Reviews in this issue:
Conspiracy - The Unknown
Bonus Track: I Could (4:22)
So two other Yes family members have found shelter at the marvelous Inside Out label as well. Steve Howe is the first, Chris Squire and Billy Sherwood are the next. Good move for both artists as well as the label I think. Squire and Sherwood have a long lasting musical relationship that began somewhere at the end of the eighties when Yes were trying to go on without Jon Anderson, who was doing the ABWH thing at the time. Sherwood had released a brilliant debut album with his band Worldtrade which got the attention of the Yes-West line up. Eventually Sherwood became an official member of Yes years later, but left in 2001.
In 2000 the first Conspiracy album was released which revealed that the infamous Open Your Eyes album of Yes consisted of material that was initially meant for "The Chris Squire Experiment", the first name of the band. That first Conspiracy album was nice but nothing more, a bit disappointing for musicians of this calibre.
2003 brings the second release; The Unknown. Bob Cesca, the graphic designer who made the Magnifciation and Yessymphonic DVD covers did a great job on the cover art for this album. The design reminds me of Worldtrade’s first album in atmosphere, I really hoped the music would do too.
The album opens with Conspiracy and is a good opening track, fresh sounding, up-tempo and a real nice flangy bass sound from Squire. The voices of Squire and Sherwood very well blend together and Sherwood shows why he often is compared to Jon Anderson, he just sings beautifully in the higher regions. Although the sound could have been a bit more heavier to my taste this song alone is great. A guitarist like Trevor Rabin would be perfect for this job but I guess this is wishful thinking of a die hard Yes fan.
Confess is the second song and one that brings back memories of Open Your Eyes, the song, which I think is one the best tracks Yes have recorded in the last 10 years. Again up-tempo and driven, the creative juices between Squire and Sherwood finally seem to have found consistency. The unmistakenable Rickenbacker sound of ‘the amazing bassman’ is featured on the powerful New World. This one is reminiscent of The Ladder material and it will probably be a song from those days (2000) like other songs as well probably. Are these the songs that ‘Napoleon’ Jon Anderson and Maestro Steve Howe didn’t agree on doing with Yes? Just as I was thinking that the Worldtrade feel is certainly present, the lyric goes “New World Trade on a one way track …” and I can’t agree more.
Squire can ‘show off’ his choirboy past in ½ A World Away which starts calmly, but then evolves into a great power-ballad. One of the best songs on The Unknown. The other half of the album gives more of the same, good and melodic rock (with the bonustrack being the Yes song Finally from The Ladder) but the danger of distraction is lurking a bit the first couple of times you play it. Best remedy for this is to put the album away for a week and then start again. Program all songs on your CD player backwards, start with the last one, this gives a new perspective and then the final judgement can be properly formed.
I did that and my appreciation is 8 points. I would love to see this band in live action, with the right people in the line up Conspiracy could easily evolve to be a real asset to the Prog Rock concert scene.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Arena - Contagious (EP)
Multimedia Section: Skin Game Video, Ghost Vocals (An Angel Falls, Spectre at the feast, Salamander, Bitter Harvest, City of Lanterns, Mea Culpa), Floodgate Choir, Lyrics, Screensaver, Website
A couple of weeks ago someone sent me an e-mail asking me why I was so harsh on Arena in the review of Contagion. I lost his e-mail and therefore wasn't able to answer him. The reason is quite simple though. I have been a bit of a fan of Arena for years and I'm even contributing as a translator for their fanzine. Still, I have probably been disappointed by the band as many times as I have been pleased, the former especially during their live performances. At the same time I fiercely dislike the total lack of heartfelt criticism among Arena fans. Unlike fans of bands with a similar loyal following, like IQ and Marillion, Arena fans always seem to think everything is nice and splendid. I personally think that the band needs some constructive (?) criticism every now and then when they deserve it. And I really truly disliked Contagion the first couple of times I played it. I was really disappointed by some of the things I mentioned in my review. By now, however, these flaws have been overshadowed by the many good sides of the album and it has become my favourite in the Arena catalogue (something I also predicted in my review). When I play an album like The Visitor now it just pales and sounds so outdated next to this new one. So ... that should set that one straight. Now on to the next Arena review.
