Reviews in this issue:
Rick Wakeman & The New English Rock Ensemble – Out There
At last - keyboard wizard Rick Wakeman has finally shed enough musical skins to return to the genre he excels in: Progressive Rock. The last couple of years saw numerous compilation and live releases and this was getting a bit boring. Who needs Catherine Howard for the 98th time anyway? The first step in the good direction was the return to the center of the Prog earth with Wakeman rejoining Yes again. A fabulous tour in the USA with Yes last year and this year in Europe showcased the still fantastic keyboard skills and talent of Wakeman. And now, with the second release of the reanimated (New) English Rock Ensemble the mark is made.
With Damian Wilson on lead vocals ‘young’ blood is brought in and this was a very wise move. Out There sounds exciting and inspired, which can be credited to the albums’ great production, handled by the wizard himself. One thing that really struck me was the fact that the total sound is very tight and powerful, almost Metal-like. In the past there were albums (Wakeman and Wakeman’s No Expense Spared for instance) that had good songs but because of a thin sound, the right feeling just wasn’t there. It is as if Damian Wilson single-handedly brought in the extra dose of power. From the flashy opening track Out There to the closing The Cathedral Of The Sky this album takes you on a great ride. And, what also is remarkable, Rick Wakeman himself isn’t the focal point all of the time. Of course he twiddles and fiddles away like he always does in his own unique trademark style, but I hear a true group sound. Even the ‘old’ band members like drummer Tony Fernandez and guitarist Ant Glynne seem to have had a little kick in their collective asses. I think that fans of Threshold and Ayreon will certainly appreciate this album in their collection.
It is too bad that for the tour Damian Wilson jumped ship because he didn’t want to tour as intensive as the schedule pointed out (45 shows in a row!). He was replaced by Ashley Holt, a long time musical friend of Wakeman but although he bravely took on the job couldn’t quite cut the songs sung by Wilson.
Also big point of credit is the albums’ artwork. Painted by Wakeman’s girlfriend Alicia Bencini, a painter from Italy and I think it complements the music very well. The album can be ordered at the better recordstores and through Rick Wakeman’s website at: www.rwcc.com.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Seven 13 - Unleashed
One of my favourite newly discovered bands from last year was American six piece Seven 13. The band hails from Massachusetts where it started forming in 1997 around keyboard player Amanda Adams. Apart from Adams, it currently consists of Bryan Bales (drums, percussion), Justin Ballard (guitars, vocals), Kenneth Michael (lead vocals) and Brian Verrochi (bass, vocals) as well as the somewhat unusual addition of dancer and choreographer Lauren Doucette (yes, the lady is listed as an actual band member).
The music is situated on the borders between progressive rock and melodic hard rock with quite a bit hard edge - both Iron Maiden and Savatage come to mind at times. It mostly centres around brilliant piano cascades of an often classical nature, and I believe the music would not be half as good if not for Adams seriously skilled fingers. Then again, it is those fingers combined with the explosive power of Ballard's guitars and the heavy rhythm section of Bales and Verrochi as well as Michael's both raw and gentle vocals which creates the absolutely marvelous sound of Seven 13. And for anyone who would doubt the role of Doucette, the video to the great opening track Drink!, which the band was kind enough to send along, shows that this is a live act to catch if possible. At least if you are into the theatrical side of rock music and, like myself, think that going to a rock concert should entail an audio-visual experience.
If I have to list favourite tracks, I will end up with at least half the album - for who could not like the already mentioned, heavily rhythmical Drink! with its superb guitar solo, or the heavy, powerful and somewhat symphonic Haunted. Then there are the soft, gentle tracks Outcasts and You Could Be Mine, the first one showing the band's superb capability for harmonies and the latter not only allowing Adams to show off splendidly but also sporting a great cello performance by Jacob Shapiro. And let us not forget the definitive single track on this album (at least to my mind), the faster rock track Dianne.
So to conclude, if you are into melodic rock and do not mind it when the going gets heavy, if you enjoy great piano playing, here is some skilled musicianship and some great song writing available and there is no good excuse not to check it out. I know I will be keeping my eyes open for this band in the future.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Karda Estra - Constellations
Karda Estra is essentially composer and multi-instrumentalist Richard Wileman. Both under his own name and under the ‘Karda Estra’ banner, he has produced a number of albums (including several soundtracks), although its probable that the first many prog fans heard of him, was the 2001 release Eve, a concept album based on a gothic horror story. This received a generally good reception, and now comes Constellations, another concept based this time (unsurprisingly given the title) on the stars and (to quote) their ‘mythological and astronomical origins’.
