Reviews in this issue:
Al Bird - Sodom & Gomorra XXI
Sodom & Gomorra XXI is the first solo album by Albert 'Al Bird' Khalmurzayev, the guitarist and keyboard player in Uzbekistan's X Religion. With an eclectic career, including seven years in Rare Bird (who were, I'm reliably informed, one of the best progressive bands in Uzbekistan), an actor in the National Youth Theatre, a solo performer and a television editor, Khalmurzayev has a wealth of experience both as a musician and producer. He is also a very competent musician, being a true multi-instrumentalist imbued with the traditions of both rock and classical music.
Originally conceived as a performance piece for The Youth Theatre Of Uzbekistan, the album over-flows with drama and texture, with flowing keyboard passages interspersed with harsher, almost industrial, passages. Instrumental throughout, with the exception of some background vocalisations and whispers, the music drives along the performance, a dramatacisation of the Old Testament story of Sodom and Gomorra when God was still in his wrathful stage admonishing death and destruction to all that displeased him. Basically, Sodom and Gomorra, twin cities thought to have been located on the Northern shore of the Dead Sea, were dens of inequity and centres of pre-historical hedonism. Not at all happy with this, God decided to wipe the slate clean and destroy the cities and all the inhabitants, sparing only the family of faithful servant Lot. Of course, the twist in the tale comes when Lot's wife ignores the instructions of the so-called creator and takes one last glance at the city's depravity and is promptly turned into a pillar of salt. Ho Hum.
As a performance piece it was conceived to be played as a whole and as such, the CD is pressed as one-long track. This is no bad thing as it forces the listener to appreciate the clever construction and arrangement as the piece develops. Besides, given the diverse nature of the album, it would be somewhat pointless to take the individual pieces out of context of the whole, this album was designed to flow and take the listener on a musical journey.
And what a trip it is! Comparisons with other bands are not at all valid as this is a fairly unique piece of work. Of course there are sections that bear resemblance to other bands, the final part of Black Feast (Lot 1 - The Wife 1 - Angels) is initially quite Floyd-ian, with a Gilmour-esque guitar underpinned with chordal keyboards, but develops into a rather lovely melody all of its own. Black Feast 1 features a lovely church organ sound and an arrangement that is reminiscent of The Enid and The Orgy is rather more manic, with some great guitar work which continues in the frantic grunge-like riffing of The Folly of The Mob, which Nirvana would have been proud to have come up with.
With a plethora of background effects, vocalizations, screams (well this is the Old Testament!) and a good use of the pallet of sounds that can be obtained from modern keyboards (the choir effects are particularly good) there is plenty going in throughout the piece and each listen reveals something new. Laden with great melodies, the work is very accomplished, not the least because it manages to take so many diverse styles and successfully amalgamate them together. There is no fear of ever getting tired as the individual subsections are too short and there is always something new, and often unexpected, a few bars further along.
Considering Sodom & Gomorra XXI is largely the work of one man (the only other musicians are Khalmurzayev's X Religion band mates Vitaly Menshikov and Valery Vorobiov who play on Black Feast) it is a remarkable achievement and well worth an hour of anyone's time. Al Bird has managed to produce not only an original piece but one that is exciting and enjoyable, not something that happens all that often these days. Even if you don't like the music (and I'm sure you will!) you can always try and identify the various samples used in the Procession of Dead Stars!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Magellan - Hundred Year Flood
The last Magellan release was Test of Wills back in 1997, but mainman Trent Gardner has hardly been idle since; he’s been heavily involved in the all-star Explorer’s Club albums, and was the mastermind behind the acclaimed Leonardo: The Absolute Man project, in addition to contributing to a number of tribute albums on Magna Carta.
This new effort under the Magellan name is very much a family affair; this is not only due to Trent’s brother Wayne playing bass and guitars, but also the fact that the opening, epic track The Great Goodnight is about the death of his elder brother Jack in Vietnam, and Trent and his families memories of this event and their attempts to come to terms with their grief.
Personnel-wise, the core of Magellan is completed by drummer Joe Franco, although there are also some high-profile guests, not least bassist extraordinaire Tony Levin and Jethro Tull leader Ian Anderson. Trent Gardner himself handles vocals, keyboards and, er, trombone.