When the band were recording Contagion they had enough material for a double album, they were however wise enough to make it a single CD. Compared to previous albums the remaining material was considered too good to just be thrown away and so the band decided they would make two EP CD's which would be released in the course of this year. The first one, Contagious, has recently been released.
As one can imagine there is a reason these left-overs didn't make it to the album. Then again, I fully agree that they are quite enjoyable and too good not to use in one form or another. The CD contains four brand new tracks, among which two instrumentals. Those who, like me, were delighted by the instrumental tracks of Contagion will probably like these two as well. Especially Vanishing Act, which I consider the best track on the EP, is very good. This powerful up-tempo piece starts as a Serenity-like guitar solo but soon turns into a real prog rocking toe-tapper which is maybe a tad too repetitive. It does feature fine guitar and keyboard solos though.
The title track Contagion, which was originally to follow On The Box and contains a reference to the riff in that song, is much less powerful but more of a stomping, menacing track including a nice Tony Banks-like keyboard solo by Clive Nolan. It also features a prominent bass-slap and has a very dark mood. Think Apocalypse in 9/8.
The two new vocal tracks are interesting as well. The Hour Glass, which is the second song on the CD - not the fourth one as stated on the inlay - is a typical dramatic Arena mid-tempo song. The weakness of the song therefore might be a lack of originality. The guitar solo for instance sounds too familiar, like another one that's been done before (probably The Hanging Tree). As such, this might be the song which in the end sticks in my mind the least after playing the EP.
I Spy is very different, an almost folky acoustic affair with lots of backing vocals. The style of the melody reminds me of Shadowland's Father a lot (which is not a good thing) and the repeated line that gets repeated for almost a full minute at the end of the song really gets on my nerves. For the rest it's a fine tune, which would however have been totally out of place, stylistically, on Contagion. It sounds too 'happy' to be part of the album.
Having heard a couple of things about the dance remix of Witch Hunt I really feared this final track on the EP. Upon playing it I was positively surprised though. I have to admit I really like this version a lot, with it's drum computer beats (and the tightest drum rolls the band has ever produced !), all of the rhythm guitars and bass removed and that otherwise obnoxious Cher-effect on some of Rob's vocals. Good fun !
Besides the aforementioned five tracks the EP also contains a multimedia section with lots of stuff, among which lyrics for The Hour Glass and I Spy, pictures of the lads and lassies who participated in the Floodgate Choir (singing basically the one word in the Witch Hunt song), a link to the Arena website and a screensaver which is basically a simple slideshow of some of the (brilliant) artwork for the album. Personally I would have preferred an artwork gallery with downloadable stuff to use as wallpapers and such. Most interesting in the multimedia section however are the Skin Game video and the Ghost Vocals.
The Ghost Vocal tracks are demos of some of the Contagion songs with guitarist John Mitchell doing the vocals. These tracks were done to give vocalist Rob Sowden an idea of the vocal melodies, so he could practice them before coming to the studio to lay them down. After listening to these early versions two things struck me. First, it immediately becomes obvious what the production has done for Contagion; some of the songs sound very bare and dull, especially Salamander and Bitter Harvest. Of course some instruments like bass and guitar are still missing, but overall the songs are still a long way from their finished massive sound.
Second, my admiration of Rob Sowden has really grown. I have heard John Mitchell sing on his band's Urbane album and found his voice quite okay. On some of these tracks however he sounds very uninspired and almost uninterested, mainly in the quieter moments. Of course these songs were never meant to be released commercially, so you can't really blame him. It does however prove what Rob has done to make them his own and how much drama he has put into them.
