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Reviews in this issue:
Royal Hunt - Eyewitness
Progressive, yet always accessible, since the release of their debut album a decade ago, Royal Hunt have been steadily building a loyal fanbase all over the world. Eyewitness is album number eight and what quickly becomes clear is that this is a very bold album. It's also certainly one of the heaviest the band has produced in recent years, with the guitars very much to the fore and the keys playing a less prominent role. There are also some very addictive melodies. In the shape of Hunted, Burning the Sun, Edge of the World and Help Us God, the band has produced four of its best songs ever.
The album is based around the issue of what the media, in all its forms, is feeding us everyday. It travels through the emotional rollercoaster of events that we go through every morning while listening to the news or reading the paper. Eyewitness is not really a concept album in the traditional sense - more of an album built around a concept. Yet it is also a very diverse album. The band cleverly uses this theme to match different musical styles - from acoustic to jazz, from gospel to neoclassical, from progressive to nurock - to fit the issue of each song. At the same time, it manages to retain all those elements which fans will expect from a Royal Hunt album. The result provides a great listen. There are a lot of emotional ups and downs, plenty of musical variety, some nice - some weird - flow changes here and there and as you'd expect, great musicianship from everybody involved.
Since the departure of DC Cooper four years ago, the line-up of vocalist John West and keyboard supremo Andre Andersen, plus guitar wizard Jacob Kjaer and Steen Mogensen on bass has been solid. To these ears, the arrival of West took the Royals onto another level. His upbringing in the local American neighbourhoods, where soul and R'n'B were the musical currency has blessed him with a very soulful quality to his voice. Noticeably this has come more to the fore with each album. It brings a soft edge to his voice that adds greatly to the band's distinctive sound and its ability to move effortlessly between many different styles.
The opening track Hunted deals with the way that the media is constantly looking into our lives with the endless stream of reality shows and exposures of famous people's private lives. The following lyric sums it up nicely. "Nothing's ever secret, nothing's ever private. Everything's exposed, all our values shot to hell". Musically it's got a solid, almost Whitesnake-ish chorus built on a driving riff and Andersen's trademark keyboard twists and turns.
Can't Let Go is about how everything is commercialised now - even the war. The band highlights how in Iraq the government was actually hiring people from CocaCola to sell the war to people. A more grandiose approach is found here, mixed again with some gritty guitar work.
Prayer does exactly what it says on the tin. A church organ, choral harmonies and a chance to reflect and take some breath. The breath doesn't last for long, as a church bell ushers in Edge of the World. Inspired by films such as The Green Mile it deals with the death penalty and tries to highlight what it's like waiting for the final decision - the end to finally come. For many this will be the highlight track and was the only one the band played at their first gig of the year in the UK last weekend. Kjaer delivers a crunchy riff out of the top drawer and there's some delicious Royal Hunt harmonies around a killer chorus. The keys are barely present.
Burning The Sun is my personal favourite, lying somewhere between ARK and Cornerstone in its appeal. The lyrics follow a documentary Anderson watched about this island where a Danish oil company set up a base and in four months destroyed everything. The programme concluded that it would take 6-700 years for everything they destroyed to come back.
Wicked Lounge is the most experimental offering, creating what I can only describe as a smoke-filled jazz club sound, mixed with a few Zappa elements and featuring what sounds like a sweltering saxophone solo. It is certainly an unexpected diversion and may not be everyone's taste. However the band should be applauded for pushing their boundaries and it provides a superb showcase for the variety of West's voice. The lyric is based on an image of this expensive club where big city fat cats with 18-year-old models are deciding our futures over an expensive bottle of wine. It includes my favourite one liner from the album: "Write a cheque or cash - it's just as easy as scratching your arse."
5th Element is a progressive instrumental battle between Anderson and Kjaer but with the added bonus of a great bass solo from Mogensen. A baby's cry passes the listener into Help Us God - a song with a lot of anger and emotion. It's about child molestation and the attitudes to kids especially in certain parts of society such as the church. It is also the most finely crafted song on the album. There's some lovely touches such as the Eastern keyboard passage and a delightful guitar solo. Again the blues/soul vocals of West really stand out, bringing Whitesnake/Cornerstone to mind again with a very catchy hard rock chorus.
