Reviews in this issue:
Manning - The Ragged Curtain
The latest project from Guy Manning's band of merry troubadours has the intention of producing a classic rock album. Containing just three pieces (although admittedly the first of these could be regarded as five separate songs linked by a common theme) there is more scope for instrumental passages giving greater space for the band members to shine through, both individually and collectively. Of particular note is the guitar work of Gareth Harwood whose playing throughout the album is sharp and concise but never over-stated. There are some rather nice twin lead guitar passages (at the end of Where Do All The Madmen Go? for example) where the playing of Gareth and Guy Manning compliment each other perfectly.
Overall, the album is replete with strong melodies performed in a variety of styles. The aforementioned Where Do All The Madmen Go? has a distinct reggae lilt to it, while Stronger starts with a simple synth line and programmed drums, gradually developing with additional of the other instruments and culminating in a fine saxophone solo by Laura Fowles. The melodic nature of the album is enhanced throughout by some excellent flute and recorder playing provided by Angela Goldthorpe from Mostly Autumn. However, the band still know how to rock and the tempo is raised at appropriate moments during the album such as on Tightrope, which features some great Hammond organ work and an overall sound which is reminiscient of the early work of Atomic Rooster, and sections of Ragged Curtains.
The opening track, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, is a suite of songs dealing with the complexities of relationships. Between each track there are snippets of interviews with various people giving their views on the subject of the development, progression and eventual ending of love affairs, which obviously draws parallels to the seminal Dark Side Of The Moon. But that is where the comparison between the two pieces end! Ragged Curtains is a well structured composition where all the individual sections flow seamlessly into each other. The characteristic organ and analogue synth work of Guy's ex-bandmate and Parallel or 90 Degrees main man Andy Tillison-Diskdrive is featured on a couple of sections and, unsurprisingly, these are the most traditionally progressive parts on the album. But generally, the song is a strong piece of writing with the band gelling well to provide light and shade throughout the piece.
Overall, The Ragged Curtain is the strongest material to be released by Manning/Guy Manning and is a significant step in the right direction in the quest to produce a classic album. My only real criticism are Guy's vocals which can tend to lack a degree of emotion and the intonation can be weak at times. However, I have to say that the album has grown on me over repeated listenings and each time the vocals have become less of a personal issue as there are some lovely musical passages throughout. If you are a fan of the band's previous work then this new album will not disappoint. It may very well open a few new doors.
In conclusion, The Ragged Curtain does not break any new ground but is a solid and enjoyable album all the same.
The third studio release from Manning, The Ragged Curtain, continues my re-education into the continuing history of progressive rock. Having been fortunate to witness the halcycon days, struggled through the long dark years and finally to be enlightened in the technology years. Living, as I do, in the UK and prior to the internet, I was convinced that prog had died and that the only treasures were my old collection, a few struggling heroes and those stalwarts that had survived the holocaust of Punk, New Romantic and other apathetic eras. Not wishing to digress too far and at Guy's expense, I would just like to add that the advent of the internet has revealed a whole network of great music not least of all this CD in front of me.
Anyway straight onto track eight and the Ragged Curtain. Track eight and you may well be wondering what happened to first seven, more on them later. I have chosen to start with the title track as it is this piece in particular that has lodged in my mind and prompted those opening remarks.
Without further ado, we start with the Flow, striking are the imaginatively written lyrics and truly infectious melody that opens this mini epic. This all too brief song has enjoyed numerous plays on my CD player and is something that I have not tired of, on the contrary it is one of those pieces I feel will remain with me throughout the years to come. The Flow moves us into the driving Sea, with its ever rising structure and repetitive riff, which is eventually released by the vocals. From here on the whole track meanders through varied textures and atmospheres in which a fine balance is maintained between the vocal sections and the instrumental passages. Splendid performances from all the musicians and not wanting to single out one particular musician above another, however, I would like to say how much I enjoyed Angela Goldthorpe's flute playing during this piece, adding a Tullian flavour to some of the passages. The individual track titles nicely capture the musical mood changes of each of the segments that make up the Ragged Curtain. Mention here of the gentle vocal, acoustic guitar and light strings that make up the engaging Sand. The album finishes in fine style with a return to the opening Flow, this time with a full band arrangement in a distinctly Genesis-like refrain.
Now to the rest of the album and you may still be wondering why I started with the Ragged Curtain and does the rest of the CD live up to it. Difficult to say really, if I understood what so appealed to me about the title track I would be able to answer the question easily. There are immediate winners in the ballad like A Place to Hide and the wonderful lilting rhythms of Where Do All The Madmen Go. It is possible that Guy may wince at my next remark, but these two tracks did remind of Chris de Burgh (who in his early career did write some good material). Laura Fowles turns in a fine solo that captures the mood in the first of the tracks and the complementary string parts come to the party during the hugely melodic ending guitar section on Where Do All The Madmen Go. I concur with Mark's comments here, as Gareth Howard's guitar playing is admirable throughout, the interaction between Guy and Gareth being a high point and a great outro to the song (bet this is fun live).