The music contained within is generally very atmospheric – there is a haunting, evocative feel to much of it, which I feel makes this album much more than superior chill-out music. I’d call it a little new age-ish, but that would be to damn it with faint praise; rather it’s a thoughtful, laid back symphonic prog album – I wouldn’t necessarily use the term ‘prog rock’, as this album has more to do with classical music than rock in many respects. Wileman does however acknowledge the influence on his work from Steve Hackett (not least by covering Hackett’s Twice Around The Sun’), and indeed some of this work is a little reminiscent of Hackett’s instrumental work in the seventies, both with Genesis and solo.
Wileman himself handles ‘conventional’ instrumentation (guitars, bass, keys and percussion) whilst an ensemble play a variety of classical instruments (violin, viola, cello, oboe, cor anglais and brass). These really add interest and body to the songs, and full marks go to Wileman for actually using the real thing rather than a synthesised version. Ileesha Bailey provides some wonderful, angelic vocals; these are used more as another instrument than anything else (there are no lyrics in the conventional sense; her contribution is more akin to choral chanting) and are particularly effective on the tracks The Southern Cross and Phoenix.
Overall, a very fine album – you do have to be in the right mood to listen to it, but its perfect – perhaps suitably – for listening to late on a summer’s night, staring out at the stars …
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Transience - Primordial
MP3 Section: Two Stations Down (5:36), See It Now (5:38), Aqaudream (30:23), Hang It Upside Down (5:30), LA Post - Live (3:52), A Stones Throw From Nowhere (18:54)
Transience is, ostensibly, the solo project of Fred Hunter – the keyboard player of American proggers Landsend. However, all the members of Landsend appeared on the first Transcience album Sliding and here the distinction between the two projects is even less clear. To all intents and purposes, this is a Landsend album, except, crucially, for the fact that it was assembled over a long period of time, using computer technology, rather than being recorded in a studio, with everyone performing together as a band. As a result of this, the end product has a less organic, flowing feel and is not quite as compelling as the albums of the band proper. Having said that, all fans of the band should enjoy this, but if you’re new to the group, I’d recommend starting with Pacific Coast Highway, Terra Serranum or Natural Selection.
Before getting to the main disc, I’d like to say that I feel like I made an error with this disc by starting with the bonus MP3 material. Whilst this is undoubtedly a generous gesture, including a further 70+ minutes of music as computer files, most of the demos are clearly inferior to the polished material, and on the 30 minute Aquadream the “New-Agey” material is stretched so thin in places that the end result is a little dull. I don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I’d definitely recommend leaving the bonus stuff to last.
Thankfully, the main album is much better, but I’d been put off a bit by the lacklustre demos, and it took a few listens for me to appreciate the subtle delights on offer. For those that don’t know, Landsend and Transcience peddle a classy brand of neo-ish progressive rock, with nods to classic Genesis/Steve Hackett and Marillion, but with some modern touches. Favouring long compositions, with leisurely development of melodic themes, mostly delivered at a sedate pace and making for a relaxing listen, ideally suited for the pleasant melancholia of a rainy day.
The album starts with its longest track, which opens with jungle noises and rising keyboards, but which quickly gives way to a fairly strident up-tempo guitar solo. After a couple of minutes there is a brassy synth fanfare, which bears all the hallmarks of the patent Landsend sound. The song then settles into the familiar pattern of downbeat, mellow and languid melodies, topped with melancholic vocals that have an appealing air of vulnerability, and which perfectly suit the material. Long instrumental passages intersperse the verses, with some very pleasing piano and nicely varied guitar parts. All the tracks segue into each other and it’s not always easy to spot where one song ends and the next one begins.
Mind is a largely vocal piece, with a subdued backing, which flows smoothly into Riding The Iron Rooster. This is the most immediate track on the album, with its upbeat synth fanfare and jaunty keyboard melody, which leads to the actual song, consisting of strummed acoustic guitars and fragile vocals, with an attractive chorus and a pleasant sax and percussion interlude, making for a well constructed 9 minute highlight.