Terrorism is the theme on Game of Fear which again features an amazing cutting riff from Kjaer and an almighty scream from West. It has a lot of the more familiar keyboard touches but doesn't seem to have the depth or as sharp a production as is found elsewhere.
The title track Eyewitness is the one track that doesn't hit it with me. An epilogue, tying all the themes together, it begins in a very off-beat, 60's soundtrack mode with massed strings, before the guitars kick with a song that is cut rudely short as if the stylus on an old vinyl has been pulled off. Nice idea but doesn't really work.
I must say, that despite pushing new boundaries in places, Eyewitness is probably the band's most accessible album to date and should appeal to both a more mainstream and hard rock audience, while retaining enough of the usual ingredients to please their many existing fans. Until now Royal Hunt has been a band that has produced some classic songs but for me has never managed to maintain that quality and focus through an entire album. Eyewitness hasn't been off my deck since I got it and will still be a regular for months to come. And in that sense it has to be far and away their best album to date.
Footnote: Thanks to Frontiers Records this is a very early preview copy of the album. Release dates vary throughout the world but you'll have to wait until June 23rd in Europe.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Marillion - Fallout
Tracklist CD2 - Writing Sessions: Under the Talking Heads (0:51), Under the Sun Jam (1:58), Under the Time Signature (1:20), Rock Machine (1:27), Tull Machine (3:51), Tull Outro (1:10), Blade Runner Boy (1:59), Three Minute Piano Sketch (4:10), Full Band Never Know (3:30), Chains Early Idea (1:09), Chains Development (0:44), These Few Words (2:11), Born to Jam (2:20), Born to End (1:15), Wobbly Walls (1:36), Failed Cathedral Chorus (1:42), Cathedral Chorus (1:02), Cathedral Chains (6:41), Cathedral Lyrics (2:22), Popadom Jam (4:54)
Tracklist CD2 - Writing Sessions: H's Legacy Home Demo (2:58), Legacy Intro Problems (0:58), A Kravitz Legacy (1:22), Legacy Sandwich (1:35), Big Legacy Chords (0:40), Guitar Outro Legacy (0:59), Early Deserve Jam (1:33), Deserve Satisfaction (0:37), Go Early (1:21), Upside Down (5:20), Wide Awake (2:19), Acoustic Go Arrangement (5:26), Swing Doors (1:35), Rich Rock Ending (0:53), Enlightened Lyrics (0:44), Forks of the Lightning (0:44), Enlightened Chords (0:28), Enlightened Guitar Line (1:07), Big Blues Bastard (3:05), Bastard Guitar Line (0:45), Radiation Bastard (1:14), Bastard Rock Riff (1:10), Tumble Down an Idea (0:34), Early Tumble Melody (1:26), Final Tumble Melody (0:32), Tumble Up the Speed (0:31), Run Like Lulu (2:18), Lulu Guitar Intro (1:07), Jazz Club Lulu (1:16), Picky Lulu Intro (0:57), Rother's Lulu Intro Demo (1:38), Unused Lulu Bridge (0:44), Mad Lulu Jam (0:41), Mad Lulu with Lyrics (0:48), Early Arabs Jam (1:14), Carry it Out Jam (1:04), Primrose Piano (1:36), Full Band Primrose Hill (1:40), Pete's Primrose Bass (0:59), Interior Boogaloo (5:08), This House Aches (0:40), H's House Home Demo (3:38), House Chord Tutor (0:40), House Band Jam (2:43), Time to Go Home (0:21)
I'll not go into the whole story of the background of these CDs. Instead I'd like to refer to my earlier review for ReFracted! and Another DAT at the Office for the background on these CDs, which are the 4th and 5th in a range of 'Making Of' albums.
As with the previous albums Fallout and Caught in the Net consist of one CD with demo versions of the albums Radiation and marillion.com and one CD with snippets and outtakes of the writing sessions of these albums, thereby providing a 'musical documentary' on their development.
Most of the music on these two albums was written during the Radiation sessions, but some of the compositions were not used or finished until the release of marillion.com. Below I'll discuss each of the CDs in the sets.
