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Reviews in this issue:
Spock's Beard - Snow
Tracklist CD2: Second Overture (3.47), 4th of July (3.11), I'm the Guy (4.48), Reflection (2.49), Carie (3.06), Looking for answers (5.17), Freak Boy (2.12), All Is Vanity (4.35), I'm Dying (5.09), Freak Boy Part 2 (3.01), Devil's Got My Throat Reprise (1.55), Snow's Night Out (2.04), Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Ryo Okumoto On The Keyboards (2.40), I Will Go (5.08), Made Alive again/Wind at my Back (8.27)
The musical influences found on Snow are also very diverse. Besides all of the obvious ones which were also present on the
previous Beard albums (for instance the Gentle Giant vocals at the end of Devil's Got My Throat) you can also find lots of Crosby Stills Young and Nash-like vocal harmonies on this album, some Beatles influenced songs and George Harrisson-style guitar play (e.g. in 4th of July and Looking for Answers) and something which sounds like an attempt to re-write Genesis Firth of Fifth in All is Vanity.
Of course, a tiny bit of self-plagiarism isn't absent either, for instance in the Doorway-like piano piece in one of the songs. As such, Snow is the sum of influences and developments the band has been going through in the past years, including the solo albums by Morse and D'Virgilio and the Transatlantic projects. Snow takes all of the best bits of these and combines them into one new approach, which is both cozily familiar and refreshingly renewing at the same time. Therefore it seems that Neal Morse has finally broken the chain of rehashing old ideas. What's more, as on V, this CD leaves lots of room for bits of jamming and free-formed improvisations in several pieces, giving it a bit of a live feel (e.g. the jazzy organ solo in Welcome to NYC, the piano solo in Love Beyond Words or the instrumental middle part of Open Wide The Flood Gates).
Finally, there's a very interesting range of instruments added to the standard line-up of the band in the form of violin, viola, cello, saxophone, clarinet, autoharp, flugelhorn and trumpet. Especially the brass section gives some of the tracks an amazingly powerful sound, not unlike At The End of the Day on V.
CD1 of Snow defines the difference between a nice album (read: Transatlantic) and a great album. Carefully thought-out recurring
patterns never take the form of rehashing to solve a lack of material from which the second Transatlantic album suffers so much.
This shows the importance of working on an album for a longer period of time. And recurring patterns are omnipresent indeed ! Besides the obvious overtures we are treated to multiple occurrences of the themes from Stranger in a Strange Land, Long Time Suffering,
Love Beyond Words and I'm Dying. And what strong melodies these are ! Whereas every previous Spock's Beard album contained one or more lesser tracks (or stuff that was just down right boring or mediocre), there is no weak moment whatsoever on this first CD. You are taken on a roller coaster ride of the most emotional, lively and aggressive material ever written by the Beard, all in 8- minute songs, proving that it doesn't take a 20+ epic to impress. Having said that,
the songs on the album flow into each other seamlessly, thereby enhancing the concept feel.
All in all, the first CD of Snow is without a doubt the best single CD Spock's Beard have ever released and is an instant classic ! But ... there is a second CD ....
... and that's where things start going down the hill quickly. There are a couple of very nice songs on the second disc (4th of July, I'm the Guy, Carie) and one absolute highlight in the form of I'm Dying, of which the chorus melody is the running thread through the album, appearing in almost every song. Unfortunately there's also some stuff which does very little for me, like Freak Boy I & II and I Will Go; they sound like second rate fillers to me. Reflections and Devil's Got My Throat Revisited are reprises of melodies of the first half and work quite well, but the complete 8+ minutes repetition of Made Alive and Wind at My Back is really overdone if you ask me. Especially since there's even a distorted reprise after a couple of seconds of silence when you think the CD has ended.
Nick D'Virgilio gets 8 minutes to shine on CD2, which in itself is very nice since it creates a nice diversion after listening to
Morse's voice for 70 minutes. Carie is a very gentle ballad in the June style and highly enjoyable, though the
seemingly smart combination of the name 'Carie' and the verb 'carry' is not as original as one might think; it was done ages ago by
Dr. Hook in their song Carry me Carie.
