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Reviews in this issue:
Supertramp - Slow Motion
Sometimes you can't wait to play a CD and your expectations are so high that the initial impression can only result in a major disappointment. That's exactly what happened to me when I bought the new Supertramp album. The nasty grey-greenish cover, to begin with, was one of the most boring pieces of lay-out for an established band I had seen in a long time. The inside of the booklet was even worse; no artwork whatsoever, just plain lyrics and a very blurred low-budget band picture as the centrefold. This didn´t really set the right mood for a first listening session, and I have to admit that I was very disappointed after hearing the album for the first time.
I've been a Supertramp 'fan' for a long time. Besides all of the classics from the seventies, which can be heard on Paris and most of the Anthology albums of the nineties, I really like the dark and raw Davies approach of the Brother Where You Bound album as well, being their first album without one of the two creative brains behind the band, Roger Hodgson.
Having bought the new album I realised that I hadn´t been playing 1997´s come-back album Some Things Never Change all that much and I had to go back and sort of re-discover it. One reviewer on the Internet claimed that Slow Motion ended up a far better CD than Some Things Never Change. Initially I thought there was either something wrong with his hearing or with mine. Eventually, after giving the CD a couple of more spins I began to believe that he might be (bloody well) right.
Looking back on Some Things Never Change made me realise that one of the reasons why I hadn´t played the album frequently would probably be the unbalanced quality of the compositions. The album contained some fine to even splendid tracks (among which It´s a Hard World, You Win I Lose, Listen To Me Please, Get Your Act Together, And The Light, C´est What?) but also some rather dull compositions and the vocals of Mark Hart sounded too much like an attempt to replace Hodgson. Therefore, as a total album the CD only rose just above mediocre (for a band like Supertramp that is).
After playing the Slow Motion album for about a week I began to realise that the songs weren´t all that bad. Initially I had missed a sense of adventure in the tracks compared to the band´s classic material, with the exception of Tenth Avenue Breakdown and Dead Man´s Blues. Now, however, I began to realise that the album did contain a lot of mainstream stuff, but quite good mainstream stuff actually ! As a matter of fact, most of the songs on the album really began to grow on me, not the least because of some very fine vocal hooks, uptempo toe-tappers and trademark Supertramp arrangements (Wurlitzer !). As such, Broken Hearted has become a real favourite by now.
Although most of the album follows a straightforward and rather commercial pattern, repeated listenings made it very clear that there´s much more to the music than meets the ... err ... ear ! Even more than on Some Things Never Change, brass instruments create at times a very jazzy and/or bluesy feel, while at other times you almost think you´re listening to Tower of Power (brass section in Tenth Avenue Breakdown). On Some Things Never Change Rick Davies experimented with a gospel approach in some of the songs. Another interesting - and successful as far as I´m concerned - experiment on the new album is the ´Supertramp goes Country-and-Western´ approach of the short but extremely catchy Goldrush.
Another good thing about this record: Mark Hart doesn´t do any lead vocals. He does some fine backing vocals, but he never ends up being a second rate Hodgson replacement. As a matter of fact, overall the backing vocals give the compositions a very nice atmosphere. For instance, since I´m a sucker for vocal harmonies, I love the chorus of the laid-back Over You.
As mentioned, Tenth Avenue Breakdown is the most adventurous song and probably one of the few moments that brings back memories of some of the epics of the seventies. It features several mood and tempo changes, sound effects of a police arrest, several piano and brass breaks and a band chanting session. Good stuff !
In Dead Man´s Blues there´s even shades on Brother Where You Bound; the threatening mood, the tormented vocals of Davies and the Gilmouresque echoing guitar in the background.
But´s it not all sunshine you get on the album. One thing that annoys the hell out of me is the fact
that some songs suddenly fade out when an interesting solo starts (e.g. in Slow Motion and Dead Man's Blues). Is it so hard to come up with a decent ending for a song ?
Also, I´m still not all that keen on the tracks A Sting in the Tail (a rather dull ballad) and Bee in Your Bonnet, although I have to admit that my initial extreme dislike of these tracks has somewhat decreased. Especially the latter is a song in which a lot happens (it´s almost like two or three songs have been condensed in the six and a half minutes); some good stuff but also some rather boring bits, which bring down the overall strength of the song.
Kicking off the album with a mid tempo track like Slow Motion, in itself not a bad track, was a wrong decision as well. It sets a much too mellow mood for the rest of the album; not something you would expect from a Supertramp album.
