Reviews in this issue:
Cirrha Niva - Liaison de la Morte
It is obvious that prog metal has been a rising genre during the last couple of years, and that the particular side which mixes dark gothic overtones into it has been a Dutch success story, with The Gathering taking an obvious front position. However, with their second proper full length album Liaison de la Morte, Cirrha Niva show that they do not only have what it takes to match The Gathering - they can definitely go much further.
The CD is a concept album, telling a dark romantic horror story clearly within the literary gothic genre. The concept is written by Rob Willemse (solo and rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, midi) and the lyrics are mostly in English with the occasional French. In turning the story into a musical experience, Willemse is wonderfully backed up by his companions in arms; Arnold Kloek (vocals, whispers, choir, midi), Peter Vennema (solo and rhythm guitar, acoustic guitar, midi), Tommy White (drums, percussion), Liselotte Hegt (fretted and fretless bass guitar, vocals, choir, whispers) and Wilbert van den Broek (keyboards, midi). The music, the images provided on the cover and the dark story in many respects bring the vampire stories of Ann Rice and the films Bram Stoker's Dracula (Coppola) and From Hell (the figure in the top hat is a dead ringer for Jack the Ripper) to my mind.
Part I October 31st opens the album and the story. There is a carnival atmosphere in the music, but with a certain sense of doom and gloom to it. It takes my mind to the 19th century and the gothic stories set there, vampires, undead, etc. The music is very theatrical, I can really imagine how fantastic it must be to see this music performed live. Apart from the music setting the dramatic mood effectively, Kloek ends this prelude with a short spooky narration (which already here shows the promise of what he will manage so wonderfully during the rest of the CD). So far into the CD, already, I am reminded of concept album maestro and spooky voice user Mr Doctor and his Devil Doll.
Oriental sounding, slow electric guitars open Part II Nightwish. They remind me a little bit of Dream Theater in their slower (not softer) moments, but quite soon one of the main references I can hear comes forth: Saviour Machine. Fans of them should love this. The bombastic doomy feeling is here and Kloek's vocals are not seldom reminiscent of Eric Clayton's. At other times, the voice has a quality which reminds me of Stefan Zell in Wolverine (and seeing that Zell is one of my favourite singers this is meant as a compliment). The track is a longer one (most tracks are not that short on this CD) and Cirrha Niva show that they do not fall into the traps of many a prog band today: they have absolute control of the musical structure. In short, a FANTASTIC track!
Carnival music starts off Part III le Parade. It is very atmospherical, cinematic and flowing. Hegt comes in on hoarse whispering vocals, turning to French a bit in and breaking out into heavy song accompanied by the music. She has a really nice voice and it is just for me to congratulate the band on not only having found one great singer but two. As the music slows down towards the more theatrical (the use of piano helps to create this sensation), Kloek comes in using his voice in a way which reminds me of half-spoken/half-sung bits in both Devil Doll's oeuvre and Pink Floyd's The Wall. In the build-up following this I am also reminded of Danny Elfman's score to (and singing in) Burton's Nightmare Before Christmas. The music flows into a break with a slow jazzy section which turns into faster jazz alternating with doom. This shows how far longer songs can flow out in different styles and segments, while still retaining structure and logic. Hats off to that! Towards the end, Hegt returns and the ending is very bombastic in true Saviour Machine style.
Part IV Nostalgia begins with tinkling keyboards and acoustic guitar, then heavy guitars break out. It turns to atmospherical keyboards and the acoustic guitars return, reminding me both of themes from Ayreon's Into The Electric Castle and Queenrÿche's Suite Sister Mary (Operation: Mindcrime). Hegt's half-spoken vocals are followed by Kloek's and the band then breaks out into a very Dream Theater-like section. After that Hegt's and Kloek's vocals intertwine, doubling each other. A softer section, but never lacking power. More oriental guitars and some galloping drums prepare the way for a heavy guitar section which brings Evergrey to mind. And then Kloek re-appears... what a voice! What can I say, I think I have found another singer to add to my favourites (and not just Kloek's in all honesty and to be absolutely fair to Hegt). A guitar part which reminds me of Iron Maiden flows in, temporarily (and wonderfully) interrupted by a keyboard section imitating Celtic style flutes, folky and nice (and fitting!). The track returns to the Ayreon/Queensrÿche-like theme with the acoustic guitars, and a very spacious feel to it.
