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Reviews in this issue:
Star One - Space Metal
Tracklist CD 2: Hawkwind Medley (9:46), Spaced Out (4:53), Inseperable Enemies (4:15), Space Oddity (4:59), Star Child (remixed in Dolby Pro Logic) (9:31), Spaced Out (alternative version) (4:55), The Intergalactic Laxative (hidden track)(2:33).
Star One is a new project by Arjen Lucassen, the man behind Ayreon. After his latest Ambeon-project he was was ready for some heavier material. On his new album Space Metal, he concentrates on powerful straightforward heavy rock. And although this is not an Ayreon production, Star One has the typical progressive "Lucassen touch" all over.
If you're familiar with Lucassen's earlier albums, you might recognise some of the musicians in this new project: most of the instruments are played by Lucassen himself (guitars, bass, keyboards), with Ed Warby on drums and guest appearances by guitarist Gary Wehrkamp (Shadow Gallery), and keyboardlayers Jens Johansson (Yngwie Malmsteen, Dio, Stratovarius) and Erik Norlander (Ayreon, Rocket Scientists, Lana Lane).
The vocals are done by several singers. The main vocalists (on disk 1) are: Russell Allen (Symphony X), Damian Wilson (Threshold) and Dan Swanö (Edge of Sanity, Nightingale), with important vocal contributions by Robert Soeterboek (Ayreon) and Floor Jansen (After Forever). All songs on disk 1 are done with multiple singers, sharing the vocals.
Space Metal is a concept album, inspired by science fiction movies, though the songs are not linked by a storyline or musical themes. The music is all quite heavy, and less diverse than the Ayreon albums. But it's not too different from Ayreon in its more heavy moments. In fact, the music comes quite close to Ayreon's Flight of the Migrator (the heavy second part of the Universal Migrator). Personally, I think it's even better than that album.
Star One's melodies, musicianship and vocals are all top notch. Just let me go through a short song-by-song analysis.
The album opens with Lift-Off, a short instrumental synth piece in the familiar Ayreon style. Then follows Set Your Controls, a fast and energetic piece in typical heavy rock style. Loud bass drums, heavy rhythm guitars, and dramatical vocals. The extremely fast keyboards (mainly by Jens Johanson) are great and make this track sound quite progressive.
The next track, High Moon, is more straightforward hard rock. It's steady paced, but dominated by the low heavy rhythm guitars, and Russell Allen's vocals combine very well with the other singers.
Then follows Songs of the Ocean, another heavy track, but more accessable than the two preceding pieces. Great melodies here, and the beautiful female vocal choruses give this piece a strong Ayreon feel, also because of the dynamically contrasting quieter passages.
The next one is most likely based on the Star Wars movies: Master of Darkness, with lots of exciting duelling keyboards and guitars (by Johanson and Wehrkamp). The multiple singer concept works out very well here, especially the nice contrasts between the dramatical lead vocals and the "cool" mysterious female vocals.
One of my favourite tracks comes next: The Eye of Ra (probably inspired by the Stargate movie). This is a great proggy piece with a very effective use of dynamics (i.e. the shifting between the mysterious organs parts, and the more dramatical parts with heavy pounding rhythm guitars). Russel Allan and Damian Wilson sing their hearts out, and their voices combine very well with the impressive choruses. Wehrkamp's great guitar solo sounds a bit like Brian May (Queen).
The next song, Sandrider, must be inspired by the movie "Dune". It's revolution time: the music is exciting, with ominous low voices, aggressive wild drum banging and heavy guitars with some oriental influences.
The remaining tracks are a bit less rocking, but all very good. First comes Perfect Survivor, a slower track, with a compelling hypnotising rhythm and a haunting melody.
The following track, Intergalactic Space Crusaders is a nice energetic piece, with an accessable Ayreon style melody, lots of organ and great synth solos by Johansson and Norlander.
And finally, Starchild, with mysterious low vocals by Dan Swanö. As a whole, this one is not too heavy. There's even some nice acoustic rhythm guitar here, although Lucassen also plays a swollen heavy electric guitar solo. A great closing track!
