Reviews in this issue:
OSI - Office of Strategic Influence
A new year, a new Dream Theater-related super group. At least that's what this might seem like. OSI was founded by Fates Warning guitarist Jim Matheos and also features keyboardist Kevin Moore (Chroma Key, ex-Dream Theater) and (of course) drummer Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater). Now, judging from the background of these musicians, one would expect another prog metal band, of which there are far too many around these days, flooding the DPRP editors, making it hard to tell the good stuff from the crap wannabe's.
The music turned out to be very different from what I expected though. There's loads of spooky keyboard soundscapes, weird synth noises, effects and samples of spoken text, the latter reminding me a lot of Dark Star. As such Kevin Moore has had an enormous influence on this album, and at times there's more technology and electronics than in the average house release. The music is at times dreamy and mesmerising, at other times hard and heavy, though more based around catchy dark riffs in the Porcupine Tree vein then on self-indulging fast-finger guitar or keyboard solos.
The band themselves conclude on their web site that their debut is "a record that will as likely appeal to fans of Porcupine Tree, Pink Floyd, David Sylvian, Radiohead and Wire as it will, the followers of Fates, Dream Theater, Vanden Plas, Pain Of Salvation or Symphony X". Not being too familiar with the latter prog metal bands, I definitely agree with the Porcupine Tree and Radiohead references. As a matter of fact, the album features both the dreaminess of some early Porcupine Tree material, as well as the aggressive riff based approach of tracks like Up The Downstair, Signify and Wedding Nails and other trademark Tree elements like distorted vocals and catchy bass parts.
Sean Malone (Gordian Knot) performs bass and stick on some of the tracks, while other tracks feature throbbing bass sounds as bass part. As such, the bass at times reminds me of Ozric Tentacles, while at other times the often mentioned Porcupine Tree is a clear reference.
Another piece of evidence pointing out how important an influence Porcupine Tree has been on OSI is the fact that Steve Wilson himself is doing lead vocals on (and co-wrote the lyrics for) ShutDOWN. This track - the absolute highlight of the album - could easily have been on one of the more recent Tree albums, closely resembling tracks like Russia on Ice in feel, structure and atmosphere. But there's much more to enjoy on this album than just this epic ....
A substantial part of the album (3 tracks) is instrumental, which is a good thing because Kevin Moore, who does all the vocals except those on ShutDOWN, has a bit of a dull voice and the many added distortion and echo effects cannot always make it more interesting. His voice is okay for one or two tracks, and does again remind me of some of the earlier Porcupine Tree material, but it's too flat to keep you tied to the speakers for much longer. This is the main reason why some of the tracks on the album are weaker than others.
Among those instrumentals there are some real highlights though! The opener The New Math is a fine example of how music can be fast paced and heavy without falling into the obvious prog metal traps. It also sets the right mood for the first vocal track, OSI, which continues along the same rhythmic paths. The second instrumental, Horseshoes and B-52's, is a bit harder to digest (for me) since it's rather experimental and industrial in a King Crimson kind of way, to me it sometimes sounds like some random cutting and pasting was done on this track, leaving out a couple of seconds here and there. The third instrumental, Dirt from a Holy Place, is another fine piece though. It starts rather atmospheric, almost ambient, but before long it turns into this horror movie soundtrack which reminds me a lot of the same threatening mood Metallica's Call of Ktulhu has.
As for the songs with lyrics, some of those seem to deal with a rather cynical view on the government. As a matter of fact 'Office Of Strategic Influence' was an ill-fated agency that was dreamt up by the Pentagon, shortly after 9/11. Their purpose was basically to disseminate information mostly abroad, and if need be, false information, to put the U.S. war on terrorism in a more favorable light as the band's web site states. The energetic OSI, the oriental flavoured Head and the dreamy Hello, Helicopter are the best of the vocal tracks (and ShutDOWN of course).
There is a limited edition of the album which features three extra tracks, including a cover of Pink Floyd's Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun, as well as a multimedia documentary of the recording of OSI. The regular CD also features a bonus video of Horseshoes and B-52's. Personally I find this experimental clip nearly unbearable to watch. If some video games are bad for people with epilepsy, this video is going to instantly kill them.
All in all a fine record recommended for prog metal fans who like a bit of experimental alternative and ambient stuff and for Porcupine Tree fans that were not put off by the heavy approach on their last album In Absentia.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Honey Barbara - 1-10 & W.Ave.
