Reviews in this issue:
Plackband - After The Battle
Over twenty years in the making, the world is finally honoured by the arrival of a full-length Plackband studio album. Luck and the overall situation of progressive rock in the late Seventies and very early Eighties left Plackband only be able to release a self-financed 7" single before their breaking up in 1981. 1999 saw the band re-uniting in the original line-up, and what started off as having just a bit of fun, the enthusiastic response from audiences led them to seriously think about doing studio recordings. The making company with Xymphonia Records led to that silver thing turning round in my CD player this very moment, as it has been doing for the last couple of hours actually.
Plackband have been playing their twenty-year old repertoire during the last couple of years. From the first gig on, it has never ceased to amaze me how well those songs still stand out. This CD features mostly older compositions as well, but unlike you have ever heard before.
In their early days, the band was often referred to as The Hague's Genesis. Quoting that title saves me a lot of reference problems. And indeed, taking the best from this side of prog, you'll end up referring to the Genesis from 1974 - 1977 anyway. Comparisons are in the way the songs are built up, I think. A tapestry of sounds, strong emphasis on melody, not too complex, emotional playing, melodic soloing.
But there's a lot of differences too, of course. Guitarist Ronald van Brautigam is a Hackett fan, but also a Steve Howe fan. Keyboard player Michel van Wassem can provide the keyboard contributions to the song like Banks did, but he has an eye for more interesting weird stuff and sounds, making the music sound more modern that what you'd expect from something described as having mid-Seventies influences. I thought this way about the music when I first heard them (in the mid-Eighties), but I still think of it this way. The songs still stand out.
Compared to all the recordings I know (the official self-financed 7" single and a studio demo, but mostly live recordings and the gigs I have attended), especially the mix is noteworthy. I have never heard Kees Bik's voice so clearly. I have heard people say he doesn't have a great voice. I disagree on that. He does have a great voice, but it's not a typical prog rock voice. No, he doesn't have a slightly higher-pitched voice than average without a personal touch. Bik has a voice at maybe average height, but warm, personal, and powerful. He writes all the lyrics, making himself being the best interpreter of them. His feel for drama adds to the experience of hearing this band, live but also on the studio recordings.
About the lyrics - I think they're very orignal. No dragons or rainbows (nothing wrong with that, at times), but real issues, sometimes presented in a funny form. The title of After The Battle might say enough, but "after the battle, nature can lick her wounds" shows a new approach to apocalypse. Human relationships are part of many songs, but putting it in the story of Quasimodo (in The Hunchback), I think is very orignal. Not on this CD, but also great lyrics deal with the vampire in Bloodmaster (from the vampire's point of view: "I've got to eat", "who blames the shepard for eating his sheep"), or the guy who is burying himself into a cellar to survive a nuclear war, but realizing his basic needs in "I certainly could use some female volunteers", since he's "got a whole lot of time to kill"... Since I have a pre-release CDR without a booklet, I don't have the lyrics to all the songs yet, but I am looking forward to reading them all thoroughly (assuming the lyrics are included in the booklet).
Most of the music is drama. No frivolous verses, but creating an ominous air, threatening pompous parts and menacing silences... That's what I like in music - not technically showing off, but getting sucked into the atmopshere. The compositions building up the tension, the contrasts between several parts of the song is why I like this music so much.
For those who do know the band's music, here's some words on how this first full length studio recording compares to the live material. Already during the first listen, I noticed several re-written parts. Some parts you're anticipating a certain break, and it's postponed till after a new section. Some parts have a different sound. Of course, you know most of the songs. But the sound quality and mix is of course better than you have ever heard. I am very glad to see See The Dwarf included here, and even very surprised they recorded Ghost Town, which they haven't played live since the reunion.
It's again a couple of hours later, and that silver thing is still turning in my CD player. Says enough of what I think of it. Now are you going to take the chance and listen to it as well?! If you are into the heavy side of prog, technical and highly complex stuff, don't bother. If you like the melodic, symphonic side of prog, song-based, emotional playing, have a listen soon.
If you have the chance, go and see Plackband on Friday 19th 2002 in Zoetermeer at the CD launch party!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
The Ashqelon Quilt - The Event
In the light of all the negative reports coming from the Middle East, it is good to know that Israel can also produce something more positive like music. The Ashqelon Quilt are from this war-torn country, but it hardly shows. Middle Eastern influences can only seldomly be detected within their music; the English prog scene from the late sixties and early seventies has clearly influenced them a lot more than their own geographical region. The Event is The Ashqelon Quilt's debut album, although they could be heard before on a tribute album to the Canterbury scene with a cover of Soft Machine's Dedicated To You But You Weren't Listening. However, since I am not familiar with the latter band's work, I cannot tell you how much Soft Machine influenced the Israelis in their own music.
