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Reviews in this issue:
Renaissance - Tuscany
Renaissance are one of those legendary progressive rock bands whose trademark sound is now a benchmark along which newer bands have been measured up against. This is due both to the structuring of the almost classical compositions as well as the unique voice of classically trained vocalist, Annie Haslam. The last few years have seen us blessed with many a reunion of glorious bands from the same era, though many of them have had fundamental members missing from the reformed lineup for one reason or another. Well with the "new" Renaissance lineup, only one "classic" member seems to be missing, and that is John Tout whose place was taken admirably by Mickey Simmonds (Camel, Fish) on keyboards. Having said that he does make an appearance on a few of the album tracks. The remaining members of the band are Annie Haslam (vocals), Michael Dunford (guitars) and Terence Sullivan (drums, percussion). Also contributing to this project was Alex Caird (bass) and Roy Wood (The Move, E.L.O) as producer and occasional percussion.
The last time these members of Renaissance had recorded together was way back in 1983 for the Timeline album. Work for the Tuscany album has been underway since early 1998 following the successful showcase performances of Michael Dunford's Scheherazade Musical at the Royal Academy of Music in London in late 1997. A number of demos were laid down by Dunford and Haslam which was the foundation for the recordings of this album. As can be expected the passage of time has also left a mark on the way the tracks are carried out. Gone are the days were the band would employ the services of a live orchestra, whilst on the other hand modern technology has allowed for the creation of wider soundscapes and ambient textures.
The album starts off with Lady from Tuscany which could be considered to be the title-track and deals with the story of the violinist Paganini and an affair he had with a noblewoman from Tuscany. As Haslam's voice soars higher and higher above the string laden keyboards one can immediately feel what a void Renaissance have left in the progressive rock field since they disbanded. Classical music blends in with medieval imagery to conjure up a work that is an impressive opener. Pearls Of Wisdom has a more acoustic feel to it with the musical brunt borne out by the lush atmosphere created by the keyboards as Haslam's voice adds a new dimensions to the music. This particular track is definitely one of the points which allows the listener to be able to bridge the "new" Renaissance with that of old.
After reading about the run up to the recording of the album one realises that the album itself was not composed as a homogenous affair with both Haslam and Dunford often working apart from each other. Thus there are various tracks that seem to have a stronger imprint of one particular writer than the other. This could easily be said about tracks like Eva's Pond, In the Sunshine and In My Life. Eva's Pond features just Haslam's voice accompanied by Simmonds' keyboards playing while In My Life, though still played out in the same tempo, features a much fuller sound due to the fact that the other band members also participate. In The Sunshine has a much lusher feel to it with a definitive upbeat touch that gives it a medieval feel. This latter track could be compared to much of what Blackmore's Night play to great effect.
Dear Landseer and The Race feature arrangements reminiscent of past Renaissance albums. Whereas Dear Landseer has more of the classical arrangements of the seventies, The Race features the eighties approach the band had adopted in which they moved towards a more synthesized sound that featured less orchestral sounds and a more harder edge feeling. Dolphins Prayer is a another track that seems to have that Haslam touch and features just John Tout on keyboards as backing, though Roy Wood also contributes backing vocals. Written as a prayer for those dolphins that beach themselves, the music has a dramatic and emotional feel to it. It is a rather uncharacteristic Renaissance track and sounds much more like the works of Clannad and Maire Brennean.
Another uncharacteristic, and seemingly pointless track is Life In Brazil. In itself the track is upbeat with a variety of percussion work and layers of vocal harmonies. However the Latin feel it possesses seems to be too far removed from what this band are known to be, and for that reason it feels too out of place on this album. The album comes to a close with what could be considered the "epic" track, On Thousand Roses, though it is nothing in comparison to their seventies epic pieces. The track seems to have two distinctive sections with Haslams voice dominating the initial piece which has a rather more placid an atmospheric touch. This then leads into an instrumental bridge to come to a conclusion in true orchestral Renaissance fashion.
