Reviews in this issue:
Pineapple Thief - Variations On A Dream
CD1: We Subside (4:58), This Will Remain Unspoken (3:27), Vapour Trails (8:31), Run Me Through (4:43), The Bitter Pill (4:35), Resident Alien (4:14), Sooner Or Later (3:59), Part Zero (7:28), Keep Dreaming (4:21), Remember Us (16:04)
CD2: Eight Days: Sunday November 3rd (5:48), Monday November 4th (5:57), Tuesday November 5th (4:34), Wednesday November 6th (5:31), Thursday November 6th (7:20), Friday November 8th (7:15), Saturday November 9th 14:11 (4:09), Saturday November 9th 21:16 (4:53), Sunday November 10th (5:54), Sunday November 10th 14:20 (5:37)
Work started on the recording of Pineapple Thief's third album, Variations On A Dream, way back in December 2001 and continued up until October of last year. Further delays meant the album wasn't released until a few months ago and, in the spirit of not wanting to rush anything, we here at DPRP only received a review copy a couple of weeks ago. So has it been a worthwhile wait for fans of Bruce Soord's particular musical vision? Quite simply the answer is a resounding YES! From the staccato opening of We Subside to the closing guitar cascade of the 16 minute epic Remember US, Variations On A Dream displays the hallmarks of something that is rather special these days - an album that is simply a joy to listen to from start to finish.
Focusing on composition and pushing the arrangements and performance to levels higher than previously achieved, Pineapple Thief have created an album that successfully encompasses a wide variety of influences yet maintains its own unique identity. Yes, This Will Remain Unspoken and Vapour Trails do follow a path parallel to the one trodden by Porcupine Tree, but Pineapple Thief seem to have taken a route less encumbered. Run Me Through has a soaring chorus not heard since the first Muse album while Sooner Or Later is something that should make Billy Corgan realise what direction he should have taken The Smashing Pumpkins after Melancholy And The Infinite Sadness.
The sentimental side of the band is ably demonstrated by the wistful piano ballad The Bitter Pill. The beautiful melody is perfectly enhanced by an arrangement whose strength lies in its simplicity. This sparseness is echoed in Keep Dreaming which simply begs for someone to put up the money so that a version can be recorded with an orchestra and choir to replace the mellotron which admittedly does sound a little dated (blasphemy!). Classical overtones are also prevalent on the album's sole instrumental, Resident Alien. The arpegiated keyboard-generated strings and pseudo-glockenspiel are underpinned by a harsher, almost industrial back beat - it may sound an unholy combination on paper, but works rather well in practice. Final track, Remember Us, starts with a deceptively simple acoustic guitar and synthesiser intro leading into a short vocal section. This is followed by an atmospheric instrumental section and culminates in a wonderfully crisp and extended electric guitar solo from Bruce Soord. Once the final note dies, the immediate reaction is to hit the play button again and lose oneself for another hour. Easily one of the best new albums to have been released so far in 2003.
Lucky purchasers of the first 1000 copies of the album from the bands website or direct from Cyclops were fortunate enough to receive a bonus disc, Eight Days. Following the completion of recording the album, the band found they had eight days of studio time left and so set themselves the task of using the time to record a new track, sometimes two, each day starting completely from scratch. The predominantly instrumental album uses ambient sounds recorded outside the studio to link each track. A fascinating glimpse into the creative process, the album displays an amazing fluidity and conciseness which is an obvious reflection of the collective mood of the band throughout the week - the reflectiveness of Monday November 4th is brushed aside by the upbeat vibe of the following day; The "Pineapple Thief do Radiohead" more experimental guitar piece of Friday November 8th is juxtaposed with the acoustic instrumental Saturday November 9th 14:11 whose melody is taken, distorted and sped up on the track recorded later that same evening. Quite simply, Eight Days is far too good to be limited to an audience of just a thousand people.
We would like to offer our thanks to Bruce Soord who has kindly given us one of these special Limited Edition CD's for our DPRP Subscribed readers competition this week.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
X Religion - Dances On Gobelins
Uzbekistan may not be one of the countries that first springs to mind when talking of progressive music, but this release from X Religion must surely place it firmly on the map. The notion also, that all the best prog emanates from either the UK or USA, most surely undergo even more rigorous scrutiny, if for no other reason than the album in front of me. Admittedly and prior to listening to Dances On Gobelins I had some misgivings (albeit unfounded) about this release. The band's name suggested a different type of music to me and accompanied by the instruction to listen to it LOUD also put doubts in the mind.
