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Reviews in this issue:
Sylvan - Artificial Paradise
When I reviewed Sylvan's previous album Encounters two years ago I was left with mixed feelings. There were some really strong compositions on the album, such as No Way Out and sections of the epic title track like Your Source, All Of It and In Vain. At the same time however the album suffered from too many ideas being cramped into one little silver disc, resulting in an overdosis of tempo and melody shifts that were, even for a seasoned prog rock fan like me, a bit hard to digest. Ideas were rarely fully developed and on top of that the band even sounded a bit pompous and pretentious at times with sections that were maybe a tad to classical or lacked catchy melodies. As such, tracks like Essence of Life and sections of the title track were not the most easy tracks to listen to. Nevertheless, the band really proved that they had great potential. And in October 2002 the full fledged result of that potential saw the light of day with their new album Artificial Paradise.
Wrapped in the loose concept of casino's (whose sound can be spotted several times on the album) the songs on Sylvan's new album deal with deceitfulness, superficialty and the ups and downs of life and the human nature.
One of the trademarks of Sylvan is the blending of different styles in such a seamless way that their own unique sound develops. At times the band might be compared to Marillion or IQ, while at others they come very close to the prog metal genre, without ever losing their grasp on good melody hooks. This album even sees them venture into territory previously ruled by bands like Spock's Beard or Faith No More ! But more about that later.
All of the musicians of Sylvan show their best sides on Artificial Paradise. Marco Glühmann proves to be one of the best voices in contemporary prog rock with hardly a sign of the dreaded German accent, Matthias Harder puts down some fine drum patterns (just listen to Deep Inside) while Sebastian Harnack supports the music with great bass playing, at times funky and at times suprisingly melodic in a Porcupine Tree kind of way. Finally brothers Kay and Volker Söhl on guitars and keyboards provide many a beautiful or powerful solo.
After the opening casino sound effects, Deep Inside is a very worthy opener of the album and one of the best tracks on Artificial Paradise. It is a fine example of what Sylvan has to offer on this album; great vocals, catchy rhythms and melodies, fine tension building and climaxes, nice sound effects, surprisingly high quality English lyrics (considering this is normally not the biggest strength of German bands) and fine solos. It is also a tune that once again shows that smart usage of drum computers can actually strengthen the tension building of a good prog rock tune. Bands like Marillion and Spock's Beard have used the same technique recently.
That's Why It Hurts and Human Apologies are two other fine examples of the quality of composing and performance to be found on this album, ranging from sad ballads to agressive rock songs.
Timeless Traces is another highlight and might well be the most beautiful and emotional ballad I've heard this year. It's got one of those guitar solo's which bring tears to your eyes, vocals at times sweet and soothing and at times strong and emotional and basically all of the ingredients and structures to make a classic song. Absolutely brilliant !
Both Strange Emotion and I Still Believe are rather straightforward rock songs, but very good ones at that, while Souvenirs is a rather forgettable vocal/piano-only tune. Around the World turns out to be a very catchy tune with some of the quirkiness which once was the trademark of Spock's Beard (just listen to the guitar - keyboards 'dialogue').
The CD comes to a close with the brilliant title track Artificial Paradise, which consists of 5-6 unnamed sections. The epic starts with an instrumental part which reminds me of Voilet District's album Terminal Breath and then moves into a vocal section with fine melodies, which will return near the end of the track. The middle section is one of the most surprising parts of the album and consists of two related segments. The first of these introduces a Porcupine Tree like bass riff and mysterious vocals while the second uses a variation on the same riff for bass and guitar and develops into a fine grungy rap-style which reminded me a lot of Faith No More. After a reprise of the earlier vocal section the track ends with several minutes of casino noises and ambient synths, helping you to catch your breath after almost 70 minutes of splendid music.
Best moments: The brilliant compositions Deep Inside, Timeless Traces and Artificial Paradise, by themselves almost 40 minutes of material.
Weakest moments: very, very few. The only really weak spot was the silly 80s kraut-pop keyboard ditty at the start of the otherwise fine Human Apologies. The backing vocals in Strange Emotions could have been a bit better as well. For some reason I find them slightly annoying.
