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Reviews in this issue:
Coldplay - A Rush Of Blood To The Head
A year and a half ago I was very much impressed by the debut album of this young band: Parachutes. Their music balanced perfectly on that thin line between alternative rock and progressive pop. I'll start my review by saying these two things:
1) It's less 'prog' than its predecessor, so Prog Police better stop reading and move on to the next review. Gone? Good!
2) It's miles better than their already great debut, and since I know many prog fans appreciated that album, a review of their new album only feels justified.
Since the release of Parachutes the band has reached mega-stardom, yet despite this the foursome consisting of Chris Martin (vocals, piano, guitars), Jon Buckland (guitars), Guy Berryman (bass) and Will Champion (drums) has remained a remarkably down-to-earth bunch of guys. Earlier this year the band declined a 55-million pound offer to use some of the tracks off Parachutes in various commercials. Partly as a protest against the commercialisation of the music industry, but more so as a protest against some of the clothing companies offering them that kind of money, while the product they sell is manufactured by underpaid workers in third-world countries. Instead they are fervent supporters of the Make Trade Fair organisation, as well as various other charity organisations.
Were they hailed as some sort of new Oasis at their first album, they now seem to head in the direction of a new U2. Not bad for a bunch of guys in their early twenties, who have released only their second album.
The album opens heavily with Politik, which is heavier and more bombastic than anything the band has done before. It is said the song was written in the week after the 9/11 attacks and is a statement against the cowboy politics of many world leaders, whose muscle talk can hardly be called intellectual (hence the misspelled title). The song alternates heavy, psychedelic choruses with mellow verses and the quiet mid section has a very subtle, almost unnoticeable change in time-signature followed by some of the most beautiful and effective chord progressions I have heard in my life. Brilliant stuff.
In My Place is the first single of the album and feels almost like the obligatory hit single. Not bad by any means, but in comparison to the rest of the album hardly interesting. Both musically and vocally it sounds quite like the biggest hit of the previous album: Yellow.
The next track God Put A Smile Upon Your Face is the first of many that brings them into U2 territory. It is as if The Edge himself guests on the guitar here, with Champion's rhythm copying that of Larry Mullen's in the U2 version of All Along The Watchtower.
Next up is the new single of the album, slated for release later this month, The Scientist. It's a beautiful ballad, which starts with just Chris Martin accompanying himself on piano. After about two minutes the rest of the band comes in slowly, building up tension with each couple of bars. This may not be the best choice as a new single, as it's not as commercial as In My Place, yet it gives a better view of the type of music that can be found on the album. Also lyrically this is typical Coldplay, with yet another account of Chris Martin's seemingly many failed relationships.
Again we find U2 references towards the end of the track, with Buckland playing very Edge-like riffs of the guitar, and Martin howling in the background.
Clocks is another one of my favourites, with a very catchy looping piano melody and an odd trotting rhythm which seems so simple, yet is incredibly ingenious, alternating a 6/8 with a 1/2 time-signature every other bar. Once again the sound comes close to U2, especially the vocals and the guitar, yet the piano gives the music a more typical flavour. Superb stuff, it just sounds so simple, yet so ingenious.
After two piano dominated tracks we get some more guitar again. A roaring slide guitar intro starts Daylight, which has yet another seemingly simple trotting like rhythm.
Next up is the sweet Green Eyes which has a slight Oasis feel, after which the U2 feel comes back with the melancholic Warning Sign which sounds a lot like a post-Achtung Baby ballad, with that little string arrangement in the background. The lyrics tell another heartbreaking account of a failed romance, the type of which Coldplay songs are full of. However, unlike for example Porcupine Tree, depressing lyrics don't necessarily result in depressing music, on the contrary, musically Warning Sign is quite uplifting, as is the next track A Whisper. This is bit of a noisy, psychedelic rocker of which the guitar makes me think of Creedence Clearwater Revival yet the lyrics tell of another (or the same) failed romance.
Another highlight is the title track of the album, A Rush Of Blood To The Head, which features once again a beautiful vocal melody, showing the full range of Chris Martin's excellent voice. It's the longest track on the album, clocking in at just under 6 minutes.
Closer Amsterdam is not, as you might expect, about drugs and hookers encountered during life on the road, but instead a fragile personal account of Chris Martin's first girlfriend who just happened to be Dutch (at least, that's the story he told when he introduced it live last summer). It's a beautiful piano/vocal ballad with a very Beatles feel over it. A Hammond organ and some guitar effects add to the mysterious feel of the track and the rest of the bands gets to shine in the massive ending. A worthy closer of an excellent album.