The Skin Game video is basically the background projections that were used during the live show for Contagion. These computer animations are quite well done including the flying screaming mouths, hand prints, a pair of eyes (hey, didn't I see those in Porcupine Tree's show for Stupid Dream ?), burning writing and such. All very nice, though one should keep in mind that this is not a full-fledged promo video, and would be considered a bit too dull and repetitive for such a purpose.
All in all not a must-have purchase for the average prog rock fan, but a very interesting item for Arena fans with quite some new stuff to enjoy and explore. I do consider the price of 9 pounds a bit steep for this product, considering that 5 pounds more buys you the full album with higher quality material.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
Matthew D Guarnere - MDG
Though clocking in at over fifty two minutes, M.D.G. is in actual fact an EP because one can only mention four tracks on the album together with two remixes and an interview. Musically one notices that the influences seem to come from the more melodic side of the progressive rock sphere, namely bands such as Kansas and Journey. In fact calling the tracks on this EP as purely progressive would not be entirely accurate as they have much more of a melodic hard rock slant mixed with a dose of AOR.
A Little Chemistry has a delightful combination of hard rock and piano sounding like Ben Folds backed by distorted guitars. White Trash Wonder sounds more like commercial American heavy metal of the late eighties when bands like Ratt ruled the roost. Interesting, but definitely dated and not progressive!
You Never Have To Grow Old, My Dear (Song For Mercury) is Guarnere's tribute to the late Freddie Mercury and is one of the highlights of the album with the elaborate use of vocal harmonies which tend to over dominate the rest of the song which is drowned in a sea of organ. The final original tune on this album is Where's Everybody Gone? which is a delicate acoustic piece along the lines of many traditional rock bands who can belt out the best acoustic pieces. Once again the vocal harmonies would tend towards the Queen influence, as well as to fellow Queen fans and masters of the acoustic rock tune, Extreme. The album comes to a close with two remixes. The first is a remix of A Little Chemistry whilst the second comprises excerpts from all the tracks on the EP with some effective instrumentation such as trumpet added in.
Guarnere has produced an effective and impressive EP, especially when one considers that he plays most of the instruments himself apart from handling the vocals which sound like a curious mix betwen Steve Walsh (Kansas) and the already mentioned Ben Folds. From a progressive rock point of view, this EP would appeal to those who like the more melodic side of prog-rock groups such as Supertramp, Kansas and Todd Rundgren mixed in with the American styled hard rock of early Bon Jovi and Extreme. Whether it would be of appeal to the strict progressive rock fan is something I would be curouis to find out!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Cos - The Turning Around
Once again the individual talents of one musician have resulted in a remarkably accomplished solo album hidden behind a band name. In this instance classically trained New Yorker Mark Costoso is the musician, The Turning Around is the album and Cos the name. Although citing major progressive groups such as Yes, Gentle Giant, King Crimson and Genesis as influences, the flavour of The Turning Around is a lot less experimental than any of the aforementioned bands at their progressive best and veers more towards the pop sensibilities of Todd Rundgren, both as a solo artist and with Utopia, interspersed with flashes of Toto.
The CD starts with Born Again which has a very pleasing acoustic guitar intro with layered harmony vocals and a rousing chorus. Title track The Turning Around is a more keyboard led piece featuring a fine jazz-tinged piano solo and a Rick Wakeman style synth outburst. Nolita, the longest track on the album, is a paen to the greed of entrepreneurs who are 'developing' areas of New York and in the process raising prices so that the original inhabitants, who don't fit the desired demographic, are forced to move on. Probably the 'angriest' track on the album, I feel it would have benefited from, for example, a searing guitar solo and having a more aggressive attitude, plus would have benefited from losing a couple of minutes from the running time.