I really liked Nick's solo album Karma and Looking for Answers (written and sung by Nick, although in a bit of an annoying American accent whenever a word ends with 'er') is a fine song that could have come straight from that album. Unfortunately, this poppy little tune feels somewhat out of place between the greasy prog rock on the rest of CD2.
The rest of the second CD is a collage of bits and pieces that sounds like left-overs that the band just had to throw in, in order to create enough playing time for a second CD. Second Overture is, as one can imagine, another medley of themes from the album (especially Long Time Suffering and I'm Dying), while All is Vanity seems like another collage of unrelated bits and pieces (some of them extremely good though). Finally there's two more ELP-like instrumentals that don't do much for the story; Snow's Night Out (Duke's Travels ?) and Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Ryo Okumoto On The Keyboards. Especially the latter bothers me. Although in itself it is a nice ditty, based on Ryo's solo spot during the Beard's gigs, I can't find the sense in doing it for this album and naming it like that. It certainly brings down the continuity of the concept's story.
Talking about the story, without going into too much detail, it's about an albino boy whose 'different' and moves to New York at
the age of 17 (Stranger in a Strange Land). He sees a lot of suffering in the Big Apple and discovers that he has the gift of seeing things and healing (Long Time Suffering, Love Beyond Words). In the
meantime, the locals approach him with suspect (Solitary Soul) and (I think) he even falls in with some bad characters (Welcome to NYC, 39th Street Blues, Devil's Got My Throat). Eventually his healing powers make him very successful and wealthy (Reflections), at which time his ego (I'm The Guy) gets the better of him. There's also some of the obligatory love drama (Carie, Looking For Answers, Freak Boy) and in the end he seems to go through some sort of self-examination or something (I'm Dying, I Will Go). Without a doubt there's a lot more to it than I have figured out so far.
All in all an interesting concept, but hardly original. It doesn't take a genius to spot the similarities with other concept albums like The Wall, Subterranea and The Lamb.
As an overall conclusion I can say that I personally would have preferred it if the band would have taken the best stuff of the second CD and made an 80 minute single CD. That would certainly have increased the overall continuous quality of the release and would have made Snow an instant classic. In it's current form I would have give CD1 a 9+, but since I cannot rate the inconsistent, filler stuffed CD2 higher than a 7, this brings my overall rating of the album to an 8+. Still a highly recommended album; CD1 alone is more than worth the price.
Spock's Beard's 6th has become a real long player, a conceptual double CD with almost 2 hours of music. The title of the album refers to the main character John, whose pale complexion has earned him the nickname Snow. Neal Morse has never been in favor of making a concept album. Seemingly he has found a person to describe in a series of songs for a consistent album in his freak with the gift of healing, Snow. The story has much ground in common with the Genesis classic The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway (New York), but even more so with the older Tommy by The Who (a peculiar deaf, dumb and blind boy). Also, the shocking adventures of IQ's hermit from Subterranea shows some parallels. DPRP's opinion on Spock's Beard's 5th was that it was a good album, but it came with the comment that it was about time the band/Morse would come with something more renewing. And here it is, Snow !
Despite references to concept albums from the past, Spock's Beard most definitely sings a different tune from a musical perspective. Their sound spreads itself in different directions, with elements that have shown up earlier in the solo material of Neal Morse (gentle, singer-songwriter) and Nick D'Virgilio (frivolous, youthful). This new album sound contemporary, though the characteristic Beardish references to the sixties and for older prog fans holy seventies are omnipresent.