The musical world has been taken by storm in the last few years by a musical movement dubbed by some critics as being alternative country with the main exponents being bands such as Grant Lee Buffalo, Lambchop, Mercury Rev and The Flaming Lips. Combining elements of psychedelia with trance-like loops and rhythms alongside a less sophisticated instrumentation involving various percussion and acoustic guitar work, this music has literally combined a variety of genres allowing the bands to be classified in a variety of genres from country to progressive rock. Well, Honey Barbara seem to fit snugly into this particular genre of bands.
The album, 1-10 & W.Ave., comes in a superb packaging with New Leaf foldout carton and a magazine to go with it. In fact the label Emigre is also a digital type foundry and distributor of graphic software and material. The contents of the magazine apart from the inclusion of lyrics also help create that psychedelic aura that the music itself evokes. A further glimpse into the mind of this band can also be drawn from the dedication of poetry and details dedicated to Gram Parsons (Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers), considered as the fore-father of alternative country.
The band consists of Lisa Kuehl (drums, percussion), James Sidlo (guitars, loops, atmospherics) and Ross Marlow (keyboards, bass, vocals), though they also enlist the help of various musicians throughout the whole of the album such as Gil Gonzalez, John Hackett and Bob Catlin. Together these musicians have laid down a great laid back groove with narrative vocals in the Lou Reed meets Red House Painters vein though the sonoric backdrop is what actually lends the band a progressive rock slant.
In fact one would be better off dubbing the music as psychedelic, such are the various sonoric effects that accompany the tunes kindling memories of early Pink Floyd or even Grateful Dead with the percussion being the main varying factor within the individual pieces alongside some breath-taking guitar solos. The guitar work on pieces like Famous Animal are evocative of a West Coast feel with that characteristic twang throwing the music deeper into the throes of the sixties when this style ruled the roost.
Thus I feel that this album would not be too appreciated by those progressive rock lovers whose musical tastes lie within the lengthy keyboard solos and pieces wherein the song structures are based on classical modalities. On the other hand one has also come to read that many rock critics seem to have pushed the boundaries of progressive rock towards those bands who have combined a languid and melancholic style that is replete with strong and strange chord sequences as well as rich sonoric backdrops. Possibly the main representatives of these bands would be Radiohead in the UK and Mercury Rev in the United States. Stylistically Honey Barbara seem to follow the latter band though at times such as on Beat Again they break out of the dreamy mould that Rev would create to move into a dirtier style that would make them more akin to bands such as Velvet Underground.
It would be nigh impossible to go into the strength and depth of each individual track on the album as the depth strength of the pieces lies in the band's ability in creating the atmosphere and seemingly minimalist instrumentation which when combined gives a strong rich matrix with hints of ear-friendly choruses and strong rhythms whilst still maintaining an aura of complexity. Hypnotic, complex, uplifting and at the same time reflective. These are all words I could use to describe this remarkable album which has taken me completely by surprise, an album which is by no means progressive in the classical term as we often refer to it yet at the same time breaks down enough of the usual boundaries to place it at the fringes of "regular" rock, something which should intrigue all progressive rock fans!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Silent Force - Infatuator
I have the dubious pleasure of being able to say that I am starting to become a bit of an expert on the genre of progressive power metal without actually liking the genre. I think that a continuous bass drum line can be highly effective to raise the intensity of certain parts of a song, but that using it all the time is overkill and actually makes its use rather boring. That is why I was pleased to hear that Silent Force was not just another progressive power metal band, but had in fact a lot more to offer than the usual high speed drumming and ripping guitars!
Let me start by saying that all the ingredients that are usually found on a power metal album are in place. To be honest, I sometimes suspect that there must be some kind of handbook available in which all these ingredients are listed. Okay, that probably sounded somewhat degrading, but it is just uncanny that one can encounter the same elements on almost every power metal disc.
Anyway, as expected, the pace in most songs is high, the bass drum is pounding away and there are quite a few avalanche-like guitar solos speeding by. The lyrics are all about despair, heroism and swords, and even the obligatory rock ballad is in place. But as I mentioned in the introduction, that is not all. Silent Force does indeed use some "silent force" in the shape of calmer interludes. These give the sometimes top-heavy tracks the necessary breathing space. For me, this makes the band a lot more interesting to me than those in the same genre that I have heard before. I do, however, realise that this very fact may actually cause the album to be less enticing to the die-hard progpowermetal fan.
