Reviews in this issue:
Marillion - Shot In The Dark
Extras: bonus tracks (41.50): [The Bell In The Sea (3.25), The Great Escape (6.17), Memory Of Water (5.24), King (7.45), Black Bird (2.21), Cover My Eyes (2.38), Hey Jude (5.25), 80 Days (4.28), Rich (acoustic rehearsal) (4.07)], Marillion.com EPK (9.24), On-The-Road Out-Takes (3.57)
Marillion have jumped the DVD bandwagon. Earlier this year EMI released a compilation with all their singles, only months later the band released these two DVDs simultaneously on their own Racket label and slated for release before Christmas is Racket DVD #3 in the form of the Brave concert.
The first of the two DVDs is an updated version of the Shot In The Dark video which was released in 2000. This was the first full-length concert video since 1988's Live From Lorelei and it was filmed over four consecutive fanclub concerts at the Zodiac Club in Oxford, on July 24-27 1999. This was at the time they were recording the Marillion.com album and some songs from this album premiered at these gigs. This concert has already been released on a Racket CD under the name of Zodiac.
The concerts were filmed by THE boom boom BOYS - a South-African film crew - who seem to have had a field day in editing the footage of the four nights. Rather than going for the standard approach of a concert film, they have tried to give each and every song its own identity, making the footage look more like promo videos instead of a concert. The songs are interspersed with snippets from interviews and other visuals, while the footage itself has been treated as well.
Opener Rich shows footage of the band rehearsing and working in the studio, as well as several camcordered mini-interviews with fans waiting outside in the queue. Goodbye To All That is entirely shown in split-screen, with footage from all four nights. Halfway through the gig there is a little acoustic session, of which Beyond You is shown in Black & White, with added digital effects as if the film is over a hundred years old. The Space also shown in very washed out colours, but more Blue & White, whereas The Answering Machine and Berlin are in both B&W and colour.
Even though this doesn't make it a very coherent film to watch, it does hold your attention, and I think that was the reasoning for this. In itself the footage wouldn't have been very interesting as the Zodiac is actually far too small to be shooting a concert film as the stage is so cramped that the band can barely move around, thus appearing rather static.
This DVD is also filled with lots of bonus features. First off there are a couple of left-overs from the Zodiac concerts: The Bell In The Sea (which was also featured on the Marillion.com bonus disc) and The Great Escape.
The rest of the footage is all filmed in Germany (I think THE boom boom BOYS came along on tour, as all the interview snippets during the main feature are also filmed in Germany). Two tracks are filmed at one of the gigs of the Dotcom tour, showing what a difference a larger stage can make (a pity there isn't more footage of this gig).
Other bonus tracks are filmed at an acoustic Christmas show in Aachen, and at an in-store performance in Hamburg. Very interesting is the acoustic rehearsal of Rich which is filmed backstage, or at some hotel-room, in which you can see the band work out a proper acoustic version of this song.
Also featured is the Marillion.com Electronic Press Kit, which was also featured on the .com bonus disc and some hilarious outtakes from the on-the-road footage of the 1999 tour.
All in all this is a great release for the fans. The show has an excellent setlist, the footage is interesting enough and on the whole the DVD nicely documents what the band was like in 1999.
The second DVD was recorded at a special gig at the Bass Brewery in Burton-On-Trent on November 17th, 2000. This was the second of two very special shows in this Bass brewery, to commemorate the brewing of a special Marillion beer (later re-named to Racket Fuel).
The gig was filmed by webcast specialists Studio M and the recordings of this gig were also released on the annual free Fanclub Christmas CD of that year.
The set is entirely acoustic and this combined with the cramped stage and the small audience gives the whole thing an intimate atmosphere. The images of Studio M are rather static though, which is not helped by the harsh lighting (lots of yellows and greens) that were used. Because of this the atmosphere doesn't really translate to the screen.
The band are the first to admit the footage Studio M shot is not up to DVD quality. It was recorded for a webcast after all. However, the band are clear in their statement (on both website and liner notes of this DVD) that this release is meant as a souvenir for the people who were there, rather than a proper release. The price tag is also very attractive.
