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Reviews in this issue:
Lana Lane - Project Shangri-La
After a couple of re-issues, Lana Lane now presents the successor to Secrets of Astrology from 2000. According to the accompanying leaflet, she has gone in a completely different musical direction, but that is nonsense, as this album represents the most logical next step in her career. Musically it sounds quite similar to her previous albums. Unfortunately the promo came in a small cardboard slip, so I do not have a booklet to check, but according to the website Lana wrote most if not all of the lyrics and melodic lines and her husband Erik Norlander did most of the musical arrangements. Although I understand that a Lana Lane album features her compositions, I am more fond of Norlander solo or with Rocket Scientists, as they put some more unexpected transitions in the chord changes. The album in fact sounds quite similar to her previous work, but even after a couple of listenings, this album is no match for for instance Love Is An Illusion or Secrets Of Astrology. Maybe it's the fact that they could not work with Arjan 'Ayreon' Lucassen and their other Dutch friends (due to the September 11 events) that plays a part, as the bonus track Romeo And Juliet (which was recorded with the Dutchies during the Secrets of Astrology sessions) is one of the highlights of the album to me. Especially the (rhythm-)guitar work is somewhat disappointing. The guitar solos, especially the one on the title track played by German guitarist Helge Enkele (Dreamtide, ex-Fair Warning), are quite good however. The drumming, even though large if not all parts are done by Master Vinnie Appice (Black Sabbath, Dio) is also highly varying in quality: dull on the opening track, fierce in The Beast Within You and (Life Is) Only A Dream.
Lana's voice, which is the key ingredient to the music of course, sounds wonderful as ever, even though the
musical lines, obviously written around her vocal line, are at times somewhat too, well, smooth and rather
cliché. For instance the ballad Before I Go is rather over-the-top, both musically and in the
overly melodramatic lyrics. But maybe it's just me hardening?
Of much better quality is the haunting The Nightingale, which has a very nice melody line, arrangement and touching lyrics. A true highlight is the keyboard intermezzo in The Beast Within You. Norlander at his best, this Bachian arrangement reminds me a lot of Rick Wakeman, later taken over in a more syncoptic way by the Hammond and guitar. This track comes close to the "older" albums in terms of drive and power.
The intro of Tears Of Babylon reminded me of the recent works by Fish. The rest of the track is quite nice, but nothing spectacular. A very good track on the other hand is (Life Is) Only A Dream, written by Norlander and Mark Boals (Ring of Fire, Yngwie Malmsteen), who co-sings on this driving track which works very well. A completely failed experiment however is the modern classic Time To Say Goodbye, normally sung by Pavarotti et al.. The rock voices of Boales and Lane are quite suited for the calm parts but the sharper higher pitches result in screaming and a complete rape of the track. One could not have sunken any lower, I am sorry to say. Fortunately this is made up for by another great Norlander composition to close the official part of the album. The Japanese then get treated to a track written especially for Lana by no-one else but John Wetton, whereas the Europeans (like me) get the track Romeo and Juliet on which I have made some remarks above already.
A very very Lana Lane album, where she does not deviate from the paths well-trodden by her previous albums. Personally I am a much bigger fan of the progressive tunes of her husband Norlander than her more AOR tunes, but all in all there is enough to enjoy on the album. On the other hand, there are also some failed experiments, with Time To Say Goodbye as the biggest of them, so I could not quite give it a recommended tag.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Miscellane - Painted Palm
It is always interesting to get in touch with progressive rock from a country that is not very famous for this kind of music. Prog metal band Miscellane hails from such a country, namely Slovakia. The two central tracks of their debut Painted Palm, responsible almost 75% of the album, are loosely based on a novel, the name of which is not mentioned. Reason enough for me to see what dish these ingredients have resulted in.
