Reviews in this issue:
Divided Sky - Spectral
Hailing from Philly in Pennsylvania, discovering Divided Sky has for me, been a little like a mole discovering there really is light at the end of the tunnel. I was just starting to get a bit disheartened by the lack of new ideas, fresh thinking coming into the genre this year. A few excellent albums, but very little that's struck me as refreshingly fresh or invigorating.
Then this little gem from out of nowhere came. Describing themselves as 'divergent heavy rock' this self-produced, full-length debut possesses a whole new shaft of musical thought and imagination that opens up a range of exciting possibilities for the genre.
In African/American vocalist Sean V Crisden, Divided Sky has a talented and distinctive frontman who captures the listener's attention through every twist and turn. Take the third track Missing Persons where he is able to mix the grit and edge of Nickelback's Chad Kroeger with a heavy dose of soul - shifting the pace and tone of the song effortlessly. Or try Diminishing Returns where he takes the raw soul of Seal and massages it into a beautifully heavy funk rock groove.
If they remind me of anything, it's the equally-promising Dutch upstarts Morgana-X whose demo I gave a 'DPRP recommended' earlier this year. Morgana-X have more direct and yes, catchy songs. But when I said that their overall sound was in need of a bit more dynamics, what Divided Sky have achieved here is exactly what I had in mind. Anyway I digress a little. Around Crisden, the band mixes some meaty riffs, some dynamic progressive sections, some jazz/fusion, a bit of ambience, some great funky grooves and even a bit of 80's disco. In between this musical Smorgasbord, there are some truly heavenly melodies that just demand repeated listens.
Spectral has some really great music spread across its 11 tracks. We begin with Grasp. It stands out at first by the clever interplay between some lilting acoustics and deep metal guitars that grind like an battered bulldozer. Then just as you think that's it, we enter a beautiful little acoustic interlude that reminds me of The Trees by Rush. Numb is short, sharp and very to the point - power pop built on a blistering riff but with another great little acoustic interlude that breaks it all up nicely.
Showing another end to the Spectral spectrum, Summer by Twilight is a ballad in the traditional singer/songwriter mould but with an inventive use of instruments and some nice female vocals that compliment Crisden well. The album centrepiece comes at the end. Images is split into four parts (creation/evolution/ascension/departure) and is the most progressive offering but again mixing heavy and light moods with a few more sublime melodies thrown into the mix.
Obviously not done on a big budget, Spectral is a little raw around the edges. But in a way, that adds to its appeal. And while some bands try too hard to be original and fall flat on their faces, Divided Sky manages to blend it all together in a mixture that's as natural as Granny's Christmas pudding.
Spectral is a diversely progressive album of originality, great musicianship and superb songwriting that has the potential to appeal to progressive rock and progressive metal fans as well as a more mainstream audience. The album is available from the band's website (www.dividedskymusic.com) and could be a good investment because this band has huge potential. Guaranteed a place in my Top 10 for the year without a doubt.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
IQ - Archive Collection Volume 1 : IQ20
Tracklist Disc 2: The Narrow Margin (middle section) (6:05), Just Changing Hands (6:44), Guiding Light (10:28), The Last Human Gateway (22:08), Subterranea (7:42)
IQ have started following the path that other bands and artists like Fish, Marillion and Dream Theater have taken and have begun releasing a series of official bootlegs. The first of these is a recording of a gig at Achaffenburg, Germany during IQ's 20th anniversary tour. More releases with varying levels of sound quality will follow in the future.
To be perfectly honest, I was a bit disappointed at the time by the setlist. Sure, it included a lot of splendid material, but I didn't really consider it a representative setlist for a 20th anniversary tour since no material from Seven Stories into Eight and the 'Menel Years' (Nomzamo & Are Your Sitting Comfortably) - besides the encore Human Nature which is sadly missing on this disc - was featured. At the same time however, the setlist contained an over-representation of their latest album The Seventh House, which is present with no less than 45 minutes of music (Wrong Side of Weird, Erosion, The Seventh House and Guiding Light). All nice tracks, but it makes the set feel more like the Seventh House tour than a 20 year anniversary.
Also, I'm probably the only IQ fan that doesn't get overly excited by The Last Human Gateway. As far as I'm concerned the band has written much better epics which are less repetitive (Gateway is basically three times the same song). What's more, I fiercely dislike the annoying keyboard twiddling in the 'break back to back' section. I really prefer the split middle and end section on Forever Live above any other full length studio or live version.
So far for the minor gripes ....
One of the nice things about IQ shows, and therefore live recordings like these, is the fact that they often play re-arranged material, medleys and try out new material before recording it in the studio. This makes IQ a rarity in the world of prog. Except for the latter category the IQ20 set was a fine example of a band that doesn't play songs in there note-for-note studio version. The set includes a splendid up-tempo remake of The Thousand Days (better than the original in my opinion) which merges into The Magic Roundabout. There's also a medley of State of Mind, the guitar solo of Leap of Faith and one of my personal favourites, Came Down. And if that wasn't enough, we are also treated to an extended Subterranea with the band fooling around during their introductions and an "Ole!" ending, plus a nice excerpt of the middle section of The Narrow Margin.