Infatuator features some strong musicianship. Iron Maiden peeks around the corner when the lead guitar lines are doubled by another guitar, whereas Ayreon comes to mind where they are doubled by keyboards. The special Ayreon atmosphere actually surfaces a lot, I must say, particularly in the melody lines, the instrumentation, the sounds used and the often story-like texts. Apart from that, one can encounter Queensrÿche (Operation: Mindcrime era) in Hear Me Calling, parts a là Dream Theater in The Blade and Last Time and even some Genesis- and Marillion-like violining (i.e. featherlight brushes of guitar) in We Must Use The Power and The Blade. On top of all this, we can find shards of AC/DC or Def Leppard in the way the guys are shouting "Evil" in World Aflame.
Apparently, Judas Priest has also been a big influence on Silent Force's music. The album includes a cover from Judas Priest's Painkiller album from 1990, namely All Guns Blazing. However, since the Priest is a band that I have not managed to explore yet, I cannot tell you whether I think that this is true.
Surprisingly, the album closes with a reprise of the theme of In Your Arms on acoustic guitar and keys. The guitar sound here reminds me a bit of the middle part of Dire Straits' Telegraph Road. A bit of an odd way to end a power metal CD, I must say, but it certainly is original.
The vocals are very good. Interestingly enough, singer DC Cooper's voice varies from an Ozzy Osbourne sound to Queensrÿche 's Geoff Tate to Dream Theater's James La Brie and - dare I say it - even to a bit of a Don Johnson sound in In Your Arms, the rock ballad on the album. Just check out the duet Till I Loved You (I had to look that up on the internet!) featuring Don Johnson and Barbra Streisand, and you will know what I mean.
Quite a bit of nice stuff, in other words, but I just have to say something about track 5, We Must Use The Power. It begins like a good metal song, but the chorus really destroys the track for me. It is so typically eighties hardrock with its big choir of hollering guys, that it makes me laugh in disbelief every time I hear it. Sorry, cannot help it! ;)
The CD also contains an MPEG video of the track See Beyond, which is accompanied by live footage and shots taken in the backstage area. Nice bonus.
Silent Force's Infatuator is definitely not an album for the fan of the calmer side of prog. Progressive power metal fans who do not need to hear pounding drums all the time might, however, want to check this album out. According to the experts, Judas Priest fans should too, and the same applies to people who like the heavier Ayreon tracks and can live with one or two power metal clichés. They will all be treated to some good musicianship both on the vocal and on the instrumental side.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Phantom’s Opera - Act IV
As the title indicates, this is the fourth album from New Jersey Pomp Rockers “Phantom’s Opera”, and is more consistent and rockier than 1998’s Following Dreams. Still led by keyboard player Jack Young, whose flair for all things Romantic and Theatrical give the music its focus. The band now includes new vocalist Terry Brock (Strangeways) and drummer Dave Garcia. Still on board are Bob Gilmartin on guitars and Eric Walz on bass. Etched In Stone is a solid opener, in which Terry Brock proves to have a commanding presence, ideally suited to the dramatic, romantic nature of the material. This song sets up the template for much of the rest of the album, where conventionally structured melodic rock songs with strong choruses are lifted by Proggy Organs, Synths, Pianos and elaborate backing vocals to give a satisfying blend that is highly reminiscent of Queen in their rockier moments, without ever descending into the camp self-parody that marred some of Queen’s later work.
By Reason Of Insanity has an anthemic feel and a strong refrain with powerful guitar work from Bob Gilmartin. I found myself reminded of Magnum with Terry Brock in particular sounding very like Bob Catley at times. This is the only song here not written by Jack Young, and the drummer and guitar player have contributed a song that sits very well with the other material.
Shadows On The Wall starts with impassioned vocals with some very Freddie Mercury style “ooh’s” before a chugging guitar riff arrives to drive the song along. Like the stronger material on the previous album, these songs have killer hooks that will be filling your mind long after the disc finishes playing.
Hopeless Love is a piano-lead ballad that, again, is very reminiscent of Queen circa Night At The Opera - the catchy chorus with excellent backing vocals, and a concise guitar solo make this strong single material. Lost starts with spooky organ and synths, giving way to a rippling piano and discordant guitar before another of those crunching guitar riffs powers in. Later on, a good keyboard solo and spiralling guitar break helps maintain the tension.