The Ashqelon Quilt is basically a trio, consisting of brothers Ori (electric, acoustic and 12-string guitar, mandolin, charango, darbuka drums, backing vocals, and lead vocals on The Coin and Substitute) and Shachar Hendel (lead vocals, keyboards, synthesiser, grand piano, drum programming), who are responsible for all music and lyrics, and Sharon Rinat (vocals on Twilights and The Event, soprano recorder on The Event and alto recorder on One By One). The band was aided by a host of additional musicians: Avia Schoenleben (cello on Crown and The Coin), Merav Ben-David (vocals on Tel-Aviv Stress), Hagar Dagan (flute on The Well), Nohar Rosenthal (backing vocals on The Well) Corinne Schlomovitch (violin on One By One) and the Hendel brothers' Dad Benny Hendel (voice on Introduction To The Event).
The cover and artwork in the fold-out booklet has a distinct early secondary school flavour to me. The faulty perspective of the tower, the somewhat clumsy figures - they all remind me of that time when one was still honing one's drawing skills. To be honest, this makes the album look as if it was a home-made demo instead of the official release through a record company it actually is. Since many people tend to decide to check out a certain CD if the cover looks attractive, I do not think that this is a good thing.
So, does the music also radiate an aura of amateurism? Well, I would say that the instrumental side of this band definitely does not, although I think that the vocals often do; more about the latter below though. As you could see above, the instrumentation on this album is very versatile. Both acoustic and electric instruments are used, as well as some that I had never heard of before. This sometimes leads to small surprises sound-wise, like the oriental and Irish folk intermezzos on The Event (the song), though it more often results in a sound that has a strong late sixties, early seventies flavour. One By One, for instance, features a mixture of acoustic and electric instruments, flutes and Hackett-like guitar bits that remind me of some very early-Genesis albums (From Genesis To Revelation, Trespass, Nursery Cryme). This is the sound that is most prominent on most of the album. The second song on the CD, Crown, on the other hand, starts with what sounds like the intro of Paul McCartney and Wings's Mull Of Kintyre and follows a very Macca-like path after that as well. Various tracks contain winks at Porcupine Tree's typical soundscapes and there are even a few jazzy and classical moments. Apart from that, there is a nice Clive Nolan-esque keyboard solo in Twilights as well as one in The Well that brings Martin Orford on IQ's first CD to mind. One can also find some very nice guitar playing on this album. The Coin, for instance, features a delicious Pink Floyd-like guitar solo, much in the vein of Any Colour You Like from Dark Side Of The Moon.
Those among you who have read any of my other reviews may have noticed that the question whether I like a certain CD is closely connected to whether I like the vocals on it (if there are any, of course). In the case of The Event, I think that the vocals bring down the end result quite a bit. The voices of the Hendel brothers sound very similar and remind me of Paul McCartney in his softer songs, with a hint of Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson. However, whereas both Macca and Wilson can lash into some very powerful and emotional singing when a song requires that, Ori and Shachar do not really "spark" anywhere. I have a feeling that they might have used this way of singing to get a more off-the-ground, ethereal kind of feeling to the tracks, but I cannot say that I appreciate that very much. Also, the fact that they often go for their higher vocal regions, where they balance on the edge of being out of tune, gives me the creeps.
Sharon Rinat's vocals are downright below par. Apart from the fact that she has a heavier accent than the Hendel brothers, her voice sounds as if it is either not very well-trained or absolutely not cut out for this kind of singing. On top of that, it does not seem to have any real personality at all.
Another point of comment is the way The Event is mixed. Part of the instruments are mixed to the left and the rest is mixed to the right, as was frequently done at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. This especially makes listening through headphones rather irritating.
So, what is my conclusion about this CD? Well, I think that the band would improve a lot if they were to hire different vocalists, because they have a lot to offer on the instrumental plane. I know that there are many prog fans for whom the singing is not as important as the music, however, and I think that that group of people should certainly check this CD out. Especially if you are into very early progressive rock from bands like Genesis and do not mind some modern and non-prog influences, you might enjoy what these Israelis have produced.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Henry Fool - Henry Fool
Henry Fool can be described as a psychedelic version of Porcupine Tree or Echolyn. Two tracks are actually mixed by Steve Wilson of Porcupine Tree so there the connection is made. Also Tim Bowness, vocalist and guitar player on this album, is the vocalist of No-man in which he works together with Steve Wilson.
The band consist of six members, but
most of the compositions are done by Steve Bennett and Tim Bowness. It took almost a year to complete this album,
which does show. Although the tracks are heavily rooted in jazz and psychedelic influences, the progressive rock
elements are unmistakable. The vocals of Bowness, which can be heard for the first time on Midnight Days, the first
part of a large five piece composition called Lateshow, are both melancholic and subtle.
The unconventional music of the sextet features quite some saxophone and clarinet adding to the freestyle jazz feeling that pops up now and again (e.g. in Poppy Z). The good thing about the compositions is that at the moment they have grown into a frantic climax, they suddenly relax and take you on a moody calm trip, which in its turn is just the silence before the storm of the next movement.