Perhaps some research into the bands history and origins might shed a better light on the proceedings. X Religion is the amalgamation of two of Tashkent's (the capital of Uzbekistan) only Progressive Rock bands from the early 1990's, Rare Bird and Edgar Poe. The two bands first met up at Tashkent's annual Rock Festival in 1990 and later that year arranged a joint live show on the scene of Uzbekistan's Puppet Show. Quoting from the band's biography - "Unfortunately, progressive music was never a popular genre in our republic", (as with most of the World, I think) "so both Edgar Poe & Rare Bird quit in the middle of the decade". Towards the end of 1996 bassist Vitaly Menshikov (ex-Edgar Poe) along with keyboardist, guitarist, and vocalist Albert Khalmurzayev and drummer Valery Vorobiov (both ex-Rare Bird) decided to form a new band. Thus X Religion was created, combining the writing skills from both bands to form this unique and skilled band.
The album opens with the atmospheric Agnostic Eparchy, cold, chilling and foreboding. The tempo is uncomfortably slow but so well captures the mood of the piece. Our first glimpse of the "orchestral" nature of the album with the sparse but effective woodwind and string sounds setting the scene. The early melody is taken by the bass guitar as Vitaly's fretless work, set well back in the mix, nicely meanders through these early bars. As we move deeper into the piece the music takes on more of a band orientated sound, with the principal instrumentation used being keyboards, bass and drums - perhaps drawing some early conclusions as to the bands sound. Be wary, as this album came with a cautionary note suggesting that many listenings may be necessary to fully appreciate the music - it does. As Agnostic Eparchy unfolds it becomes more obvious why this warning has been enclosed as the music encompasses more twists and turns in the following few minutes than many might use in an entire album.
Waiting for the Sign of Eternity again sees us continuing in familiar prog territory, a shorter piece this time with anthemic keyboards interspersed with flowing synth lines and punctuated by the tight rhythm section. The themes are compelling and the variation within the music holds the attention throughout conjuring those similar past masters within the progressive field. A much less foreboding track, providing an up-lifting and more immediate appeal to the album. Transformation of Mentality was probably my least favourite track from the album, but it did have much to live up to. The drumming of Valery 'Petro' Vorobjov is fundamental to the album as a whole, but is brought more to the front in this track. If I was to have some criticism in this department it would be that the drums are slightly high in the overall mix and at times to the detriment of some of the other instrumentation. This is not the case here as the drums serve as the main instrument punctuating and embellishing the music.
So to a truly stunning piece from the album, as Yesterday's Tomorrow, drifts gently in with its symphonic textures and classical leanings towards the Great Russian composers (Mussorgsky and Prokofiev) being the most immediate and featuring prominently in this opening theme. However the music that follows defies description (certainly in the few paragraphs allowable here) and you will just have to take my word for that this is a wonderful track. Complex and compelling whilst always retaining its musicality. There are also those moments of subtle humour that offer light relief from the diversity of this ever changing piece. The opening theme is revisited, in many guises and always strengthening the symphonic notion. It is not often that I "rewind" a track before completing my first listening, but on this occasion I felt compelled to do so.
Note perhaps here on the albums production, which has retained a distinctly live feel (now that would be interesting to see) and is not overly cluttered with studio values. Most of the keyboard sounds work really well, the orchestral timbres well suiting the music and in particular the more symphonic arrangements. Dances On Gobelins best captures this as the instrumentation here beautifully depicts the "dancing" as the more traditional sounds flirt with the bass and drums. The delicate guitar and harpsichord sounds from A.L.I.V.E. - Epitaph again work well, offering a good contrast and formed one of the gentler moments from the album. Less impressive were the percussive bass keyboard sounds, I would have much prefered to hear these parts played by Vitaly. Having said this, this may have something to do with retaining an authentic live sound.