Guitars, soon accompanied by bass, create a slow emotional build-up in Part V Mélancolique. Piano and drums come in. The music is soft, yet very heavy, which is a good example of the fact that heaviness and darkness do not lie in speed but in atmosphere, and Cirrha Niva handles this excellently. In fact, I am not a big fan of instrumental music (though some instrumental music knocks me off my feet) which means that it takes more for such music to attract me. Cirrha Niva does this really well. When Kloek comes in with his half-spoken Devil Doll-like vocals after three and a half minutes, I am almost disappointed that the entire track is not instrumental. But only almost, and only for so long, by now I doubt Kloek could disappoint me. The cinematic sensation of the music is furthered by a drum section which could almost have been taken off the Braveheart soundtrack. This section stops and tolling bells create a new atmosphere. Hegt wordlessly sings over this in an esoteric fashion, and the original theme from the instrumental opening returns. The instruments slowly start towards a new crescendo, picking up pace. More Devil Doll and half-spoken vocals haunt us as the track draws towards its bombastically doomy end, flowing into...
...Part VI Echoes. This track opens in a very rhythm based fashion bringing both Dream Theater and Wolverine to mind. The vocals that follow are very much like Stefan Zell's which helps to create these references. But before long, the Saviour Machine reference once more comes to the front. Oriental guitars are interwoven in the melody and sounds of the blowing wind build up the atmosphere. The music slows down and then suddenly reminds me of Marillion (Fish-era). A slow, lovely, raw guitar solo even carries a strong whiff of Steve Rothery. A new build-up then explodes into another bombastic movement which recaptures the opening theme. Kloek again shows how stunning a singer he is, in what a variety of ways he can use his voice, and how well.
It all leads up and into Part VII The Beginning Of.... Accordion and carnival open up the final track of a very theatrical concept album. Kloek (with Zell-ish vocals) is accompanied by Hegt and the music keeps swelling and expanding around them. I can only describe it as a harmonic cacophony, a powerful, ghostly build-up, over which the singers act out. Devil Doll could not have done this better. It all ends with an instrumental and somewhat orchestral section, functioning as a sort of epilogue.
So, how can I sum this up? Simply by saying, if you are into bands like Saviour Machine, Devil Doll, Wolverine and/or Evergrey (or darker, more gothic prog metal/metal in general), you not only should, BUT MUST give these guys (and gal) a chance. I am pretty sure you won't regret it. As for me, I just hope and pray that they can get their paths by Sweden, because if they sound this visual how good will it not look? So to everyone close to Holland, a word of advice... I do believe the Liaison de la Morte stage show will return again shortly. Do not miss that. And in the meantime, GET THIS CD!
Conclusion: 9- out of 10.
Snowy White & The White Flames - Restless
Once again I admit that this isn't really progressive rock, although one might easily label Snowy White's music as progressive blues rock, progressive in the sense that it uses structures and arrangements, as well as a sometimes almost psychedelic free-formedness, that are uncommon to regular blues. On top of that Snowy is a figure of major interest to those people following Pink Floyd and Roger Waters. Not only did Snowy act as additional guitarist during Pink Floyd's 77 tour and several concerts for The Wall, he also appeared with Roger Waters at the Wall show in Berlin (being one of the people that saved the show from becoming a complete has-beens horror) and Waters' In the Flesh live tours during the last 3 years.
Many people who have seen Roger Waters live recently have complained about the guitarists not being able
to compete with David Gilmour. Well, that might be true but I for one can assure you that imitating
Gilmour would be the last thing that Snowy would want to do. If you hire Mr. White you'll get Mr. White and not some surrogate Gilmour. That might be to the dislike of many people, but for me the sound of
Snowy's solos sounded very nice and familiar. When playing this new album to one of the other DPRP team members, he said ´This is pretty good, why didn't he play like this at the Waters' show ?'. Well, he
did, but you were hoping for a Gilmour sound.
More than ever, the style of Snowy's playing reminds me of Mark Knopfler and the Dire Straits. Another good reference would be Andy Latimer's play on Rajaz (the track); if you like that guitar solo you definitely have to check out some of Snowy's work.
