Reviews in this issue:
The Flower Kings - Unfold The Future
Disc 2 [66.19]: Genie In A Bottle (8.10), Fast Lane (6.35), Grand Old World (5.10), Soul Vortex (6.00), Rollin The Dice (4.15), The Devils Danceschool (3.45), Man Overboard (3.40), Solitary Shell (3.10), Devils Playground (24.30)
It's here again, the annual Flower Kings album. It's incredible how at such an amazing pace Roine Stolt & co can still manage to deliver good music. Damn good music if I might add.
After two relatively short albums (only some 79 minutes each) the Swedish quintet are back with their preferred format: a double album, featuring 140 minutes of diverse music ranging from three minute jazzy ditties to 30 minute epics in the vein of vintage Yes.
Album opener The Truth Will Set You Free, the unmistakable eye catcher of the album, is an homage to classic Yes albums like Relayer and Tales From Topographic Oceans. As the saying goes, a good prog song is a lengthy one, so this half-hour long epic will undoubtedly show up high in the DPRPoll this year. Deservedly, I must say, as the song contains all the classic prog elements it needs: great vocal melodies, lengthy guitar solos, a catchy chorus, recurring themes, an atmospheric instrumental middle part, and -essential- some fantastic Church organ. The identifiable guitar sound of Roine Stolt, with its hybrid sound of Steves Howe and Hackett shines all through, most vocals are provided by Hasse Fröberg (with Stolt taking care of only some of the lyrics), Jonas Reingold's bass is mostly a fat Rickenbacker sound, once again recalling the glory days of Squire & co. Then Tomas Bodin shows himself once again a versatile player from fast Cyrille Verdeaux type noodling to majestic Wakeman style church organ parts. Finally new 24 year-old Hungarian drummer Zoltan Csörsz proves himself more than a worthy replacement of Jamie Salazar who left the band last year.
The trouble with such openers is that it may raise high expectations of what is yet to come (and there is still 110 minutes left, remember), and to some people this may come as a shock. Instead of launching into a Truth Will Set You Free part two or three, the band changes course quite radically showing all of their diversity and musical influences, rather than just the Yes thing. Monkey Business is a funky rocker, which echoes There Is More To This World in some parts, while Black and White starts as a simple ballad -revisiting some of the lyrics of The Truth Will Set You Free before the pace goes fast forwarding into a Genesis-type instrumental second act, which includes some fantastic Latin percussion, courtesy of unofficial sixth band member Hasse Bruniusson.
Then the music really changes course. Christianopel is an 8-minute version of Genesis' The Waiting Room and only interesting to those who actually liked that track. Silent Inferno starts as your average 14-minute prog epic, with Dream Theater style heavy instrumental parts, and mellow, fragile vocals by Stolt, when halfway it changes into a genuine jazz tune, including a typical bass solo. The Navigator is a beautiful lullaby, where Stolt's fragile voice is accompanied by flute, mellotron, harp, a horn section and orchestral bass. The arrangement reminds of the work of Roger Waters on Amused To Death.
Vox Humana, which closes the first disc, continues on the same note and is a bit of a poppy ballad, which reminds of both Yes' Turn Of The Century and the (Stolt penned) middle part of Transatlantic's Duel With The Devil, beautifully sung by Fröberg.
The second disc opens heavily again with Genie In A Bottle. A more straight forward guitar orientated rock song, which is delightfully texturised by Bodin's synthesisers. Fast Lane lives up to its title as it's based around a fast paced march rhythm, with close harmony vocals by Fröberg. Things go all jazzy again with Grand Old World which is arranged with xylophone and clarinet. Soul Vortex explores the world of jazz even further with a fusion type of instrumental which would not be out of place on a Planet X album (albeit without the metal approach).
The track leads into the next one, Rollin The Dice, which feels even more out of place than the jazz bits as it seems an attempt to create alternative rock with the same proggy keyboards and jazzy basslines while the over the top vocals by Fröberg seem alternate his best Axl Rose with Bruce Dickinson. It's too much a mixture of styles and influences, that simply doesn't work.
The Jazz period reaches its highlight with The Devil's Danceschool, which feels like a Miles Davis track more than anything else. Man Overboard starts as the sister track to The Navigator but tries to hard to incorporate all of The Flower Kings' other styles as well, with classical music, rock, heavy prog passages and a pop ballad all squeezed into a three minute track.
Solitary Shell (which has nothing to do with the Dream Theater song of the same name) is the real sister track to The Navigator; another lullaby with a similar vocal melody, which feels much like an 'end of album' track, were it not for the fact that we have yet another 24-minute epic to go.
Devil's Playground, starts with a superb guitar/church organ/orchestra intro, which could lead to near orgasmic experiences for many a prog fan. Listening to this made me wonder, as Stolt seemingly pulls these compositions out of his sleeve with the greatest ease, you could draw the conclusion that he can easily compose an album of just these kind of classic prog tunes, making the fact that he goes for such a wide variety of styles on this album only more commendable, as this is certainly not the easiest way of gaining (and maintaining) fans.
