Reviews in this issue:
Epica - The Phantom Agony
You could be excused to think at first glance that with his new band Epica, Mark Jansen is merely building further on the foundation he laid with his former band After Forever. After his forced departure from that band in 2002, he founded Epica, and not only are the line-ups of the two bands very similar in composition, do they share the same label, and are artwork and logotype in the same vein, three songs on Epica's debut album The Phantom Agony are subtitled parts IV, V and VI of an ongoing musical story that was started on After Forever's first album Prison Of Desire. But that is actually pretty much where the similarity ends. Because notwithstanding the fact that Jansen was the main creative force behind After Forever and has the same role in Epica, he has been able to reinvent himself, assisted by the talented group of musicians he has gathered around him in his new band.
The music on this album plays like the soundtrack to a film set in the time of the Scarlet Pimpernel and the Three Musketeers, full of romance, adventure and tragedy. From opener Adyta with its choir singing over melancholy stringed instruments, to the title track, a mini soundtrack in itself, it takes you through a diversity of different moods and experiences. From the action in Illusive Consensus and Facade of Reality, played out with rhythm guitars at full speed, grunts and screams, keyboards and strings keeping the melody, to the gothic pop of Feint and the first half of Run for a Fall, carried by mezzo-soprano Simone Simons. From the eastern influences in Cry for the Moon and Seif al Din, evoked through Coen Janssen's keyboards, cello, violin and Simons' vocals, to the more traditional Sensorium, which most deserves the label gothic metal in its most common meaning.
Sometimes reminiscent of latter day Therion, especially in the multi-voiced choruses, and often orchestral, not strange considering the presence of a mini orchestra of three violins, two violas, two cellos and a contrabass, in addition to a choir of two sopranos, two altos, a tenor and a bass throughout most of the album! Sometimes heavy, but not ever hard, keyboards and orchestra play a bigger role on this album than the twin guitars. The modest use of grunts is offset by classical voices, and bursts of speed are followed by moments of reflection. This is quality classical soundtrack metal (for want of a better term), expertly produced by industry veteran Sascha Paetth, who has given the album the rich and warm sound which best showcases the music.
This is an album that through its hybridness will appeal to a broad type of listeners. Not only to fans of those bands that use similar combinations of metal and classical elements, like Nightwish and the aforementioned After Forever and Therion, but also people who are into classical themed soundtracks, or opera. So what about our readership? In other words, is this prog? To answer that the way Mark Kelly does: you tell me what prog is, and I'll tell you if this is prog.
While I was forming my opinion on this album I was constantly comparing this album to After Forever. To be really prepared I even gave the After Forever albums an extra spin. And because of that The Phantom Agony album really disappointed me. "There's too little heavy guitars", "It is more like an opera or a musical", a lot of the After Forever power is gone, etc. It might be wrong to make this comparison, as I know Fish was always very annoyed when his music was compared to Marillion's. But in this case the comparison is even more evident: this album seems to leave off where After Forever's Prison of Desire ended. It is like Derk says: The Embrace That Smothers Part III was on Prison Of Desire while Part IV to can be found The Phantom Agony.
Luckily after some time I was able to stop comparing the two. I noticed that I really enjoyed listening to this album but had a lot of negative remarks towards it, while comparing. Once I gave this album the chance to stand on its own it began to dawn on me: this is an excellent album. Of course there still are similarities between After Forever and Epica but I do agree with Derk, it is like Mark Jansen reinvented himself.
The first track Adyta (The Neverending Embrace) is of no surprise it is a Gregorian like intro that transitions into Sensorium a "metal" song that starts of with an interesting piano loop that returns later on. This first encounter with the mezzo soprano voice of Simone Simons is a good one. All that and the double bass drums make it easy to compare this song to After Forever. Cry For The Moon (The Embrace That Smothers - Part IV) has a faint trace of Vangelis' 1492: The Conquest Of Paradise, later on the guitars, drums and grunts make this trace fade. As many of the other tracks Feint contains a high number of violins and Cellos. In Illusive Consensus the violins and cello's are used to complement the guitars and bass drums. Facade Of Reality (The Embrace That Smothers - Part V) the guitar sounds prevail. The pieces of Latin lyrics and dark grunts give this song an epic quality. Halfway the song becomes much slower and cello and violins support Tony Blair's voice commenting the events on the 11th of September. The whispered lyrics there-after really sound threatening. Tony Blair's speech and the remaining part of the music and lyrics make this song my favourite of this album. Run For A Fall is a violin filled ballad that really does Simone's voice justice. This song really makes me understand Derk's comment on The Scarlet Pimpernel. Grunts take the leading role in Seif Al Din (The Embrace That Smothers - Part VI) and again violins and cello all over the place. The spoken lyrics of title track The Phantom Agony remind me of the first spoken words of Lord Of The Rings. Short violin notes, the choir, the bass guitar and bass drums all are a title track worthy. The last part of this song is the best example of how this album compares to a movie soundtrack.