Miscellane was founded in 1993 and released their first demo, The Wave, in 1995. Several line-up changes
resulted in the current one consisting of Peter Orel (vocals and guitars), Roman Hubinsky (keyboards), Peter
Bales (bass guitar) and Marek Hrabec (drums). For Painted Palm the band managed to enlist none other than
producer/engineer/musician Paul Speer (of Rockenfield Speer among others) to do the mixing and mastering of
A positive eye-catcher of Miscellane's debut is the artwork by Mattias Norén (who can be spotted in one of the pictures in the booklet). Although the pictures are as gloomy as the lyrics, the overall colour radiates warmth, just like most songs contain a positive twist towards their end - in other words, very fitting.
Dark strings open the first part of Solstice Story, to be followed by a slow, Chroma Key-like
combination of piano, bass, distorted guitars and drums. The mainly heavy fabric of this song is patched with
lighter sections without distortion, which prevent it from becoming top-heavy. Names that cross my mind during
this track are Marillion in their early years, but also Arena, early-Genesis and Dream
Theater. There are some very nice sections in this track (great bass lines in the middle!), but it is a bit
too patchy to me on the whole. I feel that it would probably have been better if those nice bits would have
been worked out into separate songs instead of being glued together into this long one, because the various parts
sound really thrown together at random at times.
A few minutes into the song, the vocals come in. Peter Orel's voice appears to sound very much - especially in diction - like that of David Bowie with a few touches of Midnight Oil's frontman Peter Garrett (remember Beds Are Burning?) and Arena's Rob Sowden. Contrary to these singers, though, Orel sounds rather forced and uptight. I could imagine that this is because he does not feel very secure singing in English. I know from a reliable source who heard the demo for Painted Palm, that the English lyrics on it could hardly be understood. The fact that Orel had a native English speaker record the lyrics onto a CDR, so that he could improve his pronunciation for the album, is very commendable and obviously worked (I think that more non-native English speakers should do that when they want to record songs in that language). There are still a couple of mistakes on the album, but I have heard far worse. However, he does not seem to have practised so much with them that it sounds natural, and that is a shame.
It could be that his problems with the language also explain why Orel often more speaks than sings. This makes his vocals sound rather monotonous, especially since most of the parts that he does sing have similar melodies. My suggestion to Orel would therefore be either to take some English lessons to feel more at home with the language or to start singing in his native language instead. Quite a few bands have done that in the past, often providing English translations with the songs, and some of them (e.g. Kaipa, Quidam, Änglagård) are quite popular outside their native country nonetheless.
The second track on the album, Wings, contains some very nice Dream Theater- and Saga-like parts, but the end result sounds - once more - rather patchy because of the amount of different ideas used within this song. Some sections, on the other hand, are used over and over again, which makes the song rather repetitive. And well... to end a song with "We are Miscellane!" is just a bit too corny to my taste.
In Laments the vocals seem to be a lot better than in the two previous tracks; they sound less strained, more emotional and are more sung than spoken. The pronunciation of the English is not very good here, which is actually not that disturbing since the vocals sound so much better (which more or less confirms my theory above, by the way). The song starts rather gently, then flows into a faster, really nice U2-like middle section and ends with a heavier part, reminding me of Dream Theater, and combined with some Genesis-like (We Can't Dance-era) keys. Nice track!
Strangely enough, the second part of the Solstice Story epic is not placed at the end of the CD, as is the
case with a lot of prog CDs (Pink Floyd's Wish You Were Here, Porcupine Tree's The Sky Moves Sideways,
etc.). The intro of the song is a bit too long, to my feeling, although it is very nice at times. It starts out
with a quiet, bass-driven bit and becomes heavier and heavier by the minute. I especially like the distorted
guitar and church organ part, but then again, I usually am a sucker for that combination. The problem is though,
that the guys start to build up the tension with a certain theme, which is then abandoned for another tension-building theme. This happens several times within the 5 minutes before the vocals come in. After a few times,
I really start to wonder what the idea is, because for me the tension is not rising anymore by then; I am
actually getting rather impatient for the climax in which I expect this build-up to result. The fact that the
climax is not much of a climax and is accompanied by somewhat weak vocals, makes the long wait a disappointment.
