Reviews in this issue:
Peter Hammill - Clutch
Peter Hammill has been ploughing his own idiosyncratic furrow since the mid 1960s, and what a fertile field it has proved to be. Since the first Van Der Graaf Generator album in 1968, there have been in excess of 50 albums released bearing either his name or that of the band he is still mostly remembered for. Clutch, solo album number 35 or thereabouts, is, for the first time, a collection of purely acoustic numbers written and performed exclusively on guitar. The only additional instruments are violin and viola, played by long-standing live performance co-conspirator Stuart Gordon, and saxophones and flutes by original Van Der Graaf Generator member David Jackson. In essence, this album takes Hammill back to his earliest days when all the songs were written on acoustic guitar. Indeed, in the first incarnation of Van Der Graaf Generator while the rest of the band was producing some of the most powerful and, quite frankly, astonishing music, Hammill was manically strumming away on his acoustic, not really exploring the sonic qualities of the electric guitar until the second coming of the band in 1975.
For anyone even vaguely familiar with Hammill's work, the disclaimer on the back of the CD that the acoustic nature of the album does not mean it is "any kind of a folk or roots collection", is entirely superfluous because, as ever, Hammill takes his own unique approach to songwriting. Away from the temptation of modern instruments, where a plethora of ready-made sounds are instantly available at the press of a button, the arrangement of these songs required deeper consideration, and all the better the resulting compositions are for it. In recent years Hammill could be accused of having become rather lazy in the arrangement of some of his material, the characteristic twists and unexpected turns missing, and greatly missed. However, Clutch is a real return to form. Comprised of nine unremitting and unsettling songs that encompass a variety of styles and emotions, it is the most immediately identifiable Hammill album in years. It also happens to be one of the best.
Renowned for using his voice as an additional instrument, Hammill's vocals are often the most difficult thing for newcomers to get round. Never fear, the singing on this album is mostly restrained with groups of backing vocals used to add colour, particularly on tracks like Crossed Wires, Driven and the marvellous closing track Bareknuckle Trade. The backing instrumentation (or, as Hammill calls it, "the alternative sonic landscapes") is entirely in sympathy with each song, never overpowering or intrusive, but supporting and enhancing. Stuart Gordan provides a delightful string arrangement to Once You Called Me, a reflection on the passing of time and the maturation of his offspring to the point where they are no longer children. This Is The Fall bears the most resemblance to Van Der Graaf Generator/Van Der Graaf (being two separate variations of the whole), with David Jackson's saxes and flutes and Gordon's strings alternatively wailing away in an almighty amalgamation of the sound of the two Van der Graaf incarnations.
Lyrically astute as ever, Hammill remains one of the most perspicacious and important lyric writers in the music industry. Tackling subjects such as paedophilia (Just A Child), the corruption of religion (This Is The Fall) and Anorexia (Skinny), the writing is sharp and unambiguous.
If you are unfamiliar with Peter Hammill and are not sure quite where you should dip your toe in his vast back catalogue, or if you were a fan of his earlier material and drifted away over the years, then Cutch is an excellent way to become acquainted or reacquainted with his oeuvre. With material as strong as this and a successful and well attended UK tour behind him (the first for years!), the future looks brighter than it has in a while for Mr Hammill.
He once said that he considered a body of work consisting of about 50 albums a worthwhile achievement in the life of a musician. Now that he has reached that target, let's hope that he is not considering retirement!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Infinity Minus One -
Tales From The Mobius Strip
Infinity Minus One is a Hard Rock/Metal band from Boston. Libor Hadrava and Kevin Hammer met at the Berklee College and because of a common interest in music started playing together. Libor then returned to the Czech Republic. When Libor returned to school he met Kairo Zentradi they started to write songs together and when more musicians were needed Libor brought Kevin into the group. The band was completed when vocalist Denis Lanza was added. After recording this first EP Tales From The Mobius Strip, Kelly Conlon (former bassist of Death and Monstrosity) joined Infinity Minus One. I am not familiar with his music, but Infinity Minus One seems proud to have him in the band.
The first track At The Doorway Of Existence in my opinion is also the best track of this short album. It is a metal oriented track in which a somewhat nervous keyboard loop takes an important role. Denis has a nice but somewhat unusual voice. In all tempo changes the guitars are good and there is good interaction between the instruments. Unfortunately the production of the album is not really good and this becomes most clear in this first track. The vocals are not in balance with the instruments, vocals are "too far away". On some tracks the instruments almost blend into one sound.
The next track Face To Face is a bit too uneventful. This song is a calm track that lingers on just a bit too long. On the other hand it does show that Infinity Minus One is not limited to just one musical style. Independence Day is a well composed progrock song and I can image some might find that some of the adlib solo's are just too much, but for me it is still within acceptable boundaries.