Seeing and hearing Renaissance once again is a dream come true for numerous progressive rock lovers. As I remarked earlier, the album does sound rather disjointed and possibly the long distances that separate the various band members precluded compositions from developing into the epic pieces that the band were renown for. However the premise for a new collaboration still remains, and with it the possibility that new material would be the work of a collaboration between all members. Though not a classic album, Tuscany still makes a worthwhile listen and should not disappoint the older fans of this band.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Various Artists - ProgFest 2000
Tracklist Disc One: Rocket Scientists: Dark Water/Earthbound (9:00), Aqua Vitae (6:38), In the Flesh?/Oblivision Days (6:17). Codice: Bitacora De Suenos (8:41), Dentro De La Maquina (3:02), Espiritus En Movimiento I, Eva, Espiritus En Movimiento II, Salmo 150 (8:11), Epilogo (3:17). Tempus Fugit: Never (5:54), Prologue (8:00), Goblin's Trail (4:45)
Progfest 2000 now back in LA and four days (?) of superb music recorded between 31 August to 2nd September 2000. The performances from Rocket Scientists and Spock's Beard are taken from a pre-concert recorded at The Troubador on the Thursday night and the main concert from La Mirada Civic Theater during the following weekend. Those fortunate to attend the weekend will note the absence of any tracks from Transatlantic - presumably for contractual reasons and Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso (Italy). This said, it should not detract from what is a fine CD.
The opening five tracks are from Kenso, a Japanese band who appeared as the second act on the Friday. All the tracks here are instrumental - it's difficult to hear where any vocals might fit anyway - and are a mixture of jazz-fusion and symphonic rock. The notes fly at you fast and furious and each of the band display an extremely high standard of musicianship. I was mindful of Bruford (Bruford Tapes) and strangely sections from Camel especially the bi-play between the keyboards and the guitar. There are delicate moments Hyoto and shades of Weather Report in The Shadow over Innsmouth. It is not difficult to see why these guys won over the crowd at the festival. www1.u-netsurf.ne.jp/~kenso
Sadly only one track from 70's Dutch band Supersister, reunited here with the original line-up, so it would have been interesting to hear slightly more of their repetoire. An early prog sound but full of dynamics and atmosphere, check out the middle flute section from Sacha van Geest. www.stips.net
French band Mona Lisa provide the next four tracks and here with vocalist Dominique Le Guennec and the musicians who lined up their album De L'ombre A la Lumiere. Anthemic prog rock with an early 70's sound, swirling Hammond organ, strong guitar passages and a tight rhythm section. Much of Mona Lisa's live performances revolve around Le Guennec's stage persona but this has not detracted from the music. www.multimania.com/rockmona/accueil/htm
The next track is Giberrish need I say more. www.spocksbeard.com
CD two opens with Rocket Scientists who appeared on the Thursday night with Spock's Beard and encompasses the Beard's drummer Nick D'Virgilio for the evening. Three great tracks here - opening with the atmospheric Dark Water segue Earthbound; Aqua Vitae and In the Flesh? segue Oblivion Days. These guys probably need little introduction melodic/prog rock at it's best - Eric Norlander on keys; Don Schiff on Bass (Chapman & N/S Sticks) and Mark McCritie on vocals and guitar. Well performed and executed songs that are both melodically and lyrically strong; superb choice of keyboard sounds - a definite highlite for me. www.thetank.com
Possibly less familiar might be Codice from Mexico, who opened the proceedings at Progfest 2000, with their mainly instrumental works although they included Efrain Sanchez to undertake the vocals here. Strong symphonic prog rock, which they open with a lengthy atmospheric tune entitled Bitarcora De Suenos. The following two tracks had shades of both ELP and Focus and the guitar work of Ivan Tamez is inspirational at times. Codice are yet another reason to check out this CD. www.codice.tripod.com
The last three tracks feature music from Brazilian quartet Tempus Fugit. Strong interplay between Andre Mello on keyboards and Jose Roberto Crivano on guitar, with a distinct 90's prog rock feel. Again strong musicianship is shown throughout and Mello's piano passages during the ballad Prologue are quite beautiful - sadly the vocals were a little less so. Goblins Trail rounds off the CD and presumably their set, a rousing instrumental predominately in a familiar 7/8 rhythm. www.rockprogressivo.com.br/tempusfugit