The remaining tracks on the album are the ambient intro, featuring snippets from the Harry Potter soundtrack (uncredited!), the crowd pleaser Awake and Nervous and a rare rendition of Just Changing Hands (a B-side from the early years).
As far as the sound quality is concerned you get a very decent recording of the sound desk, complete with audience noises which are so often missing from official bootlegs. Don't expect the same sound quality as on Forever Live though, after all, this is an 'official bootleg' and not an official live album. The mix is much rougher and at times certain instruments are a bit low or high in the mix. I especially miss Jowitt's bass a every now and then. The recording is largely presented as it was on the evening, so includes some faulty bits every now and then. Probably the most obvious of these are some moments where Peter Nicholls' voice is slightly off. His occasional cheeky chatter with the crowd makes up for this though.
The double CD comes in a old double LP-like packaging with a little gatefold sleeve and small inner sleeves for the two CDs. A nice little touch, unless you're trying to switch discs while driving. ;-) The inside of the packaging has pictures and credits and some liner notes. Although the latter are credited to Frank & Edna, the elderly couple that ran the vaporised IQ fanzine, it misses their usual tone of voice.
All in all this first Archive Collection CD is a nice release, especially if you're very much into the Seventh House material and a live full length version of The Last Human Gateway. If you're not, or if you are very critical about the mix of live albums you might be better of with a copy of Forever Live. For me personally, the fun of this album is in the medleys and alternative versions of songs. Since there's a lot of those in IQ live history I'm already looking forward to the next Archive Collection CD. Essential for IQ fans only (and therefore not DPRP Recommended to every prog fan).
Please note that the Archive Collection CDs can only be bought directly from IQ; they will not be available in retail shops. Please visit the official IQ website for more information.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
S.O.T.E. - Time To End
Tracklist: The Blandness Of Being (4:48), Morning Session (6:15), Jack’s A Friend (3:41), The Days Fly Past (7:19), Something Building (6:24), Fire Incarnate (5:09), Bitter (3:32), Victim Of Circumstances (6:33), A Different Sensation (9:31), Time To End (6:22)
Songs Of The Exile (S.O.T.E) is a Dutch Progressive Rock/Metal combo that has been in existence for over ten years and is now presenting its third full length CD. Time To End is a dark and brooding, elaborately conceived, concept album that weaves an intriguing tale of schizophrenia and fractured personalities, somewhat akin to the disturbing Brad Pitt movie "Fight Club".
The band is in the classic power trio format of guitar, bass and drums, but plays a highly charged and atmospheric progressive rock, inviting inevitable comparisons to Rush. Whilst they are an obvious influence, S.O.T.E operate in a much darker sphere, having closer musical ties to Queensryche or Fates Warning (their A Pleasant Shade Of Grey being a good reference point). Vocally, there are some similarities to Geddy Lee, but again, a far more telling comparison can be made to Peter Nicholls of IQ. At times, the resemblance is uncanny. In some of the quieter moments, there is also evidence of the tortured intensity familiar to fans of Peter Hammill. The music also bears some similarity to IQ, but the lack of keyboards (excepting some midi synths and guitar synthesisers, adding sporadic sonic embellishment) and a heavier approach gives this work a quite different feel.
Gerton Leijdekker is responsible for the vocals and a wide variety of guitars, displaying great technique and delivering smouldering solos. In particular, there is some superb acoustic playing on (The Days Fly Pass). As this is a largely vocal driven work, Gerton has plenty of opportunity to impress, and he certainly does that with a compelling performance throughout.
Peter H Boer plays the bass, including some fretless bass work that adds a jazzy feel in places. He is a subtle but powerful player, at his best on Fire Incarnate, a real smoking slow burner of a track (excuse the pun).
Emile Boellaard is the new boy of the band, making his debut on this disc and proving himself to be a player of taste and restraint, adding numerous tasty fills and rolls. Check out the opening to Something Building for a fine example.
The Blandness Of Being is a great opening piece, and a good scene setter, with a driving intensity to rival the best of Rush. As elsewhere, the main musical emphasis is on guitars, weaving an elaborate and involving sonic backdrop to the unravelling of the complex storyline.
I particularly enjoyed the aforementioned The Days Fly Past as well as Bitter, Victim Of Circumstances and the intense closer Time to End, but really this is a work best taken as a whole.