As with his previous 4 studio albums, Snowy is once again joined by Dutch rhythm section Juan van Emmerloot (drums) and Walter Latupeirissa (both also play in a band called King Popta). Both gents have already proven their high musical qualities on those albums and their spectacular live
gigs (besides being very likeable chaps).
Another good thing about the album is the return of John 'Rabbit' Bundrick on Hammond (and Grand Piano) on most. Rabbit has previously added some great organ sounds on Snowy's albums Highway to the Sun (94) and No Faith Required (96) but had unfortunately been absent from the line-up on Little Wing (98) and Keep Out We Are Toxic (99). Although Snowy, Walter and Juan have proven to be able to rock out with the three of them (ask anybody who ever went to see them live), Rabbit's organs add that necessary extra bit of atmosphere.
Another great addition to the overall sound of the album are Jody Linscott and Thomas White on various percussion instruments.
Let's have a look at the individual tracks. Blues is the Road is a nice groovy toe-tapper in true Snowy style not unlike some of the songs on Highway to the Sun. The Time Has Come is a remake of a song from the Highway to the Sun album. The main difference is the percussion, making this an even more laid-back ballad than the original. Still, it sort of escapes me why this remake was necessary.
The track order for track 3 and 4 is incorrect. The song that is referred to as Restless is
actually the short Restless Too (and the other way around). Restless Too sounds like a spontaneous studio jam and therefore reminds me of Snowy's free-formed live performances. It ends with
one of the sharpest guitar solos on the album and some great percussion.
Restless, written by Snowy and Juan, is one of the best tracks on the album. It's got it all: groovy bass-line by Juan, great percussion, fine tension-building, lots of weird breaks and of course great guitar work. This is one of the tracks that reminds me most of the No Faith Required period. Rightfully the title track of the album.
You Can´t Break My Heart is another bluesy ballad. Nice but nothing special and being this close to
The Time Has Come makes it sound a bit overdone. Fortunately the next track offers a chance to rock out; It´s Your Life is a more powerful up-tempo track with a great guitar riff.
On to the next track, Softly, or as a matter of fact, let's just skip that one since it's an enormously boring slow instrumental with Knopfler-style playing (as in some of his movie scores). Definitely the least interesting song on the album (unless you like Earl Klugh).
Soldier of Fortune starts as a ballad but soon moves into a long spooky experimental section, featuring both electric and Spanish guitars. Again, this reminds me of the free-formed live renditions of some of the No Faith Required material. In the last part of the song we return to the initial ballad melody. The only complaint I have about this song is the feeling of anti-climax you're left with when the song ends. As many of the classic long songs by Snowy it seems to work towards a roaring climax, which never really happens.
The second instrumental of the album, New Day ... Maybe, is much better than Softly.
More groovy bass, fine African percussion, washes of synths and an overall very mysterious mood. Jungle expedition music ! Not unlike Slave Labour on No Faith Required.
The closing track Too Far Away is another long one. It's one of those songs where the lyrics are more spoken than sung. The atmospheric first half does not feature any drums, but lots of percussion. Drums kick in gently half-way through the song and in the end we do get a fine climatic guitar solo. Fine track !
Snowy´s previous album Keep Out We Are Toxic, though enjoyable, never reached the same level as Highway to the Sun, Little Wing and the brilliant No Faith Required (his best album so far, as far as I'm concerned). Restless is not on par with these classics either, but compares to Keep Out ... it is a step back in the right direction. Still, overall the album sounds a bit too tame and the moments where the band really rocks out are too sparse. Best tracks: Blues is the Road, Restless, Too Far Away.
There are two versions of this CD, the one by Hypertension I reviewed and another version by some Portuguese label featuring an enhanced section with a video presentation and different pictures in the package.
Conclusion: 8- out of 10.
Emerson Lake & Palmer - Pictures at an Exhibition (DVD)
I saw this film many years ago at the cinema, in those days it was still possible to see something other than the latest "Blockbuster" films on a large screen. So this DVD package came as a pleasant surprise and allowed me to re-kindle some past memories. The original concert was recorded in December 1970 at The Lyceum, London and only a few months after the band's debut, at the last of the Isle of Wight festivals. It should be noted here that this is not the same concert as is featured on the Pictures at an Exhibition album The band chose to re-recorded Pictures in March the following year at Newcastle City Hall (UK).