The vocals suffer from the same problems as in part 1, which gives the track a rather déjà vu kind of feeling.
Solstice Story part 2 is built up even more fragmentary than part 1. Just like that first part, it consists of a lot of loose ideas and little reminders of other bands, but the connections are weaker. One can once more hear some very early-Genesis fragments come by, as well as a nice fast Dream Theater instrumental, some more Chroma Key, a shard of eighties synthesizer stuff, a silly drums + "whooh, haah" intermezzo, and much more. Still, some themes are regurgitated quite a lot of times and many of the ideas do not seem to belong together at all; the same problem track 2 had. At some point it feels like the song is going to end, but it goes on for 10 more minutes (!), although it would have been a perfect point to stop and those 10 minutes do not add very much to the track anyway.
As mentioned in the introduction, both parts of Solstice Story are based on a novel about two queens in different ages who are both in love with a man who is to be sacrificed at solstice. Since that story does not become very clear from the lyrics though, I think that it should have been printed in the booklet, because the band clearly thought it important enough to send it to the people who were reviewing their album.
The last track, Few Letters On A Tomb, also suffers from patchiness. Once more, there are many nice, both heavy and quiet musical ideas that do not get the space to be explored properly. The singing sounds almost the same as in tracks 1, 2 and 4. Some more missed opportunities, in other words. The song ends with a lot of chaos as if it was played live, and at a point that I do not really understand. Although... it actually does not end there, because there is a 20 second electric piano bit with a fade-out after that.
The production of this album is a bit of a riddle to me. During the heavier instrumental parts, the instruments
sound very full and almost burst out of the speakers. When the vocals come in, though, the instruments seem to
be crushed into the background; all of a sudden they sound very thin and flat, which is a big shame.
Another point I want to comment on is the way the solos are played. I think I have written this before, but I have always learnt that a good solo is constructed like a story: it has a beginning, a middle and an end, and it usually contains one or more climaxes. Both the keyboard and the guitar solos on this album lack a clear beginning and end, and real climaxes are hard to spot as well. I can hear that the guys are able to play their respective instruments, so a bit of attention to this problem can probably solve it rather fast.
Miscellane demonstrates once more that writing a good epic is not easy. A lot of songwriters seem to think that
connecting a bunch of ideas is enough to make one, but if they are connected in a rather messy and/or illogical way,
if those parts are not very original in the first place, and if the length of the song is stretched needlessly
by adding some instrumental intermezzos that feel as if they go on forever, you do end up with a very long song,
but not necessarily with a good one. This is clearly the case with both parts of the Solstice Story epic;
the idea behind it is interesting, but its performance leaves a lot to be desired. The problem is though,
that Miscellane's shorter songs suffer from the same problems as their long ones. It seems as if these guys
were brimming with ideas which they all wanted to cram into the songs on this album, instead of saving them for the
next one, and that makes the album feel rather thrown together.
I think that these guys do have potential, but that they have been a bit too ambitious on their debut album. Maybe it would have been smarter if they had not written an epic until after a few albums and would have worked out the nice ideas that can be found on the album a bit further instead of trying to put all of them in these five tracks and using some of them again and again. A bit of attention to the vocals, the solos and the production would not hurt either, since that would probably lift the band to a higher level.