In contrast, the next two songs are perfect examples of music in the pop-rock idiom. This TV Show has a chorus that will be running through the brain long after the CD has ended and My Angel is an endearing ballad where the Rundgren influences are particularly prominent. Your Name, a rather bland piano ballad, did nothing for me but Love Alone livened things up with some up-beat riffing and lead guitar by Ray Manna, the only musician other than Costoso on the album. The end result was vaguely reminiscent of Journey, although the chorus could have been given more prominence by boosting the vocals and overlaying a few more voices and/or layers. Explode, another guitar based song, features some passionate vocals but a lousy, repetitive chorus, although stylistically it does stand out from the rest of the album and does have a great guitar sound.
The remaining three tracks are all ballads that come across with varying degrees of success. On all three songs, as on the entire album, the musicianship can't be faulted with Mr Costoso proving he is no slouch on guitar or keyboards, although a greater variety in mood or tempo would have made the end of the album more enjoyable for me. Perhaps next time I play the CD, and I will definitely be listening to The Turning Around again, I'll press the random play button on my CD player!
Overall, a good album for fans of more laid-back music who enjoy a healthy dose of pop thrown into the mix.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Man On Fire - The Undefined Design
Man On Fire, from Atlanta, is a duo of Jeff Hodges on vocals and keyboards, and Eric Sands on bass and guitars. Steve Carroll supplies the lyrics. On this, their second album, they are augmented with several guests, most notably David Ragsdale, but more of him later. The drums and percussion chores are split between three players, and as most of the songs are highly charged with complex polyrhythms and percussive grooves, take a bow David Smith, Jimmy Mouton and Adam Stoker. The production, by Jeff Hodges, is clear and precise, enabling the multi-layered structure to be easily appreciated.
The music is a blend of modern pop/rock melodies with art rock complexity, much influence from the New Romantics (Duran Duran, Japan), some metallic crunch and a dash of world beats. Peter Gabriel’s later work is a good indicator of the general style attempted, but there are no vocal similarities. Jeff Hodges’ voice has a reasonable range and can be pretty powerful, but at times, there is the hint of nasal whine which can be a little off putting.
The opening trilogy of tunes that comprise Awake exemplify the complex approach to what are still at heart very catchy melodic pop songs. The fretless bass playing is incredibly fluent, calling to mind Mick Karn or even Jaco Pastorious. The second part is a hot funk workout, with an infectious chorus, and backing vocals from Trish Howell. The later sections become more progressive, with synth solos and heavy riffing guitars. The concluding section has swooshing synth effects, moody piano and tape loops.
Seven Thunders Wide rides a funked up bass riff over symphonic keyboards and ultra modern beats, with a side order of world music thrown in. The music is undeniably complex, but it still has a commercial gloss, which will undoubtedly appeal to some, but equally may reduce its attraction to fans of more retro styled progressive music.
David Ragsdale, as you may be aware, was the violinist on Kansas’ best album for many a year - Freaks Of Nature. He also had a major presence on Salem Hill’s breakthrough disc The Robbery Of Murder. It was a shrewd decision to enlist his services here, as the three tracks to which he contributes – Where Is The Light? Clouds In The Sun and Just Out Of Reach – are easily the strongest. His violin playing is never less than compelling (check out the opening to Clouds In The Sun), but on Just Out Of Reach it positively soars. After they sing “Now the angels will guide us” the violin melody is so beautiful that it is no stretch to imagine that, should Heaven exist, music like this would be heard playing in the suburbs, welcoming you in, welcoming you home. This is my favourite track. The repetitive piano figure and resonant bass are pretty hot too.
I think this music could have a wide appeal, probably with younger fans, particularly those looking for a more commercial product. I hear influences from Japan, Bill Nelson (his Chimera album), Peter Gabriel and Steve Wilson’s No-Man project, if not Porcupine Tree, but maybe even some of their more poppy material. The melodies are strong and the lyrics seem interesting enough to warrant a further look. I do like it, and I really like the tracks with violin, but at the end of the day, it perhaps strays a little too close to funk for my (admittedly) more traditional progressive rock tastes. I will play this disc occasionally, and I strongly suggest you check out the samples if this sounds like your kind of thing.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10