The 16-page booklet is beautifully designed with lyrics and photographic artwork supporting the meaning of the lyrics.
All in all this album is a near masterpiece and one of my favourites of 2002, proving that nowadays some of the best
prog rock comes from Germany with bands like Sylvan, Alias Eye and RPWL.
What are you waiting for, check out some of the samples of the tracks yourself !
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
Marillion - Singles Box vol. 2 '89-'95
Let me start by saying that I wasn't a big fan of the previous
Singles Box, which comprised of
(nearly) all the Fish-era singles released between 1982 and 1988.
As you can read in my review I didn't feel it added much to one's collection, and only diminished the value of the original singles.
Now, two years later, fans can once again dig deep in their pockets
to complete their collection with this box, which features all
the Hogarth-era singles released between 1989 and 1995.
Like the Fish Box it contains 12 singles packed in individual sleeves with their original artwork, including all the different tracks that had been released on the different formats.
Unlike the Fish-era box, I feel this box-set does have a bit more added value over the original CD-singles. This due to the fact that in the nineties, in an attempt to score a hitsingle through the loyalty of the fanbase, singles were released in many different formats, all with different b-sides.
This was especially the case with Dry Land and Alone
Again In The Lap Of Luxury. Dry Land was released
as a 7" single, a 10" single, a 12" picture disc and as a 5"
CD single, all of which included different acoustic live tracks.
Alone Again was released as both 7" vinyl and 12" picture disc, as well as two different CD-singles, all with different b-sides which comprised of both studio tracks from Brave as well as live tracks recorded during the Brave-tour.
Both singles now include all those tracks, giving both a respectable playing time (with 49 minutes Alone Again now has the length of a conventional LP record!)
Another improvement is the fact that a bit more care has been
taken in recreating the singles. Whereas some of the artwork
of the singles in the Fish-era box had been reduced so far that
credits were not legible anymore, with this box all artwork has
been re-created from scratch, thus ensuring all print can actually
This recreating of the singles has however also resulted in some discrepencies when compared to the originals. Most notable are the Cover My Eyes single, which features photos of the band members, however, there are two photos of Mark Kelly and none of Steve Rothery, and their single Beautiful, which states the track Afraid Of Sunrise, yet included on the disc itself is Afraid Of SunLIGHT! Plenty more tracks appear in a slightly different version or mix, making it fun for the anoraks to do their nitpicking on the Marillion forum.
One more improvement over the previous box is the inclusion of the single The Great Escape, which was not released in the UK. With the Fish-era box non-UK singles were left out, yet at least this box is complete.
In the end some of the criticism I had with the previous box
remains: It is expensive, it's a collector's item targeted at
the hard-core fans only, and very little of the material has
never been released on CD before.
But at least this time round the whole thing has been done with a bit more care and a bit more heart.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Various Artists - Prog Fever Vol 1
Prog Fever Volume One brings together some familiar and lesser known German prog bands, having donated a track a piece to the album. The proceeds from the sale of the CD are to benefit the victims of the catastrophic flooding that affected much of Eastern Germany in August 2002, it is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their homes in some of the worst flooding for over 150 years. Each of the twelve bands featured making their own contribution, via the sale of this album, to the disaster fund. The CD comes with an eight page booklet, offering photos and info on all of the bands who have participated [unfortunately for me, in German]. Prog Fever contains over an hour and a quarter of good progressive rock, covering many varied styles within the genre and thus making this an interesting and listenable collection of songs.
The opening track is Principles of Alternation, from the now sadly defunct Violet District - members of whom went on to form RPWL. A great opener with its mixture of gentle timbres, eerie atmospherics, driving rhythms and strong melodies. The track would have featured on Violet District's second album, had it been completed - although it should be noted that Tempus Fugit released a compilation of the bands material in 2000. The longest piece from Prog Fever and features the Jon Andersonesque vocals of Mischa Schleypen and accompanied by the themic and stylised guitar of Karlheinz Wallner. Following on from this is the rousing At the End of Life, the strong and driving guitar riff is nicely complimented by the catchy keyboard synth line. A distinctly melodic and heavy rock song, but without losing sight of its prog roots. The keyboards and guitar form the musical structuring of the piece, and as with the previous track, the vocal melody line is strong, with an infectious chorus hook line. Cromwell provide the album with its first anthem like track. These two songs in themselves make the album worth having and there is still much good music to follow.
