Reviews in this issue:
Caravan - The Unauthorised Breakfast Item
Main Album Smoking Gun (Right For Me) (5:36), Revenge (5:15), The Unauthorised Breakfast Item (4:44), Tell Me Why (6:16), It's Getting A Whole Lot Better (8:56), Head Above The Clouds (7:21), Straight Through The Heart (4:40), Wild West Street (4:47), Nowhere To Hide (8:54), Linders Field (3:38)
Limited Edition Live Disc: Smoking Gun (Right For Me) (7:56), The Unauthorised Breakfast Item (6:16), Tell Me Why (5:45), Revenge (5:42), For Richard (with the Quebec International Festival Orchestra) (14:22)
Caravan's resurgence continues unabated with the release of their new album The Unauthorised Breakfast Item. Unbelievably it has been seven years since The Battle Of Hastings, the remarkably good (considering it had been a further 14 years since 1982's frankly dire Back To Front album) but largely overlooked, return to the studio. Since then, the 'Canterbury Sound' mainstay, have gone from strength to strength - triumphant returns to Japan, Canada and North America (captured for posterity on the live DVD/CD A Knight's Tale) as well as national tours of the UK have cemented the bands reputation, forced many old fans out of 'gig retirement' and enticed a whole host of new supporters in the process.
The current line-up consists of the ever-present Pye Hastings and Richard Coughlan, the charismatic Geoffrey Richardson, the seasoned campaigner Jim Leverton, guitar wunderkind Doug Boyle and the return of Jan Schelhaas. Founder member Dave Sinclair once again jumped ship in the midst of recording the album, an event that should come as no surprise to scholars of Caravan's eventful membership history, although he does feature on two of the tracks.
So what does one get for their money? The answer is one hour of classic Caravan. Anyone who witnessed the band in concert over the last few years will know that the atmosphere in the band is at a high with the members simply delighting in each other's company once again. This has had the beneficial effect of resulting in some of the strongest songwriting from Pye Hastings in many years. Comparisons with other bands are somewhat moot, Caravan sound like Caravan, just as they always have, and just as they always should! This is not to imply that they are simply retreading old ground, far from it, the album has a freshness about it that is inspiring, and the sheer quality of the musicianship makes each listen a voyage of new discoveries. Little flourishes, like the banjo in Straight Through The Heart and the saxes of Jimmy Hastings, particularly on the slower paced Tell Me Why and It's Getting A Whole Lot Better, also expound on the infamous sound.
Dave Sinclair's sole writing contribution, Nowhere To Hide is one of the album's stand out tracks. The days of 20-minute epics may well be over but this song comes close to the feel of some of those early classics. Naturally keyboards dominate the proceedings and Doug Boyle lays down a classy guitar solo towards the end. The song builds for an expected 'big finish' but, instead of a grandiose adn overblown finale, I found the ending to be rather limp. Smoking Gun (Right For Me) and Revenge are mid-tempo rockers that start the album off with intent, with the latter of the two tracks being a particularly strong song which in days past would have made an excellent single. The idiosyncratic title track, inspired by a rather pedantic waitress in an American hotel in Trenton, New Jersey, is classic tongue-in-cheek writing from Pye. Uncharacteristically, there are two instrumental cuts, sandwiching the final song Nowhere To Hide. Although the band have often incorporated expansive instrumental sections in some of their longer compositions, discrete instrumentals are somewhat of a rarity. Wild West Street is basically viola over an acoustic guitar and cello (at least it sounds like a cello, but the instrument is not mentioned in the sleeve notes!) backing, there is a bit of piano tinkling away in the background as well. I wouldn't be surprised if this was a purely solo performance from Geoff Richardson, it's certainly the most uncharacteristic Caravan piece on the album. Doug Boyle's contribution, Linders Field, has a degree more familiarity, particularly as it opens with Jimmy Hasting's flute trilling away.
