Underworld. Here Danny's guitar and Les's keys express the turbulence in the subject's head as his desire to drive the disturbing thoughts from his mind only cause them to increase in intensity and ultimately overwhelm him.
Awakening from his drunken stupor, Barriers has him unclear of where he is. This is Danny's opportunity to sing, which he does very well accompanied by drummer John's sister Lee. The production gives the number a surreal effect which fits the lyrics perfectly, but as the subject recovers full conciousness, the frantic Panic sees the turmoil re-appear once again.
Though the title track A Fine Day To Exit might indicate otherwise, the tale does take a positive twist at the end, with the subject ultimately deciding against suicide, and in favour of re-inventing himself, leaving everything behind during Temporary Peace, including his clothes, as can be seen from the cover. This pleasant, positive tune might at first appear to be some enormous opus but the tune fades out after roughly six minutes and is followed by long periods of silence, some studio nonsense and an acoustic number (In the) DogHouse sung by drummer John Douglas.
Taken altogether this is a very sombre, subdued album, despite the odd frantic moment and sees the band once again refusing to conform to expectations and keeping the public and media guessing about their next move. While drawing on the style of their earlier disks, the sound is more stripped down and less riff-orientated. Acoustic guitar effects are used heavily and the clever use of keys and samples construct the soundscape over which the half spoken / half sung vocals from Vincent fit the mood perfectly. Whilst in tone and structure, this may have some similarities to recent Porcupine Tree output, these compositions are perhaps not as musically intricate as those of the Tree. Neither are they particularly emotionally compelling and the end result is to leave the listener with a sense of disappointment - as if something is missing. Not a bad album by any means, just not quite up to the standard of their previous couple of releases.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Hands - Twenty Five Winters
Hands, the seminal progressive rock band from Texas are back, twenty five winters (years) after their first official album was released. In fact I was planning a Forgotten Sons article of this band whose material has been released in its entirety by Shroom Productions. This reunion album has been in the making these last few years with the collaboration of Rex Bozarth (bass, vocals), Michael Clay (piano, synthesizers, guitars), Martin McCall (drums), Mark Menikos (violin, vocals) and Ernie Myers (vocals, guitars).
Though so many years have passed since this group last graced the stage, the band still play a very similar style to what they used to churn out in the seventies. Though there are some definitive classical progressive influences, the band still betrays the fact that they are a Texas band, and possibly that is the main distinguishing factor that Hands possess. The origins of this band lies in groups such as Aurora, Ibis and Prism, whose music had a definitive jazz-fusion flavour. However with Hands the band seem to have moved towards a more rock orientated direction with a number of diverse influences ranging from Gentle Giant to the more folk sounding Strawbs.
A deciding factor in the stamping of their own individual identity is the sound of Mark Menikos' violin which enables the creation of a sound unique to only a distinctive number of progressive rock bands. The opening Knock/Enter as well as Walls possess a very American country rock sound, which highlights the Texas birthmark, though one must not be misled by this statement as the band have such a staggering of features that one just cannot simply categorise them. The structuring of the vocals as well as the shifts in time signature make the band sound like a folkier version of groups such as King Crimson, Gentle Giant and Anekdoten.
Green Room is the first of three instrumental tracks on the album and is the first track that has a definite rock orientation. The change is rather radical as the band adopts an approach that could be compared more to Porcupine Tree in atmosphere, than most other bands that Hands have been previously compared to. The short I Laughed Aloud and Zambierach complete the trio of instrumentals. Whereas I Laughed Aloud is a simple duet between piano and violin, Zambierach brings out the jazz-fusion element that remains at the root of the band's musical influences. Some could mention groups like Brand X as possible references, especially due to the great bass work that this track has.
Dance Of Light And Darkness reintroduces that Strawbs folk element into the music with structuring on a par with the legendary Yes, yet the highlight of the album is surely the album's epic track, Leaving, which in itself is subdivided into four parts. The track opens with a moving and musical styled Song Of Summer to then move into the acoustic Vigil For One which reminds me of the psychedelic folk musicians from the sixties such as Al Stewart (in his early days) and Fairport Convention. The Traveler's Lament is a very stark contrast to the melancholy of Vigil For One with some impressive powerful guitar work, and some obvious Frippian/King Crimson influences. The track comes to a close with Above And Below which sees the music return to a similar style with which Leaving had started off initially.
Having heard the previous works of Hands, I must admit to having been surprised at what this album offered in terms of style. It seems that with the passing of time the band has mellowed out slightly, allowing their music to become much more accessible and dare I say it, commercial. Notwithstanding all this, the band still manage to come up with a most excellent album that should prove popular to most fans of progressive rock music. I just hope that not too many winters have to pass before the next Hands album!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Sombre Reptile - In Strum Mental
As the title suggests this offering from Sombre Reptile features seven intrumental pieces and is principally the work of three French musicians - the two Dedieu brothers: Jean-Paul on keyboards and Michel on guitars - the percussion is provided by Pim Foken. Additional drums on Mandoline Noire by Charly Berna (formerly Minimum Vital).
A difficult album to quantize really as it has its own uniqueness, multi-layered guitars, strong rhythms and quirky keyboard passages, all delicately arranged in a refreshing format. East/Song was reminiscent of King Crimson but with the keyboards lending a different slant to the piece. All the tracks are gently hypnotic carefully created by the strong repetitive rhythm passages and modulating instrumentation. The aforementioned opening track Orient/Song has all of these elements and begins with both harmonized and "choppy" guitar, the track is then disected by the synth bass and drum rhythms. A short, but infectious track which after several listenings became a favourite from In Strum Mental.
In sharp contrast the following track Barok/Song is distinctly mellow and grooved gently along - featuring more of the keyboards this time including an interesting almost Parisienne sounding "accordian" solo. Naja was probably the best piece on the album for me and combined all of the elements that make up Sombre Reptile. A gentle piece which features some expressive soloing from Michel, gentle strings and a range of percussion instruments and sounds. One of the big pluses on this CD has to be Michel Dedieu's guitar playing and individual style.
Always wary of comparisons as they are invariably subjective, however I think In Strum Mental probably needs something to point in the right direction. Imagine perhaps some of the rhythmic background to Talking Heads; keyboards via Eno and add instrumental guitarists ala Satriani/Fripp/Cyrka and we maybe on the right track?
In Strum Mental's key lies in the clever usage of sound collages from both the keyboards and guitar, intricately woven together over a strong percussive backdrop by the three musicians. I have to say that this is an unusual album and one that became more accessible on each listening. Not your standard prog fayre but a welcome change.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10