The Great Goodnight is, as I’ve said, epic in scope, and is a very strong piece of work indeed. A wonderful acapella intro leads to a short piano-led section which segues into the main melody, before we get some fine, distorted Hammond runs leading into a Dream Theater-esque guitar/ keyboard duel. This is just the first part of a track which then goes through several musical peaks and troughs for the next 30-odd minutes, yet retains a sense of continuity and sounds like a whole rather than many disparate pieces. Despite the many musical changes (including, yes, a section where that trombone gets its moment of glory), thanks primarily to the unifying subject matter and the use of several recurring vocal and musical hooks. I’ve heard many criticisms of Gardner’s voice but I feel that, although not particularly strong, it fits the material well, and the fact that the lyrics obviously mean a lot to him comes though very clearly. There’s also some fine vocal harmonies which really lift the material to another level. It could be said that the latter part of the song seems to go on for ever, with lots of false endings and outro-style soloing, but the quality of musicianship and sheer number of musical ideas keep things interesting.
Sadly however, the band can’t keep up the quality on the album’s other two tracks, which are a let-down in comparison. Family Jewels, featuring Ian Anderson’s distinctive flute playing, is a pleasant enough but completely forgettable instrumental piece, with Gardner apparently aimlessly hitting his keyboard at some points, whilst Brother’s Keeper (confusingly nothing to do with the opening track) is awful, sounding for the most part like an 80’s pop-funk track gone wrong, and completely wasting the awesome talents of Tony Levin in the process. Its not over quickly either, which compounds the problems. Not a good way to end the album.
Overall then this is a difficult one to rate – normally it would get a recommended tag, but unfortunately the dire last track drags it down – better to have left it off altogether I think. However, its just about worth the price for the superb The Great Goodnight, and therefore I’d (cautiously) recommend this album to all fans of melodic but hard edged modern progressive rock.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Vow - Trojan
Two years ago, the German duo The Vow hit the neoprog scene with their debut album Another World (as a footnote it could be mentioned that I mistakenly, due to misinformation from the record label, claimed that the band was Belgian in my review of that album ). Last year, Holger Goetz (vocals and keyboards) and Ralf Link (guitars, bass and synth) returned with the concept album Trojan. The story is based on a computer game and is also narrated in such a manner. Rather than using a third person main character or even a first person, The Vow opts for a "You" which is an interesting perspective (which Arjen Lucassen has used at times, and the narrated bits are often very reminiscent of those on the Ayreon albums). The English, unfortunately, at times leaves a lot to be wished for, and it is sad when language errors interfere with an interesting piece of storytelling.
The music is still within the neoprogressive vein. Goetz both sounds and uses his voice a lot like Gary Chandler of Jadis which is not much of a change from the last album. On that album, however, he managed to add something to it that I feel Chandler mostly does not. Here he is closer to the man himself, and it does lack a bit of emotion in the long run. Personally, I prefer Goetz vocals when the go into rockier mode - even sounding at some point like Les Dougan of Aragon - and I think it is a shame that he does not use his voice in this fashion much more.
As for the music itself - opening as it is with Gilmour-esque guitars - it is still mainly in the vein of bands like Genesis, Jadis and IQ, sporting some heavier Arena-like and calmer Pendragon-like moments, as well as retaining the pop sensibilities which the first album made use of. Unfortunately most of the darker elements used on the first album seem lost on this one. This is a shame since it distinguished The Vow from many other neoprog bands.
Another problem on this CD is the ongoing music á la concept albums. Many songs would have worked much better if they had been cut down in size. For instance, my favourite track on the CD, In the Maze, consists of two parts (a) Gems in the Night and b) The Magic Melody) which would have been all the better if turned into two seperate songs. One of the strengths of the first album was the good mixture of short and long songs, which under the banner of the concept album, has been lost. Do not get me wrong. I am a huge fan of such albums, but that is also why I retain the right to be sceptical when one is not entirely working.
