Reviews in this issue:
Steve Hackett - Live Archive NEARfest
CD1: The Floating Seventh (1:44), Mechanical Bride (6:33), Medley (5:11), Serpentine Song (6:54), Watcher Of the Skies (5:18), Hairless Heart (2:57), Firth Of Fifth (3:23), Riding The Colossus (4:25), Pollution (2:24), The Steppes (6:16), Gnossienne #1 (3:39), Walking Away From Rainbows (3:52), In Memoriam (7:19), The Wall Of Knives (0:48), Vampyre With A Healthy Appetite (5:33)
CD2: Spectral Mornings (7:28), Lucridus (0:54), Darktown (5:12), Camino Royale (8:30), Every Day (7:09), Horizons (2:01), Los Endos (6:08)
I must admit to have been surprised to receive the package of this latest live release from Steve Hackett, especially when one considers that it was only a few months ago that the double album/DVD Somewhere In South America was released. In fact the track listing on both recordings, save for a couple of tracks is almost identical. Much has been said on most Steve Hackett chat rooms about this performance which took place at Patriots Theater, Trenton, New Jersey on 30th June 2002 as a festival-closing performance for that year's NEARfest and listening to it, it really comes across as a much more polished and possibly tighter performance than that which was recorded for Somewhere In South America.
Furthermore, one should also mention that the release of this album also coincides with the launch of NEARfest Records who are co-releasing this album together with Hackett's own label, Camino Records. In a way this probably goes to explain the release of this album! Something though, which is inexplicably missing from this album is the talking that Hackett does between the various songs, something which I felt was missing from "Somewhere" because of the non-English speaking audience. I know for fact that many who attended the NEARfest concert that there was a lot of banter between crowd and Hackett, especially in his dedication of In Memoriam to the late John Entwistle.
The lineup for this live recording consists of (apart from Steve Hackett on guitars and vocals) Roger King (keyboards), Rob Townsend (sax and flute), Terry Gregory (bass and vocals) and Gary O' Toole (drums and vocals) and the tight nature of their performance is impressive. The album is definitely one step ahead of Somewhere In South America when it comes to clarity and if I had to choose between one of the two I would opt for this latter album. On the other hand, the benefit of Somewhere In South America is that one can opt for the DVD release and enjoy the visual as well as the aural experience of a Steve Hackett concert.
Commenting on the musical nature of the album would be tantamount to me repeating what I had said for Somewhere In South America. However, if one already has a copy of said album I would find it very hard why that individual would resort to buying this Live Archive album unless a collector of all material that has Steve Hackett playing on it. On its own the album is a great live recording and that is what my final verdict is based on. It would fit perfectly alongside the Live Archive box-set released last year and is a must for those who want to hear what the latest line-up of Steve Hackett's band sounds when plugged in, before they hit the road for a number of concerts around Europe (and Japan) this year.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Queensrÿche - Tribe
I don't know what it is with all new releases this year, but upon the first listening I normally am quite disappointed, only to discover all of the hidden beauty in an album when I play it over and over again. It happened with Arena, Spock's Beard and now Queensrÿche. Of course I was prejudiced with the fact that I really disliked the Hear in the Now Frontier album which followed my personal favourite Promised Land. Q2K, which followed was slightly better but still a rather forgettable attempt, with the possible exception of Right Side of My Mind. The live album Live Evolution was nice, but not quite the ultimate Queensrÿche live album either. And now there was Tribe ....
Last year lead singer Geoff Tate released his imaganitively titled first solo album Geoff Tate, very different from the Queesrÿche style but nevertheless my favourite album of 2002. In interviews Tate would describe the Queensryche as a very disfunctional band hardly communicating at all. He also mentioned that some of the people who helped him write his solo album were also involved in writing the new Queensrÿche release. Later, bass player Eddie Jackson remarked that he was rather displeased with the new material sounding too much like a Tate solo album. Having heard the album, I do admit that some songs remind me of Tate's solo album, especially the more mellow and melodic tracks like Falling Behind and Losing Myself. I cannot, however, spot any of Tate's solo band members in the writing credits.