Although I am not very enthusiastic about this CD myself, I know that there are certainly people out there who could appreciate it. I have, for instance, seen a very positive review in Dutch progressive rock magazine iO Pages. People who are into the heavier kind of prog (Dream Theater, Chroma Key) with winks at early-Genesis, Arena and early-Marillion, like loooong instrumentals, and do not mind something refreshing in this combination like Orel's Bowie-like voice may therefore want to check out Miscellane's debut album.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Hermetic Science - En Route
Ed Macan is back with his Hermetic Science project and once again he presents an intriguing instrumental album. This time round the main musical focus is not the vibraphone but rather a collection of tracks with this time round various keyboards and organs bearing the brunt of the music. Interestingly most of the keyboard instruments are what was staple diet for a progressive rock band in the seventies and this gives the music a very dated classical sound. Furthermore when compared to the previous HS album, Prophecies, the sound has taken on a much deeper and intense atmosphere, a feat achieved also by the switch away from the vibraphone as the main solo instrument.
The recording of Gustav Holst's, Mars The Bringer Of War, is not a new feat for Hermetic Science. In fact this piece of music was already recorded for the band's 1997 debut album, Ed Macan’s Hermetic Science. This time round the music was re-recorded and given a much darker and foreboding interpretation with various keyboard instruments such as the ARP Ensemble, micromoog and Hammond organ taking over various roles that different sections within the orchestra would normally occupy. The result is an original interpretation that still remains faithful to the original classical version, however, one must also admit that this is a piece of music that has been bled dry and there is a limit to how many more versions of this the progressive rock public can take!
Mars The Bringer Of War is the sole individual track that is present on this album as the remaining seven tracks all form part of the En Route suite which in itself can be further subdivided into two different sections. All of the tracks were loosely inspired by the three greatest novels of Frenchman J. K. Huysmans (1848-1907). The first four tracks are all parts of an individual piece of music called Against the Grain, based on the novel of the same name from 1884. The first part is also the only track on the album to feature an acoustic piano, courtesy of Jason Hoopes, normally the bassist on other tracks. Also involved in the trio of musicians is Matt McClimon on drums and percussion.
Having mentioned that the overall style of Hermetic Science has changed does not signify that there is no relation whatsoever with the previous album from the band. However, as happens on Parts Two and Three, there is a stronger rock feeling in the musical setup and layout of the repertoire allowing for various instruments such as the bass guitar to come to the fore.
However, the album does lack a certain amount of versatility and the overall sound does tend to become somewhat monotonous reflecting too much of a similar sound in various tracks. Pieces like La-Bas (Down There) have a distinctive classical touch, very much in an Enid sort of vein. What is striking is the harsh contrasts between the seemingly cold nature of certain compositions and the very different feeling that seeps through during certain solos that convey a more easy listening feeling.
Once again Hermetic Science have come up with a most unconventional album that just does not conform to the sounds that we normally associate with rock music. Having said that the album is definitely worth listening to, but it is not for the faint of heart and requires repeated listening. Admittedly at times the music does become slightly tedious and does require the occasional diversionary sound of guitar or vocals, yet on the whole this is one brave release.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
4Front - Radio Waves Goodbye
4Front is a young band from New York. The band consists of Joe Bergamini (Drums), Frank LaPlaca (Bass) and Zak Rizvi (Guitars/Keyboards), assisted by some guest players. The band has released 2 albums so far: Gravity and the recent Radio Waves Goodbye.
The music of 4Front is mainly instrumental progressive rock, mixed with jazzrock/fusion elements. Two members of the band also play in the Rush tribute band "Power Windows", and I must say that some Rush influences are also present on this album (most notably in the guitar playing, which has loads of those powerful chords). But unlike Rush, the music of 4Front is much more jazzy, albeit never relaxed or goodtimey, but energetic and often aggressive. At times, the band also reminded me of the "jubeling majesty" of Journey, and some of the solo stuff by Jan Hammer and Neil Schon. Most compositions seem to originate from jam sessions, and are not really song based. The sound of the album is quite good and crystal clear.
The first half of the album is a new version of the story of David Bowie's "Major Tom", in six musical pieces. Track 5 in fact is a remake of Bowie's Space Oddity. It's the only vocal piece on the album, also including parts of Elton John's Rocket Man and Peter Schilling's Major Tom. The other five tracks are built around this song, but only storywise, as they all have their own musical themes.