I really disliked the Radiation album when it came out and the fan club convention gig during which the material was previewed. Not that the compositions were all bad (well, some definitely were) but the arrangement of the song was loud and chaotic and as far removed from the normal subtle and emotional Marillion sound I had come to love so much. I liked some of the tracks, including Under The Sun, Three Minute Boy and These Chains, but that wasn't enough to make me take the CD out of the CD cabinet a lot. As a matter of fact, it became my least favourite Marillion album and I probably played it less than 5 times. Until recently ... when I bought these 'Making of' albums and went back to rediscover Radiation. I still don't like it very much, but it sounds less controversial than it did back then. Probably because of the way I have grown accustomed to Marillion's new sound.
The demo versions of the Radiation don't differ all that much from their final versions. They sound like most demos do; like rough versions of the final songs, still missing some lyrics and subtle sounds. I can't detect a lot of major differences, but that might also be a result of me not knowing Radiation all that well. The most remarkable things on this CD are the longer heavy version of Answering Machine, featuring more keyboard twiddling, and the shorter version of A Few Words For the Dead.
Writing Sessions Radiation
Whereas the demo CD of Fallout might be one of the least interesting ones in this series, there is much more special stuff to be found on the Writing Sessions disk. A quick glance at the tracklist which reveals only 20 tracks might suggest differently, but instead of loose snippets of 1-2 minutes this disk actually contains some long, full early versions of tracks. This includes the early demo of Answering Machine (Tull Machine), which (fortunately) misses the loud industrial arrangements and sounds almost as good as the acoustic version on Unplugged at the Walls. Much better than the final version as far as I'm concerned.
Three Minute Piano Sketch is a piano-vocal only version still missing most of the lyrics, but has Hogarth working on the vocal melodies, and regardless of all the la-la-la and doo-doo-doos, it sound wonderfully fragile and emotional, though funny at the same time. I can almost see a half-drunk Hogarth sitting in a piano-bar in 10 years trying to remember the lyrics to some old Marillion tune. As the title suggests Full Band Never Know is a version of Now She'll Never Know with the whole band, instead of just vocals and guitar. Cathedral Chains is a very interesting version of Cathedral Walls with the lyrics of These Chains, which works remarkably well ! Finally, Popadom Jam is a very early jam of A Few Words for the Dead. Together these tracks make this Writing Session CD one of the most interesting ones in the series.
Of course the CD also contains early takes and different approaches for the Radiation songs, including Under The Talking Heads, the uptempo Rock Machine, the spooky Blade Runner Boy and various strange and unholy combinations of the lyrics and music of Cathedral Wall, A Few Words for the Dead and These Chains. Unfortunately the CD also previews how some of the songs could have sounded and as far as I'm concerned they often are superior to the noise attempts at the final CD.
Unlike Radiation, marillion.com has become one of my favourite Hogarth-era Marillion albums. With the exception of the lame Tumble Down The Years I have come to love each and every track on the CD. I do feel that I might be part of a minority in this though.
Some demo's (A Legacy, GO!, Tumble Down The Years, Interior Lulu and House) are missing because the band was familiar enough with the songs to start putting down the tracks without demoing them first. There is however a rough mix of A Legacy which is a minute shorter and is still missing the quiet guitar-vocal end section. It does however contain a keyboard solo in the mid section which didn't make it to the final version and is actually quite nice.
Inferior Lulu and Tumbledown the Years are present in the versions which were originally recorded for the Radiation album but were never used and later re-recorded for marillion.com. Both tracks have been released before on the marillion.christmas fanclub CD. I never liked the version of Tumble Down the Years on marillion.com, as a matter of fact I consider the song one of the band's worst compositions ever. The 'Radiation Mix' on Caught in the Net proves how much a different arrangement can do for a song. In this version we get a much more rocky approach and catchier rhythm. Still not one of the band's best tracks, but this Alan Parsons-like version is at least more likeable.
The Radiation version of Interior Lulu is basically the first 9 minutes of that which would become the 15 minute epic. A nice version with a fine organ solo at five and a half minutes, but on the other hand the song is (unfortunately) a lot more noisier at places, matching the style of Radiation. The Primrose Hill section ('lately I can stand ....' etc) is still missing and some of the lyrics are different. Together these three songs provide well-sounding alternative versions to the marillion.com songs.