Religion of the Dead returns us to the more anthemic structure of track two and again offers some respite from the complexities of Yesterday's Tomorrow. Well initially, as the track soon returns to those more complex arrangements that prevail throughout Dances On Gobelins. In fact it would be easy to continue extolling the virtues of this album, however if you are not suitably curious by now, there is, I feel, little else I can say that might entice you to check out this album further. Perhaps mention of the sixteen page booklet containing seven captivating pieces of artwork from Vladimir Finkilstein and depicting one assumes, the subject matter of the individual tracks, may help. Or finally the finishing touches that come from both Vitaly 'Progressor' Menshikov and Albert 'Al' Khalmurzayev who have added their written, thoughtful and poetic words to each of the pictures and tracks.
I have chosen not to offer any direct comparisons to X Religion's music as it would be as misleading as it would be a guide. The three piece line-up and the instrumentation will certainly steer you into the right areas, but the complexity of music might suggest other, less obvious, exponents. X Religion's music is always challenging and offers very little time dwell on any one passage. This is a totally absorbing and crafted album and as mentioned earlier, bears many hallmarks of a symphonic piece and testament to these three musicians that they have sculpted this atmosphere purely on their own merits. By the nature of their three piece keyboard orientated sound, comparisons to other such similar bands are likely. However X-Religion have a unique sound and tread those areas their predecessors rarely ventured into. Interaction is the key word here. Heartily recommended!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Mizukagami - Mizukagami
Mizukagami are a Japanese outfit, and this is their debut album. They play what is probably best described as a mix of symphonic and neo prog, with a hefty dose of traditional Japanese music thrown in. Whilst this may sound somewhat contrived it isn’t, and makes for an atmospheric, thoroughly enjoyable album.
Influence-wise, the main ones I picked out (on a musical level) were Camel, Kansas (in symphonic rather than hard rock mode) and early Marillion circa Script For A Jester’s Tear – the latter particularly in the keyboard sounds. Female vocalist Tanaami Futabi, meanwhile, puts in a great performance – she has a very listenable voice, and although she sings in her native tongue this is never a problem, and in fact probably adds to the band’s sound. She also peppers many of the tracks with bursts of Andy Latimer-esque flute playing, which again gives the music another dimension.
This album doesn’t appear to have been recorded on a tight budget – the production is good, and the amount of instruments used (including Koto and a range of Japanese percussion) is impressive. Keyboard player (and main songwriter) Junya Anan uses a range of Moogs, Mellotrons, pianos and organs (including Hammond) and you can hear them all – what’s more, this is never an instrumental showcase, with all instruments used fully in service of the songs. Guitarist Yasuo Asakura is a more restrained presence, but is let off the leash occasionally (on the dynamic Haru No Sono for instance) to good effect.
The only criticisms I have of this album are minor ones – some of the time changes could be handled a little more fluidly, and the album perhaps tails off a tad towards the end. These are all things that can rectified with experience though.
Overall, this CD was a pleasant surprise. Given the glut of material Musea releases it would be easy to overlook this album, but that would be a shame, as fans of atmospheric, symphonic prog would find much to enjoy here.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Aviary - Ambition
Following on from the CD re-release of Aviary's eponymous debut album, their sole major label release, a couple of years ago, comes a collection of previously unreleased songs. The bulk of the material stems from sessions for their aborted second album recorded in Los Angeles between 1977 and 1979. However, it was very much a case of a band out of their time. With America starting to latch on to the punk and new wave sounds that had emerged in the UK a few years earlier, there were limited opportunities for a new pomp rock band to break through into the mainstream.
This was unfortunate as Aviary had a lot more to offer than the increasingly bland material being released by AOR giants Styx and Journey and were more adventurous and considerably better musicians than established pomp bands like Angelz and Zon. Despite being recorded over a three-year period, the songs on Ambition do plough a consistent furrow - the band obviously happy with their musical direction and resolutely sticking to their guns. The only exception to this is Eva's Party, the only track stemming from the earliest days of the band having been recorded back in 1975. Despite the band's obvious fondness for this song, if the sleeve notes to the album are anything to go by, Eva's Party is an anomaly as far as the rest of the album is concerned. Think of a mixture of a bad Zappa song mixed with a poor imitation of 10cc at their most arty, to me the result is not that aurally exciting!