A similar format but with a completely different approach as Zhorn open with a strong keyboard synth line, on this occasion the instrumentation being less aggressive. The acoustic guitar forms the driving force for Of Swords and Kisses as the track moves along at a brisk tempo, and with the keys, electric guitar and drums punctuating the vocals. Yet again we have memorable and accessible themes and vocal melodies - worthy of note perhaps that the lyrics for all the songs are in English. This song will feature on the new Zhorn, "Z comes first" album. Poor Genetic Material take up the gauntlet next, with an alternative mix of The Lady Stands, taken from their Leap into Fall album released early this year. The Lady Stands opens their album and forms part of a lengthier piece Rush of Ages. The track remains in keeping with the rest of Prog Fever as again the vocal melodies are rich and lodge easily in the memory.
Like all good albums variation is the spice of life and on this ocassion events are taken down by the gentle and haunting melody from Sunstream. Cinnamonia combine electronic keyboard sounds and textures as a back drop to Sandra Werner's pleasant and ethereal voice. Taken from their debut CD, The Scarlet Sea, an album well worth checking out and offers an almost folk-like quality to the predominately electronic sound. The closest I can offer is perhaps akin to some of Enya's material. Check out O'er the hills and far away which is downloadable from Cinnamonia's site. Following on from this is the middle section Dark Room taken from the Slipping into the Unknown album (see the review below). Those familiar with the Ines Project's previous three releases, will know roughly what to expect, however this is a difficult one to deal with in one paragraph so a visit to their site might be on the cards. Dark Room opens with gentle guitar and an infectious vocal passage developing and building from start to finish.
Two prog metal tracks ensue, the first from Dreadful Minds - Lost in my Heart (previously un-released) and the second taken from Anguish's recently released album Symmetry. Two relatively short and concise tracks and with all the elements present in abundance - huge guitar riffs, big drums, polished arrangements and strong hook lines in the chorus sections. Not known for my great love of prog metal, however these two tracks would certainly fall on the more positive side. Symmetry, the longer of the two tracks is the more interesting, having more time to develop some of the instrumentation - with shades of Dream Theater and Queensryche.
The heavier element continues with High Wheel's contribution to the Prog Fever album with Something in You, slightly more restrained with a classic rock riff this time. The track drives along well, with its rising and falling tension and interesting vocal harmonies. Their song is not really long enough to make any great further comment. Shades of Silver from T is in demo form only (1994), a fairly long track made longer by the fact that, although pleasant enough initially, goes nowhere. Jangly guitars over a backwash of strings and accompanied by melancholic vocals - sorry not my cup of tea.
As we draw to the closing two tracks from the album we are presented firstly with Zenobia, offering us a live "un-plugged" version of the Power from Within, an interesting piece in a structured song format. For the finale to the album we have another un-released track this time from Chrass, Discovery, with its gentle timbres throughout the piece. Incorporating some interesting keyboard sounds, acoustic guitar and percussion, to supply the great majority of the instrumentation present within the song. Although there are some moments of inspiration and pleasant quiet sections, the track never quite makes it for me - a little too meandering. Reminiscent at times of early Moody Blues, but without the depth of vocal harmonies.
We can only wish Quixote Music every success in the sales of this release and commend all the bands involved for freely giving their services to the CD. Prog Fever is a good album in its own right and as an overall comment, the stronger tracks are to be found towards the first half of the album, but that is to be expected. Having said this much of the material is previously unreleased, or offers an alternative arrangement or mix, to that which appears on the respective band's albums, therefore you are not merely buying a collection of tracks available elsewhere. An excellent opportunity to hear twelve of Germany's more interesting progressive rock acts.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
INES Project - Slipping Into The Unknown
The INES Project was formed in 1994 by keyboard player Ines Fuchs and her guitarist husband Hansi, and includes a core of four additional musicians and augmented with guest musicians as the music dictates. Ines states "When I compose, I follow images which I try to realize in a musical way ... the progressive music of the seventies is the perfect basis for my work" and as we'll see, there is a lot of common ground with 70's bands (Genesis in particular), but there's much more to the project than just another bunch of Gabriel wannabees.
