Reviews in this issue:
Ryo Okumoto - Coming Through
Ryo Okumoto is best known to progressive fans for his keyboard skills with Spock's Beard, and probably less for his solo works and numerous session and guest appearances. Ryo has an impressive portfolio of credits to his name having worked with and among others, Phil Collins, Eric Clapton and Natalie Cole to mention a just a few. Along with these he has been involved with Bobby Kimball, Steve Lukather and Simon Phillips from Toto, all of whom contribute to this album. And the list of guest musicians to be found on Coming Through does not stop here, as Ryo is not only joined by fellow Spock's Beard musicians, but also guitarist Michael Landau and the voice of Glenn Hughes.
So we have an impressive cast, what will the album have to offer, was the burning question as the CD went into the player. What did cross my mind was that like many solo projects, especially those that feature the entirety of the current band, is that it ends up sounding like a variation on the same theme. The other option, is that it might follow in the footsteps of Neal Morse's last solo album, which contained many excellent tracks, but had little to do with prog. As it was, neither scenario was true, and what emanated from my CD player was both interesting and refreshing.
The opening instrumental Godzilla vs King Ghidarah began "progressively" enough with a low droning bass synth note accompanied by an atmospheric rising string section. However this gave no indication as to what was to follow, as a bold jazz-rock fusion track emerged, with Simon Phillips on the kit and Dave Carpenter on double bass. The piece moved with great pace and gave rise to numerous solo sections from all concerned. What was nice was the variation in texture created by the keyboards, as Ryo employed piano, synthesizer and the Hammond organ to change the mood and intensity of the piece. An unexpected but a great opener.
The tempo drops down as Nick D'Virgilio grooves in with a track not only written by him, but on this occasion taking on the vocal task as well. The Farther He Goes, The Farther He Falls has a "smoky" bar room feel, full of highs and lows as the track moves through a verse chorus arrangement. The strong and close harmony vocal sections within the powerful chorus', brought to mind the recent album by Jelly Jam featuring Ty Tabor. The icing on the cake was the solo section from Steve Lukather, as the track moves into overdrive towards the end.
Slipping Down glides in nicely from the previous track in this very Toto like song. Hardly surprising as Bobby Kimball's distinct voice, coupled with the close harmony vocals, is so reminiscent of their style and a credit here to the writing from both Okumoto and Neal Morse. Think Toto with a slightly harder edged, but still with that polished rock-funk feel and you've got it, even down to the brass section.
As with the two previous songs, the tracks flow well into each other and give the album continuity and this is the case again as we rock into Highway Roller. Step forward Glenn Hughes into the vocal zone with his fine, distinct voice and add Steve Lukather on guitar for what is a powerful rock blues track. Mention here of Sage Okumoto, son of Ryo, showing a maturity beyond his years as he takes on the drum mantle and acquitting himself well, in this assembled field of percussion men.
Free Fall gives us our second instrumental from Coming Through, and a track that takes us to the more progressive roots of Ryo Okumoto. Similar in some respects to the opening track, with a leaning here to rock fusion side, however this time around more riff orientated and featuring Alan Morse [guitar], Dave Meros [bass] and Nick D'Virgilio [drums]. Well with this line-up the music surely must reflect Spock's Beard, and so it does.
The CD has shown a strong balance and flow, an aspect often over-looked, or perhaps not fully appreciated and so important when trying to retain the interest of the listener from the beginning to end. So far, the contrasting styles within the music have melded the tracks well together, and there is little indication that these pieces have been written at different times or performed by different artists. The album then moves to the moment where things need to be taken down and here the gentle piano and strings move us into the title track Coming Through, with Neal Morse lending his distinct voice to the proceedings. A track that could so easily have fitted onto Neal's last solo album It's Not too Late, with its infectious melodies and strong chorus sections. Initially with only sparse instrumentation, careful use of space and rising vocal intensity Coming Through serves not only as a warming interlude but acts as calming moment before the epic proportions of Close Enough.
By far the largest track from the album and features by far the largest collection of musicians used on the album, well almost. Close Enough is an epic piece and represents the most progressive track from Coming Through. At just under nineteen minutes it would be difficult, if not impossible, to run through the full song in one paragraph - so this brief synopsis is intended merely to capture your interest. After the opening atmospherics provided by the keyboards and sparse percussion, is a gentle organ passage gradually building in intensity. What is wonderful here is the driving Hammond organ, a sort of Jon Lord and Keith Emerson rolled into one riff, that follows. This then gives way to Bobby Kimball flexing his vocal chords, in a powerful AOR verse and chorus section, before the track mellows out - initially with the vocals and then launching into an extended and impressive organ solo section. There are so many highlights to be found in this track, with such a distinctly live feel to it and again as the piece unfolds the organ raises its head interspersed with Simon Phillips' magical drumming. This was definitely a track very reminiscent of Spock's Beard in a concert environment. If I were able to offer any changes here, it would have been to prolong that great driving "Hammond organ keyboard riff".
