Reviews in this issue:
Symphony X - The Odyssey
Symphony X are the summum in symphonic metal. Indeed, they can rival with Dream Theater in terms of musicianship and composition. However, there style used to be much more theatrical and bombastic, as their fifth studio album V has proven. I was hoping for a continuation of this theatrical epic style, but unfortunately the band has gone in a much harder direction. Personally I am slowly getting fed up with progressive bands with roots in metal going back to their roots....damn it, the metal audience is getting thin and more and more people are interested in progressive rock instead! Why on earth do all these metal bands sprout out of the ground, and why do bonafide progressive bands (even when listed as progressive metal) tend to go to the much more simplistic base of guitar, bass and drums, and easy compositions? This is not to say that the compositions on The Odyssey are trivial metal tunes, far from that. Fortunately, Romea et al have enough tricks up their sleeves to make even this album attractive for progressive fans. Especially towards the end the album gets some of the glory of V back. Also the intro of Accolade II (indeed, the successor to Accolade from the 1996 album The Divine Wings Of Tragedy) is very worthwhile and truly in the Symphony X spirit. Here vocalist Sir Russel Allen really thrives (though I must admit that his harsh metal voice in the first tracks is quite spectacular as well).
Of course, the highlight of the album is the 24 minute track The Odyssey (based on yet another Greek philosopher's tale. Remember that Atlantis, of which V is the musical version, is first mentioned by Plato!). Actually the musical introduction to The Odyssey is formed by Awakenings, a more mellow track, where for the first time we get treated to true progressive metal. This would have been the style I would have preferred for the entire album. After this track, we delve into the mystical world of Odysseus, on his journey from Troy which he helped to destroy, back to his kingdom Ithaca. To set the scene, a kind of film score opens the track, with the focus on the keyboards (with a lot of brass instruments). This then flows into a ballad in which Odysseus dreams of home and of his wife, a beautiful composition with a prominent role for the vocals of Allen, supported by semi-acoustic guitar. This comes quite close to some of the Ayreon tracks. The third movement, The Eye, is first an instrumental track, followed by a Dream Theater like part with heavy rhythm guitar dominating the melodic lines and in general a complex interplay between the different instruments. Basically all different prog metal styles follow in the remainder of this track, making it the definite highlight of the album.
It took me a while to get used to the album. On the first listening I was quite disappointed, as I hoped for a second V. But after a while, the album settles and one can appreciate the more intricate movements, amid the more metal oriented material. The last half hour is all I had hoped for, and that made up for a lot. Still, it is not an album that has settled in my mind, even after listening to it for two months, so not "recommended" tag for this album.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Akihisa Tsuboy & Natsuki Kido Duo - Era
In recent months DPRP has received several, sharply contrasting albums from Japan, giving us an all too brief glimpse of the diversity and complexity of music emerging from this country. Over the coming weeks we will be reviewing these rare offerings. In recent years we have seen more and more artists and bands from Japan breaking into the European progressive rock market. Much praise has been afforded to Kenso, who captured the attentions of many at Progfest 2000 and which DPRP reviewed the subsequent Progfest 2000 compilation album release in 2002.
Era is the collaboration between Akihisa Tsuboy on violin and Natsuki Kido on acoustic guitar, two highly proficient and gifted musicians, both of whom have contributed to the writing duties on the album. All the featured tracks are live recordings taken from three separate concerts, spanning the same number of years. The last of these recorded at the Flying Tea Pot in May 2002. Having mentioned that the recordings are live you would be hard pushed to tell this from the excellent sound reproduction, the odd stage noise or slight intonation flaw being the only indication. Along with this all the audience applause has been removed and therefore what remains are seven stunning performances of both composition and improvisation.
Although on the surface the instrumentation, acoustic guitar and violin, might seem a little sparse however what emerges is far from this, combining virtuosity and excitement with passion and delicacy. It is some time since I have experienced this and it took me back to the first time I heard the Natural Elements album from John McLaughlin's Shakti project. Much as the empathy between McLaughlin and Lakshminarayana Shankar contributed to that album so to is this apparent here. Again much in the fashion that Mind Ecology opened the proceedings on the Natural Elements album, so to Left Window sets the tone for the whole of the Era album. Encompassing, as it does, many of the component elements that go on to make up their respective albums. Left Window begins gently with an almost folk or ethnic texture to it, as the violin weaves through the acoustic guitar and gradually the track builds into a crescendo of soloing virtuosity.
Both instruments use carefully refined reverberations and delays to add ambiance and depth, all of which go to generate a much fuller and richer sound. Along with these subtle effects the violin is overdriven in certain sections giving a more electric feel to those passages, as may be found in Left Window for example. Possibly there may be some slight overdubbing or repeated sample phrases to embellish certain sections - a difficult one to call really, my feelings are that what you hear is what was played. A credit to the two musicians who have created this rich and full sound.
Information on Tsuboy and Kido is fairly patchy and as my understanding of Japanese knows no beginning I can shed very little further light on the matter. The two have collaborated together on a number of occasions but this appears to be their first CD release. Era is a stunning album and one that would be impossible for me to single out any particular highlights from. What was wonderful, however, were the slower and gentler tracks Ripple, 006 and the opening section from New Era Has Come. But I loved it all!