The last song is Architectural Martyr and from the first few notes sounds more like a blues song, but halfway through this track, however, is a keyboard/guitar solo that has been stuck in my head for days. So it has a good build up. Again the production of this album is probably not doing their music justice.
I will not give Infinity Minus One a "DPRP Recommended" as it is just a short album and the production/sound quality is below average, but I am looking forward to the full album. I am curious to what Kelly Conlon will add to the band. What if this next album would be well produced in which the full potential of the band is unleashed with compositions like At The Doorway Of Existence? Then Infinity Minus One could be the next great progrock/progmetal discovery. But not this time.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
KingBathmat - Son Of A Nun
KingBathmat is the name under which John Bassett records and releases his own particular brand of music. Still only 26, he has amassed over 100 songs written over a period of eight years while a member of innumerable bands that have all fallen by the way-side. Without a stable group of musicians to rely on, the only alternative was to resort to a spot of DIY. So what we have on this debut CD is one man, writing, recording, producing, arranging, singing and playing everything, and to a very high standard to boot. The website, CD cover and promotional material are all his own work as well, a true solo artist!
On first listening to the album one is struck by the amount that is going on in each song, little embellishes and sound effects that make each listen a voyage of discovery. The quality of the recording is impressively high, given that the luxury of expensive recording studios was never an option. Okay, the mixing of some of the songs is not perfect, and at times there is rather too much separation between instruments and vocals, but this is a minor criticism.
But what of the music? Attempts at pigeon-holing the sound that Mr Bassett has developed will fail miserably as the list of (irrelevant) categories that have been used for various songs demonstrate - alternative metal, powerpop, spacerock, modernrock, Celtic-prog-folk rock and so on. In reality, it is all of this and more. Unfortunate Soul starts with a swirly late 1960s psychedelic feel that gives way to a guitar driven Porcupine Tree groove complete with Hawkwind style synthesised background noises and even an electrified folk reel bunged in for good measure! Black Horizon is a more straight-ahead rock song with interesting guitar phrases and, unlike a lot of rock bands, replete with melody. The closing passage which brings the tempo of the song right down is a well-considered and effective ending. King Of The Fairies is a rousing electric instrumental which takes on board Celtic and folk influences, something like Horslips may have attempted in their heyday. Not Born To Share, Weather The Storm and No Compromise represent the more laidback side of KingBathmat and add touches of Jellyfish into the mix.
That Son of a Nun is a work of one man is quite stunning, it is not often that one comes across someone with a complete musical vision combined with the ability to record it all themselves. Put aside all questions of genre, this is simply a very fine album laden with great melodies, compelling songs and fine musicianship.
And yes, he actually is the son of a nun.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Charles Brown - Earth Voyage
The cover of this CD features Mr Brown in dark glasses, leaning over his guitar and overlaid with earthy images of rivers, mountains and skylines - add to this the range of track names, and you could be forgiven for thinking this was an album of new-age relaxation music. However this wholly instrumental album is a platform for CB to show off his guitar skills across electric, acoustic and synth guitars, and not a beagle in sight (okay , no more 'Peanuts' references - I promise).
A dreamy synth brass melody introduces Into the Storm, but any hint of this being a quiet track is quickly blown away by a rush of drums (well, actually a drum machine, but well-enough programmed to avoid sounding too synthetic). This throws us into a riff very similar to (although heavier than) Jethro Tull's Gold-tipped boots, black jacket & tie. This repeats with a couple of synth guitar solos to add variety, and sets the tone for much of the album.
Wind Of The North Star spends around 2 minutes building up synth pads and effects until the rock kicks in with a lead synth guitar melody full of bluster, backed by some basic power cords - not a million miles removed from Rush's La Villa Strangiato. After another 2 minutes we then have a lead guitar solo - fast and furious, if a little short.
Flight of the Eagle is largely performed on acoustic guitar, with some backing synth pads. It's very gentle, and is probably the closest the album comes to the style suggested by the cover. It shows that there is more than power chords and lightning-fast fretwork to CB - he's just as capable of producing something quieter and more introspective. For me this is one of the highlights of the disc.
There's a Deep Purple influence to Take no Prisoners which features some reverse guitar, and a little too much synth guitar soloing. This is overdone here I think more because of the rather uninspiring synth sound used - a little more variety could have been used.
It's always interesting to hear what a modern musician makes of a classic composer like Bach - especially with the range of sounds and musical textures available to today's artists. The most interesting thing about this version of J.S.Bach's Cantata #67 is that it mercifully lasts only 53 seconds. Unfortunately that is 53 seconds too long. This sounds like someone who's learned some piano basics going into a music store, choosing a 'choir' patch on a cheap home keyboard and sight-reading a piece of Bach they've never heard before. What on earth was he thinking of, putting this on here? Simply dreadful.
