Reviews in this issue:
Planet X - Moonbabies
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - a Hollywood chliché? Well, maybe so, but in some cases this doesn't have to be negative. With Moonbabies The-Coolest-Trio-In-The-World™ continue from the same point as where they left it with their previous outing Universe. Derek Sherinian (keys), Virgil Donati (drums) and Tony MacAlpine (guitars) have settled themselves firmly in that nice little niche between fusion and progressive power rock, delivering yet another feast of great heavy riffs and cool fast licks.
So even though the music of Planet X hasn't really evolved much it has to be said that they have managed to create some sort of a unique and very identifiable sound. I cannot name a title to any Planet X track when I hear it (names are not important, Derek once told me) yet it is immediately unmistakably clear that this is Planet X. Certainly not a bad achievement for a second album (not counting the two Sherinian solo albums of course).
Even though at first sight their music seems as if it's completely improvised, the band spent 15 months writing and recording Moonbabies. So you can be sure that each and every note that is played was carefully thought out. This shows in the very 'polished' sound of the production as well (courtesy of Simon Phillips).
As with its predecessor Universe, the music is more power driven and less variable than on Sherinian solo albums (which usually contain the odd fun track, or ballad type melody). The biggest surprises are actually the two bass solos that can be found on the album, especially when you consider the band has no bass player! The album stars three special guest bassists: Tom Kennedy, Jimmy Johnson and Billy Sheehan (Talas, Mr Big, David Lee Roth).
The only thing I just can't get my head around is the so-called 'hidden' track which follows Ignotus Per Ignotum (which premiered on the live registration Live From Oz) after a few minutes silence. A nice atmospheric ditty on synthesiser and acoustic guitar, which could have been a great track had it been a few minutes longer and somewhere in the middle of the album. Now it's nothing more than a nuisance when you have this album in a CD-changer.
In conclusion, even though there is not much progression in their music, their albums don't get any worse either. If you liked the rest of them, be sure to check this one out!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
John Young - Significance
For those more frequent visitors to the CD review pages, you will already be familiar with John Young, as this will be the third related release from him this year. We have previously looked at A Young Persons Guide, and his involvement on the Greenslade 2001-Live The Full Edition. It would appear, therefore, that the musical output from John is on the increase at the moment, however there are no indications that standards have fallen or compromised along the way. Far from it, as the CD in front of me confirms this, with thirteen carefully written and constructed songs.
The tracks are all composed from the keyboard, firmly entrenching John in the singer - song writer mould for this release. Although no great similarity within the material should be drawn from the following list, certainly an indication as to the constructional nature of the pieces could be derived. Early Billy Joel and perhaps Elton John, Sting, John Wetton, Phil Collins and so on. Along with these references though, note should be made of John's keyboard influences, Patrick Moraz being the one most cited, and all of which go to colour the tracks and make an extremely satisfying album.
So to the material, and for the moment we will set aside the music and concentrate on the lyrics. For someone who listens and reviews more instrumentally orientated albums, I quite often tend to skip over this area. Significance is not album however that the lyrics can, or should be ignored. Covering a varied number of subject matters, the words are insightful, observant and serve well the melodies attached to them. Liner notes accompany all tracks, adding further commentary to the songs, and illustrating the thought processes underlying the lyrics.
Having briefly discussed the lyrical content, our thoughts now turn to the music, and as touched upon previously the tracks are constructed in a song format. By this I mean that in general, the songs are concise and tend not to follow in a progressive rock format where the themes, melodies and arrangements are allowed to develop over a longer period of time. We are, however, compensated for this by the depth of the song writing and, as I have mentioned in previous John Young reviews, the selection and fine usage of sounds. This is in itself a gift and not one possessed by all the great keyboard players, in whatever style of music. Careful selection of keyboard parts and timbres is as important in modern music, as it is in orchestral or symphony music. John's classical training has obviously served him well in this area.
Much of the material to be found on Significance takes an easy listening approach, although there is much variation and power in the delivery, as can be found in Just One Day and Papa (instrumental). In this respect it reminded me of some of Peter Gabriel's early solo material. It would be difficult to single out specific tracks for individual praise, as almost all of the material is strong. What does set this album above many of it's more commercially orientated counterparts is the overall treatment given to each of the tracks, making them more accomplished and refined. A difficult one to quantify really - further pointers not already mentioned might be Mike and the Mechanics, Neal Morse and possibly some of Yes' later song based material.
Once again the vocals are well executed, and safe to say now that I have now warmed to John Young's voice, which at times reminiscent John Wetton. Perhaps this is aided by the style of writing here, or the fact that the two men have collaborated on material together over the last few years. Underside was the track that most typified this for me, a piano driven track with a strong melody interspersed with several over-laying and atmospheric keyboard sections. It is these nuances that sets Significance above similar song-orientated albums, whether it be in a subtle percussion part, or a tasteful keyboard motif. The maturity shown throughout the CD reflects John's numerous and varied involvements within the music industry, no better displayed than in Closer. The track recounts "A secret relationship between two spies, a story of love, espionage and deception". A finely produced track embellished by some tasteful guitar from Matt Prior and subtle bass parts provided by Ed Poole - all of which nicely depict the mysterious undercover world amicably.