One of the standout tracks on the previous album was In The Middle Of The Night and here we have In The Morning. I presume that we can look forward to “Lunchtime” “Teatime” and “The Early Part of the Evening” on subsequent releases. Joking aside, In The Morning is the longest track on offer and successfully extends the format established on the other tracks, utilising horn blasts, spoken vocals, and organ to take us in a more neo–prog direction, with the lyrics painting a dark portrait of depravity and damnation.
Laura II – Revisited has atmospheric keyboards in a mid tempo rocker with a commercial edge and a catchy chorus. Christine is more reminiscent of some of the poppier material found on Following Dreams, starting as a an upbeat sing-a-long before going all Queen like with the elaborate backing vocals and more of that May-ish guitar that Gilmartin is so adept at, and which pops up throughout this disc.
The disc concludes with God Save The King, which commences with sombre piano and a heartfelt vocal and leads to a soaring chorus, which is pure, prime Queen, and is a strong closer. I never considered myself to be a big fan of Queen, although I liked the first four or five albums, but this album makes me want to give them another listen, as it proves how enjoyable this brand of pomp rock can be. I am sure that this CD will appeal to all fans of Queen, Magnum and Styx and for prog fans seeking something a little less complex than usual.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Rob Sbar Noesis -
Wagon Wheels And Atom Bombs
Phew! Everything about this album was challenging, not least of all the music. It just said "sit up and listen", so I did, several times in fact and on each occasion discovered something new within the music. I believe that for some time to come I will light upon hidden depths within these pieces. A quick glance at the track titles might suggest to you that this CD is made up from many layers and some perhaps even before a note has been struck. For those unfamiliar with Rob Sbar, he is a guitar virtuoso, arranger, composer and on this CD, the producer. However not content with this formidable list of credits, he has also undertaken the splendid artwork/direction throughout and supplied the interesting liner notes. I was taken with the striking cover artwork from the album, so mention to Sandra C Sbar, who painted the picture from Rob's designs.
The album opens with a brief, jazzy "big band" arrangement, before settling into the mainstay of the music. So as touched upon above, this is an album that brings us the guitar mastery of Rob Sbar. He is accompanied here by Erik Feder on drums, percussion, glockenspiel & xylophone and Matt Schaefer on bass. Early indications that this was no ordinary album of fretboard wizardry, was to be found from the tight and sympathetic rhythm section. Feder and Schaefer forming an integral part of the music's arrangement, rather than supplying merely the backbone for the guitar. We would therefore have to look towards the jazz/fusion exponents for any useful comparisons, although Rob Sbar's obvious rock roots are more than evident and surface from beginning to end. I am wary of making any comparisons as I struggled to identify any in reality.
Highlights, well as I will go on to say in my conclusions, probably all, with reservations. I couldn't quite pin-point what troubled me about this album, as I am somewhat of a collector of guitar instrumental material. Ultimately it boiled down to the intensity of Rob's playing, although often awesome, it needed the tension to break and release more frequently, for my tastes. But when it did, the music was incredible, Media Induced Paranoia so excellently captured the mood suggested by the title. The combination of strong metal riffing interlaced jazzy textures was extremely effective. Drowning in a Vacuum (Of Barbed Wire Solitude) opened superbly with some Holdsworth sounding chord structuring, before moving onto the more frenzied lead section. Lexical Gap was the track which had everything - great chops, varied and interesting parts from the rhythm section and fluid guitar.
All that is good about this album from Rob Sbar is coincidentally, all that contributes to its possible short comings. There are no doubts in my mind that Rob is a truly gifted musician and each and every track was in itself very worthy. My main criticism really was that on the whole, Wagon Wheels and Atom Bombs was so intense it became wearing, just too much to digest. So playing one or two tracks at a time was the way forward for me. However let us not conclude on a down beat. The arrangements and compositions are meticulously written and executed making this, for me, a musicians album. The intricacies and depths of the guitar craftsmanship being more fully appreciated by those of greater abilities than this reviewer. On a final note of observation the material has a familiar quirkiness, which made me muse the idea of what music might have been generated by Frank Zappa and Rob Sbar - alas not to be though. This is no ordinary guitar orientated album, distinctly challenging and if you are a guitarist. Well?
Conclusion: 7 out of 10