Reviews in this issue:
Easy Star All-Stars - Dub Side of the Moon
Bonus Tracks: Time Version (3:38), Great Dub in the Sky (4:21), Step it Pon the Rastaman Scene - Ranking Joe (4:02), Any Dub You Like (3:22)
February 2003 saw the release of a very special album. Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of Pink Floyd´s classic Dark Side of the Moon album, a reggae version of one of rock's most legendary recordings hit the shops. Being an avid Floyd fan and collector, this first seemed like a very strange idea to me. Considering some of the previous attempts to set Floyd's music to other musical types, ranging from Out of Phase's horrible Wall 2000 house to the hilarious Rebuilding the Wall rockabilly country by Luther Wright and the Wrongs, this could be nothing more than a bad joke. But how wrong I was ! Visiting the web site of the Easy Star label and playing the samples present there I was pleasantly surprised. Before long I was grooving my way to and from work with Dub Side on the car stereo.
As has been said before by DPRP's reviewers in their pieces on tribute CDs like Signs of Life or Pigs and Pyramids, few things are worse than some band doing a note-for-note copy of Floydian classics, adding no value whatsoever to the classic originals. On the other hand, the mentioned experiments to transform Pink Floyd's music to other musical styles have in the past been pretty dreadful (no pun intended). Besides, there are only so much orchestral tributes a fan can take. As such, I have to say that as a complete album Dub Side is the best cover album I have ever heard on Floyd's work. Not only have the artists - of whom I personally don't know any, but that's just me being oblivious to the reggae genre - done there absolute best to treat the material with the respect it deserves - the well informed liner notes in the booklet only subscribe to this - they have also poured all of their creativity into this project. And it works stunningly well !
All of the tracks stand up incredibly well in their new versions. Not only do the reggae rhythms fit perfectly with the material, but all of the transformations and re-arrangements work very naturally. To mention a few, all big guitar solo's like those in Time and Money have been replaced by groovy 'toasting', the rap-like improvisations that most of you will at least know from Shaggy or the full length version of UB40s Red Red Wine. The futuristic feel of On The Run is maintained by adding a jungle drum-and-bass rhythm to the well-known sequencers. Time features a melodica while the guitar in Any Colour You Like has been replaced by trombone !
And let us not forget the sound effects. All of these have been recreated, but in a very tongue-in-cheek kind of way, proving the good sense of humour of the members of this project. I mean, one can but only smile at the lighters, bubbling of waterpipes and coughing that have replaced the cash registers of Money or the coo cook clock, electronic alarm, military reveille trumpet and rooster that replace the multitude of clocks at the start of Time. Or how about resurrecting the old rumour that Dark Side was written to run simultaneously with the Wizard of Oz movie, a feature that is even used to promote this new incarnation. If only some of the prog rock bands of this world would display the same fun approach !
Although some of the cross-overs between the tracks might not work as well as in the original, the album still feels as a complete whole. It's just one big groove from beginning to end, to which it is virtually impossible to sit still. Some of the highlights include the marvellous versions of Time, Great Gig and Any Colour You Like. But rest assured, all of the other songs are very tastefully done as well. And to top it off there are four bonus tracks, including alternative versions (largely instrumental with loads and loads of echo) of Time, Great Gig and Any Colour. The latter is actually almost unrecognisable since it basically features the new rhythm arrangement and the toasting by Ranking Joe.
There's only two possible reasons why yous should not check out dis wicked tribute: eitha yous get spontaneous skin rashes whun earin reggae or yous is a fanatic Floyd ata. Fa da remainin majority of prog fans dat can display opun-mindedness and a wicked sense of umour, go out and get it ! Check out da Streamin' Audio samples if yous is not yet convinced. Dig up your skunk, grab dat waterpipe and groove away .... and mostest importantly, rememba dat there is no dub side of da moon really ... as a matta of fact, it's all dub !
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10
Oxygene 8 - Poetica
Any time I hear of a band or musician using the Chapman Stick my curiosity is piqued. And it was even more so when I learned about Oxygene 8, a trio comprised of Linda Cushma (vocals, midi Chapman Stick, guitar synth and loops), Frank D’Angelo (midi electric guitar, guitar synth, and loops), and ex-Primus drummer Tim Alexander. Just from reading the instrumentation, you know you’re in for something interesting. Their new CD Poetica is a highly eclectic collection of 12 pieces of music with genre bending appeal.