Before concluding I would like to mention the following items of note. I have already touched upon sound selection, however one further aspect of this arose whilst listening to the solo sections on Just One Day, Open Skies and Under Angels Wings. The execution of the notes, and what makes these solos special, is that they are constructed and played in a very guitar like fashion - Jan Hammer is a great exponent of this, and John has also taken this art on board. Perhaps these parts are by way of pre-empting what others might play in a live performance, but hopefully those who catch these songs in concert, may also enjoy them as they appear here. One final note before concluding would be to mention a song, which I have played over and over. All Gone is a gentle piece with a harp like texture, gentle chordal accompaniment and a beautiful melody. A simple but very effective song - excellent!
John's album is exclusively available (pending major record label intervention) from his website priced £12 or $20 respectively and well worth it in my opinion. As you may already have gathered this not a prog rock album, but we must all be wary not to judge music merely upon the label that is attached to it. Good music does not always have to be in odd time signatures and feature "twenty minute mellotron solos" to be great, (but nice!). Significance is one such album. You do feel with this album, that given the right airplay a much larger market might open up for John Young.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Rick Wakeman - The Yes Piano Variations
Best known for his classic prog rock albums (solo and with Yes), keyboardist Rick Wakeman has also released a series of New Age-style albums, and a string of re-recordings of his earlier solo works. Even for his biggest fans, it seems almost impossible to keep track of all these releases. The Yes Piano Variations seems to be one of his more interesting ones.
As the album title suggest, The Yes Piano Variations contains acoustic piano improvisations on Yes songs. I must point out that the album contains no new music: the pieces were taken from two earlier Wakeman albums, recorded in 2001 (Two Sides Of Yes, volume 1 & 2).
Both had new versions of original Yes pieces, partly on piano, and the rest played in instrumental synth rock versions. A lot of Wakeman fans preferred the piano stuff to be separated from the other stuff, and therefore the record company decided to gather all the piano tracks on a new album, The Yes Piano Variations. And I must say it's a well balanced, thematical collection, that could even be considered as a "new" album in its own right.
The Yes Piano Variations contains six instrumental pieces. No vocals or background instruments are used, it's just piano. The music were all original Yes compositions, but completely reworked as piano solos or duets. Stylistically, the music is quite classical (like on Wakeman's The Classical Connection and the live recording The Piano Album). So it all sounds a bit less New Agey than some of his other piano albums (like the Airs-trilogy or Heritage Suite).
The albums opens with Awaken. The Yes original was a real band piece, but on this new version, Wakeman goes through all the different sections, shifting nicely between the dreamy, breakable parts and the more aggressive moments, with great classy tension building.
In Heart Of The Sunrise, Wakeman gets even further away from the Yes original. At times, it sounds like a completely new song, with original song snippets thrown in every now and then.
The Meeting is a bit less surprising: it's a nice version, but as the original Yes song was no complex epic (more like a gently ballad) Wakeman has less themes to improvise on.
More interesting is Your Move. In fact it's not too far away from the Yes original, but still it sounds very different, and full of those typical Wakeman fast piano loops. One of the best known Yes epics is Close To The Edge. The new version is a beautiful improvisation around the original themes. And the final track, Long Distance Runaround, also sounds like a new song, with lots of new stuff, but regularly returning to the original themes.
I liked this album very much! It might be bit short, and I found the sound a bit "sterile", but for me this is a valuable compilation. With these interesting versions of Yes favs, it seems a must-have for Wakeman fans, also recommended to those who can live without the (often not-so-different and certainly-not-better) reworkings of Wakeman's earlier material.
The one question that remains: when can we expect a Yes unplugged album?
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Caravan - Green Bottles
The prospect of hearing and reviewing new material from the legendary Caravan is always an exciting prospect, at least to me! One of two major bands to offshoot from The Wilde Flowers (the second band was Soft Machine), Caravan always were the more ear-friendly branch of the Canterbury Scene managing to blend the exciting sounds of psychedelia with that of jazz rock. Green Bottles For Marjorie is not a studio album but rather a collection of BBC recordings which till now had never been released. The tracks are taken from the halcyon days of the band when their music was considered at the vanguard of the British experimental rock movement.
The recordings themselves are culled from three separate session, all of which show the band in various stages of the musical progression. The first session is from a Top Gear session in 1968 which sees the band having just released their first album though already with material being prepared for their second recording. In fact Green Bottles For Marjorie, the opening and title track of this album is instantly recognisable by all Caravan fans as the progenitor to If I Could Do It All Over Again I'd Do It All Over You, the title track to the band's second album. The dominant sound on this tracks is Dave Sinclair's Hammond which booms out above the rather subdued recording of the other instruments. Both Place Of My Own and Ride appeared on the Caravan album and encapsulate the essence of the band's debut whose sound was so reminiscent of the rock bands of that era such as early Deep Purple and Atomic Rooster where the power of the band emanated from the organ rather than the distortion of the guitar.