The DVD contains some fantastic renditions of Alone Again In The Lap Of Luxury, Dry Land and the unexpected Cinderella Search. On some tracks they have Stephanie Sobey-Jones guesting on cello, giving an extra dimension to the music.
Also for fans who already had the fanclub CD it is nice to finally have the rest of the gig as well.
Extrawise, there isn't much to tell. A photo gallery, which is presented with an acoustic studio version of Map Of The World playing, that's all. But then again, it's only meant to be a souvenir or a fan-only thingy, and in that respect I would recommend it.
A final word about the DVDs. They are multi-region, encoded in NTSC. Virtually any DVD player will playback both PAL and NTSC, but please note that some older TV systems may not be able to playback NTSC format. Your computer will do fine, and most PAL TVs that are less than 10 years old won't have any problems, but check first if you have an older TV set.
Possible reasoning for releasing NTSC-only is the fact that NTSC is easier to transfer to DVD (all to do with framerate) and the fact that modern PAL TVs can playback NTSC, but NTSC TVs cannot playback PAL (all to do with expensive chip sets and incomprehensible technical babble).
Sound on both discs is standard 2.0 stereo. Neither of the gigs were recorded with DVD in mind, so the band opted for a standard stereo mix instead. I had to really crank up the volume when watching the Zodiac DVD, but in itself the mix sounded fine. The Bass Museum sountrack has been remixed for this DVD and sounds pretty good indeed.
Shot In The Dark: 8 out of 10
A Piss-up In A Brewery: 7 out of 10
Echolyn - Mei
Echolyn have produced a fantastic album with Mei, I can say no less. Their previous effort Cowboy Poems Free was already quite a revelation to me, as Echolyn uses jazzy diminished chords, but never loses that pure rock feel, something in which they are quite unique. Of course, spin-offs of the band like Land Of Chocolate or Finneus Gauge also make wide use of this style, but it is the same circle of American musicians that excels in this subgenre. The Flower Kings sometimes have a similar feel to some of their more experimental jazzy tracks, but Echolyn are not as pompous as them, Echolyn are more pure and more down-to-earth.
Where Cowboys Poems Free was a collection of relatively short tracks, Mei is one 49 minute track. They sort of did a Transatlantic with this one. Many themes are introduced and reappear in the track, though never in the same fashion, keeping the track interesting, not only after the first couple of listenings but also after the track has sunken in (with which they did a better job than the aforementioned people on both sides of the ocean). Of course Echolyn's trade mark, dissonant organ chords with a non-standard vocal line (and vocal harmonics), are present throughout the composition. Sometimes you think you can recognize a more familiar melody (some parts of the track reminded me of All Along The Watchtower (U2 version)), but never you can point a finger on something with absolute certainty. The vocals are sometimes reminiscent of those of the Red Hot Chilli Peppers, especially in the more relaxed parts of the work.
I believe that one can safely talk about this opus magnus as a classical composition with vague hints to those long classics as Tarkus (ELP) or The Gates of Delirium (Yes). A small note about the packaging of the album (which in this era of unlimited copying of music through internet or friends has become a major argument in actually buying a CD). I found it very stylish. A nice cardboard case with a very tasteful booklet. Unfortunately the booklet does not contain the full lyrics to the track, but it does contain a contact address where one can obtain them. One of the most brilliant and confronting lines in the lyrics: "sometimes you feel alone, 'cause sometimes you are".
As you may have noticed in the review of Finneus Gauge, a couple of years back I was new to this genre and had troubles in listening to it. But by now the music has become part of my "working knowledge" and an album like Mei is much easier to digest than it would have been a couple of years back. In the accompanying letter to the review copy, the band asked us to let the CD sink in. Well by now it has (it has been released in June but we received the album in October) and like I said, I am very impressed. The composition is gripping from the subtle beginning of the work, through a slow build up and a very powerful, aggressive part after half an hour, up until the natural sounding closing section. A fantastic job, and an album the prog world should be proud of. A highlight of 2002.
Conclusion: 9- out of 10.