Space Metal is available in two versions. The limited version includes a second CD with 7 bonus tracks. Inseperable Enemies and Spaced Out are two leftovers from the Space Metal sessions. This last track also appears in another version (different vocals) and also Starchild (from CD1) returns, but differently mixed.
Another bonus is the Hawkwind Medley, Lucassen's tribute to one of his favourite bands, with original Hawkwind member Dave Brock on vocals. A nice surprise (pity though that Motorway City wasn't included). The remaining bonus tracks are played and sung by Lucassen himself: Space Oddity, a new version of the David Bowie song, and a hidden track, The Intergalactic Laxative, just a nonsense piece with Lucassen unplugged.
I like the bonus CD, but this is just a collection of musical gems, not an essential supplement to the original album (which in my view is far better).
Space Metal by Star One is a very good prog CD. I think Lucassen made the right choice when he decided to collect only heavy pieces on this album. On the earlier Ayreon albums, the heavier tracks have never been my favourites (they somehow seem to break the spell created by the "magical" pieces). But within the - stylistically more coherent - format of Space Metal, the individual tracks are done more justice. The album is a bit heavier than the music I usually like, but it has already become one of my favourites on my "heavy prog shelf".
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
Lift - The Moment Of Hearing
Tracklist Atlanta line-up, 1976 / 1977: Perspectives (9:35), The Toast (5:45), The Waiting Room (5:19), The Masque (8:32)
Tracklist Chip Gremillion, 2001: Wind Psalm (7:51)
The musical history of US prog band Lift can be divided into the New Orleans era, 1972 through 1975, and their Atlanta era, 1976 through 1979. Not surprisingly, as the line-up had changed shortly after their moving to Atlanta, and there is a considerable time between the recordings made during the first and the second era.
As the material on the CD is almost chronologically ordered, we start with the beginning: the Caverns sessions. As compared to the Caverns Of Your Brain CD, the first two tracks are now combined into one, which is the way the band always intended them to be, and always played them live on stage.
The material is marked by the energetic rhythms that you will hear from the first moment on. A lot of notes that you wouldn't expect from the song's title. Quick drumming, bass playing, and guitar and keyboard work, with cleverly written vocal melodies that bring the lyrics in a special way, contrasting with the underlying pace, fitting most brilliantly. Courtenay Hilton-Green has a high voice with a sharp sound that some of you might not like, but is at the right place, and he has a lot of power. Great keyboard solo in there! And a lot of musical breaks, as you might expect when listening to progressive music. The music has a great blend of, let's say, a Genesis sound at Yes speed.
It's not only speeds and frantic play of course, as Caverns (starting at 10:06) will show you. Beautiful Moog and Mellotron melodies alternating with dreamy soundscapes and parts with a fuller sound. A great guitar solo is fierce and still not breaking the tension of the music and well-fitting lyrics.
Buttercup Boogie is back to the energetic rhythms and fast keyboard parts, even more that the opening track. The verses have great rhythmic play, with interwoven instrumental and vocal melodies. A very fast keyboard solo is followed by a more experimental part by bass player Cody Kelleher. He's good, he deserves to be heard, and the mix fortunately gives him the chance. Especially the ending of this song will leave you grasping for breath.
Tripping Over The Rainbow has a fast but still catchy keyboard line. It has a long instrumental middle part taking you to all kinds of places. It starts at high speed, with bass guitar pounding more than the drums, and another catchy keyboard line. More instruments are joining in, before bringing you back at the verse. As in all other songs, lots of breaks and changes.
In this song maybe more than the previous three, many things are going on at the same time. A clever mix makes you feel really in the middle of it all. You have to listen to this through headphones for the right experience!
It was 1974, when the band got the chance to make their first recordings, and they were still very young. It is to be expected that when you return to the studio with several years of experience and a new line-up, the sound is somewhat different. Still, it's the same band. It's less energetic in one way, but it's more like the band were able to model the energy, making the overall sound more dynamic, with more things going on at the same time, and more refined. The arrangements were given more time to grow.
It's always a big change when you have a female singer replacing a male singer. The band realized this, and besides writing songs to get more out of the band's talents, they also re-wrote some songs from the New Orleans sessions. The latter, however, were never recorded properly, although rehearsal room tapes exist with reworked versions of Simplicity and Caverns.