At a certain point in time ex-guitarist Chris DeGarmo, responsible for (co-)writing some of the Queensrÿche classics, joined the writing and recording process. Eventually he ended up co-writing on half of the songs (Open, Desert Dance, Falling Behind, The Art of Life, Doin' Fine). Although not officially back in the band, De Garmo can be heard on Tribe as a session musician. Kelly Gray, the guitarist who replaced DeGarma when he left the band after Hear in the Now Frontier is absent from the current line-up. Since his added value to the band has been a subject of discussion amongst Queensrÿche fans for a long time I doubt if anybody will shed a tear. So regardless of exactly how disfunctional the band has been and how many people were ever in the same studio at the same time, we've got the classic line-up and all band members involved in writing the album.
Those of you who like the spoken, almost rap-like, style in some of Queensryche's songs (e.g. Electric Requiem, Right Side of My Mind, Disconnected, NM 156) will be delighted to hear that there are two such songs on this album, Tribe and The Art of Life, and they are among the best material of the CD, oozing frustration and hidden anger.
Other songs like Great Divide, Rhythm of Hope and the semi-ballad Doing Fine are not to far removed from some of the more accessible material on Empire and Promised Land. If this would give you the impression that Tribe is an easy-listening album you're very very wrong though. Tracks like Open, Desert Dance and the un-Queensrÿche-ish Blood are full of catchy and greasy riffs, drummer Scott Rockenfield doing some of his best drumming to date. This might well be the strength of Tribe; there's a lot more melody than in the band's previous two albums but there's also much more variety in style than on any other Queensryche album; the album moves from bittersweet to kick-ass in your face.
The subject matter of Tribe is, as many of Tate's other lyrics, a very critical look of society, politics and the role of the media. The running thread of the album is the tribal concept of the world. In an interview Tate said: "I'm kinda worried about the country right now. I see us turning into a nation of sheep that’s being led down this path by the media. Television… We’re so culturally locked into watching this box, we’ve no idea that it’s telling us what to do, how to think, what to buy, what to wear, who to love and who to hate. Everything about our lives is subject to manipulation, and the most powerful tool being used is fear." So, as on Empire, there's a lot of frontal attacks on the state of the US, but this time the mood is much darker, at times almost as dark as the introspective Promised Land. Also, the tribal theme works quite well with some of Rockenfield's amazing ethnic rhythms and some of the 'primitive' guitar and bass riffs.
Tribe isn't a new Operation Mindcrime or Promised Land. Tribe isn't a commercially thought-out Empire either. Nevertheless I do rate Tribe as good as Empire. It's completely different in style and mood, but as with Empire it displays the band falling short of the mentioned two masterpieces but still playing highly enjoyable music. To put things into perspective, I consider Promised Land one of my 'deserted island CDs' and would rate it with a 9.5. Mindcrime would certainly deserve a 9, and I would still recommend both Empire and Tribe to any prog rock fan, so they both deserve an 8. So there ! Give it a try, the band deserves it.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Difícil Equilibrio - Simetricanarquia
One of the most satisfying things about exploring music is when you come across a new band that really hits the spot. Even better is when such a band turns out to be on their fourth album, meaning that there are three earlier releases to be hunted down. Dificil Equilibrio from Barcelona are such a band for me, though I now notice that their earlier release Trayecto was reviewed right here. Somehow it escaped my notice until now.
The core band consists of Alberto Diaz on guitar, Joan Francisco on bass and Luis Rodriguez on drums and percussion. Various guests help out throughout. The standard of musicianship is very high all round, but Diaz is undoubtedly the star of the show, continually surprising with his invention and dexterity. He is a highly textural player, completely in control of his instrument.
One of their previous releases consisted solely of King Crimson covers, and the first track here undoubtedly bears the stamp of that group, broadly fitting into the styles to be found on Red and Discipline. It is a good strong instrumental opener, but when the group leaves the overt Crimson influence behind, as they do on most of the remainder of this disc, they really come into their own, displaying a wealth of invention and instrumental virtuosity.