Devil's Playground emphasises this even more. The first half of the song is, once again, vintage prog. Great rhythms, atmospheric interludes and Pain Of Salvation singer Daniel Gildenlöw provides some fantastic background vocals hinting at Gabrielesque song structures. Then halfway there is an incredibly weird saxophone interlude, courtesy of another Flower Kings regular, Ulf Wallander, on soprano saxophone. This is followed by a fast-paced, IQ-style piece, which includes a fantastic guitar solo, and next... all hell breaks loose with a seemingly completely improvised jazzy piece which then gives way to the (obligatory) Grande Finale which more than echoes the massive ending of Transatlantic's Stranger In Your Soul.
There will also be a special edition release of Unfold The Future (which no doubt will be another book-like fantastic package from Inside Out) which features yet another song, Too Late For Tomatoes to fill up the remaining 8 minutes of disc space on the second CD.
Although most of the proggy stuff is located on the first disc, and most of the experimental music can be found on the second, it is not just a matter of seeing the two discs as separate albums. Although the 16 tracks could be separated and rearranged into one great prog album and one interesting free-form-jazz-fusion album, this would take away most of the charm of the album, but it would be easier to digest for some. 140 minutes of music is a lot, and this type of music makes it even more demanding for the listener.
Since their debut in 1995, Back In The World Of Adventures, The Flower Kings have maintained an output of at least one studio album a year. An achievement even more remarkable when you consider that three out of these seven albums have been double albums! Indeed, in seven years time the band has released over 12 hours worth of studio music - had this still been the seventies, this amount would have been the equivalent of 16 conventional vinyl LPs. Go figure!
Herein lies my biggest criticism I have with the Flower Kings (so long as you can call it criticism). With the music being of the lesser accessible kind, it makes it nearly impossible to totally familiarise oneself with The Flower Kings' music, especially when you discover the band (like yours truly did) around the time of their fifth or sixth studio album.
No doubt fans of The Flower Kings will dig the new album, yet I think it's rather unlikely the band will win many new fans with it. To anyone new to the band I would recommend either one of it's more accessible previous albums, Space Revolver or The Rainmaker -or better still, the excellent compilation Scanning The Greenhouse - before tackling this one.
Conclusion: 8- out of 10.
Bart Jan van der Vorst (with thanks to Martin Kikkert)
The California Guitar Trio - CG3 + 2
The California Guitar Trio (also known as CGT or CG3) are Bert Lams, Paul Richards and Hideyo Moriya. They first met during a guitar workshop by Robert Fripp. After they toured as part of Fripp's League of Crafty Guitarists, they formed their own group in 1990. On their latest studio album "CG3+2" they got help from bass player Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel) and Pat Mastelotto (King Crimson).
This album is my first acquaintance with the music of The California Guitar Trio. I was expecting some kind of "unplugged" music by an acoustic guitar trio, but found out that was not the case. The music on "CG3+2" has a strong "full band" feel, with quite some electric guitars and some synths added. Also, the two extra members -Levin and Matelotto- sound like full fledged band members, making substantial contribitions, and are by no means playing just a supporting role.
Despite all the prog rock references mentioned above, "CG3+2" is not a typical progressive rock release. Some proggy influences are there, but the overall feel of the album is more like jazz rock or fusion (a genre I have never been too comfortable with). The music goes true a wide variety of styles, combining elements from jazz, rock, country, blues, rockabilly and surf music.
The album contains 14 instrumental tracks, all with lots of acoustic guitar virtuosity. The musicianship is high class, and the mixture of styles is often surprising. But for some reason the music never really grabbed me. To me, it all sounded a bit emotionless and sterile. Also, I wasn't overly impressed with the quality of the song material, only half of which I found really interesting.
Best moments are the album's opener, Melrose Avenue (a very original sounding oriental piece), Dancing Anne and Dance of Maya (two more proggy jazz rock pieces). Also very enjoyable is the funny surfrock track Zundoko-Bushi (with some unexpected snippets of King Crimson's 21st Century Man thrown in). And finally, I must mention the cover of the Yes song Heart Of The Sunrise (which Tony Levin also played when he was the -nameless- fifth member of Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman and Howe). A great track of course, but this new version comes with no real surprises.
All in all, this album is not really my cup of tea. I would recommend it only to followers of the Crimson family, and proggers who are open to jazz rock. For me, this is the kind of music I prefer to hear in a live environment (preferably with some nice covers of prog rock classics)!
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Matching Mole - March
With just 2 studio albums to their credit, Matching Mole still possess legendary status amongst progressive rock fans, especially those who are in love with the Canterbury styled aspects of this musical genre. Matching Mole could be considered as Robert Wyatt's strive to express himself musically away from the confines of Soft Machine and though the two studio albums are widely considered as prime exponents of the jazz-rock scene of the early seventies, Matching Mole were much more than that.
Cuneiform Records have already released live material from the Matching Mole archives with their latest, Smoke Signals, having been recorded during the same period, Spring 1972. The March recordings were actually recorded in Munich in March of 1972 and only two tracks feature on both albums (Instant Pussy and Smoke Signals). The lineup on both live recordings was the same, with Dave MacRae still a relative newcomer to the fold.