Perspectives, until now the only released material from the Atlanta era, is another song that marks this band as writing songs that evoke different moods. Starting off kind of quiet and dreamy (after an impressive opening, though), it quickly portrays the talents of vocalist Laura "Poppy" Pate. Although quiet, already you hear many things going on, slowly building to the next part - same patterns but with the whole band now.
The middle part starts off with a fast drum and bass rhythm, topped with a great and weird sounding guitar solo, before changing pace and mood again, building ground for another but completely different sounding guitar solo.
The Toast was written by Mike Mitchell and is also sung by him, as it wasn't considered fit for Laura Pate to sing. It shows a slightly more Hackett aprroach of the guitar than in the 1972 session. This song is the oldest song from the Atlanta line-up, the only one breaking the otherwise chronological order of the CD. There's a lot of changing from kept-back to a full sound on this song, with rather complex vocal lines.
The Waiting Room, being the shortest track, is the first song to have less contrasting extremes. However, from the recorded songs, this is Laura Pate's voice at its highest. Less extremes, but still adventurous.
The Masque is weirder again. A mysterious opening section, and vocal lines that, not the least because of Laura's voice, reminds me a bit of Renaissance. A quieter section is sounding almost sweet, but it is followed by a more complex instrumental section. It doesn't sound so complex at first hearing, though, which makes this song getting better every time you hear it. But now I think of it, that applies to many of the songs on this album. This is my favourite song from the Atlanta line-up.
In 1976, Chip Gremillion wrote a piece called Wind Psalm. The band wanted to record it for the main Atlanta sessions, but the producer thought it was too un-commerical. With limited time, the band didn't record it, but did change the arrangements a couple of times. For this CD release, the band decided to include the 2001 version Chip had been working on now and then.
It is a multi-layered keyboard oriented track, with, of course, contrasting changes that you must recognize when you get to this track. The quiet sections have more piano instead of guitar. I would love to hear the full band play this song, especially in the haunting middle section, which brings back part of the energetic sounds from the early days as well. And another great symphonic ending!
It is difficult to give any references. The early material was made by a band of young people eagerly wanting to get their music played and heard, full of energy. Young musicians with all their influences and own ideas. It reminds me of fellow US bands Pentwater and Mirthrandir (I don't think it's a coincidence they are also released on Syn-Phonic - I must share a musical preference with Greg Walker), although the latter two were more into Yes than Lift were. They were all from around the same time, and with the relatively difficult position progressive rock bands were in those days, I bet they didn't know about each other.
The Atlanta era has more experienced musicians. Somewhat less complex compositions at first hearing, but more complex arrangements. But a lot of musical exploration resulting in a still unique sound, which is making it so hard to find any references, of course.
Some of the original line-up are working together again. I have been told they are both working on some older tunes, as well as new compositions. Let's hope this works out, and we'll be able to hear new Lift music! (Although it is not known if it will happen under that name.)
The songs have all been remastered for this CD release, but since the sources of the recordings are very different, you are bound to hear some differences.
In this new version, the album is even more of a favourite than the first CD issue was. From the moment the bootleg LP was released, the music got a lot of attention, as being one of the most important progressive bands from the US from that time. Unfortunately the band themselves only heard about that much later. And even in hindsight, the music still still sounds fresh as as unique as it was when it was recorded. Too much bad luck and maybe the wrong continent for this kind of music? Fortunately, we are now able to enjoy it in its full glory. It is my recommendation you do so.
Watch out for an issue of DPRP's Forgotten Sons, focusing more on Lift's history, and including a review of the unreleased material!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Tantalus - Short Stories
Short Stories is not exactly a new album as it was Tantalus' second album released way back in 1996, though only availnble in cassette format. Due to the success the band attained with their Jubal album, Hi-Note Music decided to transfer the two previous Tantalus albums to a CD format. Thus what one gets here is the original Short Stories album together with 2 bonus tracks. The first is a new recording that involves the present lineup doing their version of Bach's Toccata & Fugue In D Minor, whilst the second bonus track, Can't Say No, was originally recorded in 1993 but never made it to the final stages of the original Short Stories and has been included here for the first time.