This album has left quite an impression. It is a bombastic, highly dramatic, cello and violin filled album that can not really be classified as just prog metal or gothic. It most certainly is not prog rock and still I have no problem what so ever with placing this album on the DPRP reviews list. I think most of our readers could like this album. To collaborate on Derk's, Mark Kelly quote: maybe the best definition of prog rock in this case is: it should be called prog rock because I like it and I only really like prog rock.
Chrome Shift - Ripples In Time
For a lot of bands it takes quite a few years of playing together before they release their debut CD. For Danish newcomer Chrome Shift things went relatively fast. The guys recorded their first demo about a year after the band's formation in 1999, to be followed in 2002 by a full-length album, which is now released by DVS Records. And what a debut Ripples In Time is! Irresistible earcandy for the prog addict who likes his or her daily dose a bit heavier!
Chrome Shift is the latest addition to a long row of prog metal outfits who have been influenced by the likes of Dream Theater, King's X and Pain Of Salvation. Whereas a lot of these bands are bad copies of their heroes at best though, the Danes demonstrate an ability to create original tracks which are in the same league as those written by their examples. The band is not entirely there yet, I would say, but they certainly have the potential to grow into a big name within the genre!
Otto Schütt (guitar), Jens Christian Nielsen (bass), Jakob Paulsen (keyboards), Poul Terkildsen (drums) and Rasmus Bak (vocals) have clearly discovered the formula for good prog metal songs. The band uses dynamics in an effective way; increasing and decreasing the tension by rhythm changes and differences in the instrumentation in a way that does neither feel forced nor ends up in over complexity. There are many beginning metal bands that make the mistake of playing full speed ahead during their entire first record, not leaving room to breathe for the listener, but Chrome Shift does luckily not fall for that trap either. The guys have understood the value of slowing down a bit every now and then, which power ballad-like songs like Through (featuring a lovely guitar solo!) and Sorry (keyboard solo!) clearly demonstrate. By the way, I must say that I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that these two tracks did not display the kind of cheesiness that the average power ballad does!
As could be expected, seeing where the band claim to have found their inspiration, there are many instances when I am reminded of Dream Theater, King's X and Pain Of Salvation. However, those flashes are so brief that I often do not even have the time to put my finger on exactly which song I was thinking of, before I am grasped by the next bit of music. Still, just to give you a couple of examples, there is quite a bit of POS shining through in Nightmachine (great start of the album!) and the oriental keyboards combined with the throbbing drums and the heavily distorted guitars in track 7, Le Temp Des Assassins (meaning "The Hour Of The Assassins" and guys, you forgot an "s" there! ;)), bring Dream Theater to mind. Strangely enough though, I also hear some shards of Genesis's Home By The Sea in this song. Maybe the somewhat mysterious atmosphere of the track causes this feeling. I must admit that I cannot say too much about the presence of King's X-like stuff on the album, since I have only heard a few tracks by this band, but I am sure that I did hear them fly by a couple of times anyway.
The keyboard-guitar combination in In My Own Dream reminds me strongly of one of the founders of progressive metal, Rush, in their later years. Apart from that, I get some flash-backs to Everon at the time of Flood and Greyhaven (what happened to those guys, by the way?). Shadowsong, on the other hand, is a short, calm instrumental piece built up around the electric piano. It is really nice and atmospherical, and brings Bruce Hornsby And The Range's big hit The Way It Is (especially the intro of the song) to mind. The track sort of forms an introduction to the equally calm intro of Through, one of the two ballads I mentioned above.
Kosmonauten Er Død (meaning "The Cosmonaut Is Dead") is an explosive instrumental, featuring traces of A.C.T, Arena and - again - Dream Theater. And, talking about Arena, the soaring guitar solo in both this song and in Ripples In Time II bring the exquisite work of Mr. John Mitchell (Arena) to mind. By the way, I can especially recommend you to listen to the bass playing on this track; great stuff!
The way the almost 20 minutes long Ripples In Time suite develops through the four tracks it is made up out of, is the only partial disappointment on the CD for me. It certainly does contain some great moments, but it feels to me as if the whole suite fizzles out like a damp squib, as they say. A bit of an anticlimax to an otherwise successful debut album, in other words.