Originally the Lyceum concert was also to be the album version, however sound man Eddie Offord was not available for the London concert, and the resulting recording was not to ELP's satisfaction, as were some aspects of the band's personal performances. Having said this the sound quality is remarkably good considering its age and the few notational glitches make the band seem more human. The DVD captures Emerson, Lake & Palmer prior to their international status, so no lavish stage sets yet. The concert is in fact quite intimate and catches the three musicians hungry for success and firing on all cylinders - good performances from all concerned. Even at this early stage in their careers the trademarks are there, Emerson's dexterity as a keyboard player amply displayed and coupled with his now legendary on-stage antics. Greg Lake's clear and precise vocals, gentle acoustic guitar and the solid bass sections which adhered Keith Emerson and Carl Palmer together. Carl still in his teens at this time, showing why he was one of the most talked about drummers of his era.
The DVD offers two audio formats - PCM Stereo and 5.1 Dolby Digital. Additional features also include a Band History, Photo Gallery, Discography, Art Gallery and Profiles of both the band & Mussorgsky. Track selection is available but my suggestion would be to watch it through first time around. Something had stuck in my mind regarding the original film and why I had not pursued a copy earlier. Then I remember why, (we should note at this time we were just leaving the 60's), it was the overlaying of psychedelic images and comic strip cartoon pictures. Obviously at the time, this was state of the art graphical editing - in reality it was irritating then and it still is now. Having said this it appears only periodically during the concert.
I feel that there is very little further information to offer on Messrs Emerson, Lake & Palmer's already well documented careers, so my hat goes off to Classic Pictures, who have taken the time to re-release material that otherwise I feel would be lost for all time. I see little prospect that commercial television, let alone MTV and it's derivatives, would ever consider showing unique footage such as this. So go and buy it - as a ELP fan a must and if not sure, worth checking to find out what all the fuss was about.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Higher Circles - Ritual One
Ritual One is the debut CD by Californian prog rockers Higher Circles. Although this is their first album, the band - consisting of Norman Windrose (guitars, lead vocals), Steve Moore (guitars, keyboards, bass, vocals) and Ken Geer (drums, percussion) - has been around since 1983 in more or less the same form and shape. So after 18 years, it was probably about time for these guys to get something on a silver disc for people to hear them in a wider circle.
The first three tracks, Premonition, Introvert and Some Empty Heaven are connected, with the first two
serving as short instrumental preludes. Premonition is a short keyboard based piece, allowing Moore to weave a dark,
atmospherical opening to the CD, whereas Introvert introduces sharp rhythmical guitars (in the vein of Rush).
This is the track which allows all the members to show their talents, and the slow hard rock that is the result is very
The track which all this leads into, Some Empty Heaven, places Higher Circles quite clearly in the neoprog family, together with bands like IQ, Marillion and Pendragon - though often with a darker undertone, which I like. As neoprog bands go, they hack it well (and there are far too many out there that do not), but what ultimately pulls things down a bit for me becomes clear in this track: Windrose's vocals are not top notch. In fact they are far too often below par. Whereas the music works well, relying on neoprog, Rush and Pink Floyd, I cannot help wondering why Windrose does not burst out in a more emotional manner (like for instance Geddy Lee of Rush). The result is a voice that reminds me of Nick Barrett (Pendragon) a bit too much, becoming unemotional, strained and rather dull. This is really a shame as the music has a bite that deserves better - the guitar playing for instance is great.
The fourth track, Blur, starts up with nice bass lines and a build-up which echoes Xanadu (one of Rush's greatest songs in my book). Windrose is still pulling the results down by holding back. At times I get the feeling that he could do better, if he would just let go a bit more. Also, I think it is sad that the heavier sections in this song are never used vocally. Higher Circles are not alone in this feature, my most prominent and recurring example would be The Flower Kings, who can sometimes drive me nuts by excluding vocals in such a manner. The heavy section is, however, really good, and it remains obvious that this is a band with potential.