After the excesses of Coming Through it was somewhat difficult to imagine what might be a fitting ending to the album. But there was to be one more pleasant surprise as the notes rang out from the piano, in a beautifully written piece from Ryo Okumoto. This evocative offering, constructed entirely from multi-layered keyboard parts, blending the classical, played on the concert grand piano (perhaps) and the contemporary represented by the airy synthesizer parts. Along with this is a multi-layered keyboard ensemble made up from lush strings, traditional orchestral sounds and choral effects. A melancholic tune that flowed and ebbed - really you've just got to hear it to appreciate it.
So at this point it is customary to summarize the above - but my considered opinion would be to go and buy the CD. OK! Just a few words, but only on the added features not found on my version. From the official release dates - October 14 [Europe] and October 15 [USA] this will be a double CD, the second of which containing film footage of the making of Coming Through and a pictorial history of Ryo Okumoto. Should you be fortunate enough to purchase the album in Japan there is a bonus track, an electric bass version of Godzilla vs King Ghidarah - now that I would like to hear. Also included commentaries from Ryo and some of the guest musicians.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Ascension Theory - Regeneration
Judging at the cover and the info in the press info, I'd say this is a keyboard based prog metal science fiction, hence the first thing I thought of was... Ayreon! The press info sheet mentions Queensrÿche, Dream Theater and Savatage. "A unique style of music" it says, mixing "progressive metal, techno, and cinematic elements".
The orchestration and melodies remind me somewhat of Dream Theater on Metropolis 2000, but
most of the times I hear Savatage. My initial idea of Ayreon wasn't too bad either. There is DT in other aspects, though. The intro of Sleepers is very Space-Dye Vest - more than just an influence. Pieces also contains more than just Dream Theater influences.
The programmed drums started to irritate me very, very quickly, after two minutes actually. They have a very limited sound. Despite the heavy music, the whole still sounds a bit flat. I hardly hear any bass. I think it could have sounded a lot fuller. Most of the sounds comprise of a few keyboard layers and distorted guitar. And then those drums... And after a short while, this is just not enough to make pleasant listening. A number of nice compositional ideas, but simply not enough.
The compositions are nice, but need a lot to outgrow the influences. The melody lines are nice, there are some OK vocal melodies, but there's too much that sounds so familiar. It's the Arena feeling - nice melodies, but it sounds so forced that I miss the spark of someone.
Tim Becker's orchestrations are good, and could be part of something great, like Savatage, if it stopped sounding like them. The piano only parts are very nice, but those don't make a great CD. Leon Ozug's guitar playing is very good - I wouldn't mind hearing him playing some more solo guitar. The guitar melodies are great! He is also a very good singer, and although he is close to what I call a prog rock singer, he does have a personal touch, which I like very much.
The promise of a unique blend of prog metal and techno (where that comes from, I don't know) is unfounded. However, I still regard this as a very nice demo CD. I'd be interested to hear what these guys will do with more experience and a full band to get feedback in arranging the music. At this stage it sounds limited in sound and composition. The musicians have the ability to do bigger things, though.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10.
Jump - On Impulse
This is Jump's seventh studio album so far, and, after having reviewed three other albums, it still escapes me what the music of Jump has to do with progressive rock (some people do claim that!). In fact, in my opinion, it is blues rock with now and then a hint of a progressive element. The compositions are not very complex, but the band plays tighter than ever on this album. The different tracks which sometimes even remind of Rory Galagher and Van Morrison, are recorded, produced and mixed with care and craftmanship. John Dexter Jones, who has won the Classic Rock Society award for best male vocalist a couple of years back, sounds even more natural on this album than on the previous ones. But symphonic/progressive, no. I would recommend this album if you would like to add an uncomplicated, yet serious, album with excellent musicians, fabulous double guitar playing and great vocals. Pure rock, blues and a bit of folk, that's what describes it best, and it is a great album in that genre. The main theme of the lyrics seems to revolve around money in all its facets. After the enormous amount of touring these guys have done recently I can imagine that that is a central theme in their lives as well!
So as an exception I will not give a grade to this album, as for a prog album I would not rate it very high (with the exception maybe of a track like Bethesela or Cruel To be Kind, which have some Marillion references. This comes as no surprice, as they have toured with both Fish and Marillion, so they may still have some memories of those days). However, viewed as an album without regard to the genre, I would have given it a 8 out of 10. Yes, this is the highest grade I have given a Jump album so far, I indeed like this better than the previous abums. But also I have learned to appreciate Jump's music a bit more in the meantime; despite the somewhat low grades, I do play the albums now and again. I guess the same will happen with this album. It's something you can also easily play as background music, which is not often the case with regular prog releases!
Stygma IV - The Human Twilight Zone
The members of the Austrian metal band Stygma IV have played together since 1994, but they have released CDs under four different band names during that period. They went from Big Heat to Stigmata to Stigmata IV to Stygma IV. The reason for these changes in two out of three cases was that there was already another band around called Stigmata, who promptly sued the Austrians. The Human Twilight Zone is the second CD they made as Stygma IV.