The fine composition Lateshow is a good example where Blindman Two almost explodes but Grounded brings us a very mellow almost Camelesque recurrence of the main theme that was laid down in Midnight Days. The album is rich on different organ sounds, all adding to the mellow jazzy, late sixties atmosphere. Somehow, this music is like those French artistic movies. On the one hand you don't like them, on the other hand they grasp your attention and before you know it, you have enjoyed it. A small minor point, is the recurrence of the same vocal theme of Lateshow in Judy on the Brink. Some more originality would have been in order here. The David Warner Wish List is extremely psychedelic, almost too much for me. It is like Interstellar Overdrive of Pink Floyd squared.
This is an album for experienced listeners. Complex, jazzy and psychedelic. However, once mastered it is quite enjoyable.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Planet X - Live From Oz
Planet X started as a solo project for keyboardist Derek Sherinian (ex-Dream Theater, Kiss and Alice Cooper) but has now grown to be a full-time band, consisting of Sherinian, Virgil Donati (drums) and Tony MacAlpine (guitars). This album was recorded at the final show of a two-week Australian Tour, at the Corner Hotel in Melbourne. For this tour the band had David LaRue (of Steve Morse/Dixie Dreggs fame) handling the basses.
The album was mixed by none other than Simon Phillips, who will also produce Planet X's forthcoming album Moonbabies.
The album opens with a new track, Ignotum Per Ignotius, or at least, it seems to be a new track but it could be a cover also (my review-copy doesn't have any credits for the tracks, so I can't tell).
The track sets the mood for the rest of the album: Hard 'n Heavy! Which is, of course, the credo of the band. Fast riffs that are accompanied by various keyboard twiddles, while every once in a while a bandmember is introduced to the audience. (This introducing of the bandmembers goes on all through the show, and is the only thing that is spoken to the audience, apart from a "how ya doing Melbourne?" at the beginning).
Only one track from the first Planet X album is featured: the 18-minute magnum opus Atlantis, whilst their first album as a band, Universe provides the rest of the tracks.
Almost all tracks are played as one continuous piece, interlaced with solos by each of the core band members (and LaRue gets a chance to shine with his bass-solo in Warfinger). Of these solos, especially MacAlpine's guitar solo is a real treat. Although it starts as a typical "look how fast I can play" bit, it turns into a beautiful atmospheric piece; a nice resting point in between all the heavy firework, and a superb introduction to Her Animal.
The fact that all tracks are instrumental, and played as one long piece, makes it difficult to determine where one track stops and the next one starts. It also makes it a difficult album to listen to, as it just seems to go on and on. However, this is also one of the prior goals for the band, as Sherinian explains in the accompanying press-release: "When I started Planet X, I had two goals: to start the sickest instrumental band in the world, and to assemble a band that played so fiercely, it would strike fear in the hearts of other musicians when they heard us".
Overall the album showcases excellent musicianship, with some fantastic licks and riffs, but overall it is just a bit too much of the same. Nonetheless Live From Oz shows that Planet X certainly is a great band to experience live.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
Romislokus - Vinyl Spring Digital Autumn
Russian band Romislokus are back with their second album, Vinyl Spring Digital Autumn and they have followed up their debut Between Two Mirrors in a most impressive fashion. Once again they have managed to fuse the calculated cold atmosphere of electronic music with the warmth of string instruments, notably the cello and the violin. Once again the vocals are sung in Russian, but somehow the band manage to curb this problem and unlike with many "foreign" bands, this does not serve to detract from the beauty of their music.
The difference between the styles of music Romislokus play is evident from the first two tracks. The Snow Of The Rails has a dark sinister electronic touch to it while The Face Of A City has a much more warmer, and commercial, feel to it with the introduction of airy keyboards as well as the now customary and expected string interludes. In fact it seems that the band have moved toward a more mainstream approach with this new album allowing themselves to become rather more accessible by broadening their fan base to those who could easily listen to other bands such as Hothouse Flowers.
However, even though there is more of a commercial feel to the band's music, they still manage to instill an aura of progressive rock such as on 78 which has some intriguing shifts in both time signature and overall style flitting between the acoustic strings to a harsh electronic sound. It Is Winter blends acoustic and commercial rock with progressive arrangements featuring tubular bells and strings which blend in magnificently with Yuri Smolnikov's husky vocals.
As mentioned time and time again the band feature a heavy does of electronic music which feature in a variety of ways. Absolute Control has the band adopting a heavy synthesised sound that also affects the overall sound of the guitars, Miss The Target has a cold atmospheric ambience almost Tangerine Dream-like in nature, as does Tuner.
The music by Romislokus seems to have been derived from a myriad of influences but one cannot deny that one of the major bands that does crop up every now and again would be Pink Floyd. Tracks such as A Tree By the Wall, feature that melancholic nature that evolves at a dramatically slow but effective pace. However, the one feature that this Russian band possesses that allow it to stand out when compared to many other similarly styled bands is the incorporation of the string instruments which create such as strong contrast to the various other electronic sounds, a feat that is accentuated on Substance
Admittedly, Romislokus are one of the brightest discoveries to have come my way in the last few years. Their music breathes fresh air into what at times has become a seemingly stagnant musical style. Though there are various references from classical bands, Romsilokus have adopted with great success their own individual style which deserves to be unleashed to the masses!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10