Reviews in this issue:
Sun Caged - Sun Caged
Tracklist: Sedation (7.57), Sun Caged (6.20), Home (6.37), Soil (6.52), Hollow (5.10), Closing In (5:58), The Eighth Day (5:41), Secrets Of Flight (9:07), Unchanging (5:09)
For a band who, until now, have yet to have an album in the stores, Sun Caged has sure built up one hell of a following. Formed by Marcel Coenen (ex-Lemur Voice) and Dennis Leeflang (ex-Within Temptation) in 1998 this Dutch band has served a solid apprenticeship. Two sold-out demos and consistent gigging has won them a huge underground following. If, like me, you saw the fantastic reception the band won at the Progpower and Headway Festivals, you will understand why this has been one of the most eagerly awaited ProgMetal debuts for many years.
And overall Sun Caged does not disappoint. I've actually had this disc for six weeks before putting pen to paper, as it is one of those albums that needs a fair few listens to fully reveal its charms. But it's well worth the patience. Every track has something to offer - although some more than others.
Dream Theater comparisons will no doubt follow the band and I make no apologies for doing so as Awake-era Theater is a reasonable reference point. Like James Labrie, vocalist Andre Vuurboom spends much of the time in the upper registers and has a similar use of phrasing, tone and rhythms. The music mixes heavy guitar and tireless-yet-not-overwhelming keyboards, with more reflective moments. Yet there's plenty of melody to tie it all together. However - and this is where Sun Caged has the edge for me - there is a noticeably heavier vibe than DT generally provide.
The guitar, on tracks such as Soil and Sun Caged, veers more towards the likes of Meshuggah, System of a Down and maybe even Pantera in terms of heaviness. There's also a noticeably darker vibe to the music - think Pain of Salvation or the new Wolverine.
As you'd expect, the musicianship is faultless as is the sharp, balanced production. Being able to persuade Arjen Lucassen (of Star One and Ayreon fame) to twiddle the mixing knobs is also a tribute to the band's reputation. Another big plus point, is that while there's plenty of opportunities for each musician to show they are masters of their instruments - it never goes to far into the widdly, twaddle that DT have explored of late.
Highlights for me are the tracks that really manage to mix this power with some great melodies. Sun Caged kicks of with a crunching Pantera-esque riff, building to a great chorus. There's then a break with a piano jazz bar section, before going back into heavier territory.
Home opens with delicate acoustic guitar and vocals before breaking into some Awake-era Dream Theater sounds, and Soil is a fast, punishing track where guitarist Marcel Coenen proves he has some great, inventive chops under his belt.
The best track by a short head is Closing In. Built on a classy keyboard/guitar riff it just oozes class and has the catchiest hooks on the whole disc.
Secrets Of Flight is the most epic of the tracks on offer, having been a live favourite for sometime. Another aggressive riff, leads into a quirky keyboard pattern before flowing into a cool solo - and that's just the first 30 seconds!! I think this track best summarises what Sun Caged are about - heavy, fairly progressive, metal with melodic appeal. It is also the longest track on the album - yet so much happens in the nine minutes that the time just flies by.
Unchanging sees the album bow out with probably its most relaxed, jazzy, atmospheric vibe - showing another aspect of the band's style that could be developed further in future.
Where I feel the band has room for improvement, is in the songwriting and especially the need to throw in a few more memorable melody lines. Sun Caged, Secrets Of Flight and especially Closing In have some great hooks. But others (Sedation and Eighth Day) just don't have the same lasting appeal for me. A few of the verses just don't do much for me either, as here and there Vuurboom's phrasing just doesn't really flow with the music. Once or twice I just don't think the flow was there in the first place. Hollow for example is really a waste of a great chorus.
A minor point maybe, but I also feel the band could make better use of vocal harmonies. They are used in parts but it is poorly done - more as an afterthought as opposed to a genuine part of the song writing.
But put simply, this is a very fine debut album that will appeal to a wide range of Rock, Prog and Metal fans. I guess many reviewers will fall for the temptation to hail Sun Caged as Europe's answer to DT. There are similarities, but rest assured, Sun Caged have more than enough ideas to have created their own sound. If the band can continue to build its live reputation, then I seriously believe they will be major league contenders. So full marks to Lion Music for seeing the potential and if this doesn't become the label's biggest selling album ever then I'll eat my shorts.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Martin Barre - Stage Left
Freed from the shackles of Jethro Tull, well almost as both Andrew Giddings and Jonathan Noyce add their respective instruments to the music, Martin is allowed to explore the guitar in its many forms and styles. The album exudes and extols the guitar even down to the delightful cover, where each track is accompanied by a picture and a brief line or two on the type of stringed instrument featured by Martin. So as you may already have gathered this is a guitar album, but please do not be put off by this, or even worse dismiss it as perhaps not your "cup of tea", as the encompassed music is both diverse and thoughtfully assembled.
Unlike with the two previous solo albums from Martin Barre, this release truly captures this fine guitarist at work. I have always admired Ian Anderson's solo projects, however Martin's previous releases have lacked that same kudos. Here however the balance is redressed and I don't believe there is a poor track to be found. Personally I found the acoustic tracks the most rewarding, but perhaps that is more befitting my pre-Christmas mood. Martin shows his style and finesse, ensuring always that melody is never forsaken for the sake "a better lick", and therefore the album remains musical throughout.