The opening cut, Stand, is a hard, edgy work, which features some interesting spoken vocals by Cushma. These vocals are laid down during the verse over heavy metal-ish guitar and grooving tribal drums. Characteristic to the piece is a radical feel shift between the chorus and verse, which adds an unexpected twist. Chapman stick playing on this piece is used to create a hypnotic and infectious groove, and inevitable comparisons to Robert Fripp arise during the guitar solo.
Hold On incorporates synth washes behind Cushma’s hard grooving stick bass and features more conventional singing than on Stand. Instrumentally, late 80s/early 90s Rush is called to mind for most of the tune while the groove has a Primus-like quality to it during the solo section, where Alexander is given freedom to show off his talents a bit.
An instrumental is next up, entitled Funkernickel. The opening bass groove again calls to mind Les Claypool, while D’Angelo plays a melody, which stylistically I might best describe as a cross between Fripp and Steve Vai. After the main body of the piece, an exhaustive solo is once again given to D’Angelo for most of the remainder of the piece which will make guitar virtuoso lovers drool.
Once more, the specter of 80s era King Crimson raises its head in the beginning of Empty, but quickly gives way to Cushma’s speak-singing over the deep grooving Stick and drums. The last bars of the tune bring back in the opening guitar riff, but this time over a late 80s Rush-like backdrop.
Synth washes make up the entirety the spooky sounding Poetica. This piece has an improvisational quality and features layers of bizarre and surreal sound patches, which establish a dreamy sonic vision.
In Larry’s Lullaby - Prelude, we are given our first glimpse of acoustic guitar, played solemnly against synth loops (ala Frippertronics), likely generated by Cushma’s Midi Stick.
Spoolanoosh is another venture into the world of synthesizers, but the mood of this piece is much more unsettling than Poetica, almost nightmarish. Like Poetica however, the piece feels improvised and is dominated by bizarre sounding synthesizer patches.
A tabla groove wakes you from the nightmare of Spoolanoosh in the tender and touching Larry’s Lullaby, a piece I must surmise was written for the person for whom the CD is dedicated “in loving memory”, Cushma’s brother.
Suzanne Vega’s album 99.9 is called to mind by the feel established in the instrumental Mocha Butterfly. Spacey guitar picking echoes between the sparse bass and drums for the verse, but shifts dramatically to a distorted tone during the slinky chorus. It’s hard to keep your head from bobbing to the groove during this one.
Following the mellow groove of Mocha Butterfly the mood swings 180 degrees for Love Soldier. Once again Cushma takes to the microphone, and like the opening cut Stand, the guitar part is essentially prog-metal-ish. The Stick playing and drums are sparse on this piece, leaving plenty of room for D’Angelo to display his virtuosity once again in the solo section.
Cushma does more speech singing during the verse of the driving Cathedral, but switches to straight singing for the chorus. This song contains some interesting guitar parts and has a lovely bridge section, which is dramatically placed after of the harder edge of the rest of the tune. Following the bridge is one of the finest guitar solos on the entire album. Here D’Angelo displays his ability to create a tasteful and well-constructed melody which grows in intensity, along with the rest of the band, toward the end.
Finally, the CD closes with the lovely Heart to Weep. Sensitively woven with shimmering guitar and a subtle synth backdrop, this is a nice tune to finish off an album of such challenging twists and turns.
As I stated above, it is hard to categorize this album on the whole, which I think can be a positive, especially when referring to progressive music. The musicianship and production on the CD are superb, and the song writing (the result of the collaboration between Cushma and D’Angello) is very good. For me, the most exciting thing about this album is Cushma’s Stick playing. She is obviously an adept and accomplished musician and she really knows how to lay down intricate yet infectious grooves. Alexander was an excellent choice for drums, as his style locks in perfectly with Cushma’s playing. Cushma’s vocals did little for me first, but as is the case with most of this album, repeated listens allowed her style to grow on me. Frank D’Angelo is an exceedingly talented guitarist with unique style, but often looses me in flurries of technical bravado, which I find wanting for some measure of subtlety and restraint. With that said, however, this is a fine debut album. If you like power trios and are interested in a album featuring fresh, eclectic, groove oriented prog, with lots of crazy guitar playing and generous amounts of synthesizer, or if you are a big fan of the Chapman Stick, this is a must have, so go for it! You‘ll love this CD.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Pagan's Mind - Celestial Entrance
Hailing from Norway, Pagan's Mind only formed around three years ago and with a debut release Infinity Divine in November 2000, they stamped down a clear indication that they would be a band to watch.
Now joining top metal acts such as Shadowkeep, Adagio, Rhapsody and Concerto Moon on German-based Limb Music, from the first notes of their second disc, it is clear that this is a band that has improved tremendously on every level. Whatever loose ends there were on the debut have been firmly put into place this time around.