I am mindful that this may not be to everyone's liking but it certainly was to mine. It took me forever to finish reviewing this album as on each occasion I sat with my headphones on and notepad in hand I just became engrossed in the music.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Supernova - Lleva El Brillo Del Sol
The Argentinean quartet Supernova originally formed in 1991 with a line-up of Alexander Kordon (keyboards and flute), Eduardo Penney (guitar), Norberto Barcala (drums) and Mariano Sanchez (bass). Following the loss of Penney in 1994, the band continued as a trio using modern technology and MIDI sequencers to overcome the loss of their guitarist. In 1998 they were joined by vocalist Maria Macaya for the recording of their debut album Point Of Infinity, voted Argentinean album of the year by readers of Mellotron Magazine.
Four years on, the follow-up album features three moderate length songs and one conceptual 'epic' of quality symphonic rock. Contrary to expectations, the music is not totally dominated by the keyboards. By clever use of MIDI systems, manipulation of the bass to make it sound more like a lead instrument (similar to what Colin Hodgkinson achieved with Back Door) and plenty of flute interludes, Supernova have manage to produce an album of accomplished variety. The mixture of acoustic and electronic drums, which at times are placed too high in the mix for my personal taste, also dominate throughout the album.
The opening track El Hipernauta has it all, keyboard sounds ranging from piano, to acoustic guitar to church organ, a succinct and well arranged flute solo, some fine bass playing and an interesting vocal arrangement. Apocalipsis II starts in a rather more mournful manner, which, when the vocals start, is vaguely reminiscent of Dead Can Dance. Timpani-like drums overlaid with some weird (presumably) treated bass, lead into a short instrumental section sped along by some frantic riffing by guest guitarist Miguel Oropeza, which continues through the next couple of verses. Unfortunately, after a promise of a grand ending, I found the end of the song rather weak.
The shortest track on the album, the instrumental Despues De Todo, is also the strongest. Starting with some fine flute playing that at times echoes Ian Anderson from Jethro Tull, the remainder of the track is a variety of different keyboard pieces which although never extravagant or bombastic, are tightly composed to provide a well balanced piece of music.
Isis, the epic, has five major sections each preceded by a short introductory section. The short interludes are a good way of changing the mood which is developed in the longer segments of the song. Somewhat akin to a mini symphony, a range of moods and tempos are covered with the quieter, more classically orientated pieces and where the flute takes prominence providing the highlights. I found the overall song perhaps too fragmentary for the piece to hang together perfectly, but that is probably because as a non-Spanish speaker I was unable to follow the concept through the lyrics.
Although not entirely my favourite type of music, it is an ambitious album that will undoubtedly, and rightfully, be loved by fans of symphonic rock. Overall a refined album, elegantly packaged in a sleeve featuring the art of William Turner.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
noise626 - The Art Of Falling Forward
noise626 is one-man band Ant Graham who started out as the guitarist in the little known gothic rock band Mime Of Sin and Repent. Leaving in 1992, Graham spent seven years teaching himself how to make music using the MIDI system on his PC, before returning to the guitar in order to write and demo some music to accompany his poetry. A chance meeting with an old friend resulted in Graham joining Christus and The Cosmonaughts whose leader, Scot Solida, encouraged Ant to record his demos properly. The result is The Art Of Falling Forward enigmatically described as Gothic Progressive Rock.
As a solo musician who relies heavily on programming and the synth to produce sonic textures, the CD is rather limited in its musical horizons. The repetitive rhythms of the drum machine tend to provide the gothic element to the music, and even when the drums are abandoned, as in Away, a constant guitar pattern throughout the entire track prevents any diversity in the song structure. A somewhat limited singer, the lyrics are delivered in a rather monotonal manner which often lack real emotion, which is a shame as judging from the lyrics, Graham does write about passionate and emotional subjects.
Pray, a song about loss of faith, would have benefited from abandoning the drum machine altogether, as, when present, it detracts from the guitar and piano, probably the only song where the music is on an equal standing as the lyrics. And that is the problem with the album for me, it is obvious that the music has been written to back the lyrics and wouldn't stand alone.
If the first four tracks can be considered as the gothic part of the musical equation, then the title track is the progressive element. A concept piece based on a short futuristic story, the overall result is somewhat dreary. Throughout the twenty minutes that the song lasts, the track never really takes off or heads anywhere, a few diversions or an instrumental break would have made a welcome change.
Possibly unique in the musical area noise626 attempts to cover, The Art Of Falling Forward is a brave effort and one for people who like the minimalist approach to things. However, I doubt if it would find much favour with the average progressive rock fan.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Special Experiment - Fortune Memories
Special Experiment is a band around composer Dzidek Marcinkiewics, who plays keyboards and synths on this album, and is responsible for production and composition as well. As far as the compositions go, these are not bad, reminding of the archetypical prog compositions of the early nineties (especially those from the Clive Nolan school. In fact Dzidek looks a bit like Nolan). But they are nothing particularly special either, just nice prog rock tunes, now and then also reminding of Mike Oldfield (especially some of the quieter parts in for instance Centre Opti Fuga). But what is particularly strange is the fact that all the tunes seem to be structured as songs, but there are no vocals at all on the album! It was quite fun to notice that without problems I could sing along a melody line to the tracks, so predictable was the structure. For this reason alone, having no vocals, I give it a low rate. Should it have contained well -sung vocals, I would have rated it one or maybe even two points higher. But as stated, it is neither special nor an experiment (unless one wants to call leaving out vocal lines an experiment).
Conclusion: 5 out of 10