In fact the whole album is rich in musical performances and further examples can be found from start to finish. If I was to have any misgivings, it would be with one of my pet hates, the talking bits, thankfully confined to the opening bars of the early tracks. Many may disagree and see these as integral to song, but personally, I didn't care for them on the Pink Floyd or Genesis albums and I still don't, however I shall not labour the point further. On the surface this would not be an album I would have been drawn to review, as I tend to like my music to be more overtly complex with the emphasis on the instrumental side. All of which goes to show that one should always keep an open mind. I suppose one of the primary functions of a review is to either encourage, or discourage, the reader to buy the album. So the burning question is would I spend my hard earned cash on this album - Yes!
Yes - Keys to Ascension (DVD)
Bonus Material: Biography
In the second half of the nineties Yes released two albums, Keys to Ascension 1 and Keys to Ascension 2. Half of these remarkable albums consisted of live material recorded in March 1996, while the other half were new studio tracks. The live material was a selection of (some of) the best material of the band from the seventies. I personally liked these albums very much because the material was captured in a crisp live sound that was far better than that of the old seventies live albums.
And then when I was going through the DVD bins at the local record store I cam across the DVD of the show. It contained all of the live tracks (two and a half hours of material !). It was very reasonably priced (€ 12) so I decided to buy it right then and there. I should have gone for the higher priced Symphonic Yes DVD instead ....
The menu already gave me a rather uneasy feeling. A bit of a dodgy animated thingy with the words 'Keys to Ascension' circling round the globe of the Fragile cover. What happened to the Keys to Ascension artwork ?! The only good thing about the menu is that you can play short audio fragments of all tracks before actually choosing a track. Still, as in the main menu these audio fragments cut randomly in the middle of lines or bars, thereby sounding like a sloppy cut and paste job.
Okay, I understand that this concert was a celebration of the 'Classic Yes' material of the seventies, but that doesn't have to mean that the footage has to look like something from the seventies too, does it ? Well, it's either that or some amateur discovered some simple video editing program on his PC when making this concert film.
Seemingly there were four camera's at work when the concert was shot, but lots of the footage consists of far off shots of the full stage. In itself that wouldn't be such a bad thing if there was actually something interesting to see on the stage, but although the light show is quite nice, there is only so many minutes one can take of the big empty screen behind the band. So they came up with a cunning plan. Or so they thought. Since the upper 2/3rd of the TV screen is taken up by the big blank backdrop when a full stage shot is taken it is really very, very empty. So why not put all kinds of projections in that part of the screen. These range from close-ups of the musicians to bits of artworks and shots of nature. Or even the same full stage shot again ! You probably get the picture. And an irritating picture it is. Why not use normal close-ups ?
Well, actually there are normal close ups in the footage as well, but seemingly almost every second of the concert film has to be a combined shot so during the close ups you get overlays of water rippling, planets circulating, forests, mountains, you name it. And then I haven't mentioned all those other cheap effects yet, the slow motions, footage in brownish colours, lapsed filming, flip-flopping images and all of the non-concert footage. I mean, for ****'s sake, I didn't buy this DVD because I wanted to see a National Geographic documentary, did I ? I'm watching the band play Close to the Edge, and what's that appearing above them ? The branch of a tree. Of course ! How logical ! Or what about the good old Star Wars 'writings disappearing in distant space' effect. Duh !
Normally a concert film is supposed to capture the atmosphere and look and feel of a gig. This DVD fails to do exactly just that and instead adds a whole lot of stuff that was not part of the gig.
All of this makes the film not only dull but also exhausting to watch. I will easily admit that there are parts of the 2,5 hours that I still haven't seen because I just can't struggle myself through more than one or two songs at a time. For some reason this concert film keeps reminding me of Pink Floyd's Live in Pompeii. Its got the same arty farty approach, but at least Pink Floyd have the excuse that their film was made some 25 years earlier ! I'm not sure who's responsible for the production of this DVD, but if it was within the authority of the band they should be ashamed of themselves. Or did they think 'Well, we just released this crap album Open Your Eyes so we might as well make some more rubbish !"
And then the extra's. Well .... as a matter of fact there are no extra's. Unless you would call the biographies extra's. And these are actually too embarrassing to mention. The Yes biography is little more than 7 album titles (stopping in 1977). The band member biographies are equally short with about 5 lines per band member. Instead of using some material that displays the skills of every musician under these segments we get random, badly looping fragments unrelated to the specific band member. Everything on this DVD breathes amateurism, including the credits for the DVD which is actually a still screen with logo's of the involved companies.