The album starts with a low synth drone overlaid with a wandering flute line and tribal drums which drop into the verse for Making movies in Hollywood. Strong, yet laid back vocals from Boris Huzak walk us through a brooding verse which then soars into an incredibly catchy chorus - when two-year-olds sing along, you know you've got a great hook, and my daughter loves this one! There is an uplifting bridge section leading back to the chorus which is repeated until the flute and drone return for a short reprise to close the song. Perfect.
Synth pad, single drum and Chicco Grosso's vocal line introduce Sitting by the river which is joined by an eclectic percussive synth (I think) driving the song along for a verse until it meets a rather uninspiring middle section which is simply a sequence of basic synth pads, but this is then followed by the next verse and chorus overflowing with energy - the bass line goes into overdrive and Ines lets rip with some grinding organ chords, like a pop version of Yes's Siberian Khatru. The song then settles back into the simple synth pads to fade out to - much better suited to this section than their earlier appearance.
There's more more than just a nod in the direction of Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells to In my street - the first few bars are very similar, and for me this is the better version. A very melodic couple of verses, with an almost Abba-like quality to the lyrics is followed by a short brass-synth instrumental over the Oldfield-like backing. Then suddenly, after about 3 minutes of laid-back ballad a wonderful, soaring keyboard solo appears to have time-warped in from an early-seventies Genesis album for an all-too-brief 90 seconds. When the vocals return they've been given a new lease of life following the solo, before another, more serene instrumental fades the song out over the last minute.
A complete change of mood (and vocalist - Chistoph Pelgen this time) greets The spark, which features a tumbling sitar riff and an Eastern atmosphere all tied together by an insistent rhythmn. Parts of this sound like they could be modern versions of traditional folk tunes - a refreshing little song dealing with the creative 'spark' and the changes it leads to.
The Eastern flavour is retained in Slipping into the unknown 1, which again starts off very much like a folk song with flutes, hurdy-gurdy, violin and bagpipes before the rock band join in almost at the end to finish off. It's difficult not to tap your toes to this tune.
Who holds the strings sees us return to more familiar prog territory, starting off with with another melodic verse, IQ-style. The chorus then steps up a gear or two to a Yes-like multi-part choral section (although Chicco Grosso sounds more like Peter Gabriel in these sections). A bass-led instrumental builds up for about a minute, although it doesn't really do much before the verse and chorus return.
Dark room is introduced by a beautiful bagpipe lament overlaid on synth pads and light percussion, which drops out to be replaced by a simple, claustrophobic guitar and vocal verse. The band join in for the second verse, then Grosso does a quick spoken Fish impression. The instrumental section at the end features a (yay!) bagpipe solo. No, don't laugh - it works well and really finishes the piece off perfectly before it fades into Slipping into the unknown 2. This is another instrumental, closely related to the first version, but much slower and has an almost haunting atmosphere - more like the Clannad/Enya end of the folk scale.
Something is waiting here starts off with distorted vocals and drum loops, and initially seems completely out of place - very contemporary in comparison to what has passed so far, but the band overwhelm this and stamp their own sound on the track, at which point the song returns to the themes from Dark room. There are a couple of delicate breaks where Ines' backing vocal is allowed to come to the front of the mix, accompanied by keyboard pads and lots of delay, before the song fades out into Enemy Mine. This starts with an electric piano introduction which is joined by Grosso's vocal, and some subtle, but effective counterpoint on guitar. A gentle guitar solo about halfway through hands over to a similarly paced keyboard solo, before the chorus finally takes us to the end of the song. The theme throughout the album is 'creativity', but I have grouped the songs from Dark room onwards together, as they seem to form a mini-suite of darker songs which share a more brooding atmosphere than the rest of the album. Lyrically, there are parallels with some of Peter Hammill's work which uses the 'room' as a metaphor for the mind. Combined together, these are the highlight of the album for me.