As a treat for fans a special limited edition version of the album (2500 copies only!) is available containing a bonus disc of live material. Featuring recordings of four of the album tracks taped in Japan in May of this year and the welcome return of an orchestrated performance of the classic For Richard from Canada in July 2002, the bonus disc is well worth getting hold of.
All-in-all and excellent album from a much-loved group that deserve much greater reward for their steadfast and reliable contributions to the field of bloody good music. Caravan really are a band for everyone.
I have always been a fan of this legendary Canterbury band, one of the offshoots of The Wilde Flowers. In fact they are one of those bands that managed to perfectly convey that feeling of the British countryside within their music giving it a typical and characteristic British style of progressive rock.
What one should mention is that this album is not a down and out progressive rock album, but then again Caravan where never that typical progressive rock band. The maturity of the band, after 35 years in the musical scene, has certainly left its mark as the band flit between the contemporary and the progressive. Pieces like the opening Smoking Gun (Right For Me) and Revenge have a more AOR touch with some great catchy hooks and strong rocking. Sometimes the band seem to move into that jazzy Steely Dan tricolour as happens on the title track The Unauthorised Breakfast Item, which highlights Pye Hastings' husky vocals which though limited in range conveys a sense of warmth tinged with melancholy, and the rockier Tell Me Why.
With It's Getting A Whole Lot Better Caravan move into the lounge jazz territory with Jimmy Hastings' saxophone playing carrying the track to a whole new level. Straight To the Heart is the final track from the album that is written by Pye Hastings and the final track that has his indelible plaintive stamp over it.
Wild West Street was written by Geoffrey Richardson, and this is the main reason why his viola playing is so prominent. It is a magnificent piece of atmospheric instrumental music and is more of a duet between viola and acoustic guitar. The viola once again leads the way on Nowhere To Hide, a composition by the now departed Dave Sinclair while Linders Field, composed by lead guitarist Doug Boyle has a more folk orientated approach. It seems that his time with Robert Plant seems to have rubbed off on him!
Whereas some bands have been unable to weather the years gracefully, Caravan have managed to come up with a new album that shows them applying the maturity of their 35 years in the business. The fact that many of their past albums have managed to withstand the test of time and included as some of the great rock classic albums of the seventies is indeed a testament to this. With The Unauthorised Breakfast Item Caravan have shown that they are still able to create magnificent pieces of music. It is not what one would call your typical progressive rock album, though on the other hand it is a welcome album by all fans of this legendary band, and definitely an album which shows Caravan are still capable of creating very valid music.
Soniq Theater - The Third Eye
Tracklist: The Anger Of Zeus (4:33), Bilbo Is Back (2:35), Vamos A Ver (3:58), Skydiver (5:07), Once Upon A Time (2:09), The Coronation (3:46), Inner Visions (7:32), Meta Luna (4:55), Sleeping Beauty (5:41), Desperado (4:57), Lumania (10:42), Peace Piece (3:12)
Since the dissolution of German Neo Proggers Rachel’s Birthday, after their excellent An Invitation To.. release, keyboard maestro Alfred Mueller has chosen to plough a solo furrow under the guise of Soniq Theater. The Third Eye is, appropriately enough, his third such release. The two previous discs (Soniq Theater and A SECOND of ACTion) both received positive reviews on DPRP (the second one by yours truly).
Really, it is business as usual for Mr Mueller, as there is no major discernable shift in either style or quality in comparison to the earlier releases. It depends on your point of view as to whether this is a good thing or not. Judged purely on it’s own merits, this is an enjoyable set of high tech, synth based instrumentals (with the odd vocal sample), roughly comparable to late period Tangerine Dream, but with a broader range of sounds and styles. It should meet the approval of anyone who favours this synthetic approach. As with its predecessors, the programmed drums may prove off-putting to those (myself included) old fashioned enough to prefer the sound of real instruments played by real musicians. Though my main interest is in progressive rock, I do enjoy a certain amount of Electronic music, such as Klaus Schulze, Kraftwerk and Tomita (where the sound is purely synthetic). Likewise, I am a big fan of bands that use keyboards and synths to emulate the sounds of an orchestra (e.g. The Enid), but it is when the music attempts to ape the style of a rock band that the synthesised instruments, particularly the drum machine, fail to live up to the challenge.