In conclusion, it´s not a new Supertramp classic like the seventies albums or a prog rock wet dream like Brother Where You Bound. It is a lot more balanced in quality than Some Things Never Change though and deserves a chance to be heard and appreciated. Do expect a more jazz & blues approach though. Highlights: Broken Hearted, Tenth Avenue Breakdown, Goldrush, Dead Man´s Blues.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Saens - Escaping From The Hands Of God
Saens is a French prog rock band, that originally started under the name of "Sens". After their 1996 debut album Les Regrets d'Isidore D. they changed their name to Saens. 2002 saw the release of a new album, Escaping from the Hands of God.
Saens is a four piece band, with Pascal Bouquillard (vocals/bass), Vynce Leff, Benoit Campedel (both on guitars/keyboards) and Damien Gadenne (drums). Bouquillard's vocals have that typical "theatrical" style, not unlike the singers with Arena. Also the music reminded me strongly of Arena, especially the many semi-religious parts, but as as whole it's less heavy and "pumping".
The main solo instrument in Saens is the electric guitar, played by Leff and Campedel. The guitars often have that slightly humourous IQ-style, but also with some Marillion, Oldfield, Pink Floyd, Queen and Pendragon influences. The keyboards provide an effective background, and sometimes bring in a slight jazzy touch, mainly melancholic synth sax or mouth harp effects, which works out quite nicely.
On the album are 6 tracks, most of them structured as epics. The album start with a very promising track, Babel Lights, a complex epic with several musical themes and moods. It starts quietly, with high pitched Yes-like dramatic vocals, and a nice semi-religious choir. Then a more down to earth part begins, with IQ-style guitars and strong theatrical vocals. After a nice instrumental section, all goes quiet again, and with pianos the piece gradually builds up again. The vocals return in the final section, but I find this part a bit muddy, especially the backing vocals arrangement. There's no real climax or finale, but all in all this is a very strong piece, especially the first half.
Next is a nice jazzy instrumental track, Ayanda, in several parts. The melodies are not too strong here, but the playing is tight and adventurous. It starts with moody synths, some synthesized mouth harp, heavy basses and piano, playing over an oriental theme. Then follows a short jazz rock section, with IQ-guitars and funky bass & drums, and a free style section. The piece concludes with a magical part with dreamy, semi-classical angelic vocals and lamenting guitars.
I felt a bit uneasy with the next track, The Crawler. The epic format does't seem to work for me here. There are many musical changes, but the melodies are too fragmented. The effect for me was just: "when is this song really starting"?
Then follows another good epic, Alone, with some nice contrasting moods. It has some mysterious parts, with church bells and church organ, and some nice "tension building" Floydian rhythm guitar. But it also has a more rocking section, with some typical Marillion style keyboard (Garden Party). I think the bass and drums could be a more powerful here, and also the ending section (abruptly fading out) disturbed me a bit. But all in all, this is a nice track, very well sung, also in the higher sections.
The last epic on the album is Requiem. It is sung in French and some Latin as well. As the title suggests, the mood is all quite dark ("tout est nuit"). The band sounds quite original here, and the unusual lamenting melodies mix very well with the beautiful "religious" male and female choir sections. The last track, Epilogue, is not very special in musical terms, but a suitable, peaceful ending of the album.
Escaping From The Hands Of God has it's charm and flaws. Very good are the vocals, and also the instruments (most notably the guitars) are well played. The band creates a impressively rich and diverse overall sound, sometimes reaching high peeks of a strong and quite original prog sound. There are two disturbing elements that prevent this album from being a classic prog album. Firstly, I think the band should work a bit on their arrangements (some parts and ending sections sound a bit unfinished). I also think the music would benefit if the band would bring in some more "power" and let themselves go a bit more in the heavier parts. Because of this, I'd rate the band as "promising". You might give the album a listen if you like (not-too-heavy guitar) oriented prog rock. Also recommended if you like the music of Arena.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Raimundo Rodulfo - The Dreams Concerto
This album is something really special. Rodulfo mixes classical music with rock in a way I have not yet heard before, all sounding perfectly natural. His music on this album is an enormously rich blend of many many genres, from Latin folk music, gypsy influences, Bach to Steve Howe (some sections on the first movement sound like Soon). All this is played on the original instruments (which doesn't mean that there are no keyboards on the album, like organ sounds). He states that, being an autodidact, he had some difficulty in getting his ideas across to the players on the album, but in the end this rather unorthodox ways have paid off. When listening to this album, and especially the first movement, you never know whether you are listening to classical music or rock. So it is definitely not like Ekseption, playing classical tunes with electrical instruments, nor is it like the London Philharmonic playing Pink Floyd, no, Rodulfo is a genre on his own right.