Back to IQ land with I'm in a movie. This is a very up-beat track, again providing a good contract with the preceding sections. After a minute or so, we have a quiet Peter Gabriel moment before the cheerful verses return. The last 30 seconds end with a well-arranged orchestral-like keyboard instrumental - you just know this would sound fantastic played by a full brass section.
"I'm a burning effigy...." - the echo-heavy guitar sound and the chords of this introduction are crying out for Robbie Williams to jump in with his party piece. Thankfully he doesn't. Ray, the tambourine is another nice melodic rock number in the vein of IQ. On another album this could be a highpoint, but here it disappoints compared to the rest of the material on the album.
With How I wish that you would stay Ines finally gets the microphone, and her very light voice provides the perfect closing number for this disc. This is a slow piece, backed by gently flowing drums and keyboards, and is effective in allowing a melodic bass line to come to the front of the mix, as it does not interfere with Ines' vocal as it might have with a male vocal. Quite different from the rest of the album, yet it fits in well, and if you have the CD looping it leads nicely back into the gentle start to the album.
This is a perfectly balanced album, bringing together elements of folk, 70's & 80's prog and contemporary sounds. It has darker moments with layers of meaning, up-tempo dance tunes, prog anthems and tender ballads. If you like any of the bands mentioned above, then you'll find something to like here. It is my second-favourite album of the year, and I will be investing my own post-Christmas pennies in the band's back catalogue.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10.
Marillion - Christmas 2002 : Santa and his Elvis
Since 1998 Marillion has adopted the good habit of releasing Christmas CDs for the members of The Web, the international network of official fan clubs. The series started rather dodgey in 1998 but lately the CDs have gotten more and more professional with 1999 and especially 2000 and 2001 being fine albums in themselves with great material.
However much I appreciate the work the band put into these albums, I think the Christmas 2002 is a step back into the wrong direction. The Marillion's Christmas Message track has the band members being silly and imitating each others voices. At times it's pretty hard to find out what they are actually saying since too many people speak at the same time. As always with such tracks it loses its novelty value after a couple of spins.
In previous years Marillion released some very professional and beautiful versions of Christmas classics on their Christmas albums, including Gabriel's Message and I Saw Three Ships. This year it's Mud's Elvis-like evergreen Lonely This Christmas, explaining the title of the album and the pictures of the band members dressed up as The King. I had expected another professionally recorded and performed Christmas classic, but unfortunately this one turned out to be a bit dodgey. Fun, but still dodgey. It's basically Steve Hogarth doing a (not very good) imitation of The King in the refrains and chatting along during the original choruses. At the end the band go into a punky sort of 'Sex Pistols' mode. It all sounds quite impromptu, making this years classic less interesting that those of previous years. Not something to put in your own compilation of X-mas tunes like I did with the others.
Besides the X-mas cover Fruit of the Wild Rose is the most interesting track on the album. It was recorded during the Anoraknophobia tour and intended to be included on the Anorak in the UK live album. It eventually was cut from the tracklist of the live album, for obvious reasons. What makes the track interesting, besides the fact that it was rarely performed live during the tour (AFAIK), is that it suddenly goes into Cannibal Surf Babe. Assuming this is a spontaneous improvisation, that would make it an unique, since the band is not known for their improvisations. This track might actually prove why they rarely do it, since it all sounds a bit chaotic to say the least. It might not be an improvisation after all, in which case the band should be ashamed of itself. Still, as a rarity it is quite a nice collectable.
The rest of the songs, Between You and Me, Map of the World, Answering Machine, Afraid of Sunlight and King were all recorded live in the studio for the 'Total Rock' radio session. As with the 'live in the studio' tracks on the double CD version of Anorak in the UK live album, they add very little to the already available studio and live versions of these tracks, of which there are already several of most of the tracks. I really preferred the acoustic versions and remixes on previous Christmas albums, giving me a reason to actually play them more than once.
As said, I really appreciate Marillion's habit of releasing these Christmas albums, but as with other releases by the band this year, it once again feels like a cheap, thrown-together bunch of material. Hopefully Santa will bring us a nicer present with Christmas 2003.
If you are not a member of The Web yet and would like to obtain a copy of this album, please refer to the information on the band's website regarding memberships.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.