Second Thought opens in a Marillion-esque manner, but soon veers off in a Rushy direction with some more power to its edge. Even though Windrose lingers near the Barrett quality in his voice, he also manages to rise above it quite a lot in this track. In the middle he is even touching a very emotional nerve. After a soft middle part with sampled mellotron (used very fittingly) the voice gets more annoying again. He manages to get above that once more as the song breaks loose again. Finally there is a short pause or break before some nice guitars finish the track off. With the mostly OK vocals this track becomes the best so far. And the melody and guitars are really good no matter how one looks at it.
Music with breaks, rhythm and heavy organ is the starting point for Eleven Seconds. The vocals are now really better. They break at some point, but there is some raw emotion and also - vocals to heavier music. This shows that they do, even vocally have potential (I just wish they would use the vocal potential better over all). The song is flirting with Iron Maiden but adding its own flavour. In a slower section, there are spoken vocals with effects and repetitive guitars holding the atmosphere. As in the previous track, there is a break at the end, followed by a renewed instrumental bit (only a couple of seconds). This time, however, it seems less fitting and a bit more overdone; merely a repetition of what worked in the last track.
Abstrusus reminds me a lot of IQ, Marillion and Pink Floyd. Soft guitars and keyboards support the vocals, which manage to achieve some emotional touch... on and off. At times, I hear the Nick Barrett quality, but a lot of the times an Ayreon-like vocal melody manages to give Windrose's voice some strength. The last "I'm free" bit is, in fact, great. The track ends with rhythmical, Rushy guitars.
Track eight, A Really Weird Rest, is an instrumental track filled with wicked guitars, great rhythms and nice keyboards. At times, I think that Geer's drumming sounds a bit dodgy in the beginning, but I cannot entirely put my finger on it. In certain places the drums have a very Iron Maiden-like drive. At the end there is another, not that well fitting, pause before the actual finish. As this is the second time this happens, I am a bit puzzled - is this to be a trademark trick?
The next song, the roughly one minute long Patch, is quite fascinating. It is entirely a cappella with the only exception that the vocals are echoed with effects. This creates a Pink Floyd-like, slightly electronic atmosphere and works great. As for the vocals themselves... I have no beef with them here.
Atmospherical keyboards and very Floydy guitars open Stigmata. This opening is fantastic, though a wee bit at odds with the more straight forward rock melody that follows. It is well played and nice, however, so no complaints there. Windrose manages to avoid his Barrett act quite well, but a lot of the time, the vocals are just way too strained. It does not help that the lyrics here are a bit cheesy. But to give Windrose some credit the delivery of the line "I'm cutting in", just before the instrumental break out is good, the half spoken vocals during an atmospherical section are OK (the section as such is a bit 'hm?', mind you) and the screamy section at the end (with heavy guitar and oriental flavour) is an improvement, though still a bit so-so. All in all, this is quite a bad track. It is far too split up, lacking necessary coherence, and that is a shame, because the guys can do better. Also, I think they waste some ideas here that could have been better worked out as songs in their own right.
A rhythmical opening with soaring guitars slowly starts up Samurai With A Gun. When the keyboard comes in, there is a definite IQ/Marillion reference, with an added clear oriental flavour. Windrose really convinces me in this song, the guy can sing (which makes me wonder all the more why he so often does not show it). The music keeps swelling in a rhythmical fashion, well tempered by classical neoprog. There is a good instrumental bit, among other things containing a part which reminds me of Savatage's great album Dead Winter Dead. Towards the end, the track slows down creating a sort of Queensrÿche's Operation: Mindcrime atmosphere, with half-spoken vocals. On an echo of these vocals, it flows into the epilogue...
...Beyond. This is another instrumental track, and, like Premonition, it is entirely keyboard based; written and performed by Moore. It is all about atmosphere, a watery feeling. I have been wondering if maybe this track is a bit superfluous (and it might be the case), but I think it is a way of winding down after the album. Just close your eyes and float away.