It's a good thing this DVD was mid-priced, so I don't feel too bad about having bought it. I have however seen it at on-line shops for full price, or even higher (up to 3x what I paid for it !). Unless you are a Yes completist, do yourself a favour and buy the Symphonic Yes DVD instead. There is however one reason to buy this CD if you come across it for mid-price. It's a way to get the live tracks of the two Keys to Ascension albums if you're not interested in the new studio tracks and don't want to buy two double CDs. Just make sure you play it with the TV screen turned off.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Without Face - Astronomicon
I do not think that many of you have missed the fact that some progressive metal bands have been able to reach a much larger audience than is usually the case in this genre. I am, of course, talking about bands like Within Temptation (who even had a hit with Ice Queen), After Forever and Therion in which female opera vocals or a choir, sometimes combined with (male) grunts, form the centre of attention. Hungarian sixpiece Without Face fit in well with the aforementioned bands, even though they are a little bit different at the same time, since they have a full-time male vocalist to complement the female voice.
I must admit that I had not heard of the band before, but Astronomicon appeared to be Without Face's second album. Their first, Deep Inside from 2000, has been re-mastered and re-released after American record label Dark Symphonies discovered the band. The music that András (vocals), Julie (vocals), Péter (drums), Sasza (keyboards), Roomy (guitar) and Ákos (bass guitar) create, contains many elements of the aforementioned bands Within Temptation, After Forever and Therion, although gothic metal outfits like The Gathering and Cirrha Niva (especially their latest album Liaison De La Morte) also spring to mind.
On Astronomicon you can expect some well-crafted progressive metal, featuring razor-sharp electric guitars, thick layers of keyboards and a strong rhythm tandem. The songs can go from "ordinary" progressive rock to almost classical music to straight-out trash metal. There are even some instruments on the album that one would not really associate with metal, like a trumpet in Pit And Pendulum and a flute in ... In The Garden, which gives that track a hauntedness that reminds me slightly of Porcupine Tree's Tinto Brass. Very refreshing!
The combination of male and female vocals bring Five Fifteen and, even more so, Cirrha Niva's Liaison De La Morte to mind. András's voice sounds actually remarkably much like that of Five Fifteen's Mika Järvinen, although it also has some traces of Cirrha Niva's Arnold Kloek and even Crash Test Dummies' Brad Roberts in it. Julie's vocals remind me of Within Temptation's Sharon Den Adel and After Forever's Floor Jansen, but that depends most on the ethereal, opera-like way of singing all these ladies use.
Okay, it is probably better that I admit it right now than to pussyfoot around it indefinitely, I guess; I am not a big fan of either opera vocals or grunts. There, I said it. The thing is that I think that the operatic approach of a vocal part in most cases renders it rather emotionless. The voice becomes more an instrument than a mirror of the feelings that the vocalist sings about and that just does not work that well for me. Also, the vocals get something saintly which, certainly in the case of this band, belies the subject of the lyrics. Death grunts I can stand in small doses, but I get a bit tired of them if they are used to long, as is the case in some of the tracks on Astronomicon. Do not get me wrong, Julie certainly has a good voice and the combination with András's more aggressive singing and his grunts is interesting to say the least, but it is just not my cup of tea. And that does not say everything there is to say; a lot of people obviously do like this kind of music.
Apart from the above-mentioned influences, can I report that the atmospherical intro of Weird Places is somewhat Pink Floyd-ish, whereas I get some Evergrey-vibes from the staccato, heavily distorted guitars in both Pit And Pendulum and ...In The Garden. The ever-present Dream Theater also surfaces for a bit in Talamasca during some jumpy instrumental parts. What bothers me a bit though, is that the two vocalists do not leave a lot of space for solos and instrumental sections. Yes, there are a couple of great guitar and keyboard solos to be found on the album and a few bits without vocals, but otherwise it feels as if the vocals are everywhere. This results in the tracks sounding rather similar and that is a shame, I think, considering the quality of the instrumentalists.
Literature addicts might be interested to hear that Without Face's lyrics are inspired by Edgar Allen Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and H.W. Longfellow. Since I still have these writers on my "to read"-list, I cannot comment on how far this influences reaches. I can tell you, however, that the lyrics are completely in accordance with the atmosphere of the music and the cover artwork: death, despair, blood, damnation, demons and witches (Talamasca) are the subjects that András and Julie sing (and the former at times grunts) about. We are not talking about stuff that makes you all happy and cheerful, in other words.