Still, it is a well performed album that will appeal especially to fans of Jadis (and quite possibly Pendragon), but also to fans of other neoprog bands. Personally, I would recommend people to start out with The Vow's much more interesting debut album Another World and I hope that the band's next album will return to the darker edges of that album and explore them further. These two gentlemen do have a great potential and I would hate to see it lost before it has even peaked.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Etron Fou Leloublan – Les Poumons Gonfles
One of the original Rock In Opposition (RIO) bands, as assembled by Henry Cow for their legendary concerts in the mid 1970s, Etron Fou Leloublan ('Mad Shit White Wolf', in English!!) have a lofty reputation in avant rock circles. Their zany mix of angular, spiky rock in the manner of Captain Beefheart, with free jazz experimentation and crazy carnival music, spiced with a typically French humorous touch, is likely to appeal to fans of Henry Cow, Sammlas Mammas Manna and Stormy Six. Les Poumons Gonfles (The Inflated Lungs) is their third album, originally released in 1982, and was produced by Henry Cow guitarist, Fred Frith. He also contributes his usual “out there” style of free playing on violin and guitar on two tracks – Christine and Pas L’sou.
As none of my friends are into this particular brand of music, my tentative explorations in the RIO/Avant genre beyond Henry Cow (whose more serious and intellectual approach can seem a little too dryly academic at times) have largely been guided by Audion Magazine and have previously led me to such French bands as Albert Marcouer and Znr. These are both rather eccentric acts. There is a marked similarity to those artists on the more quirky, humorous compositions here, such as Upsalla, with its toy-town organ and eastern tinged saxophone, and the closing track Pas L’sou. At times, the organ sounds give a touch of the aural Dadaism of early Soft Machine. Elsewhere, there is plenty of frantic percussion clattering and an almost New-Wave ferocity underpinning these idiosyncratic little ditties. The opener Nicolas is a good example of their adventurous style, marrying some tricky rhythms with a fairly tuneful chorus, but sabotaging itself with some fairly unbearable squeaking. (Is it a saxophone? It sounds like a duck with its foot caught in a door!) Mercifully, it phases out about halfway through, but is replaced with some extremely jerky and irregular riffing.
Mimi has a strangely attractive drunken lurching sound, unusual but interesting, whilst Lo Prefero is a particularly good track, with some incredible drumming and wild sax blowing, backing some spoken vocals in Italian. (Most of the vocals are in French) Like most of the RIO bands, I understand that there is a strong socialist political slant to their lyrical approach, but my lack of knowledge of French leaves me unable to ascertain whether or not this is the case. I am lead to believe that this album is more accessible than their previous offerings, and therefore I would have to recommend that the curious start here, as this is pretty challenging stuff in itself. Overall, I did enjoy most of it, but it’s definitely one for those times when you want to stretch your musical horizons.
For existing fans of Rio/Avantgarde rock music, Free Jazz, adventurous listeners and those seeking a challenge, I can recommend this, but for my own tastes (and I suspect for the majority of the readers of this site), it is of marginal interest and therefore I’ll give it a lower marking than it might otherwise merit.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
The Normal People - A Trip To The Vet
I am sorry to say but this is the worst album (yet) that I have ever reviewed. Four songs that have little to no structure. Lyrics that are spoken/sung with a somewhat uninterested voice. It is all highly experimental, and maybe best compared to Fripp, but it is a pale comparison.
The best part of this album, A Trip To The Vet, is the cover artwork, and I do not say this because of the music quality, the cover artwork really is good. There are four separate sheets of card, with illustrations by Nella Cafaratti, one for each track. So you can decide for yourself which one should be visible on the CD cover.
The title song A Trip To The Vet is a short track with vocals that are accompanied by mainly bass and percussion and a very annoying screaming guitar. There are traces of Pet Sounds by The Beach Boys. At first I thought this track might grow but it didn't, probably because there are too few recognition points. This music is a little too far away from what I normally listen to. Spoonful is a cover of a Willie Dixon song, the blues legend that also wrote Hoochie Coochie Man. This song has been recorded by great names like Ten Years After, Cream, Howlin' Wolf and the Allman Brothers Band. It is the only song that has at least some structure. The vocals are given an "old microphone" sound. ABCD is based on an Italian melody. A bath duck (?) is used and a telephone sound. 54 seconds later you wonder why someone has submitted this to CD. A Life's parallels is based on a poem by Christina Rossetti. Half way through the song, Isabella Courtney speaks some words and again the "old microphone" sound is used. This treatment to the vocals reminds me a little of 16 Horsepower who prove that such a sound can work. For The Normal People it only adds to the feeling that everything on this album is strange and annoying.
I might put the artwork in a frame and hang it on my wall, that's how good I think the artwork is. Wouldn't miss the cover to this CD, I will not be listening to it again. Someone described this album as The Normal People - 'A Trip To The Psychiatrist' and that, I feel would have been a much better title.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10