Xinema - Different Ways
What did strike me almost immediately about this release from Xinema was the overall presentation, taking account that this release came as a debut album, but bore all the hallmarks of a band with several albums behind them. Strengthening this notion were the good production values within the CD and the tasteful cover artwork and encompassed graphics. What Different Ways has in abundance is maturity, thus making this a strongly melodic album both in the vocal and instrumental departments. The band obviously have their roots steeped in progressive rock, but interestingly on their website, offer concerns that the material here may not necessarily display this. Perhaps so, however I have less misgivings as to its appeal to the broader spectrum of prog fans.
Following on from the last remark and in an attempt to give pointers as to where we might find their material within the general umberella of music, might be typified by Canadian rockers, Saga. The music of Xinema exhibited many characteristics to be found therein - strong driving guitar layers embodied within rich keyboard textures and encompassed within melodically powerful rock music. The pleasant and distinctive vocals have a warm timbre, so here we might draw some comparisons to John Wetton and in particular his involvement with Asia. Along side this there were some similarities in the voice and delivery to Peter Gabriel and perhaps even Fish. Finally other references might be Journey, Toto and to a certain extent Rush. These comparisons are merely intended as an aid - Xinema have their own voice.
Enough of these pointers, and so what of these men of Xinema, well although there are only three musicians in the band as previously stated, their sound is distinctly full. Perhaps attributed to Mikael Askemur who not only provides the majority of the vocals, but is responsible for the bass, keyboards and some additional guitar parts. Joining Mikael on guitar and backing vocals is Sven Larsson and finally Jonas Thuren on drums, lead and backing vocals. The band are all from Sweden, although interestingly the album is released on the Unicorn label based in Quebec - Canada. Having played together for some years now and originally in the progressive band Madrigal (noted as influences from this genre are evident in the arrangements and approach to the music), all the musicians display strong compositional skills. Not wishing in any way to denigrate the obvious contribution from the other two members, or the music, but for me Sven Larsson's guitar virtuosity is what made this album. And for those more guitar orientated, you should check out this album. The soloing was always melodic, tasteful as well as containing those more flamboyant elements, certainly a contemporary to perhaps John Petrucci, Steve Lukather, Neil Schon, Jan Cyrka or Joe Satriani.
I don't think there was a bad track to be found on the album, merely those that appealed more than others. So the tracks I have selected are those that struck a chord within me, and/or best serve as good illustrations of the band's music. Blind is the Light is probably the most progressive track to be found, mainly due to the lengthy opening instrumental section and inferred Rush like texture in some of the guitar sections. I would also like to include Across the Styx and Maybe Time as they contain excellent examples of Sven Larssson's melodic and fluid guitar work, one of the great pluses to be found on Different Ways. The opening track In the Scent of the Light as it sets the tone for the rest of the album and showcases the vocals which form a major part of all of the songs. Distant Lights is my last inclusion for this review as not only was it my favourite song from the album but it contained almost all the elements that make up Xinema's music. Mention here that all of the tracks from the album can be found on the bands website (follow the link above) and are well worth checking out.
So what might you need to enjoy the music of Xinema, well a CD player would be useful (only joking). Seriously, an interest in well constructed and highly polished melodic rock songs, with strong vocal melodies and carefully executed harmonies. Mixed in with this is Sven Larsson's finely crafted guitar work, which raises the music above many of it's counterparts and a distinctly polished production. What was also interesting, is that although Different Ways does not fall immediately into the realms of progressive rock, there are obvious influences enveloped within almost all of the material. I feel that a far greater numeric conclusion would have been forthcoming had I been writing for a melodic rock site, therefore it is not intended as a criticism of the material, but rather as an overall view of the encompassed tracks and within DPRP's guidelines. I have made several references to bands, within the review and so just to reiterate, if you have albums by Saga, Kansas, or perhaps Asia, nestling away in your collection, this would certainly make a very worthy inclusion.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Byrd - Anthem
This marks James Byrd's second album with his new group - BYRD - and he is joined again by vocalist Michael Flatters and multi-instrumentalist Brian Hutchison. I am not terribly familiar with the progressive/symphonic metal label, but it certainly suits the subject matter of this particular album, which focuses on the aftermath of the 11th of September tragedy. The title of the album speaks volumes - it contains a number of anthemic tracks - some of which work better than others, which are bound by a common theme, and associated dark tone (although there are moments of optimism, too). The album's packaging makes almost no mention at all of the subject matter (apart from the dedication of 'Some Day' to those who lost loved ones), and certainly does not use it as a selling point.