Much of the work of Matching Mole involved a large number of free form renditions of recorded pieces which allowed the musicians to give full vent to their individual talents. Four tracks on the album were drawn from Little Red Record as well as two pieces from the debut Matching Mole. Furthermore one also finds on this album an interesting and completely different rendition of Caravan's Waterloo Lily.
Right from the opener, March, the free jazz comes to the fore while Instant Pussy has Wyatt using his voice as a fifth instrument creating all manners of sounds, some of which actually sound straight out of a horror film! Definitely not the most ear-friendly tracks with which to open an album. Smoke Signals seems to add a dimension of stability to the album with its great dynamics and interplay between Wyatt's drumming and Miller's guitar work.
One thing that struck me on this album, when compared to the previous live release from Matching Mole, Smoke Signals, is the relative lack of musical dominance MacRae seemed to have over the band. In fact one of the more poignant features of Smoke Signals was the uncharacteristic way MacRae would utilise his electric piano to create long and winding solos. With March the electric piano does not seem to overpower the rest of the instruments and instead fits in alongside them in a most brilliant fashion allowing each musician to express himself freely.
The Kevin Ayers penned No 'alf Measures once again sees Wyatt adding his own vocal interpretation to the music. However, this time round it (his voice) blends in much more easily without distorting the beauty of the track and allowing MacRae's (unusually) smooth and delicate piano to create the ambience. Lything And Gracing is the track which allows the rhythm section to vent out all their anger and frustration with MacCormick's bass running off at tangents as Wyatt's drumming seems to play catch with him. The piano and guitar do introduce their own lick but it is the complex rhythmic nature of this track that is so captivating.
On receiving the album, I must admit to having immediately skipped to the final track of the album, such was my curiosity as to how Matching Mole could interpret what was originally a Caravan tune. Suffice to say that the track is turned inside out, but hey, isn't that what a cover version is meant to be? Bass and guitar replace what were vocals on the original version which sadly become slightly repetitive after the first few bars with little in terms of innovation and from what I thought would be the highlight of the album turned out to be the weakest track!
Always a Matching Mole fan, I must admit to be extremely eager to listen to "new" material from this band. I thought Smoke Signals was the essential way to sample this band in a live format, but with March I have been proven wrong. Without any shadow of doubt this is THE live recording by which fans who, as myself, never had the opportunity to witness this band live can really sample what they were all about.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Enchant - Blink Of An Eye
Sometimes you wonder if an album is prog rock or not. With Enchant there is no point in asking this question. As a matter of fact, the powerful Rush-like music with many breaks, change of measures and driving rhythm sections could be considered archetypical prog rock.
The album immediately bursts into Under Fire, with its sharp lyrics, where the music enhances your adrenaline level instantly. With some well-timed solos this track sets the tone for the album. Monday for instance, though a bit more mellow, continues the style and feeling of this opening track. In many respects this track, as well as some others, reminded me a lot of the latest Ritual album Superb Birth as well. The band plays even tighter than on Juggling 9 or dropping 10, which I also found quite impressive. The production and mix is fortunately somewhat better than on Juggling, even though in some sections the distortions of the guitar seems to influence the vocal line as well.
These vocals are of a "love or hate" type. Personally I quite like them. Keyboards and even lead guitar are mostly purely used to support the overall band sound. Not a lot of room for showing off on the solo front on this vocal melody and rhythm-driven album, except for the middle and ending section of My Everafter, where keyboard and guitar get a chance to hold a duel in "who can play fastest".
Of course, there are also some weaker moments. Flat Line is not such a strong composition and drags on for too long. Fortunately such minor flaws are quickly compensated for by for instance a Spock's Beard-like track like Follow The Sun, a brilliant prog ballad, or the Marillion-like Ultimate Gift.
It took me a while to review this album. In the meantime I played it a lot on my way to work and at home and took it with me on trips to South Africa and Venezuela. So the music is really under my skin now and I know already that it will end up in my top of 2002 albums.
Conclusion: 8,5 out of 10.
Steve Hillman - Opener Of The Ways
Let me first state that I am not a big fan of electronic music. I do quite like the "big ones" like Vangelis or J.M. Jarre, but the more obscure persons have never convinced me. The previous album by Hillman that I reviewed, Convergance, I rated quite low. Opener Of The Ways, which contains all rerecorded tracks from his previous albums, is marginally better. But basically Hillman either lays out a foundation of drum and some sequence loop, over which he plays a solo, or just hits spacey chords. As a matter of fact it sounds a bit like the stuff I wrote myself when I started to experiment with keyboards and MIDI, and I'm the first to admit that that sucked.
I have the impression that Hillman suffers a bit from the same problem I had: quite good ideas musically in terms of melodies, but not the knowledge of how to set up a decent drumline, and it all stays within the safe bounds of plain minor/major scales. The end result is music that is emotionless and quite boring. Maybe if you're a diehard electronic music fan you can still find something of interest in his soundscapes like Nebula or Golden Flame but for the rest I have heard soundtracks to videogames that are way more interesting.
Conclusion: 4.5 out of 10.