It may be obvious from my review that I'm quite impressed with the album. For any artist who strikes gold with his debut - whether this be a record, a book or a movie - it is difficult to come up with a follow-up. Expectations are high and pressure from management and record label is even higher, as a follow-up has to be released before the hype or fashion trend is over (especially in the US people tend to forget about anyone they don't hear from for more than six months). Apparently Coldplay had been under a lot of pressure from EMI to create the follow-up to Parachutes and this pressure nearly killed the natural creative process of writing music. The band fled the fancy five-star London studio their label had put them into and took refuge in the small studio in Liverpool where they had recorded Parachutes. It was in this studio that the creative process finally got going and although instead of two weeks it took them nearly seven months to complete the album, their label let them take their time to create this great album.
To come back to my intro of this review. It has less prog influence than Parachutes (which had some distinct Floyd influences) but it is the type of music many a prog fan can relate too. The numerous U2 influences, but also similarities to bands like Radiohead and Porcupine Tree are enough to warrant this.
With A Rush Of Blood To The Head Coldplay shows they have have matured. Not only musically, it's also evident in the lyrics as it's not just sorrow for the broken hearted anymore, but Chris Martin also addresses other subjects like aforementioned politics and the 'make trade fair' issues. If Parachutes was a great album, then A Rush Of Blood To The Head is nothing short of a masterpiece.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
Elegant Simplicity - Architect of Light
Ten years and fourteen studio albums surely must make Elegant Simplicity one the UK's most prolific progressive rock entities, and so nearly, one that may have been cut short earlier this year. Steven McCabe, the principal architect (sorry for the pun!), having been involved in a major road accident. Thankfully, now well on the way to a full recovery and certainly on the musical front, none the worse for the trauma, as this latest offering is probably the finest so far. "Based on the adventures of a collective determined to escape a society enslaved for aeons by technology and the 'Architect of Light', the album follows their progress towards redemption and, finally, freedom". The above text is taken from the Elegant Simplicity website and offers an insight into the concept behind the album - covering many styles and genres, the music endeavours to portray this struggle.
So to the opening track Time to Breathe, which begins with a number of atmospheric, spatial and futuristic sound layers, serving as a backdrop for a brief vocal passage. This refrain, which will resurface later in the album, pre-empts several well constructed solo sections from both the keyboards and guitar. The first of the keyboard passages exhibiting definite progressive notions but with a jazzy lilt to it, and before leading into a very Carlos Santana like solo section. The track brings the two solo instruments together for a short lived harmony section before the arrangement, ably supported by Christopher Knight on the drums, returns to the keyboard solo sections. This format of interwoven instrumental sections is a trademark of Elegant Simplicity and one that has been developed and honed over a decade of recording.
Although all five tracks have their own individual character, the album runs as one continuous piece of music, segued by linking themes and sound effect passages, referring us back to the conceptual ideas from the album. Continuing our journey, Stars On The Water develops the story, with a more song based track, featuring long term co-collaborator in the vocal department, Ken Senior. Opening with the first of several guitar themes from the track, and setting out the ground for the predominately verse, chorus arrangement, in which Ken's warm vocals add credence to the lyrical content. If I were to offer any criticism here it would be that the cymbals were a little distracting, however this only a mute point.
A Crack in the Ice is the first of the three epic tracks to be found on the album and my personal favourite. Opening with a delightful flute motif, very English and conjuring images of a wandering minstrel at a medieval, or perhaps futuristic, country fayre. Several comparisons came to mind at this point, firstly Mike Oldfield, primarily as both he and Steven McCabe undertake the vast majority of the writing and playing duties on their recordings and notionally, the quintessentially British nature of the track. The second of the similarities being with the recently released Camel album, A Nod and Wink, which again exhibits these unique flavourings. Mention here of Joseph Dawson, who's fine violin playing combines well with the flute and other instrumentation, giving the track a pleasant folk rock ambience. The track unfolds through a series of well constructed themes and solo passages, bringing Steve McCabe's versatile and fluid guitar work to the forefront - references in style to Dave Gilmour and Pink Floyd being evident.
The title track, Architect of Light follows, with a distinctly early seventies progressive rock feel to it, with several varied and well executed solo sections from the guitar, flute and keyboards. Drawing comparisons to Focus and Camel, the album utilizes the more freeform ideas of these bands with the emphasis on the instrumental and rather less on the vocal sections. This idea supported by our first taste of the gentle and meandering vocal section appearing from approximately the seven minute mark. Once again Ken Senior's voice adds warmth and depth to the track, with the lyrical content giving further narration to concept behind the album.