Now, for a final verdict... This is good music, performed by qualified musicians who mostly know how to write music. They do have improvements to make before their next album, but I am curious enough about whether or not they can pull that off, that I would like to hear the next album. And that is a good start. For people who do not pay attention to vocals that much, or who adore Nick Barrett, do not hesitate to try this CD out. As for me, I will save the higher grades for next time and hope that Windrose either pulls his act together (I know he CAN do that, I have heard enough to know that) or a better singer teams up with the band.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Parallel or 90 Degrees - More Exotic Ways to Die
Parallel or 90 Degrees have released some interesting albums, like
AfterlifeCycle (97), The Time Capsule (1998/99) and Unbranded (2000). Their sound is quite recognisable, with strong influences by the 70's prog rock band Van Der Graaf Generator, and Peter Hammill.
More Exotic Ways to Die is their most recent release.
PO90D's earlier albums were full of melancholic prog rock, with hypnotising spacy sounds and fusion elements. The new album is quite different. The song writing was more a group effort, and the recordings took place in a more spontaneous atmosphere, with less overdubbing. This has resulted in a less introvert album, with a live-in-the-studio atmosphere (and in fact some parts were recorded at live gigs).
The music on the new album is more aggressive and powerful (with often uncompromising sound eruptions), and also more guitar dominated. Still, most of the recognisable elements of earlier PO90 albums are present here.
Just let me take you through a short song-by-song analysis: The first 7 tracks are separate songs that are called the More Exotic Ways To Die Sequence.
The albums opens with Impaled on Railing. I expected a moody instrumental part to set the atmosphere, but instead the band immediately bursts out in an aggressive, energetic rocking track. Very modern sounding, and with melody lines full of Vandergraaf / Hammill influences.
The second track is A Man of Thin Air. The song melody is a bit monotonous, but it contrasts well with the heavy instrumental parts, with lots of aggressive guitar and organ. The uneasy, nightmare-like sound reminded me of a heavy Porcupine Tree and some Radiohead. This also goes for most of the other tracks.
The next track is more like my personal taste: Embalmed in Acid, a more quiet song, with a melody that sounds like Peter Hammill in his finest moments, and with a beautiful vocal arrangements (with the b-vox woven around the main melody line). Very good piece!
Next is probably the most uncompromising track on the album, The Heavy Metal Guillotine Approach. A grotesk and noisy piece, with some very good aggressive guitars, but as a whole just too loud and too much modern "noise" for me.
Then it's chill out time. Two instrumentals are next: Drum One is a strange avant garde experiment with hypnotising house music elements, which works out extremely well (even for proggers). The other instrumental is a short piece with a long title: The One That Sounds Like Tangerine Dream. It sounds like the early pre-sequencer TD; and it's an atmospheric soundscape, serving as a resting point.
The epic A Body In Free Drift is a great powerful piece. The first part reminds me of VDGG's Plague of Lighthouse Keepers (distorted vocals, and the same combination of dark suspense and powerful dramatic parts), but the music gradually moves into a more modern direction, with quite aggressive guitar, synths and organ. Nice one!
Then follows The Dream, a weird, but effective short piece, with spoken vocals and thunderous instrumental outbursts. It (more or less) segues into Petroleum Addicts, another good powerful epic that closes the album.
With its 48 minutes, the album is quite short, but it has a multimedia section which adds about TWO HOURS of extra music (mostly mp3 files). What you get here is in fact three complete albums:
- a PO90 compilation album, Enjoy Your Own Smell;
- the album Running Rings, recorded by a pre-PO90 line-up in 1989;
- a re-recording of Pink Floyd's Dark Side Of The Moon album, played by PO90 in 1996.
Also some more stuff is included, like a video track (Migraine) and some songs from the This is not the End of the World album (by the pre-PO90 lineup). I won't go into a detailed evaluation of the multimedia section, but I must say this is extremely good value for money!
To conclude: the new PO90 is a bit harder to digest than their earlier albums. It took me quite some spins to really get into the music. The band seems to be experimenting with new ways to modernise or reshape the more traditional prog rock sound. If I were to use the word "neo-progressive", I'd use it for this album. The final result is difficult to compare with the earlier PO90 stuff. I personally prefer the more melodic AfterlifeCycle album, but I found the new album another very strong musical statement, with a fresh, heavy and modern approach. And of course, there's the extensive multimedia section as a convincing bonus.
Conclusion: 8- out of 10.