An interesting side note is the cover artwork for the Progfest 2000 CD is by Paul Whitehead, the man behind some of the early Genesis albums (and others of course). All in all this double CD offers a unique opportunity to hear several bands from around the world. There is a genuine live "as it happenend" touch to this recording which is really refreshing, all too often there is a tendancy to produce and edit live albums and consequently some of the magical atmosphere disappears at that point - not so here. Great performances from all concerned, a worthy addition to the collection.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Synthology - The Fairest Of Moments
The Fairest Of Moments is the second album from Synthology, a studio based band from Montreal, Canada. Their first album, Between Day And Night, was based on compositions by the Alarcon brothers, John and James together with a number of studio musicians. This time round only John Alarcon and Marysa Mardini (vocals) contributed to the album from the original contributors on the debut album. Further help came from Peter Warren (bass), Jon Graham (guitar) and Luc Hebert (drums). Thankfully one should also note that the band have done without The Winkler, which was the original drum machine use on the debut album, and employed the services of a proper drummer.
Stylistically the music remains stepped in the seventies with many of the classical influences of the debut album resurfacing once again. The presence of Marysa Mardini, and her sensual strong voice once again draws comparison to Renaissance, especially due to the fact that there is much piano accompaniment on various tracks such as the opening The Falling Sky as well as on Through The Doors. One of the main promises made prior to the recording of this album was the fact that most of the tracks would be of a longer duration and thus allow more musical exploration to take place, one which the band have fulfilled to the maximum.
A strong influence seems to have been Steve Hackett as well as Genesis, with both keyboards and guitars played out in true style on more than one occasion. Seven Wonders, with its introductory The Bridge, is somewhat overdrawn in its use of atmospheric keyboards and admittedly, Mardini's voice does come across as slightly strained. Somewhere it seems that he voice does not seem to suit the slower moments. This is more than made up for by tracks like Edge Of The World with its Incommunicadoesque keyboard licks
The instrumental Lost In The Cathedral reaffirms the influence Tony Banks has on John Alarcon while the title track The Fairest Of Moments is the culmination of what Alarcon has tried to achieve with this album. Running in at close to twenty minutes, this track manages to incorporate every style and influence that permeates throughout the rest of the album, from Genesis to Renaissance.
With The Fairest of Moments, John Alarcon has managed to confirm what had been promised with the debut Between Day And Night. The album is replete with references to the glorious seventies and should be most enjoyable to all those who like the traditionally styled progressive rock of that era. On the other hand, Alarcon has not yet seemingly achieved a distinctive sound of his own with Synthology that would allow the band to be readily identifiable as an individual entity.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
T - Naive
Naive is the debut album by "T", a one man project by Thomas Thielen (who also sings and plays guitar in the German progrock band Scythe).
His solo debut is no prog rock in the classic sense, but might appeal to those who appreciate the darker side of Radiohead, Porcupine Tree and Marillion.
Let me start by saying Naive is not a album that will cheer you up. The music is very moody, melancholic and even err... depressing. It's best played when you're alone and feeling miserable (we all have these moments, don't we?).
The 11 tracks on the album seem to fit well together. The melodies are strong and haunting in a emotional way. In fact, I found the music very similar to Radiohead's OK Computer (another "depressing" album, which I happen to like very much). Other influences that come to mind are Porcupine Tree (album Stupid Dream) and some of Marillion's Hogarth-era ballads. In fact, T asked Marillion for permission to use a sample of Brave (which eventually he didn't use).