And finally Capillary Action, the third and last of the epic tracks to be found on the album - coincidentally the longest piece - and continues the ideas set out in the previous pieces. Again the track serves as an avenue for the instrumental virtuosity of Steven McCabe and solo sections abound, interspersed with sparse but effective musical interludes. Not wishing to retread on comments already offered, this instrumental track encompasses all of the elements discussed above and continues the journey, in music, of our collective travellers.
In the early seventies A Crack in the Ice would have filled one side of an album, and that for me would have justified purchasing Architect of Light. The other four remaining tracks would also have been sufficient to fill the three remaining sides of a double album. Throughout the seventy minutes or so of this offering there was much that harked back to those early days of prog, and I make these comments to highlight the value of what has been offered here, something that is somewhat taken for granted in this digital age. One of the great advantages of Steven's multi instrumental talents is that they add the necessary variation, to what is in the main, an instrumental album. I particularly liked the greater inclusion of the flute on this album - as not only is it a beautiful instrument but the fact that the execution here adds another dimension to the overall sound. I have made several references to other bands and artists throughout this review and I believe that if some of their albums feature in your collections, that this would be a worthy addition.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Soft Machine - Backwards
The main record label that has contributed to the discovery of previously lost treasure troves from the Canterbury scene has to be Cuneiform Records. Following their previous releases of previously unissued material from Soft Machine, the label has managed to discover further material from Soft Machine. Backwards features a demo recording from 1968 by Robert Wyatt, two live tracks recorded in 1969 and three tracks recorded live in 1970. The fact that such material has become available for the eager listener is enough reason to laud the album, yet these recordings feature the band at an important stage of their career, and feature the band in a light that one would not have been able to appreciate simply from their studio albums.
Chronologically, Backwards should be listened as its name implies, backwards! The earliest recording on the album is the Moon In June demo which actually consists of two separate recording sessions. The first half was recorded in November 1968 while the second part was recorded in mid 1969. The track itself consists of a re-arrangement of That's How Much I Need You and You Don't Remember and the first part has Robert Wyatt playing all instruments as well as providing the vocals. It is an insight into a musical style that would dominate what is considered the Softs most influential album, Third. With this album the band showed all other progressive rock bands what this musical style was all about with their songs that lasted a whole track in length. The music took on various features of psychedelia, progressive rock as well as free form jazz. The track present here is intensely different from what would be recorded in the studio, as well as played live, yet it shows all the various influences that were pervading Wyatt's mind during his brief sojourn in the States following the band's gigs opening for the Jimi Hendrix Experience.
Chronologically, the next two recordings to follow are Facelift and Hibou Anemone And Bear, both of which were recorded in late 1969. These two tracks are extremely rare, and signify much to the Soft Machine fan, as they feature the band in their rarely recorded septet format which saw the band augmented by the addition of members of The Keith Tippet Group. One can finally understand why the band were considered an incredible live experience with their powerful jazz-rock music that is fully evident on Hibou Anemone And Bear whereby the band really create one hell of a rumpus. Pity about the fade-out though! The presence of two versions of Facelift allows the listener to compare how the band's music varied from the septet line-up to that of a guitarless quartet version. The sheer power created by the strong brass section isomitted within the quartet version and void created is filled via Ratlegde's Lowry organ and Hugh Hopper's fuzzed up bass. The music seems to lose out on its unison which also explains the increased length (from eight to eighteen minutes!) due to the individual members being able to indulge in prolonged solos.
Funnily enough, the opposite happens to Moon In June with the band omitting much of Wyatt's experimentation present on the demo version of this track, though one of the main features, that of Wyatt's "scatting" remains prominent throughout. This then merges into Esther's Nose Job which is the most straight forward and easily accessible (if could be termed as so!) track on the album with its pumping strict bass line keeping the whole structure together as the whole band takes off in different directions.