It all starts in a great way with the fast and whirling Ripples In Time I. This track has a gritty undertone which I really like and contains some more winks at La Brie and his companions plus a lovely keyboard solo. The slow but ultra-heavy intro and middle section of the second part could have easily come from a track by The Gathering, if it weren't for the male vocals. The song starts very promising, but I am put off by the chorus and, now that I think about it, by the bass solo as well. These do not really seem to fit together with the rest for some reason, and therefore feels awkward to me. The guitar solo is really great, though! The next part starts out great as well. That crazy bass thingy and the guitar fading in and out really create an atmosphere that I can float away on. Sadly, the faster sections bring back the awkwardness. Especially after the lyrics "Suddenly a hole in space appears / And a spacecraft flies right out" I get the feeling that the band want to be too clear. This is definitely something that they might want to look into before recording the next album. They have taken it upon themselves to tell us this Star Trek-inspired tale about the relativity of space, time and humankind, but seem to be afraid to leave anything up to the listener's imagination. Everything they want to get across they put into words, where it might have been better to let the music do some of the talking. This results in the lyrics containing quite a few words that do not flow that easily when sung, like "spacecraft", "space station" and "vessels". Just ask Phil Collins about singing the word "breadbin" in Genesis's All In A Mouse's Night...
Ripples In Time IV has clearly the function of being the calm after the storm, but I don't know, it seems as if it is too calm all of a sudden. It is a nice track, but one that I cannot seem to remember at all after it has faded away in the distance. A shame! However, I was very impressed by the vocals. Rasmus Bak has a strong metal voice, which bears some resemblance to that of Damian Wilson (ex-Landmarq, Ayreon and quite a few other bands and projects) mixed with a bit of Daniel Gildenlöw (Pain Of Salvation) and Stefan Zell (Wolverine).
Another positive thing about the album is that while you are listening to it, you can feast your eyes on some amazing images by Mattias Norén. It is at those times that one really regrets the fact that the full artwork is not included in a promo CD... I guess I will just have to buy the album at some point!
Ripples In Time is a debut CD that many bands can only dream of making. Chrome Shift uses the vocabulary of prog giants like Dream Theater, Rush, Pain Of Salvation, Arena and King's X to create good original prog metal with it. The album has a few negative points, but my overall feeling about it is very positive. Therefore I recommend this CD to anyone into progressive metal and heavy progressive rock, but especially to fans of the above mentioned bands! My hat is already off; I'm sure that many will follow!
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10
The Boxing Lesson -The Boxing Lesson EP
The Boxing Lesson kick start their recording career with a four-track CD that serves as a very promising taste of the potential this Southern Californian band have in their grasp. Describing themselves as playing atmospheric rock symphonies, born from a sparse theme, often building to a lush sonic wash, proceedings are opened with Mexican Disguise. And an impressive beginning it is too. Try, if you can, to imagine mid period Pink Floyd mixed with the somberness of Red House Painters or Idaho and you'll get something of the flavour of this track, and indeed, the whole CD.
The CD flows effortlessly, by way of some abstract keyboard and guitar effects into Motorola. Maintaining the mood set by Mexican Disguise, this piece initially has a dirge-like quality which gradually builds into a bit of a guitar frenzy. Every Bite Tastes The Same, the shortest track on the EP, proceeds along similar lines, the dynamics of the piece pulling together the musicians to create a very busy and very interesting song. At one point it sounds as if all five members of the band are soloing at once!
The CD ends with Hard To Fake that has a reggaeish tinge underlying good use of guitars that add atmospheric washes of sound. Again, musically the song is very busy, and is very well played considering each instrument and the vocals are at completely different tempos!
It is obvious that a lot of care and attention has been taken in considering the arrangement of the songs and for the most it has been very successful. For a collection of debut recordings the production is very good, although the drums are sometimes rather inappropriately loud. The CD may possibly be a bit too sullen or sombre for some, although it is obvious that the band can up the tempo and rock out when they feel like it. A whole album is an interesting prospect: with a bit more compositional variety and better use of the vocalist's impressive range (which can soar in a way similar to the chap from Muse) a full album would certainly be on my shopping list!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Show~Yen - Show~Yen
Q: When is a concept album not a concept album?
A: When the group refuses to tell you what their concept was, but instead, encourages the listener to go right ahead and invent their own story. (Even the track titles are merely provided to distinguish one track from another, rather than to shed any light on the compositions themselves)
This is the intriguing twist on the genre provided by Show-Yen. They are a Japanese instrumental three-piece band consisting of Yasuhiro Nishio on guitars; Hiroaki Fujii on bass; and Masanobu Tonomura on drums.