A Stones Throw From Nowhere (which can be found in it’s original form - at double the length - as an MP3) is another good track with a dreamy vibe, echoey vocals and sonorous bass. There is a haunting synth melody and an effects laden electric guitar solo that gets pretty intense towards the end. Birdsong and acoustic guitars herald the transition to Hollow Gardens, which, at 3 minutes is the shortest track on the disc. It is a short but sweet instrumental, with some delicate and pretty piano from Fred Hunter.
How Lucky They Are features some trumpet like keyboards playing a plaintive melody and an unobtrusive bass, which is nonetheless inventive and satisfying. Jeff McFarland is in fine voice here, and there are some attractive high-pitched backing vocals on the chorus. This song has a nice commercial quality and is one of my favourites.
Blurring The Margins has a low-key vocal, which reminds me of David Sylvian in places. Indeed, there is a slightly Japan ish ambience running through the track.
For Will Alone opens with tranquil piano and samples of a newborn baby gurgling, but is essentially the vehicle for another of those melodic synth solos which Hunter excels at, and which go a long way to establish the character of the group.
The closing section, Blurred Beyond Recognition has some atmospheric pounding drumbeats over exotic percussion, leading to the entrance of the synthesiser melody and plaintive vocals. This is the second longest track and, though it meanders slowly to its low key, but dignified conclusion, it ends a pretty consistent album on a reasonably high note.
Of the bonus material, See It Now and Two Stations Down are well worth your attention, whilst the rest are interesting in a “work in progress” sort of way, but are really only for completists.
Landsend - and by extension - Transcience occupy a unique niche in American prog, having an indefinable Englishness to their nevertheless identifiable and distinctive sound. This CD represents a solid addition to their growing catalogue, without adding anything particularly new.
As a closing note, I would like to add that, as is often the case with Landsend, this music gives up its treasures slowly, and continues to improve with each successive listen. Even the previously criticised Aquadream has begun to reveal its hidden charms, but it is still a touch overlong.
There is apparently a new Landsend CD in the works, which will feature what was to have been the title track of this disc, but which outgrew its place here. I await its release with interest.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Two - Estranged
The Two is an American duo from Maryland consisting of Jen One (lead and backing vocals, electronic drums on Clown verses) and Ben One (keyboards, e-drum programming, lead vocal on final verse Sister Faith). Their music is quite obviously keyboard based and often leaning towards a minimalistic approach. There are some medieval elements which remind me of Blackmoore's Night and the way the clearer (quite excellent) piano bits mix with the vocals often reminds me of Tori Amos.
This said, The Two is not merely soft and melodic, but also makes use of chaotic elements which due to their electronic sound can be traced to bands like Nine Inch Nails. Now, I personally would consider a lot of NIN's oeuvre to be excellent progressive rock in the King Crimson tradition of orchestrated noise (e.g. see my review of The Fragile), but I also know that it is not for everybody. Jen's vocals shift from esoterically sweet (sometimes reminiscent of Dolores O'Riordan from The Cranberries and sometimes more of Tori Amos) to harsher, coarser and even screaming (at times sounding a lot like Trent Reznor, the man who is NIN).
At its best moments (and there are quite a few of those), this album serves up music that is an interesting mixture of melody and cacaphony, movement and progression, which constantly keeps you on your toes listening to what is about to happen next. Pieces like the dark brooding Another Time, the very nice Masterpiece with its soaring keys and Man of Letters with its perfect Tori Amos-like approach, all deserve to be mentioned. And then there are tracks like the superbly weird The Clown Song and the title track Estranged with its noisy interlude. At their worst moments, the clearest example of which would be A Whole Lot of Nothing, The Two gets a bit dull and manage to make a 5 minute track feel too long. But these moments are definitely fewer than the good ones.
For future reference, it would be interesting to hear more of Ben's vocals. I think that he does an excellent job on the final verse of Sister Faith and there is an obvious potential for great duets in this band. It would be a shame to let that potential go to waste.
To conclude, it is a somewhat short debut album by today's standards (only 35 minutes) and could almost be said to be an EP or mini-CD according to some people's ideas. This, however, is no stain on the material in itself which is well written and nicely performed, although I would like to stress once more that it might not be everybody's cup of tea. Hence, you might want to check the samples at The Two's website. The mixture of melody and noise works well and I do believe this band has potential. So, there will be at least one person out here curious to see what these two people come up with next.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10