Anthem starts with simple piano and vocal before a timpani roll ushers in some basic keyboard chords. This is the most symphonic track on the album, and includes only two short segments of Byrd's guitar work towards the end, hinting at the Malmsteen-like mastery of his instrument. Although it sets the tone for the album, this track is just a bit too over-the-top for my taste, and reminds me most of the wedding scene in Queen's Flash Gordon soundtrack. It does sound very much like an anthem, but is a bit cloying to me. In fairness, though it does give an accurate representation of the initial effect of 11/9, as portrayed by the media - i.e. a nation brought together by tragedy, and associated outpourings of grief and solidarity.
The second track, Omen gives a better indication of the style of the album. Starting with a powerful guitar introduction, the song settles into a verse backed by a repetitive keyboard line which is punctuated regularly by a combined attack of drums and guitar, and a choral backing vocal which owes more than just a nod to Queen. The guitar solo halfway through is more melodic than I would normally expect from lesser guitar 'virtuosi' - Byrd appreciates that soloing does not have to be about how many notes you can fit into a bar.
Messages From Home kicks off with a progressively more frantic guitar passage, before settling into an up-tempo song which is something like a heavier version of IQ. Lyrically, the song is open to interpretation - the suggestion is that of the US citizens seeking retaliation (in Afghanistan), but it could also be applied to the feelings of those who made the strikes on the 11th, which just shows that we're all only human.
Here comes the ballad... Acoustic guitars and string synths provide the backing for the first verse of Some Day, before the full band sound joins in for the chorus. Again, we're back in anthemic territory here - you can almost picture the candles waving to and fro in the arena audience - very much AOR at its best. Like the first track, this one ends up a little too sweet for my taste - probably as a by-product of the subject matter in this case.
All I Want starts with a simple piano melody, building into a disjointed rhythm backed by guitar chords and drum rolls. The chorus is a fairly straightforward rocker, which is introduced by a short Queen-like choral segment each time. There are a couple of times throughout this track where the guitar solos could have been given a little more space to develop - the solo starting at 03:10 sounds like it could have lasted at least another 20 seconds, but is cut short by the next verse.
Killing Machine is a little uninspiring in the verse, and the chorus is a little too cheerful to do justice to the line "You know that you're just a Killing Machine". However, there is much more of Byrd's guitar solo featured in the second half of the song, and we get to hear what he can do, with the guitar providing a good counterpoint to Flatters' vocal lines.
A heavy guitar/bass riff forms the backbone of Thank You, which has another anthemic/symphonic chorus, and a rather awkward ending. It also features (twice) the crime against poetry which is "I was broken like a potter's vase, I soon felt the demon's mace" - a rhyme which only works in American English, and just makes me laugh whenever I hear it.
The Price of War starts off quite weakly, with a very basic vocal and piano verse followed by the chorus, then returning to the basic verse. Then the military drumbeat comes in and turns the song completely around - it suddenly becomes the strongest track on the album. It is reminiscent of the images conjured up by the likes of Sassoon and Owen during WW1, brought up-to-date. It also features a soaring guitar solo and a sense of the bluster (and futility) of war.
An eastern feel introduces Only Love, which rocks along in a dark cloud until the chorus steps in with its 'love conquers all' motif. Finishing the album on a positive note - a nice thought, if a little too 'Disney'.
Technically, this album is pretty faultless - all three musicians work well together to create a tight, powerful sound. The keyboards are mostly used for synth backing, so are fairly sparse, but since Brian Hutchison also plays bass and drums, it would be harsh to expect Wakeman-like keyboard fills. Artistically, some of the lyrics leave a bit to be desired - how many rock singers would feel comfortable singing "I know that I'm their tool"? Also, I find some of the AOR choruses too sickly-sweet for my taste.
Fans of Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai and the like would not be disappointed by this album, as it includes some excellent guitar work, without being 'show-offish', whilst Queen fans looking for something heavier would appreciate the layered guitars and choral backings in several songs. Despite the couple of lapses into predictability already mentioned, there are some good, strong songs here which deal with a difficult subject from a personal perspective. I enjoyed it a lot more than I thought I would.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.