To address the CD itself, and aside from a couple of short numbers which, whilst agreeable enough, are a tad insubstantial and a touch over-commercial, the majority of the tunes stand up well against the two previous outings, making the discs fairly interchangeable.
The standout cuts include: the vibrant opener The Anger Of Zeus which bristles with energy, the quasi-orchestral vibe of the ten minute epic Lumania, the spacey synth romp Meta Luna, and Skydiver, which has some nice Mellotron sounds and which is a good example of just how many ideas and textures Alfred can manage to cram into one tune without ever letting the sound become cluttered or confused. It is quite difficult to pick out highlights, as most of the tracks are full of interesting twists and turns, which reveal new delights with every listen.
In summary, this is another worthy, if slightly predictable (in its overall approach), set of up-tempo, breezy and vivacious instrumentals, choc full of delicious keyboard melodies and solos. A lot of this would be ideal for soundtracks or to accompany sports documentaries. The packaging is sparse, in keeping with its home produced CDR status.
It should provide a pleasant experience for synth rock aficionados, but as it fails to significantly improve upon the earlier releases or break any really new ground, it may be a little disappointing to the more demanding prog fan.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Alan Emslie - Driven Heavy
Tracklist: Bitter Boy (3:39), Help Me (4:26), Big One (4:41), Meditation (4:21), Simple Groove (3:54), Causeway (5:26), Through The Valley (4:58), Something In Your Eyes (6:49)
Bonus Tracks: Bitter Boy [Instrumental Mix] (3:39), Downforce [Live Rehearsal] (4:54), Video Downforce [Live Rehearsal] (5:00)
An album in each of the previous two years and 2003 sees this trend continued with yet another release from the Alan Emslie camp and following true to form, each new album takes on a different slant, whilst always retaining a unified sound. Alan is partnered once again by stable mate John Irvine on guitar and joining the crew this time around is a strange mixture of instruments tackled by Jo Nicholson (bass clarinet), Greg Lawson (electric violin) and Pat Jackson (bass trombone). Still without a bass player, but not everyone is perfect!
Alan's last release was a somewhat calmer affair, combining ambient textures; some progressive touches and as always held together by his inimitable drumming. Driven Heavy, as the title might suggest, is a more aggressive album than the two previous releases I have listened to, although elements of light and shade are maintained throughout. What is interesting and touched on in the opening paragraph, is that Alan chooses not to use a bass player. Perhaps because this may be too restricting upon his drumming role, therefore the bass element in the music is provided by programmed keyboards and here on this CD by bass clarinet (tracks 5 and 7) and trombone (track 2). These two instruments are treated and "synthesized" giving a new slant on their sound and perceived role.
Driven Heavy also has Mr Emslie delve into the ever growing field of drummers turned vocalist, and as I have not welcomed this move with open arms in the past, it comes as no surprise that I am not overly enamoured by this change here. I have to admit to a greater liking for instrumental or pre-dominantly instrumental music, so unless the vocals are stunning, or of great character, they do tend to wash over me anyway - enough said!
There are some notable tracks to be found on Driven Heavy and two of my favourite tracks feature Greg Lawson on electric violin. Help Me is a mournful piece with the violin soaring through the music, straining the normal sonic range of the instrument, but very effective. John Irvine also adds a strong Gilmouresque outro solo - a great track and one that has had numerous spins. Through the Valley also has some Floydian touches with the low register guitar and deep bass pedal notes being reminiscent of sections from DSOTM. Last of the striking tracks is the aptly titled Meditation, with its hypnotic string parts (including the violin), gradually building in intensity.