An interesting comparison that arises out this album is the presence of two separate recordings of the Kevin Ayer's composition Feelin' Reelin', Squealin'. Having played with The Wilde Flowers, Ayers was no stranger to Caravan and his track appears in two distinctive versions. The first, 1968 version only lasts just under six minutes but immediately one starts to note the influences of psychedelia, of which Ayers was a prime exponent. This is exploited in the 1971 recording by which the the influences of psychedelic music had impregnated the very own music of Caravan who thus were able to fully expand on this track within their own musical cocoon. As Aymeric Leroy states in the liner notes, "the intense finale is probably more akin to early Pink Floyd than Caravan", an indication of the psychedelic nature of this recording!
In fact the next batch of recordings comes from a 1971 Radio One In Concert broadcast and comes during the period when the band had released In the Land Of Grey And Pink. One immediately notes that the bands musical repertoire had expanded greatly to incorporate lengthier and more experimental tracks. A case in point was Nine Feet Underground clocking at just less than twenty minutes which sees the band indulging in lengthy solos with the remainder of the band plodding along till the cue to change soloist came along. Nevertheless this music remains some of the most intriguing yet underrated material that Britain ever produced in the late sixties/early seventies.
This sumptuous collection of recordings comes to a close with The Love In Your Eye and was recorded in 1972, just prior to the release of the Waterloo Lily album. By now the band was experiencing significant changes within the musical style, a change also reflected in the line-up which saw Dave Sinclair replaced by the more jazz orientated Steve Miller on keyboards. Apart from the technical and clinical approach to this piece, this recording is also of great importance because it would only be a few weeks after the recording that both Richard Sinclair and Steve Miller would leave Caravan.
Green Bottles For Marjorie is definitely not the album that the uninitiated should procure to be able to appreciate caravan. There are several more lavish compilations available on the market. However, this album is of immense interest for all those who like this band mainly because of the comparisons one can make whilst listening to the various tracks from different musical eras which enable the listener to witness the evolution of a classic progressive rock band.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
James Band - It's Been Done
Psychedelic Retro Prog anyone? No, I hadn't heard of it either, but it is exactly what this Norwegian quartet delivers. Very late-sixties, early seventies style prog melodies, played by a band that uses authentic instruments that are probably older than their musical influence. And they release music on... vinyl??
Well, this is certainly one of the most interesting releases I've ever received for review. After two 12", one 10" and a 7" vinyl releases they released this CD which is basically a compilation of tracks from their vinyl releases. After reading about these releases I have to say it's a pity the title track of their second release hasn't been included on this CD. I mean, you can't go wrong with a title like Gesundheitswiederherstellungsmittelzusammenverhältnisskundiger, right?
But strange release habits and titles aside, what about the music? I must say musically the band is equally interesting. The band consists of Erlend Sørensen (drums), Louis A.S. Holbrook (keyboards), Anders S. Elle (bass) and Trond Breen (guitars and vocals) and apart from these instruments all play synthesizer on one track or another, as well as a wide variety of more exotic instruments like bongos, sheep's bell, juice harp, bottles in a tray, squeaky chair, breaking glass, trash can, corrugated iron and an ashtray.
The opener Waiting For The Sun is a killer. It starts with a promising Rush style riff, but then breaks into a Madness style ska rhythm, complete with funny analogue keyboard twiddles, only to give way to... a Pink -Careful with that axe Eugene- Floyd bass line. The rest of the track is a great melancholic song in the Pink Floyd tradition, complete with saxophone and a roaring Hammond organ. Truly stunning.
Next comes Hallelujah, which starts with a fast jazzy rhythm, ditto bass line and a cool organ arpeggio, of which my first impression was something like "The Doors playing Genesis tunes". Surprisingly original considering the rather regressive nature of the music.
The rest of the album is just as varied. You get your Floyd and Genesis, but then there's also Hendrix style blues rock (The Man), Zappa (Rain Dance) and also a very electronic sounding track (And).
Musically it's all brilliant, but just where did they get that vocalist? This is the classic tale of the prog band that is so focussed on the music that their music is eventually completely destroyed by crap vocals. Vocalist Breen sounds like the vocalist of The Cure, trying to impersonate Bono, Eddie Vedder and Roger Waters at the same time - and that's when his voice is actually endurable! At some other tracks he sounds more like myself, in the shower - Not pretty I assure you. Seldom have I heard a singer sing so incredibly out of tune on a studio recording. Horrible!
In conclusion, what can I say? Fantastic music, destroyed by poor vocals. Their whole attitude towards the music they make is very commendable, and they deserve to be heard. So for people who don't mind a poor vocalist so much, this CD offer a great collection of great music, with a wide variety of styles. People who do care about vocals, had better wait for a re-recording with someone who can sing.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.