The compositions are a real enjoyment to listen to if you can take the time to absorb them, even though the more experimental Second Movement is a tough one. Many elements of seventies progressive rock, like on his first album Dreams, are mixed between other styles. Here you pick up some Steve Howe, there some Sebastian Hardy, some Ian Anderson or even Keith Emerson (by the way, he does quote these artists in his "thank you" section).
There is no time to drift away too far, this music deserves your full attention while listening to it, and would best be performed live in a "classical" concert hall, even despite the very rocky guitar work at the end of the first movement. The Second Movement is hard to digest, as I mentioned before. The whole section is based on a quite ingenious mathematical model he has developed, which is presented in Spanish in the booklet. I could not follow it completely, but it seems quite well worked out, despite the occasional "for musical reasons we adopt ..." statements, which throw in a more inexact component into the otherwise abstract theory. The end result is a quite jazzy piece, reminding of for instance Spheroe, or other French experimental jazz bands.
In Muestreo al Azar he starts to experiment with digital signal processing techniques. I am not quite sure where these come in and what their effect is on the final result, which is quite abstract and psychedelic in the beginning and subsequently becomes more "rock"-like. There is no bigger contrast between the emotional and impressive first movement and this experimental, mathematical and almost "cold" second movement, even though the last section has its merits.
The third movement is closest to classical music, with the classical, Spanish guitar playing a lead role. There are almost no rock elements, and it is a mixture between the Baroque period and composers like De Falla or Ravel. Only in La Gran Epopeya de la Música y las Ciencias does the rock element return when the drums set in, giving the classical music a new rhythmic drive with the use of syncopes.
In conclusion: for people with a classical music background, combined with a love for prog rock, I believe this album is essential, due to the First Movement. Maybe I've missed out on something, but this First Movement was a unique experience to me, such a joy in creating music that irradiates from this piece. Minor details are the somewhat "dry" mix and some sections are a bit "thin" sounding, could have benefited from a more massive keyboard sound (or even better, a choir). Especially in the third movement I tend to loose my concentration due to fact that no real climax is build. The Second Movement is very interesting in terms of experiment, but the music is not too overwhelming from an emotional point of view there. But still, there is so much to be experienced on this album, it is so out-of-the-ordinary that I will grant it a ´DPRP recommended´ tag. But caution: if you do not like complex classical compositions, and just wanna rock, this is not for you!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Eclat - Le Cri De La Terre
French band Eclat have returned with their fourth opus, Le Cri De La Terre, which is almost entirely instrumental in nature except for the fourth track, La Vie Du Sonora. Eclat consist of Alain Chiarazzo (guitars, vocals), Fabrice Di Mondo (drums), Thierry Massé (keyboards) and Bruno Ramousse (bass, vocals) together with guest appearances from violinist François Fiddler. Stylistically the band has a traditional style of progressive rock with a variety of diverse influences present throughout the album.
From the opening title-track one can note that the band is stepped in tradition with references made to various bands such as Renaissance especially in those parts were the piano forms an essential part of the solo sections. However another important feature of the majority of the music on the album is the placid mellow touch that seems to ooze through. Barclay James Harvest would be a likely comparison as would Camel, both of which are rather more well known for their mellow instrumentals. However there are times when the band overdo it such as on the yawn laden Mr Z which would have fit snugly on a Eric Serra soundtrack such as The Big Blue rather than on a progressive rock album!
Having said that there are a couple of numbers on the album which do deviate from this style. For starters there are two tracks (La Porte... and Aurore Boréale) which have just Thierry Massé on keyboards. The first track features just piano while the latter is a New Age styled piece of music. On Horizon Pourpre, Eclat deviate radically from their normal mellow selves and instead present a piece of music more akin to bands such as Ozric Tentacles as the space rock takes over with some wild swirling rhythms together with a lively violin contribution from François Fiddler which infuses various Middle Eastern elements into the music. Énergies also brings out the rockier side of the band with some wild syncopation that give the band a King Crimson outlook.