The accompanying press-kit mentions: "The musical style of Snow is a step further into the extremes than the band's previous works. When it rocks, then it rocks more than before. When it's soft, then it's softer than before. And when we decide to play complex parts, then it's more over-the-top than it ever was", which covers the atmosphere of the CD quite well. The rocking is heavy and edgy though the groove never misses in the instrumental parts. I do however think that the vocal melodies and lead vocals of Neal Morse fit these rock passages less well. On the other hand, I do need to add that all of his other vocals are of exceptional high quality, just like all of the other vocal contributions. The harmonies are marvellous, while the Gentle Giant aspect (unruly) has been pushed back somewhat in favor of more fluent styles like those of The Beatles, Crosby Stills Young and Nash and the old Beegees. It's a blessing that practically the whole band can give a perfect contribution to the vocal parts. This is where Spock's Beard is unique in their kind among prog rock bands.
Snow needs multiple listenings to come to a final opinion. I can't fully subscribe to the statement 'more over-the-top complex parts', unless it refers to the unusual sound effects which are used on percussive elements throughout the album. The album is exceptionally diverse with subdued piano and acoustic guitar using singer-songwriter-like traits. In strong contrast, Ryo trashes with the Hammond organ as only John Lord would do with Deep Purple. A roaring bass that sounds like Chris Squire's in his best days. I need not elaborate on D'Virgilio; his unprecedented play is beyond discussion. Every now and then a cutting guitar solo can be heard, but brother Al Morse mainly puts his play in support of the melody. Rock, prog, pop, jazz, classical music and singer-songwriter alternate in a high tempo.
Finally, I have to admit to liking the second CD better than the first one. The songs with D'Virgilio as lead vocalist offer a wonderful diversion in the Spock's Beard sound and a welcome exchange from the prominently present Neal Morse. Also, the extremely catchy melody of I'm Dying, which runs through the album like a thread, is fully explored in the track with the same name. Only Ladies and Gentlemen, Mister Ryo Okumoto On The Keyboards feels out of place on this second CD.
Snow, a monumental album, packaged in a beautiful cover, has no equal in vocal harmonies. Snow gets better every time you play it, but if the album will be able to stand up next to The Lamb, Tommy and Subterranea ..... time will tell.
P.S. There will also be a limited edition release with an extra CD filled with acoustic versions of songs from Snow and previous Beard albums (Good Don't Last, The Light), demo's, outtakes and work-in-progress material and a cover of Yes' Southside of the Sky.
Persephone's Dream - Opposition
Opposition is the 3rd release from this Pittsburgh-based outfit, who first came to my attention after their performance at 2000's Powermad Festival in Baltimore, Maryland. Presenting a mellow prog-rock mix to a crowd who had been listening to a succession of power-metal bands proved a surprising success and certainly expanded the band's audience. Their slightly unusual lineup includes a dedicated percussion player John Tallent as well as a drummer Ed Wiancko, Karen Nicely on vocals and Kim Finney on keyboards and backing vocs. The band are rounded off by founding members Chris Siegle (bass) and Rowen Poole, whose guitar playing sometimes lends a 'metallic' edge to the band's sound, though never so much that they could be considered prog-metal. In fact, the sound contains elements of many different styles and the influences range from the 60s and 70s to the present day, but one can generally place them in with the art-rock/prog-rock camp.
The disk opens rather disappointingly with Bevel where the high-pitched vocal line over a dirty guitar/bass riff combine to give one a poor initial impression. Kindred Soil is an improvement with synthesizers and a jangly guitar sound meeting the sounds of the late 60s/early 70s in a pleasant pastiche of that era. Puppetmaster combines a nice vocal line from Karen and some pretty synth with some interesting percussive ideas thrown into the mix. However with Endymion, it all suddenly comes together in a number which is totally enchanting. The band lay down a more conventional beat while some swelling synths and then some nice guitar then develops the melody leaving Karen Nicely to weave a lovely vocal line that flows beautifully throughout the song. The production sounds much better on this number too.
Unfortunately things dip again during the next couple of tracks, Hyperspace Minefield and Dreamcatcher where despite the band's best efforts to be innovative and allowing Karen's free-form, almost jazzy at times, vocals to lead the tunes, the end result lacks a certain something call it polish or whatever. The musicians work in some interesting sounds and there is once again clever use of percussion, yet the final blend is unsatisfying - as if the songs are not quite the finished article.