The packaging is minimal and the production is good if not spectacular. The disc, therefore, stands or falls purely on the material contained within. For the most part, I would say that this is good stuff of its type, with the more fiery fusion styled numbers (Lucifer’s Child, Ran) standing head and shoulders above the more blues based, slightly pedestrian tunes (Reallusion), but it all hinges on how much you like guitar-led instrumentals. Nishio plays in a variety of styles, with plenty of time and tempo shifts (often within tracks) to keep up the interest, and the rhythm section is never less than competent, but (although I did enjoy this more than I thought I might) I still prefer music that has a broader palette of instrumental colours to work with, and guitar has never been my favourite instrument. Although this may be a heresy in the rock world in general, I assume that many prog fans also prefer bands that feature keyboards, saxophone, violins and cellos, full orchestration or even all of the above. Although the bassist has a few brief feature spots, it is Yasuhiro’s show, and indeed, he composed all of the material. To my ears, this is more proggy in nature, and less obsessed with speed of playing, than the well-known guitarists like Joe Satriani or Steve Vai, but still might appeal to their fans.
Some of the tunes remind of a less intense King Crimson (Asels 2 & 4) and others are in the vein of lesser-known American bands like Djam Karet (their rockier numbers) or Fourth Estate and even occasionally, The Dixie Dregs (Network Broken, Move Up). One disappointing factor, for me, is the almost total lack of oriental influences. In fact, three of the four bands I have compared them to are American, which tells you something about their style.
My favourite tracks are; Parade which is a jaunty anthem, the Crimsonic Lucifer’s Child and the closer, Fu-Ga which is a breezy, nonchalant, mid-tempo affair bringing things to an end in considerable style.
I would say that for most of you, this is worth giving a try and is probably a must-buy for guitar freaks and fans of the aforementioned bands.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Neural Mass - Sunshine Hill
Neural Mass hail from Montreal and have been around since 1995. The core of the band is made up of Gary Floyd on keyboards and bass synths, and Sylvain Rodrigue on drums and vocals. After just one release in their first six years, they managed two last year, of which Sunshine Hill is the second. This sudden burst of creative activity presumably has a lot to do with the presence of Spaced Out guitarist Marc Tremblay on a number of tracks.
Musically, the band quote their influences as being Genesis, Dream Theater, Planet X, Yes and Pantera. Most of these influences actually serve to give a rather misleading picture of the band’s sound, as it implies that Neural Mass might be a neo-prog band with metallic tendencies, which they certainly aren’t. Planet X is a more obvious reference point, although whereas Derek Sherinian’s outfit are obviously very muso-orientated, Neural Mass concentrate a lot more on capturing a particular mood – generally a somewhat dark and disorientating mood, and to this end perhaps the best comparators are the likes of Van Der Graaf Generator and King Crimson, along with various fusion acts.
It’s not really fair to compare Neural Mass to anyone in particular though, as the one thing you can certainly say about the band is that they have plenty of ideas and originality. Opener Checking In gives a fair indication of their general sound – thick, chunky rhythm guitar, somewhat disembodied keyboard sounds, busy percussion and fluid soloing from Tremblay. The vocals are half-spoken, half-sung and somewhat perfunctory, but I imagine this is the idea – they are more like another instrument than the lead. This song also demonstrates the band’s willingness to go off on completely unrelated tangents, with a cheesy but enjoyable organ solo appearing from nowhere near the end of the track. And it should be said, this is one of the more accessible songs!
Elsewhere, highlights include the oddly-titled 809-665-3105, which features sinister atmospherics (music, weird voices, various mobile ring-tones!) layered over an insist bass-line, with a nice keyboard riff which could have come straight from the film Halloween; You’ve Got The Best has monotone, insistent vocals and a military drumbeat and could almost have come from a Gary Numan album, whilst Take My Credit Card features a simple but effective keyboard line (sounding like its played on one of those cheap Casio keyboards you got in the eighties!) which works well in tandem with the metallic riffs that chug away in the background.
To be honest only about half of this album works; some of the tracks degenerate into (or even start off as) a discordant mess, and there are frankly too many different ideas floating around for everything to gel. The production quality also leaves something to be desired. However the band seem to have anticipated (and accepted) these criticisms, as their next album is a re-recording of the strongest tracks from both Sunshine Hill and its predecessor, The Unbreakable Aqua-Mask of Europa.
With this in mind, if this review piques your interest I’d wait for the new recording – but on its own merits Sunshine Hill is certainly an interesting and varied collection that will reward patient listening.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10