The album has a somewhat dated eighties sound, helped in no small manner by the absence of a drummer, replaced (unfortunately) by a drum machine. Though carried out in an effective manner, one cannot but feel that the sound of the drums comes across as being too thin, and this is further exemplified when one compares the original tracks to the bonus material which actually features a proper drum player.
At times Tantalus' music could be compared to the piano bar smooth jazz music which is ideal as a backdrop. In fact they ease through numbers such as the opening instrumental 23 Enigma. The sounds of the eighties seem to have a telling effect on the band whose sound borrows much from the rock scene of that period, especially the ballad-styled pieces such as Light From Dark or the rockier Plans which has more in common with groups such as Mr Mister than groups such as Yes or Genesis. The bands' attempts to fuse progressive rock with a more electro-pop influence would liken them to GTR, though there is that lack of flair about the band that detracts from the overall progressive touch of the album.
Shot Down In Flames is an all out bluesy number with little if anything remotely related to progressive rock and it is actually only on the bonus tracks that the band seems to really show it's progressive rock roots. The only exception to this would be Wherever You Turn which has some eighties Yes-like keyboard progressions and just the right amount of variety. The Bach composition, Toccata & Fugue in D Minor, has been a mainstay favourite of many a progressive/jazz rock band with an inimitable rendition performed by supergroup Sky in the seventies. The Tantalus version is faithful and interesting, yet does not cover any new ground both in terms of interpretation as well as style. The closing Can't Say No features Bob Leek's great vocals and vindicates the reason why Max Hunt has gone it alone and is the sole survivor from the original recording line-up.
In conclusion, Short Stories is an unassuming and rather bland album that features only few highlights, most notably the final bonus tracks and would be of tantamount interest to those interested in finding out were the music of Tantalus originated from.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Rain Fell Within - Refuge
Though the origins of Rain Fell Within go back as far as October 1996, it wasn't until the year 2000 that the band's music became better known, as their first mini-CD Believe, released through Dark Symphonies sold more than 7000 copies. The core of the band, from their earliest days are Dawn (Vocals and keyboards), Kevin (lead & rhythm guitars) and Charles (fretless bass) but over the years, the band have accumulated Tim (percussion), Laurie (live backing vocals), Jason (lead & rhythm guitars) and most recently, John (live keyboards), giving them the personnel required to performed their complex music, live on stage.
Refuge was recorded in the autumn of 2001, following the band's appearance at the New Jersey Metal Meltdown and comprises of material written with and without the band's former guitarist Owen Davis, as well as more recently composed material, to which the new members, Jason and Laurie have contributed. The result is an hour's-worth of excellent Gothic Metal, led by Dawn's distinctive vocals.
The disk opens with Torn Apart, a fast-paced number which contains many of the elements which typify the material present on this disk. While guitars, drums and particularly bass pound away producing a heavy gothic backdrop to the music, it is Dawn's keyboards which layer the melody on top while her Soprano lead and backing vocals, soar above the tune. In the Knowing of You is slower paced and features a neat little guitar solo and instrumental section while The Child Beneath begins with a lovely synth sound which evokes memories of Vangelis's 1492 - The Conquest of Paradise but is otherwise fairly remarkable.
The highlight of the disk is the splendid In My Dreams, a number which begins gently, utilizing nice percussion playing an almost tribal beat, before the guitar and keyboards join in. A cool atmosphere is built up, before the heavy goth sound is allowed to predominate. The "Nothing is left ..." chorus is particularly memorable, as is the lovely synth melody. Then Dawn pours out her bile at some poor soul who has deeply wronged her in Save Your Soul, before the guitarists in the band get an opportunity to shine, with the fine, brief instrumental Winter's Embrace, written by Kevin.
Jason assumes the role of lead guitarist for another lengthy number Into the Tower, where the band have the space to introduce a greater variety of sounds to the mix. Here the guitars weave a wonderful atmosphere in union with the synths while the drums pitter-patter in the background for the majority of the song's duration before the heavier instruments return for the closing section of the tune. Definitely one of the more immediate and accessible tunes on the disk.