Static: TV Talkshow sees the band experimenting once again. Guest Dawn Danyo introduces the number over some TV sound samples before the music proper starts with a tasty fuzzy bass theme. Once again Karen's vocal melody leads the way and the band follow with wood blocks, more tasty percussion and even a guitar break which nods in the direction of Rush. 10th Moon is a delightful even-paced number to which Kim's synth adds a spacey edge. Once again the instrumental work excels, the production's clear and Karen's vocals are nice and strong. Agents of Chaos however, sees Karen straining at times and though the playing is fine, the vocals do take the edge off the song here.
The following, slower number Far Side of Eden rivals Endymion as the standout track on the disk. Its a nice change of pace and one which seems to suit Karen particularly well as she weaves her melodies over that of the band. The disk closes with two of the lengthiest tracks, Stormchaser and Serene Sea. The first of these starts with wind samples and a menacing bass line while the latter brings the disk to a mellow end, fading out to the sound of the sea itself.
To resume, what we have here is an innovative formation who perform some delightful progressive music with a certain freshness and panache, the band's playing is good and the lyrics are worth checking out too. When it all comes together it works well indeed yet in many cases one feels that the production doesn't quite enable them to yield as polished a finished product as one feels the band are capable of. Endymion and Far Side of Eden stand out as the two finest tracks and perhaps the two most accessible yet many others contain elements which make them worthy of further investigation. Definitely a band to watch and as this line-up develops their following CD will be one to watch out for.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Introduction to the Wakeman DVD Reviews
Rick Wakeman - Journey To The Centre Of The Earth
Tracklist CD: Catherine Parr (7:42); Guinevere (6:05); Catherine Howard (merlin) (9:15); Anne Boleyn (5:49); Journey to the Centre of the Earth (the journey; the recollection; the battle; the forest) (40:00)
Originally released as a video, both sound and image quality are not splendid (for instance, under some lighting conditions parts of the image are overexposed). This is fully compensated for by the unique ambience this 70's release has. Wakeman is at the very peak of his genius (the video is recorded on February 4, 1975) and he plays with passion on the stubborn now-old-then-new instruments. Combined with the use of an actual choir and orchestra, one relives these unique historical moments. The two vocalists on this performance (Ashley Holt and Barney James) sound horrible however and manage to screw up almost every piece they sing. Especially Guinevere is pretty bad.
Due to the fact that you get so absorbed by the images (even with the then "groovy" video-effects, which now merely bring a smile to ones face), you don't notice the meagre recording quality. The mediocre sound quality does become apparent on the CD however, which is better than average bootleg quality, but not up to live recording standards. Wakeman first plays some of his tracks from The Six Wives Of Henry VIII before performing The Journey in its entirety, including narrator. The Australian audience (the show was recorded in Melbourne) really loves it. During The Journey, the orchestra and choir are prominently present, which gives some nice shots and sounds. The DVD can be played in Dolby surround mode, and contains no extra's: basically the concert and a menu with titles.
Rick Wakeman and the English Rock Ensemble - Live in Buenos Aires
Tracklist CD: Lure of the Wild (6:43); Robot Man/Paint It Black (10:16); Extracts from The Myths and Legends of king Arthur and The Knights of the Round Table (13:14); After Prayers (7:52); Eleanor Rigby (5:32); Starship Trooper/Wurm (12:20)
During a period in the nineties, Rick formed a band around him called The English Rock Ensemble with which he toured the world. This recording shows the band with Damian Wilson on vocals. As I am a fan of his voice, this already makes it a special release for me. The quality of the images is quite good, with professional camera work and a good laser and light show. All instrumentalists are filmed so Wakeman (Rick that is, as his son Adam also plays the keys during this concert) is not the only person you see. The sound quality is mediocre however. The DVD is in surround sound, but the instrument mix is not so good. Wilson can sometimes hardly be heard. Especially in the first track this is rather irritating, but it improves in the following tracks. Most of the instrumental parts are recorded ok.