Most of the songs are in essence piano based pieces, let's say ballads or slow pieces (my favourites being Round Here and She Said). A couple of songs are given a more progressive treatment, with some "heavy" parts, in a progressive psychedelic style (which works very well in A Night Out and Mother, with some nice demonic guitars).
The album sounds very good. The overall sound is quite electronic. Most of the songs have ambient-style synthesizer background noices, which give the album a nice atmospheric feel. The same goes for the electronic drum sounds, the longheld keyboard chords and the slightly processed vocals. Technically, T's voice is not too strong, but his emotional singing fits the mood of the songs very well (and in fact sounds a lot like Radiohead, Porcupine Tree or even U2). His electric guitars sound inspired by Pink Floyd and Marillion. All of the vocals and instruments are done by T, and I must say he manages to create a somewhat sterile, yet convincing band sound.
All in all, I'd say this is an interesting, personal album, with strong melodies and moods, and an effective use of sounds and effects. I would particularly recommend it if you like OK Computer by Radiohead. If you're in the right mood, this is another album that can really get to you. Speaking for myself, I found the album at times a bit uneasy and even painful to listen to, as the music tends to get a bit too emotional and overly dramatic. Oh well... afterwards, we can all wash our sorrow away with some good old fun-prog, like Saga or Spock's Beard...
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Skeem - Skeem
Skeem has been labelled by French label, Musea records as France's answer to the neo-progressive scene which till now has been dominated by the British, Dutch and Italians. In actual fact it is not to hard to see why all this hype has been made about this band. The rhythm section of Skeem is in fact the same as that one of France's leading progressive rock bands, Priam; Emma M. (drums) and Berrand Hulin-Bertaud (bass). The leader of the band seems to be Serge Barbaro who apart from all guitars and vocals, also composed the music to all the tracks. Further help came from Berny Barbaro (keyboards), Fabrice Rives (keyboards), Cathy Lully Croux (background vocals) and Sabrina Bendjema (background vocals).
As mentioned the band's main musical style is that set in the neo-progressive scene dominated by atmospheric keyboards and most pleasant vocals. At times the band seem to descend into a more melodic hard rock style rather than progressive style, yet the overall impression is one of a progressive rock band. One of the striking points to make out from this album is the fact that much of the material is played at a languid and relatively slow pace. At times this could cause the music to sound somewhat homogenous with little variety occurring between one track and another. On the other hand it also allows for the music to be played out without being in any way obtrusive and taxing. In fact one could easily state that this is one of those rare progressive rock albums that comes across to you almost immediately without having to require too many spins before it starts to grow on you.
Of course when one mentions a neo-progressive style, one thinks of groups such as Marillion. However Skeem does not follow the style that the band led during their Fish days, with such obvious Genesis references. In fact one could talk of this album as being more along the lines of Season's End, the opening Good To One Another being a case in point. The harder hitting yet melodic edge of the band comes out in tracks like The Last Word and Eye Of The World, which sound something like many Scandinavian bands such as Baltimoore, who rely on strong hooks accompanied by crunching power chords.
At times the band manages to fuse their eighties melodic rock element with somewhat more complex and elaborate arrangements such as on Trustworthy Man and Statues, though the overall effect is that of a more complex band than groups such as White Lion. Of course a rock band should "always" have the obligatory ballad on the album and Skeem do not fail in this with Chrysalides. Strangely enough this track, with its Steve Rothery-like licks features some of the more progressive moments on the album.
One thing that one cannot deny after hearing this album is the quality of the recording that is presented as well as the great vocals that Serge Barbaro possesses sounding uncannily similar to Gary Chandler (Jadis). What A Night is possibly the track that really brings his vocals to the fore as this ballad allows Barbaro to fully express his rich yet at the same time dramatic voice.
On the whole Skeem makes a pleasant and easy listen yet at the same time sounds rather bland. The music offers nothing that can be established as ground breaking or new. In fact much of the material sounds rehashed and too polished for the audience that the band seem to be aiming at with most of the music sounding too much like the eighties keyboard led melodic hard rock bands.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.