Returning to sanity, Nuclear Burn begins with a gentle acoustic guitar & synth duet, before a buzzing guitar breaks in to kick off a riff-powered keyboard workout (real keyboards, not guitar synths - the difference is quite obvious) in true ELP style. The keys and guitars continue to trade solos until the end. Keyboard player Matt Bassano is as flash on the keys as Brown is on the strings, so this is a fast, frenzied race to the finish.
A beautiful medieval-sounding acoustic guitar section introduces Earth Voyage - just to prove he doesn't have to massacre classical music? Jangling guitars are then overlaid with rousing lead guitars and then synth brass sounds, recalling the cheerful Heartsong by Gordon Giltrap (the theme music from 'The Holiday Programme' for UK readers). All very 'nice'.
Snowblind Hell follows the pattern we see emerging of gentle acoustic introduction being followed by a rock section liberally spiced with guitar (synth & electric) solos. However, for this track I found the solos were pretty uninspiring, whilst the drum machine (used effectively earlier) is very intrusive with a super-human bass drum beat which sounds impossibly fast. The rhythm guitar on this track bears a close resemblance to a bee stuck in a jam jar, which also detracts from the overall sound. It then segues into the all-too-brief Celestial Horizon, which is a laid-back guitar solo which starts off like Shine on you Crazy Diamond by Pink Floyd before going off in its own direction with cascades of ultra-fast echoing guitar runs.
The Phoenix is a fairly straightforward guitar workout from start to end, with little to distinguish it from umpteen other prog metal tracks.
A wonderful acoustic slide guitar introduction suggests Take it on Home could take a trip to Led Zeppelin country, but no it's more like ZZ Top once the rock instrumentation gets added. And there's that Tull riff again (see above). Loop a couple of times with fade out over further guitar doodlings.
And then the track that should have followed the intro from the previous track - Tears of the Lost Angel - is the other high point of this disc. Lots of acoustic guitar, with a killer riff which is a mixture of Catfish Rising-era Jethro Tull and Led Zeppelin - it does just tend to repeat the same line over and over, with minor variations and a short break passage, but with a riff this good it's forgivable.
After listening to this disc, I'm left feeling that I want more. Not because I loved every track, but because there was so much potential here that with the right production this could really develop into something good. Despite the enthusiasm for blistering lead guitar solos and guitar synths, it is in the acoustic tracks where Charles Brown really shines, and I think he could make much more of the dynamic range by moving between acoustic and electric within the space of a track, instead of just starting acoustic and finishing electric. With a bit of judicious editing, I think this album could be cut down to a good 15 minute progressive instrumental piece, but as it stands there is just too much unnecessary synth guitar and uninspiring (though technically excellent) lead guitar.
On the other hand, there are some tracks here which could act as great backing for a suitable vocalist - especially the final track - and this would also help to round out this package and make it more complete. This is certainly not a bad album, but it could have been so much more. Lovers of guitar instrumentals should check this out - especially for the range of styles covered, but most of the rest of us will probably want to wait to see how Charles Brown develops and hope his next release is not a collection of Bach cover versions.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Re:Cooperation - TransCollaboration
The aptly titled TransCollaboration is a five year project between a Welshman called David Cooper Orton and James H Sidlo who hails from the USA. Their mutual interest in looping brought them together when they came across each other on "Looper's Delight", they formed Re:Cooperation and the end result so far, is this CD. "Together they create sound collages - aural landscapes - which initially traced contours mapped out by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, but gradually moved on to circumnavigate vistas of their own, which increasingly meander towards more urban environs". This text is taken from the CD release information.
Initially TransCollaboration might have fallen into the same category as the numerate amount of ambient CD's I have heard recently. However, what did set it aside was the inclusion of guitar parts. So rather than just relying on a meandering collage of sounds, the guitar tended to lift the proceedings. The use of the E-bow (wonderful tool) along with some hammering-on techniques and gentle chordal sequences were a bonus. The CD for me had two distinct factions. The first seven pieces being dreamy, atmospheric landscapes - enjoyable and relaxing but by the end of the third track my interest had started to wane. However from track eight onwards the inclusion of drum and percussion loops along with discernable bass lines rekindled my interest somewhat. This said, I was unsure if this alliance worked as the modern drum loops seemed at odds with the guitar sections - however David and James believe they work together. Highlights from the CD were East of Ealing, Between the Breaks and Re:Cooperation Part Two. Although as previously mentioned Thing2,3,4 were enjoyable in a somewhat somnolent fashion.
References are made to Eno and Fripp in the literature that accompanied this CD and there are correlations to this material especially some of Fripp's work circa the early eighties. However, as this diversification in Bob Fripp's career was my least favourite, things do not bode well for this CD. In reality there were parts of TransCollaboration which were enjoyable (perhaps I should revist God Save the Queen) and worthy of exploration. A sound sample is available from the Re:Cooperation site as well as links to other MP3's - so off you go.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10