The bonus material takes the form of an instrumental version of the opening track (more to my tastes) and two live rehearal versions of Downforce, which opened on Alan's last album Emotive Bay. The two versions of Downforce here are in the form of live rehearsal tracks - the second of which forms part of the interactive section of the CD and sees Alan and John performing the track, complete with flashing lights (posh rehearsals Alan) - but as this is bonus material little further comment is necessary, save to say that the playing is superbly tight and Alan's drumming is, as ever, "in the pocket".
Again another good release from Alan Emslie and whilst not all of the material was to my liking, the strength of the other tracks more than compensated for this.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Fatal Attraction - Simplicity Rules
Tracklist: Simplicity Rules (3:19), Head Above The Water (4:39), Feel The Fire (4:06), Anything It Takes (3:42), In The Heart Of My Soul (4:17), Stay On The Line (3:38), Valleys Of Heaven (5:11), Modern World (4:08), Silver Son (4:58), Perfect Dream (3:18), Unknown World (3:53), Third Anthem (7:23)
Fatal Attraction are a Swedish band who released their debut album, End Of Regulation Time back in 1995. Despite apparently selling well, particularly in Japan, it has taken until now for the band to record a follow-up. The musical style could probably best be summed up as a mixture of AOR and pomp-rock; in the accompanying press release similarities to the likes of Toto, Asia, Styx and Foreigner are mentioned, and there certainly is something of those bands in Fatal Attraction’s sound.
The opening title track is very good indeed, with a slightly funky feel, strong chorus, imaginative use of keyboards and good harmony vocals. More like this and the album would be getting a ‘recommended’ tag, but unfortunately the band mainly opt thereafter to plough an overly familiar furrow, with the usual genre mixture of mid-tempo plodders, up-tempo rockers and big ballads, in other words the staple of AOR. Not that there’s anything particularly wrong with these tracks, and some are quite strong within their field, but it just sounds too familiar and safe. Lyrically too the usual suspects are dealt with, and the words are generally as clichéd as many of the song titles (Feel The Fire, Valley Of Heaven etc) would suggest.
This is frustrating, as when the band do push the envelope a little the results are pleasing – Modern World rides in on a fantastic riff, sees the energy level noticeably rise and has some great guitar duelling and solos, whilst the finale, Third Anthem, finally sees the band go for it and create an OTT pomp-rock epic, with a fair degree of success. But these are the exceptions rather than the rule. Musically, this is fine – particularly of note is keyboardist Patrik Eriksson, who uses a wide variety of sounds and adds subtle but effective touches that drag some of the tracks out of mediocrity. Singer Anders Fältsjo has a strong voice which reminds me a little of The Scorpions’ Klaus Meine. The production is good, though perhaps a little over-polished.
Overall then, this is a competent album which fans of the aforementioned bands, and of good quality, well-played melodic rock in general, will doubtless enjoy. As it stands though there isn’t that much to offer those who want something more exciting than standard AOR, which I feel is a missed opportunity by the band as they show intermittently that they’re capable of making more interesting and adventurous music. Hopefully future albums will see them breaking out more from the rather narrow musical straitjacket which they seem to presently exist in.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Minoke? - Taneshina
Tracklist: Til_ Na_ Nog (4:54), Turkish David (7:12), Atarimae (5:43), Tri-Band-Boom (5:32), Nagoya No Itoko (4:44)
Running for just over 28 minutes, this is more of an EP than a full album. It should be noted immediately that Minoke? , from Japan, is a pretty straight up Jazz combo who spice up their tunes with influences from World Music and Fusion.
The main melodic focus is on saxophone (Kosei Kayama on Tenor and Soprano) and keyboards (Kunihiko Sekido), with the rhythm section of Yassushi Kawaguchi and Katsunori Takahashi (on bass and drums respectively) supplying a firm foundation for the construction of the compositions. You may note the absence of guitar, but the music does not suffer unduly from this.
The opener Til_Na_Nog is somewhat atypical, being a crafty Jazz spin on an Irish folk tune. It opens with what sounds like an accordion (could be a melodica?) counterpointing the traditional melody, which, whilst usually played on a fiddle, is here nimbly executed on saxophone. This, together with the resonant bass playing, results in an unusual Folk/Jazz hybrid, with a hint of Cajun, making for a captivating start to the album.