This aberration aside, the rest of the album is a fine mixture of well-written and played, ambitiously arranged and quite original sounding music, that fuses elements of progressive music in with a more contemporary rock sound (contemporary for the late 1970s that is!). The first four songs are the latest on the album having been recorded in May 1979 shortly after recording their first album. What seems unbelievably by today's standards, is that the the band carried on writing while in the studio and were sufficiently familiar with the new material to lay down, in just three days, demos of 13 of the recently written songs so soon after completing the first album. From the multilayered vocals of Hello to the wah-wah guitar driven Apathy and the layers of classic keyboard sounds on the very buoyant The Sun, The Sand, one hopes that the remaining nine tracks will find a place on a subsequent release.
Desert Songs / Pharaohs March, I Should Of Known and Fine Lines represent the 1977-era of the band. It is the first of these tracks, the eleven-minute two-song conjunction, that hits all the progressive buttons. The first part, Desert Songs, is a piano-driven piece with a powerful pseudo-operatic chorus with chunky guitars and keyboards resembling the best of Uriah Heep when both Ken Hensley and David Byron were in the band. Pharaohs March is even more grandiose and features a great combination of Mellotron, Hammond organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano.
The remaining three tracks are from the mid period covered by the album, recorded in March 1978 shortly before the band signed with Epic Records. Yes And No, is very Queen-like in its arrangement and features some great backing vocals while You, is a rather untypical love song, but one of the most immediate tracks on the album, although it was considered to be an 'experiment' at the time.
Overall, Ambition is a melodic album full of hooks and very competent song writing. Fans of the era who like a dose of AOR added into their progressive diet won't go far wrong with Aviary.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Fossil - Fossil
Last year we reviewed several of the varied releases from Japan and notably those from the increasingly influential Poseidon Label. Following on from Mark's review of the excellent Adachi Kyodai album, we continue with Hikaru Sekine's Fossil. On the surface perhaps two similar releases as they are both predominantly guitar albums. However, unlike the Kyodai brothers, Sekine offers less of the frenetic dexterity that prevades Adachi Kyodai's album, but looks more to the subtle nuances of the instrument.
Fossil is made up from fourteen fairly brief instrumental tracks and although almost entirely written from the guitar, they do show the many possible sides of the instrument. The opening track is a gently undulating piece, very reminiscent of those dreamy acoustic passages by Steve Hackett from the early Genesis albums. Similar in a number of respects, but most striking is the timelessness and the longing for the section to continue much longer than it actually did - such is the case here. 8*7=56 [Recitative] and Noble Fish Jumping continue much in a similar fashion.
This lulling, floating texture is maintained into the slightly longer Crescent, where the addition of a flute along with the layered guitar parts, combine together to create the scene of a hazy summer day in the countryside. Much detail has gone into the guitar effects, thus allowing all of the parts to mesh together, even those that give the underlying chordal structure a slight dissonance. After the very brief rising harmonies of Notice [Outspoken], think a subdued Brian May, we return to the gentler acoustic strains of the River Bank Cyclist, pleasant enough, but became a journey too long and repetitive for this pedestrian. Tea Ceremony has Sekine return to the electric guitar for some delayed atmospherics.
Armchair Fisherman, The Ascetic, Water Witch and Wavering Life, Weavering Lines see us back with the picked acoustic guitar, accompanied by gentle, lilting guitar melodies. Autumn Rain also follows along a similar path, although the acoustic guitars make way for the delayed and effected electric version. Sadly in these latter stages of the album, neither A Current Vein or Lower Reaches provided anything really new, nor did they appeal to me greatly.
This is a gentle and somewhat somnolent album, nicely cultivating the imagination and taking you to those places you would most like to be. There are no great highs or lows to be found here, merely a pleasant collection of guitar orientated music. Compositionally some of the pieces work very well, however as for its appeal among the progressive fraternity as a whole, I see little, if any, mass attraction. I have to admit that I had mixed feelings towards this album - more perhaps to do with my frame of mind at the time of each listening, which ranged from mild frustration and tedium, whilst in other perhaps less stressful moments, it provided a subtle distraction and a joy to listen to.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10