As far as the actual demo's are concerned, their sound quality is of course a lot less than the previous described alternative mixes. Deserve is composition- and structure-wise quite close to the final version, but still sounds a bit rough at the edges. This version is still missing the saxophone parts and has rough guitar riffs in those places. Rich is still missing some lyrics (resulting in even more doo-dah-doo's than in the final version). This demo version does however have a longer keyboard/organ and guitar solo in the end without the vocals of the final version. Also, this demo version is not faded out. Enlightened is also missing some lyrics, but besides the outro, which is slightly different, the demo is already quite close to the finished version, as is Build in Bastard Radar. One of the more remarkable things about the demo's and versions on Caught in the Net is that the keyboards sometimes seem to be a a lot more prominent than in the final versions.
Writing Sessions marillion.com
One of the remarkable things about this CD, compared to the other in the 'making of' series, is the fact that, instead of just snippets of versions, it contains some longer tracks which can actually be considered full tracks. Among these are full home demo's which Steve Hogarth brought in for A Legacy (H's Legacy Home Home) and House (H's House Home Demo). Both are early stripped down electronic demo versions which clearly show how important Hogarth's musical influence has become in Marillion.
Two other longer tracks (Upside Down and Acoustic Go Arrangement) are various incarnations of Go, one of my personal favourites of recent Marillion, recorded in respectively the Radiation sessions and marillion.com sessions.
During the Marillion Convention 2003 in Minehead the band admitted that they were far from happy with the way they recorded Build in Bastard Rader. Seemingly they had a slow piece of music and a fast piece of music and had decided to speed up the slow one and slow down the fast one in order to fit them together, thus destroying both. Big Blues Bastard, covering 3 minutes, and the two tracks that follow might well be the slow version. The lyrics are nearly finalised but the whole song indeed has a much more slow blues feel and features a long keyboard solo.
Some snippets give us a peak at other approaches that have been tried for various tracks, like A Kravitz Legacy or the different approaches using Enlightened lyrics during the This Strange Engine sessions (Enlightened Lyrics, Forks of the Lightning). Other interesting bits are different approaches of segments of Interior Lulu, like Run Like Lulu, Jazz Club Lulu (the names speak for themselves) or Full band Primrose Hill with fine bluesy guitar play by Rothery. Another nice one is the last five jazzy minutes of a 20 minute jam which eventually became Interior Lulu (Interior Boogaloo). You wouldn't guess that this was Marillion playing.
Various bits also prove that Radiation and marillion.com were composed simultaneously. For instance, Legacy Sandwich contains the intro of Cathedral Wall. As a matter of fact parts of the compositions on marillion.com seemingly go all the way back to the Afraid of Sunlight and This Strange Engine sessions.
The other tracks on this CD are bits and pieces of songs in various forms and stages of development. Some are extremely interesting while other make you wonder if this is the Marillion we all know and love or just a bunch of blokes randomly picked of the street having a bit of fun (e.g. Legacy Intro Problems and Time To Go Home).
Conclusion: All in all these two Making Of albums are good fun, and the best ones in the series so far. Fallout contains some of the most interesting writing session outtakes in the series while the demo's on Caught in the Net are among the most interesting ones in the series. Furthermore, besides just bits and snippets these two albums contain quite a few full length alternative versions, making them a whole lot more listenable then their predecessors. Still, these discs remain recommended for Marillion die-hards only. If you, like me, are one of them and like these musical documentaries go and check them out. Especially if you liked the earlier releases in the series.
Rating: Both albums 7.5 out of 10
The Far Side - Parallelebiped
The Far Side, who describe themselves as a 'power prog' trio, hail from Rome. Although Parallelebiped is their debut album, during the late 1980s and early 1990s vocalist, guitarist and keyboard player Simone Montrucchio and drummer Davide Guidoni had played together in Invisible Sun alongside bassist Emanuele Fasanelli. The band evolved into Crystal Gaze when lead guitarist Lorenzo Fasanelli joined the ranks. The quartet spent the best part of five years playing cover versions of classic rock material mixed with original progressive material in and around Rome. However, the band ground to a halt in late 1995 when, having released just one demo tape two years earlier, the band called it a day lacking the motivation to carry on.