Having said all this, the album still has it's flaws. The album does not have that homogenous feel that would allow it to be considered as a great piece of work. There are too many divergences between various tracks that prevent the album from being considered as a single piece, which is what one tends to expect on an almost entirely instrumental album. When the band get rocking they have proven that they know their stuff and some of the tracks on this album are classics. However some tracks seem to have been placed to fill in the time, and sadly this is felt and detracts from the overall essence of the album.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Khem Kharan - Language of the Heart
Collectively Khem Kharan are Randy Booth: Bass, Vocals and Production Consultant; Steve Broadhurst: Drums & Percussion; Randy Hiebert: Electric Guitars; Murray Pulver: Electric Guitars; Ken Kemkaran: Vocals, Keyboards, Piano & Organ; Spider Sinnaeve; Bass Guitar. Hailing from Canada these guys are a relative "who's who" of Winnipeg's top musicians, assembled here by Ken Kemkaran to produce the thirteen carefully crafted tracks that go to make up Language of the Heart. I have to admit that I had not come across the band previously, the original contact coming through a Link Exchange and it was from their website that I heard the title track from the album. There was enough interest within that one track for me to follow this up and get in touch with Khem Kharan, and a copy of the CD was kindly sent to me.
Language Of The Heart, the featured track on the website reminded me very much of Spock's Beard and in particular some of the more song based compositions from Neal Morse. So it was of no great surprise to note that among the many influences that Ken Kemkaran cites, that the Beatles are listed in there. Increasingly Lennon and McCartney are emerging more and more as strong inspirators among the song writing influences, in both the Prog and Classic Rock genres - it certainly seems to be encouraging more immediate melodies, never more present than here.
So what did I make of Language of the Heart, well quite a lot really. First listen through would place them well within the melodic AOR market, as much of the material was ably constructed, melodically strong with a verse/chorus format, rich harmony vocals and tasteful instrumental sections. Subsequent listenings filled in the gaps that my initial summations had omitted. There were many more elements within the songs that emerged on each listening, always a refreshing sign, as each new phrase or nuance rose to the forefront. One band that came to mind throughout the writing of this review was in fact another Canadian band Saga, not that Khem Kharan particularly sounded like them, but that they contained elements that make up Saga's repertoire. Both musics having a balanced mixture of strong song structure but with subtleties and variation not present in so much of what is now deemed as AOR.
I have chosen to not do a track by track précis on this occasion, but rather take an overview, highlighting those elements that stood out and therefore mention here for one of the common factors and major pluses of the music, Ken himself. I found the overall timbre and delivery of the vocals refreshing and not clichéd - augment this with the expression and tonal variations displayed here, makes Ken one of the more interesting vocalists I've come across in recent years. And should this not be enough then couple this with the fact that he writes or co-writes the music and plays the keyboard parts on the album. Another major plus to Khem Kharan is the empathy of all the musicians who naturally gel together and there are fine performances from all concerned. One slight disappointment was that I did feel that the instrumental sections could have been extended and developed, certainly this would have appealed to a greater progressive audience, if not the larger masses. Illustrating this view would be What you've Got in Mind, with its modern day Yes overtones in the chorus and instrumental sections - just at the point in which the synth takes over, the fade-out appears. How many times over the years have I listened to a piece of music only then straining to hear as an excellent section of music vanish from my ears. This is not of course just confined to this CD.
Before selecting a few highlight tracks from Language of the Heart, a couple of other points are worthy of note. Firstly the variation of the keyboard instrumentation, which is not used solely to "fill out the sound" but forms an integral part of music - as in the title track. The tracks have freshness, an almost "live" quality to them, which is a nice touch - although as a minor point I did think the overall mixing of the tracks did fluctuate slightly - a mute point. So recommended tracks, not already mentioned, would be the opening track I Am For You, which nicely sets the tone for the following songs, Say Enough, Clueless, a great rocker with a hint of perhaps Atomic Rooster in the opening riff and Finding Time, a rock ballad, but with the inclusion of a couple of tasteful piano interludes, that set it aside.
Language of the Heart follows firmly within the bounds of intelligent AOR but with the added bonus of distinctive progressive rock influences - this helped to retain a refreshing edge, something that is often lost in this over produced genre. A strong melodic sense combined with memorable verse/chorus structures are ever present - possibly appealing more to those who are more song orientated. My hope would be that on future recordings the band develop and expand more of the instrumental sections, but all in all a nice find and only goes to show that linking up with DPRP works (both ways)! Certainly this CD is well worth checking out.
Khem Kharan are currently working on two projects, a video and the follow up album entitled Idle Hands - due for release later this year or possibly early 2003.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10