This is followed by two further tunes of similar length Sirens and Burned Away; which both rely upon the heavier gothic sound while Dawn's voice soars above them. Dawn's prose flows most beautifully on the first of these and "Forever" provides one of the few easily memorable vocal melodies from the disk. Finally Laurie's song Passing Time on which she also sings lead vocals, closes out the disk, displaying that she can clearly match Dawn in the Soprano stakes.
With the Symphonic Goth Metal scene filling up rapidly with similar sounding outfits, the competition is intense and bands often need a little something different to help them stand out from the crowd. Rain Fell Within distinguish themselves here with the use of two strong Soprano voices, though the booklet credits Dawn with singing both the lead and backing vocals herself on the disk. [The band's website implies that Laurie was engaged largely to enable the band to perform the complex vocal arrangements in the live setting]. However, the soprano vocals are heavily used, too heavily used I would venture to say, and the effect is to suffocate some of the excellent music. While many of the leading European outfits, such as Lacuna Coil, Tristania and After Forever etc, use the interplay between rough (male) and angelic (female) voices to supply contrast, the is no such relief here and the effect of Dawn's vocals (which are perhaps closest in style to the operatic soprano of Floor) is somewhat overpowering.
The band excel particularly on the longer tunes, where there have more space for them to mix the instrumental elements and to utilize different tempos. They are instrumentally very competent and clearly one of the leaders of the scene in the USA. Refuge illustrates that their song-writing is very solid and allied to a good, clear production, makes a fine release which, despite my reservations about the vocal arrangements, I would recommend to most fans of this genre.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Tired Tree - Changing Sides
When I reviewed the first demo of Tired Tree here on DPRP, I stated that it should not be long before a record label would contract him. And indeed, Musea Records contacted Swedish artist Mattias Holmgren - alias Tired Tree - to produce a full length album for them. The resulting album contains the tracks from the first demo - Returned To Leave, The Tired Tree, Leaving Without A Reason, Final Chime, Vipe Away, More Than A Story and The Arrival Of Sophie - complemented with a couple of extra tracks Mattias wrote after the request from Musea.
The original songs have not changed with respect to the first demo. This means the album is still best characterized as a somewhat poppy progressive rock in the vein of Jadis or For Absent Friends, bands with a more commercial sound. The first two tracks are definite testimonies to this statement, where Changing Sides has the more theatrical feeling of the two as the keyboard use is quite abundant here. Holmgren obviously masters both guitar and keyboards, but contrary to my claim in the original review where I suggested that the drumming was quite OK, I believe I have come back on this statement, as the drumming was one of the things that struck me the most on this album: the rhythmic section unfortunately cannot compete with strength of the melodic content.
Holmgren's voice has a very personal pitch and is of the "love it or hate it" category. Personally, I am still not sure which one it will be. On some tracks, he sounds very natural, on others quite insecure and it seems he has difficulty to keep in tune. He told me that he has now teamed up with a couple of other guys, so Tired Tree is going to be a band effort in the future. I'm very glad to hear that, as I think the music will benefit a lot if Mattias can concentrate on the melodic content of the music and leave the rhythmic section to others. Also, of course, it gives him the opportunity to play in a live setting this year, and work on the next album from there. Holmgren seems at his best in the more bombastic sections, like the fully instrumental The Arrival Of Sophie or the melancholic Graceful - The Ending. This first track can be compared to a film score -- in fact it reminded me vaguely of the score from Jurassic Park.
Mattias Holmgren has expanded his demo to a full length album, basically containing the atmosphere of the demo, with a nice booklet. It contains slightly poppy tracks, where the focus lies on melody. In general the mood of the album is very relaxed and uncomplicated, you won't find any pounding guitars on this one! The compositions are simple, sometimes a bit too simple, and not too pretentious. It is a bit of a pity that the tracks of the demo have not been reworked a bit more, spice them up so to say, but I can understand he has had other things on this mind, as Holmgren has created the 3D cover artwork himself as well. Apart from that he also produced he album. All in all a multi-talented guy!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.