El Angel Exterminador is a prime example, layering mournful cello over chiming, rhythmic electric guitar for the impressive opening section, before mutating into an entirely different beast with the introduction of muted, melancholic trumpet provided by guest Robert Cervera. The concluding section has a persuasive guitar solo over dazzling drum work.
Penumbra opens with buzzing cellos, and develops into a dissonant, avant-garde sonic doodle, which serves as a near perfect prelude to the corrosive, explosive cover of Dynamite from Gong’s Camembert Electrique. The saxophone of Josep Sola helps keep the feel of the original, but superb guitar playing and a high-energy approach gives this version a very modern sound, and makes for a fantastic track. It’s a long time since I heard the original version, but this spirited romp is easily as good, if not better. There is no let up on Al Destino Devenir which positively sizzles and smokes with tortuous, repetitive guitar riffs, and which sees us back in Crimson territory towards the end. A complete change of mood for the short but very sweet Ruptura, which has languid jangling guitar and a sultry saxophone solo from Sola, which is very different to his playing on the Gong cover. Jaqueline is a delightful summer breeze of a track, with a Mediterranean atmosphere and guitar played with the lightest of touches, before segueing into the percussion lead Zakarit Mena Al Mahgreb, complete with joyous vocal whoops.
Trayecto V continues the ethnic vibe, adding guitar and wailing female vocals, for a groovy workout, again featuring propulsive percussion. Bypass is a moody rumbling ramble, with a gradually building air of menace provided by expertly handled drums and nerve-jangling guitar.
This is superbly contrasted by the sprightly opening to Simetricanarquia which begins from a minimalist repetitive guitar figure but which develops into an engrossing instrumental, full of subtle flourishes. There is a short silent interlude before looping sound effects introduce the final section, which consists of plangent guitar and spoken Spanish vocals, creating an intriguing finish to a spectacularly inventive album.
This is not a disc that will appeal to the Prog-Metal or Neo hardcore, but will surely find a large audience amongst the more adventurous listeners. This could be one of the year’s best for me.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Blue Drift - Cobalt Coast
*Updated 16th January 2012 with website details.
Very little information arrived with this release from Blue Drift and after much searching, I find there is no website in order to glean any additional insights as to this band (however I am assured that one is on the way). Therefore the music will have to speak for them, which fortunately it does very well. What I can tell you about the men behind Blue Drift is that they are based in the UK, have played together in one form or another for many years now and comprise of John Lodder (bass), Dave Lodder (guitar and keyboards) and Arch (drums). If the latter two names have registered with you in some way, then you may be aware of their involvements with The Morrigan.
Musically the band offer accessible prog rock instrumentals that at times veer towards jazz rock, but always retain a melodic base and a strong sense of structure. Personally I am a keen fan of instrumental albums, but am always wary that they can so easily lose the listener if the music becomes merely an avenue for the individual musicians to display their abilities. Such is not the case here, as all three players interact well together and although solos are taken by all, the music always remains listenable.
The album opens in fine style, with the up-tempo Slingshot Round the Moon, with pretty much all the right ingredients in abundance. The playing immediately grabs your attention, with the drums freely flowing over structured backing riffs. The uplifting themes are played in harmony between the guitar and keys, with frequent breaks for brief, solo sections to be taken. Interesting touch was the analogue synth sounds which added credence to the notion that this track was reminiscent of some of Camels earlier instrumental material. In contrast the following track Cobalt Coast has somewhat darker overtones and following from the 'whistling' synth introduction the subdued tempo serves as an excellent backdrop to the fluid and seemingly effortless solo passages from Dave Lodder.
The Eighth Room moves more into the realms of jazz rock, with its varied, up-tempo rhythms acting as a catalyst for the free flowing instrumentation. Again the background structure remains melodic and interesting, which acts as one of the pluses for the album. Longer solo sections are allowed when entering The Eighth Room. Some of the Latinesque nuances and percussion passages (played by all) did conjure some thoughts of Al Di Meola's early work. Freak Weather, on the other hand, was a track that required more listenings, as initially I thought the track to be overlong and possibly a little uninspired. However, the more I listened the more was revealed within the music. The opening up beat flurry soon dissolves into the calmer mid atmospheric sections, which in turn rises and falls with its subtle changes and infectious time signatures. It is in fact Arch's drumming that comes to the forefront during many of the segments of this track. Actually on about the third or fourth run through, it dawned on me that the music aptly captured the changing facets of the "freak weather" in the title. That's the problem with me and subtlety, if it does have a big sign saying "subtle", I tend to miss it.