Ritchie Krenmaier (lead vocals, voices), Günter Maier (guitars, keyboard programming), Alex Hilzensauer (bass guitars) and Herb Greisberger (drums, percussion) work within the progressive power metal format. However, contrary to some other power metal bands I have heard, they do not go for the typical pounding power metal drum rhythm all the time. The Void, Sleep, Why and The Way To Light, for instance, contain some very beautiful, very soft moments. The 16:07 (!) minutes-long Sleep also features some bombastic, slow Pink Floyd-like bits and even a flute. It also contains winks at Bruce Dickinson's Chemical Wedding (the song) and the slower parts of Queensrÿche's Operation Mindcrime, however.
Other than that, in Calculation Towers one can find some great guitars doubled with keyboards à la Ayreon in his heavy tracks, there is Floydish slide guitar in Omega and in Earth Children we are treated to some "ordinary" progressive metal with Steve Wilson-esque (Porcupine Tree) guitar solo parts and a melody that sounds a bit like a faster version of Savatage's I Am. One can even encounter a rhythm that brings the music of popular TV series Knight Rider to mind in the verses of the title track of this album, some traces of Rush and even a few very obviously classical atmospheres. For me, such obvious non-power metal elements lift Stygma IV above the level of the average power metal band. The vocals are not really my cup of tea, however. Krenmaier is one of those singers who prefer to shout the lyrics, much like Savatage's Zak Stevens and Jon Oliva have been known to do. He does use his voice in a normal way as well at moments, but they tend to be rather short. So this is yet another band whose music I can certainly appreciate, while the vocals more or less spoil it for me.
Most tracks are about the dark side of mankind, breaching topics like hatred, fear, existential problems and war. Only small parts of the lyrics are printed in the booklet, which I think is a bit lame; either you print the lyrics or you do not! Anyway, for those who have a hard time understanding what is being sung, the full lyrics can be found on the band's website.
Each time I play the album, I find myself looking how much of the CD is left every few minutes after having listened to half of the album. Close to 70 minutes of this heavy and intense music with vocals that I myself have a hard time appreciating is obviously a bit too much for me. On the other hand, I can imagine that The Human Twilight Zone is a true progressive power metal lover's wet dream.
In conclusion, I would say that Stygma IV's The Human Twilight Zone is an album for people who are into power metal "with a little extra" and who do not mind shouted vocals in the vein of Savatage. For me, this combination does not really do it, while I also think that the album is a bit too long, but then again, I am not a real power metal buff. Still, there is some excellent musicianship to be found on this CD, so do check it out if it is within your field of interest.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10.
Peripherie - Return to Mongo
Peripherie might well fall on the borders of progressive rock, with this fairly lightweight instrumental offering. A strange and eclectic mixture of experimental tracks with jazzy overtones, at times complex and at others simplistic. You gather that sci-fi plays an important part in Guy Hall's life which subsequently manifests itself within the music. The title of the album, drawing from Flash Gordon, references in some of the track names and the sampled dialogue. Principally the brainchild of drummer Guy Hall, joined here by a number of guest musicians to perform eight contrasting tunes. There is little background information available on Peripherie, and I can only tell you that this is the bands second release, which follows up - Sunrise Catches The Palace.
A track by track precis is probably not the best way to deal with this album, therefore I plan to look at some of the elements that go into the construction of Return to Mongo. A brief outline of some of the stronger elements, which for me were to be found best illustrated in the tracks towards the end of the CD. Early indications of some of the more in depth writing can be heard in The Mummy Returns, a quirky but infectious track, full of eastern promise, featuring Guy [drums], Dom Ladd [bass] and Joseph Samuel [piano and violin]. This trio line-up also resurfaces in The Golden Country an interesting composition, that suffers from "programmability" - my main bone of contention with the CD. At first I couldn't quite pinpoint what it was that troubled me about the album, but it was the metronomic nature of many of the pieces. This was a shame as all the guest musicians displayed deft and human touches.
A special note should be afforded to In the Path of the Nitron Bomb, a drum solo, and as far as drum solos go, well constructed, well executed and building to a climactic ending, in true soloing style. Guy's obvious abilities in this area well served.
The pieces found on Return to Mongo did display a diversity of styles, some already touched upon, but mention here of the latin-esque rhythms in the gentle and soothing Evocation. By far the more interesting material, however, was what I would deem to be band compositions and it did raise the point of how much stronger this album might have been if it had followed in the footsteps of the excellent County Maya. Reminiscent at times of King Crimson circa Red or the later Discipline album, in this frenzied rock fusion piece. Departure from Mongo again was strong, this time leaning more towards jazz - fine playing from all, including Clive Rogers, showing two contrasting guitar styles.
I was unsure as exactly what to make of this album, and I have to say personally, it did not do an awful lot for me. There is little doubt that Guy Hall is a talented drummer, however the material here lacked any great substance, and served more as an avenue for his playing. The assembled guest instrumentalists were also of a high calibre, just under used. As always, this is only my opinion and not necessarily one shared by the musicians gathered here, who may well have a different view. Therefore you could always check it out for yourself and for further information or to purchase the CD please contact Guy at firstname.lastname@example.org
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.