The production was handled by the band, and they did a fine job, with each instrument having its own place in the mix, and the whole work having a crispness and clarity that is essential in a piece of this nature. My only real gripe with this project is with the cover. Whilst the artwork is suitably moody and enigmatic, the lyrics are presented in a variety of fonts (to represent the various personalities) and some of them are frankly unreadable. They’ve obviously gone to a lot of trouble to make the lyrics available, and I’m sure the work would be enhanced by a thorough study of the words, but this is rendered nigh on impossible. Still, this is a minor quibble, and I can recommend this work to anyone seeking an absorbing listen. It inhabits the darker side and has metallic leanings, but is not without subtlety and nuance, making it a solid slice of modern, guitar laden prog rock.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Merchant's Vice - Amber
Tracklist: Reason To Change (7:30), Storyteller (7:09), Glass Child (6:47), Intoxicated (11:46), The Hollow Man (9:05), End Of Story (6:06), Dark Before The Dawn (2:49), All Our Lives (12:27)
Merchant’s Vice are a British outfit who’ve been around in various forms since 1997. The band now includes former members of minor prog outfits Medicine Man and Janison Edge, and Amber is their first full length release.
To say that Merchant’s Vice play quintessential British neo-prog is almost an understatement; the influences of the likes of Pendragon, Arena (circa Pride), IQ and (of course) early Marillion are clearly audible throughout, whilst Rob Aubrey (known for his work with IQ and Jadis) mixed the album. That’s not to say the band are plagiarists however, as they have managed to develop something of their own style. The most identifiable thing about Merchant’s Vice’s sound is probably singer Les Wardle; with a voice pitched somewhere between ex-Arena man Paul Wrightson (without the range) and Pendragon’s Nick Barrett, Wardle makes up for any technical shortcomings with his confident delivery, and this helps drive the music forward.
The songs are generally long (as you’d expect in this genre), with a good mix of vocal and instrumental sections and well worked changes in mood, although things are perhaps a little one-paced at times. The standard of musicianship is high throughout, with bassist Paul Brown coming up with some particularly tasty bass lines. Keyboards are the predominant lead instrument, and Mark English is clearly from the Clive Nolan school, providing plenty of good solos as well as atmospheric and symphonic backdrops. Guitars are generally fairly muted in comparison, with Nick Martin occasionally let off the leash for some fine solo work, in particular on the outro of The Hollow Man.
This is a consistent album, which is both a blessing and a curse – it does mean that your finger doesn’t stray towards the ‘skip’ button, but at the same time there isn’t that much that stands out from the crowd – opener Reason To Change and The Hollow Man are perhaps the pick of the bunch, whilst Glass Child is a little dull, but generally the material is of a decent quality without ever reaching the highs of those bands they’re clearly influenced by.
A word should be said about the production, by the band themselves, which is of a very high standard, as is the accompanying CD booklet. Just goes to show that you don’t need the backing of a label to produce a good quality product.
Overall, an enjoyable release that shows promise – more variety and pace changes, plus a little more ‘oomph’ in the guitar department, and this band should be well on their way. As it stands, neo-prog fans can purchase Amber with some confidence.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Shawn McLaughlin - Smorgasboard
Tracklist: Dramatically Incorrect (2:25), One Of Unkind (3:40), Petty Tyrant (2:56), Spin Dry (3:33), Another Sleepless Nightmare (2:17), Back To Earth (3:15)
Smorgasbord is an instrumental album that pivots around the considerable drumming skills of Shawn McLaughlin and ably assisted by multitude of musicians, from the Boston area. McLaughlin, a renowned musician in his locale, has undertaken not only the drumming tasks on this album, but also the writing, arranging and production. To complete the Smorgasbord, so as to speak, he has then drawn on the "styles and personalities", of the twenty musicians gathered together here, "resulting in a unique collection of sound". A somewhat short album at just over eighteen minutes, impinging more perhaps on EP territory, however the material should be judged on its quality rather than quantity.
Dramatically Incorrect establishes the album with McLaughlin's exhuberant drumming, filling the gaps left by the raunchy bass and guitar sections. This is followed up by One of a Kind, which still retains the rawness of the opening track, however Dave Perkins' Tenor Sax nicely punctuates the music giving and R&B texture to the piece. A slight variation to the music this time led by Lee Lundy laying down an infectious bass part - probably the proggiest track on the album.
Dave Perkins returns to the fold for Spin Dry putting some jazzier notions to this driving rock track. The final two tracks move into the realms of Heavy Rock/ProgMetal. Another Sleepless Nightmare is aided in this quest by the accompanying strong guitar riff and tastefully used double bass drums. All is then brought Back To Earth for this dynamic closing track.
This is quite an aggresive album, with guitar, bass and drums being the mainstay of the instrumentation, regardless of the other musicians role. This in itself adds a consistancy to the proceedings and gives the album a natural flow. The strength of Smorgasbord is derived from McLaughlin's solid and innovative playing, whilst the continuity comes from the writing and arrangements and finally the guesting musicians adding the colouring.
Truthfully, the album just was not long enough to enable me to offer any great conclusions and served more as a taster. I certainly would be very keen to hear more from Shawn McLaughlin and friends in the future.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10