It may be difficult to describe exactly what kind of sub-genre Pagan's Mind fall into, as so many elements and influences are covered on this album - maybe 'Power Prog' would be the most accurate term. They have succeeded on every level in combining the progressive kind of song structures perfected by the likes of Rush, Queensryche and Dream Theater, with influences of more mainstream power and in some songs even the melodic simplicity of hard rock/AOR. But while many bands try to cram too much into their sound, resulting in a disjointed listen, Pagan's Mind seemingly move effortlessly from one musical idea to the next in creating their exciting musical landscape.
The band consists of twin guitarists Thorstein Aaby and Jørn Viggo Lofstad, drummer Stian Kristoffersen and bassist Steinar Krokmo. The keyboards are tickled by Ronny Tegner and the stunning vocals are provided by Nils K. Rue.
Rue's vocals have advanced tremendously from the first album and he delivers a fantastic performance. On many occasions, the effortless ease with which he reaches notes, brings back clear recollections of Geoff Tate at his peak. The musicianship is exemplary, but what stands out, is that no one instrument is allowed to hog the limelight for long.
The 12 compositions on Celestial Entrance are dripping in class. This is a very varied and dynamic album, constantly challenging the listener. Take the track The Seven Sacred Promises. There is an almost AOR feel (think Cannata) to the opening melody and pace, before we change to a very heavy ProgMetal mixed with some Death grunts before the AOR chorus returns again.
The longest track in the 72 minutes on offer is the instrumental Back to the Magic of Childhood. Split into two sections with an acoustic opener followed by a more expansive musical main course, the overall approach reminds me very much of the early days of Rush.
Elsewhere the band manages to construct more rhythms and change of moods in a single track than 99% of bands manage in a whole album. Yet, as I said before, you never get to feel that they are overdoing it - each idea blends perfectly into the song as a whole. And if you're a lover of straighahead metal riffing then there's more than enough here to keep you happy. Take the raucous closing tiff to Entrance Stargate - simply one of the most visciously bruising metal riffs I've ever heard. Brilliant!
However, it is the melodies that are really the album's winner. The band has a clear emphasis on writing strong hooks and this is songwriting on a grand scale. Just listen to the opener Through Osiris Eyes which is a magnificent example of technical and progressive compositions combined with melody.
Lyrics are also an important factor. The phrase 'concept album' can be off-putting, so I'll describe the album has having more of a 'philosophical theme'. Inspired by some of the theories of scientist Erich Von Daniken, there is a clear mystical inspiration, with ongoing references to extraterrestrial intelligence, the wider universe, religion and the nature of being. As a story or concept, it will work for some but not others. However what does work, is the way that having such a strong, intelligent use of words, ties every track to a common musical landscape.
Their debut was produced by legendary TNT guitarist Ronni Le Tekro, and again the band shows it is not afraid to mix with some big names in the studio. Celestial Entrance was produced and mixed at the famous Studio Fredman in Gothenburg by Fredrik Nordstrom (Dream Evil, Hammerfall, Synergy) and the result is a top-class, crystal clear and brutally crunchy production.
As you can probably see I'm finding it hard to pick fault with this. I'm not the greatest fan of Death vocals but they are used so sparingly that it doesn't really detract. If I had to be picky, then the only criticism lies in the fact that there is simply rather too much of a good thing. I'm all for value for money, but with 72 minutes of intense metal - by the time you reach the final two tracks, fatigue does tend to set in.
Norway hasn't been blessed with too many talented bands outside the Black Metal scene for many years. Pagan's Mind admit to being strongly influenced by fellow Norwegian's Conception and in terms of the quality and craft on offer here, I wouldn't disagree all.
ProgMetal albums that are this distinct and are of this quality, are created only a few times every year and if Limb can get behind this release, then there can be no doubt that it will take Pagan's Mind straight into the premier league.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Programme D'Experience - Thought Molecules
For starters one should stress that this is one of those non-catgorisable albums whose musical styles cross over into a variety of genres. Actually defining this album as prog-rock would involve erecting a number of boundaries which this very album transcends as it crosses over into territories as far apart as reggae and jazz! Programme D'Experience is actually the brainchild of Brad Bansner, ably assisted by Parker Kenyon on flute, saxophones, trumpet and trombone, and by Joshua Weinfeld who lays fretless bass on Deep Engine. The rest is all in Basner's hands.
The album itself is totally instrumental with pieces such as the opening Premonition and Round Unwind acting more as fillers or as "works in progress" whereby the artists has projected an idea for a short piece which he never got round to completing! There is very little in terms of an underlying theme linking each piece together, such is the variety one finds.