Backwards is by no means an easy listening album, as is little of any material by Soft Machine. This band came at a time when the whole rock scene was going through wave after wave of innovation with various crossover bands merging a myriad of influences to come up with something unique. Soft Machine were just that. The managed to combine the elements of rock with the free flowing forms of jazz, much like people like Miles Davis and John Coltrane. That they are not mentioned in the same breath as these luminaries is one of rock history's great errors. Soft Machine were, and are, one of rock's great undiscovered (to many!) and underrated bands and Backwards is one of those posthumous albums that further proves the point.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Aztec Jade - Concrete Eden
Aztec Jade have gone through some musical changes since their latest release Paradise Lost. By now, their style has progressed from average metal towards a more progressive approach. Indeed, hints of Dream Theater, already present on their previous work, now become truly apparent. Especially the rhythmic section of the band has evolved tremendously, as can be heard in the double-bass drum section of the opening track Concrete Eden. Slowly then the album evolves towards a more symphonic sound, diverging from the metal style of the opening track to an approach akin to Symphony X, with keyboards taking a more prominent role in the orchestration of the compositions. But the listener has to exercise some patience for that: only halfway through the album the compositions become truly interesting.
The third track is very Queensrÿche in style, in the vein of the Empire album. Indeed, even the vocals of Leon Ozug reminded me of Geoff Tate. Of course, Aztec Jade cannot escape the obligatory ballad. However, it turns out to be one of the most memorable tracks on the album. Especially the chorus sticks to mind immediately, without sounding overly cliche. But in terms of composition and structure, it follows the paths trodden by many others before. The fifth track, Manifestation, is much more interesting. Highly diverse in rhythmic breaks and melodic tricks, it reminds of Dream Theater, without the over the top vocals that last band often suffers from. The middle section however is very reminiscent of Symphony X. This style continues in full force in the next track, and also the German metal school is rearing its head here. Then the album simply continues in this fashion, which is much more to my personal liking than the first, more Queensrÿche and Fates Warning based half.
Summarising there are two distinct parts on this album. The first half is based on Queensrÿche, Fates Warning and Dream Theater, the second half is more symphonic and edges to Symphony X. All in all a good album, well played and produced, but not something to get overly excited about. A word of caution: their website is impossible to load for a normal person with a modem.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10.
Gratto - Anakin Tumnus
Although both the name and the type of music they play could lead to the assumption that this is an Italian band, Gratto actually stems from the USA. The rather mysterious name of the band is also the name of the singer/keyboardist, yet this album is not a solo outing but a joint effort of Gratto and guitarist Chris Rodler. The band is completed with Gary Madras (bass) and Brett Rodler (drums). Both Chris and Brett Rodler also play in the band Ledger de Main and together with Madras had already played in a band called RH Factor before they joined Gratto.
The release of this album nearly didn't happened. It was recorded back in 1997 in a place called Erie, Pennsylvania. According to the bio Gratto always pursued 'the real deal' in favour of samples, even if this meant both the church organ and the grand piano had to be recorded in a local church. This approach led to rather difficult recordings, but a great sound.
Originally this album was intended as a four-track LP, instead of an EP, yet halfway during the recording of the third track Shift, Gary Madras moved to a different city, making it rather difficult to continue with the band. Furthermore, the planned fourth track was seemingly so emotional, that he felt he couldn't participate in the project anymore.
The band called in a break, in order to determine whether they should continue with the recording, and it wasn't until 2001 that Chris Rodler came across the original demo tape when cleaning out his studio. Gratto and Rodler decided to finish Shift with some other demo bits they had lying around, and release it as it was, as a one-off project.
I must say it is a pitty the band never got to finish it properly, as the material which is present on the album sounds very interesting, although at times somewhat chaotic and indecisive.
The album opens with just piano and distorted vocals, which make me think of Bob Geldoff when I hear them. Then a typical bombastic synth part kicks in, followed by Flower Kings/Yes-like guitar work. Without the distortion the vocals of Gratto sound quite like that of ex-Arena vocalist Paul Wrightson. Mind you, the best description for the music could be Arena meets Dream Theater, especially the second half of the first track.
The second track Call And Response is a rather chaotic track with musical references spanning from Yes, Jethro Tull, Rush and King Crimson to less obvious bands like Aragon or Mike Oldfield. Good stuff, although a bit too chaotic for my taste.
The epic Shift which makes up the second half of this EP, is the obvious highlight on the album. It is a typical prog epic with long instrumental passages and typical prog vocals. There is a beautiful long piano part in the middle, which makes me think of the piano interlude in Supertramp's Fools Overture - superb!
The finale is very heavy, almost metal, before it returns to a short reprise of the opening of the album.
In conclusion I have to say I quite like what I hear. Musically this band is a real treat for fans of neo prog. It's bombastic, pretentious and often a bit over the top. But that's what prog is all about, right? It's a pitty this band never got a chance to really start off, but at least with Anakin Tumnus we get a glimpse of what might have been.
Conclusion: 8- out of 10.