The remainder of the material jettisons the Folk influence entirely and settles into an ultra slick Jazz groove. This is probably a wise move, as an entire album of material similar to the opener could render the group open to accusations of being a novelty act.
Turkish David lives up to its name, having a distinctly Middle Eastern flavour to the opening sax riff. There follows a nice piano solo, before the sax veers off into a squeaking solo, which has some of the intensity of David Jackson of Van Der Graaf Generator. The bass and drums also have brief moments in the spotlight on a thoroughly satisfying tune which holds the attention throughout.
Atarimae is a fusion-y piece, reminiscent of Return To Forever (sans guitar), but adding some short bursts of discordant sax blowing, as well as some more melodic sax parts. The bass work is tremendous, as is the percussion. Every time you listen, you can focus on a different instrument and be sure to be impressed. Although not being particularly VDGG like, except for the saxophone, there is the same sense of a band skating on the edge of chaos, but managing to keep tight control at the same time.
Tri-Band-Boom follows in a similar vein, driven along by inventive percussion, with wide-ranging moods supplied by sax and piano. At times there is a jaunty, almost carnival-like atmosphere, at others a palpable tension, created by the superb interplay of the musicians. The heavy presence of saxophone throughout this disc may remind of some of the great French fusion acts like Gong (without the silliness), Magma (but less intense or avant-garde) or Zao.
The closing number is, if anything, even jazzier than its predecessors, having a smoky Club quality and featuring a lilting sax melody. Some of the 70’s German fusion groups like Passport or possibly Embryo (but much less rock influenced) could be a useful reference here.
This disc is a refreshing change from the usual Progressive Rock, and is very well played and inventive, but its almost complete lack of rock influence should limit its appeal to those in search of a Jazz fix.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Aethellis - Aethellis
Aethellis is North American multi-instrumentalist Ellisworth Hall, a former member of Logos Affinity now treading the solo path. The compositions are mainly keyboard-based with additional electric guitar and programmed drums. Most of the pieces are around the seven or eight minute mark with the final track, Final Affinity, approaching twelve minutes. However, the extended nature of the songs is not always justified, the themes they contain are not expanded on, nor are they diverse enough to sustain the interest throughout the entire length of the piece. Portal, for example, is a piano-based ballad that seems to naturally end at around the five minute mark. However, the song is extended by the addition of an extra two and a half minutes which includes, in my opinion, a totally unnecessary section at a faster tempo to the rest of the piece. However, when it works, it does work well as evidenced by Djibouti (an African country located on the shore of the Red Sea in case you wanted to know!), the album's sole instrumental. This is a well arranged and well balanced track that features a variety of keyboard sounds, including some more contemporary influences (keyboard-generated scratching anyone? And no, it is not as bad as it sounds!).
Of the other tracks, Tie And Handkerchief is a good opening number, setting the stall for what is to follow but again could possibly have benefited from some editing. Nevertheless, an interesting rhythmic number that features the best programmed drums (right down to the cow bells!) on the album. Saint Augustus starts with some faux church organ giving the impression that a very dramatic piece is about to unfold but then develops into more of a pop song. This is not a criticism per se, indeed the song is undoubtedly the most instantly memorable piece on the album! Final Affinity contains a variety of different themes, a few interesting solos and builds well but suffers from a rather anti-climatic ending. However, this one will go down well with people who are into more symphonic prog.
Not being a great fan of albums that are dominated by synthesisers it is hard to draw comparisons. This is not an album that features great flourishes of keyboard runs so don't expect Keith Emerson or Rick Wakeman style virtuosity throughout, it is more along the lines of some of the material released by Clive Nolan. Not really my cup of tea but for people who like this sort of thing there is enough here to justify splashing out cash for as the songs are well played, the album is well produced and there is a degree of variety with some interesting ideas that differentiate it from above other artists.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10