Tracks like An Eye For An Orange and Round Unwound could be associated with a style reminiscent of King Crimson though comparisons to various other bands are almost impossible to make. At times the music delves into a more relaxed lounge jazz style as happens on Close Circuit where the musical emphasis is on piano and guitar with a hint of funk and on Beyond Experience whit its delightful saxophone solo. Sixties psychedelia does surface on tracks such as Science Of No Science and Cradle whilst a seventies beat is dominant on tracks such as the afore-mentioned Closed Circuit and Twinkle with its strong brass section.
Ambience is another feature of the album, especially on one of the album highlights, Fingers Aligned (Light). The sound on this particular track is filled with dreamy synthesisers and its minimalistic sound draws a strong contrast to the relatively busy nature of the rest of the album. All in all, Thought Molecules is an interesting album which may be relatively hard to digest initially. However, it does grow on you and with each spin the tracks themselves become much more ear-friendly. Thought Molecules should appeal to all those progressive rock lovers whose taste lies between the jazz rock and prog-rock styles and who are open to ambitious abstract instrumental pieces.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Julio Presas - Amaneciendo En La Cruz Del Sur
Bonus Tracks: Lo que pudo ser (0:50), Apertura (1:00), Cierre (1:05)
Headphones on and reclining in my chair for the first listen through to this album from Julio Presas, I was pleasantly enamoured by the delicate and meandering sound, which soon soothed away the frustrations of a long and arduous day, so much so that I was inclined to play the CD again. A recent release from Viajero Inmovil Records based in Argentina and this time reading through the notes that accompanied the music within the packaging. These notes confirmed a couple of interesting points about the album, which coincided with some of my early impressions about the music - more of this later. The core musicians on Amaneciendo en la cruz del sur are Julio Presas on guitars, bass, percussion & voice; Carlos Cutaia on teclados(?) & synths; Carlos Riganti on drums & percussion, and Alicia Presas on voice. Additional credits go to Marcelo Vitale (synths), Mono Fontana (drums & percussion) and Carlos Cutaia (bass, synths & piano).
So, on to my early thoughts and my original perception was that the music bore all the trade marks of material that might have been written some twenty five years previously. The sleeve notes confirmed that in fact the recordings were made in 1978. Considering the age of the material the sonic quality is very good, and again the sleeve notes make note that Julio Presas had worked in his early career as a studio technician. What was fascinating was that tracks from the album are not in fact re-released but are receiving their first airing. I quote - "The music remained dormant in a drawer at his house for many years". Presas became aware that the tapes may be deteriorating and transferred them to another medium. This was in fact the case and "it is due to his own re-mastering efforts that an excellent piece of work finally emerges to the surface and sees the light of day".
It is not always the case that helpful comparisons to other artists can be readily defined, however here the pointers were fairly clear. Many of the tracks had an early Mike Oldfield flavour to them, created in the main by the interplay between the guitar parts. The combination of the simple, but effective melodies played with a semi-clean guitar sound, over multi-layered and picked guitar chordal structuring and accompanied by light keyboards sounds, being most reminiscent of his style. Ronda al fin best captured this and soon became my favourite tune from the album. Other fine examples would be the opening tune and Siempre dependemos de la escula. To the above comparison it maybe possible to add Gordon Giltrap as a guide, albeit without the flamboyance.
I am wary not to give the impression that this is merely a guitar album, far from it, as the keyboards, drums and other instrumentation feature strongly throughout Amaneciendo en la cruz del sur. The opening track and title piece, being predominately keyboard and synths, with the guitar providing only accompaniment. The album has gentle and delicate feel throughout and even in the up-tempo numbers such as La reunion, this is still sustained. Alicia Presas voice textures, although not used as much as I might have liked, add much to the tracks they appear in - particularly evocative during Otono de soledad. Although Julio Presas is from Argentina and the album does incorporate latin rhythms occasionally, the music has a distinct Englishness about it, which I must admit I found appealing. In the main this is an instrumental offering, Julio sings only on Tristeza Vienesa, and Alicia Presas' voice is used as described above.
I feel much credit must go to Felipe Surkan for his efforts to promote these independent releases, primarily from his own country, but also from around the world. Without his efforts gems like this album from Julio Presas may have been lost forever, and this would have been a great shame. Julio Presas is still active and can be found working not only as a producer, but also in a musical capacity. This album deserved to be released and contains many pieces well worth listening too. It is a shame that, at present, there are no audio files for this album? The best I can offer as an incentive to check out this album, is if Mike Oldfield features prominently in your album collection, then this would sit nicely alongside.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10