The second half of the album is a bit less prog rock. The progressive approach is still there, but more jazzrock/fusion elements are thrown in, like true jazz saxes in Learning To Crawl and the fast 747, or the singing keyboard melodies in Fuse (with funky bass and synthesized horn section). All that jazz is not my cup of tea, I'm afraid. Best moments are the more progressive pieces, like the nice guitar driven Descent (Camel-goes-heavy) and Memories of Kansas, another good piece, which indeed sounds like a tribute to the band Kansas, and also has some nice violin.
To conclude, I have mixed feelings about Radio Waves Goodbye. 4Front is trying to combine the raw energy of heavy prog rock with the more melodic electronic jazzy stuff. The result might be a bit unbalanced, but rather progressive rock than jazzrock/fusion. However, I found the "jazz" influences too strong for my personal taste (and I particularly disliked the "horny" keyboard sounds on a couple of tracks). The album has some very good and solid musicianship, but I'd recommend it only to prog rockers with an open mind for jazzy experiments.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Lou Maxwell Taylor - Cheshire Tree Suite
Some two years after its original CD-R release in September 1999, QuiXote Music have taken the time to re-press the Cheshire Tree Suite, a collection of thirteen pieces from multi-instrumentalist, composer, lyricist and poet - Lou Max Taylor. A large and able supporting cast of musicians are gathered to augment the album, displaying a wide and varied selection of instruments, ranging from the traditional to the unusual.
Now a little about the music to be found within The Cheshire Suite - with a strong leaning towards folk, a smattering of blues and the odd ethnic influences, led too some of Ian Anderson's acoustic passages with Jethro Tull. Mix the aforementioned with light atmospheric orchestration, some celtic vibes and thoughtful lyrics and there we have the strange ecletic mix that makes up the Cheshire Tree. Much of the music for the album would appear to revolve around Max Taylor's compositional skills mapped out from his keyboards.
The album opens impressively with the The Big One, a gentle and haunting piece played on keyboards, guitar and cello. This is the first of five instrumental tracks and possibly the best of the tunes, although the all too brief Cheshire Tree Segue is superb. The remaining eight tracks feature Lou Maxwell Taylor's voice, both distinct and rich in timbre, ably portraying the messages behind the music. It is impossible to separate the two, the man is a part of his words and lyrics, his portrayal of these is an integeral part of each song. At times reminiscent of Peter Hamill or Greg Lake, although never sounding like either. Lyrically the songs are thoughtful and imaginative, observant and at times poetical, visit Max's website to read for yourself.
So to the highlights from the album, Lost Lake played on acoustic guitar and features Kerry Parker on violin and backing vocals. The title piece for the album which appears in three forms, the brief instrumental Segue, the main song, which again has the vocals of both Max Taylor and Kerry Parker and the final piece of the three, the Cheshire Tree Reprise being the finest. This is the album at its very best, atmospheric, gentle, and sparse. Last but not least is the beautiful duet ballad The Living and the Dead, sung between Lygia Ferra and Max Taylor, add to this the beautifully accompanying arrangement from Vladimir Kalistov (Sintharmonia button accordian); Radim Zenki (Mandolin); Don Reiter (Cello) and of course Max Taylor (Keyboards). Splendid.
This album contains many gems, as mentioned, conjuring images of a travelling minstrel show, albiet with the use of modern instrumentation as well as the traditional. Probably best categorized as Progressive folk, The Cheshire Tree Suite has an airey atmosphere all of it's own and is somewhat unique in style. After numerous listenings I still remain in undecided about this offering. It is possible to take out the several tracks that have become firm favourites and whilst the remaining tracks individually have qualities of their own, as a whole the album still leaves me in two minds. There are superbly gentle and magical moments to be found within the Cheshire Tree Suite, but overall the album is a little too stark and somber for my tastes.
Conclusion: 6.5 out 10