Wrapping it all up, I think that the focus on Without Face's Astronomicon could be too much on the vocals, which makes the songs sound a bit too alike. The instrumental side of this band is completely okay in my book, but the vocals are just not my thing. However, I know that there is a large crowd of people out there who would probably be glad to hear that there is another band in the vein of Within Temptation, After Forever and Cirrha Niva. So if you are into progressive metal with some gothic edges, then you should certainly check these Hungarians out!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Metaconciencia - Bestiario
Like Show-Yen, whose debut CD I reviewed recently, Metaconciencia are a guitar based instrumental combo recording for the prolific Musea label. Where Metaconciencia score above Show-Yen is primarily in their altogether more progressive approach, with far less mainstream influence, and secondly for the strong sense of ethnic identity that runs through the disc. As a Mexican band, Metaconciencia clearly don’t hide their Hispanic cultural roots, and it is this that provides an exotic touch to the material, lifting it several notches higher in my estimation. The sultry heat of the Mexican sun can be felt radiating out of the heart of this music, with densely layered acoustic and electric guitars playing against each other with an often scorching intensity.
Ricardo Moreno is something of a stalwart of the Mexican progressive scene, having been a founder of mid-eighties legends Iconoclasta (whose first two albums were fabulous examples of full-blown symphonic progressive rock, before moving to a more neo approach during the 90’s), and also being a member of Praxis. With those groups, he mostly played either electric guitar or keyboards, but here he focuses on acoustic guitar, leaving the electric guitar in the very capable hands of Francisco Estrada. Jose Ramon Porrua is the man on the bass and Carlos Bonequi is the drummer – together they are a formidable rhythm section, driving the music along and adding to the dynamic tension at the core of the compositions.
Some highlights are: the opening track, Garhi, which quickly builds in intensity for a roller coaster ride of musical dexterity and invention, with a strong Mexican flavour. The acoustic guitars underlie the electric soloing to great effect; the later part of Paradigma, with its twanging bass and reverberant heavy guitar; Pendulo which is a folky melody played on acoustic guitar, with subtle bass accompaniment; Improv, where you get exactly what it says on the tin, and where all the players admirably hold their corners. (Bonequi is particularly impressive here); the title track where Ricardo switches to keyboards for a barnstorming ride back to classic Iconoclasta territory, with furious organ riffs battling with the guitars for 10 plus minutes of chop and change riffing.
The surreal dreamscape depicted on the cover is the ideal complement to the music within, with the intoxicating web of interwoven guitars having a somewhat hypnotic effect.
This is rock with a strong Jazz sensibility, impeccably executed and presented, and sure to delight guitar fans. My main criticisms are that apart from the title track, the overall atmosphere can superficially seem a little samey and is slightly wearing over the full length of the disc, and a few more tracks with increased instrumentation would have added some variety to the sound.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Takara - Blind In Paradise
Takara is a California based band that was formed in 1987. While recording a demo album producer Jeff Scott Soto was asked to help out and sing on the demo. This was the first of a fruitful co-operation that was ended after Blind In Paradise. The latest album of Takara, Perception Of Reality, has an almost new line-up. It does not include Jeff Scott Soto. The reason that I find it necessary to mention this fact is that I like his vocals and think it is a pity he will not be appearing on the next Takara album (although I have not heard this new singer yet). JSS has been a (session) vocalist for a number of bands/artists, including Yngwie Malmsteen.
Blind In Paradise originates from 1998. Together with the complete Takara backlog this album was re-released in 2002 by Lion Music.
This is a pleasant album. It has a number of high energy songs that catch on very quick. Most of the songs really cheer you up. It is excellent music to crank up the volume and get some work done. But...unfortunately I think there is something missing in almost all songs, something extra to lift the tracks above being just pop-songs. As I said they all catch on quick, but there is no real suprises to be found on this album. Do not get me wrong it is not the ability of the musician, technically they are really good and as I have mentioned earlier the vocals are great. I can best summarize it by saying that this is "easy listening" progrock. It is a very good album, but it is not great. Takara is not the next big progressive rock discovery. The songs just miss out on complexity, it is all refrain/chorus/refrain. I do not think anyone will really hate this album but on the other hand in my opinion it will not end up on a lot of "best of" lists. Except for maybe the song: Don't Wanna Be Alone that's an absolute super progrock song.
You may understand that I find it hard to rate this album. Should it get an DPRP recommended? It is good but not super special. I did enjoy listening to it. In the future this album will surely find it's way back to my CD player. I can mention a hundred bands that I would rank below Takara, but measured from a progrock point of view I will not give a "DPRP recommended". If you hate bombastic, complex and long songs then Takara is your kind of progrock. It is most certainly played well.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10