The accompanying CD is from a different show, with a different vocalist (Chrissie Hammond). It is the only known live recording of this line up of the English Rock Ensemble. In itself this CD is a big plus, and truly a bonus, but the recording quality is so bad (indeed it is a bootleg and if I'm not mistaken it even is an audience recording) that I've listened to it only twice. Nice goody for the true collector but nothing of interest for somebody who wants a nice high quality Wakeman live CD. The DVD also contains an interview with Wakeman in which, amongst other things, he tells where the cape came from and it is interleaved with excerpts from all three DVD's discussed here. Of these three DVD's I enjoyed this one most for its entertainment value, not the sound quality. The rendition of Starship Trooper was quite special as well, featuring Adam with a "keyboard guitar" doing the solo in the spotlight. It was great hearing Damian doing a wonderful job on Jon Anderson's vocal parts.
Rick Wakeman - The Legend Live in Concert 2000
Extra Tracks: Morning Has Broken; Sea Horses; Gone But Not Forgotten; Elgin Mansions;
Tracklist CD: Pacobel....Canon in D (4:57); Birdman of Alcatraz (4:22); Catherine Howard/Catherine of Aragon (10:26); Seasons of Change (4:23); Jane Seymour (4:19); The Nursery Rhyme Concerto (3:32); Merlin the Magician (4:50); Children of Chernobyl (5:03); The Recollection/Dance of a Thousand Lights (9:35); And You and I /Wonderous Stories (6:37); Guinevere/Lancelot and the Black Knight (4:57); Help/Eleanor Rigby (8:32); Clair de Lune (2:03)
This is by far the best produced DVD of the three. It is the only one recorded especially for DVD release and that shows: the 5.1 Dolby Digital recording is flawless and it is a joy to listen to. Also the image quality is pitch-sharp. The CD contains the same tracks as the DVD, but now recorded directly from the keyboards (so you miss the audience noises), which makes it a kind of hybrid between a live and a studio recording.
Wakeman plays brilliantly but you wonder how much of what you hear has been prerecorded/sampled, as it is obvious that a lot of the orchestration is not actually played by Rick at that moment. The DVD is very diverse in its set list with two classical tracks (Clair De Lune by Debussy [not Debrussy, as is stated on the DVD cover ;-) ] and Pacobel's Canon in D), two "modern classics" (Help/Eleanor Rigby by The Beatles and And You and I /Wonderous Stories by Yes) and solo work from various albums. In between the tracks, he chats cozily and relaxed to the mostly older audience. He made quite a funny remark on his (then) former band mate Jon Anderson: "He is the only man I know that tries to save a planet by living on another one". Hopefully Jon will look upon this remark with the British humour with which Rick made it, now that Rick is back in Yes. I must remark here how thrilled I am with this fact, as Rick is and should be one of the Yes core members. In fact to me, AWBHS is the only "true" Yes, even though I enjoyed Rabin's efforts a lot too (90125 and Talk are brilliant albums). But let's not get into this discussion here ;-).
Apart from the concert this DVD contains quite some extra's, like a funny "Timeline" type biography, full of humoristic remarks on events in Rick's life, some full surround studio tracks, and a collage of photos of Rick's eventful life. I'd say this album is definitely the best value-for-money one of the three. It fully exploits the DVD's capabilities and the audio CD is splendid too, but it of course lacks the "live band" experience.
In conclusion: if you like Wakeman's solo albums (this is a prerequisite of course) and are looking for
a DVD, I'd say buy all three of them, and you'll have all the Wakeman you'll need in quite some time. If
you don't have the money, then I'll advice the following.
1) You are an audiophile, or keyboard player and want to see a brilliant musician in action as a kind of private "master class": buy the 2000 DVD.
2) You're a Yes fan and love their 70's work. You would like to see Wakeman in his glory days: buy the Journey DVD.
3) You love prog rock and want to see a good band perform Wakeman's solo work (and you don't get upset with the occasional glitch in the sound quality): go for the Live in Buenos Aires DVD.
Finally I would like to compliment Classic Pictures for having the guts to release these DVD's. You'll understand that I'll grade them as a package:
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.