The two shortest pieces from the album offer an interesting divergence and possible the more quirkier moments from Cobalt Coast. The first Cape Canaveral has a simple but infectious "punk" like riff serving as the backdrop for the instrumental sections. The "p" reference is more to do with the nature of the chord structure, as this track again offers some tasteful and fluid guitar from Dave. The title of the next track, The Battle of Morton Ridge offers some insight into the music, with anthemic keyboards offering a sharp contrast to the perhaps "tongue in cheek" marching rhythm and which is once again released by the sweeping guitar flourishes.
The second of the two longer pieces from the album opens with an ever driving and increasingly intensifying riff, segueing into firstly a randomly generated synth section and before descending into a gentle atmospheric middle section. A drone bass synth haunts the sound, accompanied by ethereal keyboards and sporadic guitar licks. Rising from this interlude is the repeated opening riff, this time in a more protracted form and with an Eastern flavour, peppered with swelling keyboard chords and subdued solos. The end section was a little too repetitive for my liking and always felt that it should reach a crescendo rather than fade out. So to final offering from the album Drift Glass and again the band use a repetitive motif, this time played on a twelve string guitar, but to much greater effect. First listening through I was not wholly convinced, but this probably was more influenced by the previous track. Drift Glass builds on this simple, repeated acoustic guitar part, (which remains throughout), as each of the layers of instrumentation are added and this time is superb. Dave Lodder's fluent guitar style here is reminiscent of Joe Satriani in his more laid back moments. The fade to the acoustic instrument works really well this time round, forming a pleasant outro to the album.
An enjoyable album and for those music fans into melodic prog instrumentals, this is one to give some serious thought to purchasing. At the time of writing this article Colbalt Coast is only available directly from the band (John Lodder, 103 Moot Lane, Dowton, Salisbury, SP5 3LE, UK ), although there are plans in the not too distant future for the album to be available from The Morrigan's website.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Kinzokuebisu - Hakootoko
Kinzokuebisu are a Japanese four-piece comprising Kenta Asanuma on drums, Makiko Kusunoki on keyboards and vocals, Takehiro Kojima on bass and Daichi Takagi on guitars, vocals and additional keyboards. And that is about all I can ascertain about the band. No additional information accompanied the CD, most mentions on internet sites are written in Japanese and the only information on the Vital Records website seemed to suggest that the band split up at the end of last year! (although that may just be a bad translation problem.)
Touted as a Genesis-style theatrical prog rock band, the inclusion of two mellotron players does guarantee that, overall, there is a very classic, 1970s feel to the album. But that is not to say that Hakootoko is simply a rehash of the best (and worst) of what has gone before. Kyouki-eno-bolero and Jujitsu-suru-koushin explore more avent garde or rhythmic areas, respectively. I would hazard a guess from the reprising of tracks, the supplementary use of sound effects and the fact that the album is split into two parts (composed of Tracks 1 to 8 and 9 to 14), that this is some sort of concept album. However, as all the vocals are in Japanese, I have no idea on the subject matter!
Dominated by keyboards, and particularly mellotron, there are obvious similarities to bands such as Anekdoten, particularly on the Karabako pieces, although Kinzokuebisu have a less oppressively dark sound and the mellotron is often used as an effective backing instrument such as in the rousing closing number Hitan-no-hono where it provides the 'voice' of the choir. The band also use a quiet unusual sounding electric piano on Hakoniwa-no-hitsujitachi, which also includes one of the few guitar solos on the album.
Overall, Hakootoko is an interesting album in that it presents a Japanese perspective on classic progressive rock. Despite the (minimal) vocals being in Japanese, this does not detract from the album which certainly has enough originality about it to guarantee repeated playing.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10