Reuniting as "The Far Side" in 1998, Simone, Lorenzo and Davide started gigging playing a mixture of Rush covers interspersed with new self-composed material. It is from the Rush of the 1980s that, stylistically, a lot of the music on Parallelebiped leans heavily on, no more so than on the first couple of tracks, Crosstalk and Underworlds. Interesting arrangements that maximise the potential of the three-piece line-up and the only criticism would be the voice of Simone Montrucchio whose range is rather limited and also has a whiney quality. After a while it tended to grate with this reviewer, no more apparant than on the ballad Smells Like Winter.
There is a slight change is style on the album's only instrumental piece Gaze Deep. This track builds well from a keyboard-based introduction to provide a variety of textures and themes that includes some heavy guitar riffing. A well-structured and symphonic piece, it leads nicely into the more acoustic Fading Warmth. The slower pace is maintained with The Hug Of The Few where relief from the vocalist is gained by a rather under-used (and unidentified) female backing vocalist, who along with Lorenzo Fasanelli, add some harmony which the band would do well to develop in future material.
An insistent guitar riff, some fine drumming, and interesting lyrics combine to make the final track Strange Attractors one of the highlights of the album. The Rush influence is still prevalent but there is more of an infusion of the band's own style shining through. And that is what the band should concentrate more on developing. The years of playing cover versions of Rush songs seems to have seeped into the band's musical consciousness. Undoubtedly fine musicians, and with years of playing experience to draw on, the album is a fine beginning and much is promised for the next album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Spaced Out - Slow Gin
Slow Gin is the third (entirely instrumental) album from Canadian Progressive jazz fusion band Spaced Out. I have not heard their earlier works so this one will have to be judged entirely on its own merits. Also, I want to declare at the outset that I have only recently begun to explore the world of fusion and so my terms of reference are somewhat limited.
That being said, it is clear almost from the outset that the level of musicianship on display is incredibly high. The band’s leader, Bassist Antoine Fafard, is something of a virtuoso, approaching the level of Stanley Clarke or Jaco Pastorious. His accomplices – Martin Maheux on drums and Mark Trembley on guitars - are no slouches either. Trembley’s guitar wails in a classic fusion style and reminds me of Allan Holdsworth (UK) and Norwegian master Terje Rypdal.
The cover art is a striking and suitably trippy psychedelic image for the music contained within.
As their name implies, there is a spacey, out of this world, edge to much of the music here, with swooshes and sploshes of sequenced synths weaving in and out of the tasty jazz noodling. What was less expected was the level of heaviness, with hard-edged guitar riffs and powerhouse drumming giving some of the tracks a hefty nudge in the direction of Derek Sherinian’s recent offerings, or of his ex Dream Theater compatriots’ side project Liquid Tension Experiment.
After the short spacey opener Introx, there follows a sequence of solid, mid–length pieces that ably serve to showcase the capabilities of all the players, utilising a range of moods, with several starting from variations on a recurring motif but veering off in different directions as the pieces unfold. Fafard’s playing in particular is very impressive as he taps and tugs at the bass strings with a speed and dexterity that has to be heard to be believed.
There are a wide variety of tones, textures and tempos employed throughout this disc, helping to keep my interest throughout. The second half of the disc is even more varied, employing the jazz piano of Eric St-Jean on three tracks, and with Bright Space flirting with a symphonic sound, Glassosphere part III venturing close to the minimalism of Philip Glass ( hence the title?) and the two Blue Ron Pipe tracks featuring the squealing saxophone of Ronald Stewart and using samples and dissonance to add a little avant-garde spice to the proceedings.
As a newcomer to this genre of music, I was intrigued and impressed, but I have to conclude that, in terms of a general progressive audience, there may be many of you who may not find this disc to your taste - particularly if you favour a more song based approach or if you cannot palate the jazz style of playing.
Bearing this in mind, my overall rating is less high than it might otherwise have been, and fusion fans should definitely add at least another two marks to the score.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10