For the Tull fans any and all of the gentler acoustic numbers could well have formed part of a larger Tull piece and certainly from that marvellous period around the time of Songs From The Wood. Add to this Stage Fright, which not only has the customary Tull light and shade but also includes the fine flute work of Martin Barre - in other band, who knows? Last but not least in this little Tull-ian comparative section the charming D.I.Y., a track that would not have been out of place on Anderson's Rupi's Dance.
But let me not give the wrong impression as Stage Left is not just a gentle acoustic album, but intertwined between these lighter moments are the electric guitar tracks. I am sure that Martin had little intention that these tracks should sound like any other guitarist, however as with all music the listener tends to make comparisons in either style, sound, composition to other such exponents of the instrument - the following names are my own musings. The album opens with the shuffling boogie Count the Chickens, with more than a passing reference to Steve Morse. Steve Howe and Gordon Giltrap both came to mind during A French Correction. Other cerebrations included Mark Knopfler, Joe Satriani - fairly illustrious company. He also manages to sound a lot like Martin Barre ;-)
What makes this album stand out among other guitar instrumental offerings is the restraint shown within the music, thus allowing the guitar to flow. The liberal use of harmony also gives an overall pleasing texture to the pieces, with just enough of the Tull influences in Martin, not to make these sections to sweet or sickly. The album ends with the only vocal offering Don't Say A Word, which might better have been served as a bonus track - a mute point only
This most surely be deemed as a very positive year for Tull fans, with this release from Martin Barre, Ian Anderson's excellent Rupi's Dance and the delightful ..Christmas Album. Therefore I could not let this album slip by without a DPRP Recommended tag as any fan of Tull and/or well executed guitar instrumentals must surely enjoy this album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
US - Eamon's Day
Tracklist: Eamon's Day (10:15), Sea Song (15:32), Happy Suburbia '78 (06:03), The Tunnel (05:14), Life In Progress [ phase I to IX] (27:25)
From the web site of Us it can be read that it all started in 1975. Something that I think is there in their music, I had not read their bio but concluded the band had found it's roots in the late 70's and early 80's. During these initial years they were called Saga (!), this band lasted until 1983. With no intention to continue all the band's equipment was sold. It took until 1998 for Ernest Wernars, Paul van Velzen and (with some hesitation) Jos Wernars to start playing music together again. Peter de Frankrijker was added to the band and their previous album A Sorrow In Our Hearts saw the light (read Jerry's review). Before recording this album Stephan Christiaans joined the band.
Modest, almost shy, that is how I would subscribe this album. If I have to name an album to compare this music to it would be Nude by Camel. I mention that album because of the similar music but also because the familiar feeling that I get from that album. It is all just a bit mellow. I must say however that I do like Nude as it contains one of my all time favorite progrock songs: Drafted. Furthermore I find some pieces of Genesis from their post-Peter Gabriel period (Trick At The Tail, Wind and Wuthering) and some Mike Oldfield can also be discovered.
There are five strong tracks on this album of which I can admire the craftsmanship and virtuosity, but it is as if all band members are practicing ultimate self control and have decided not to let go. A number of times I feel like shouting come on boys! Please play it all a little rougher. The voice of Stephan is adding to this feeling also, to say his voice does not have a rough edge is really an understatement.
The compositions on this album are well thought out and most tempo and mood transitions are very smooth. Although all tracks are of the same quality (there is not one lesser track), I really like the bass guitar and keyboards on the last five minutes of Sea Song, as there's an uptime part at the end, with an excellent bass part. The melancholic guitar on Happy Suburbia '78 also pleases me. The Tunnel is an up tempo song that comes closest to this band letting go. 27 minutes: the length of the last track, Life In Progress a track of such a length must contain some highlights and it does, it contains more than a few.
I can appreciate a lot of the bands that US mention as their inspiration and I also detect traces of most of them in their music. I can imagine that some people will be very pleased with this album and I do enjoy listening but it is not all there for me. I can best summarize it be saying that Us and I just don't connect. If you are really into Camel and other 70-80's progressive rock then don't let my opinion keep you from buying this album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Procosmian Fannyfiddlers –
Return Of The Sweaty Owl
Tracklist: Prevarications (Improvidents Of The Night) (20:14), Rejected By The Devils (3:21), Replicas In Wool (3:40), Plague Upon Worthlessness (6:15), Joining Silently (3:31), Seasons Of The Bitch (8:15), Smelly Tune (3:36)
DPRP have reviewed a previous album entitled The Rolling Court Massacre. However the Procosmian Fannyfiddlers have, with this-their fifth-album, presented something of a thorny problem for this reviewer.
The music (a blend of very folkish rock with full-on prog rock in the manner of Gentle Giant, Jethro Tull, Gnidrolog, Anglagard and a host of Scandinavian bands) is mostly very good, with a few excellent moments (some superb Mellotron blasts, lashings of fiddles and some intricate guitar lines and melodies). The female vocals are also pretty good, recalling Maddy Prior, but are a little shaky in places. The band even weighs in with that prog staple, the 20 minute epic, full of complex time switches and mood shifts. The standard of musicianship is reasonably high, with only one or two moments having a slightly amateurish quality, showing that this is a band attempting to stretch a little beyond their abilities.
All of this may sound promising, but it is when you consider the lyrics that the problem raises its (very) ugly head.
On the second song, Hebbe Santos sings “I met a disgusting man who played in a band that sounds like "Steelye Span". As this is a pretty accurate description of PF’s signature sound, this leads one to believe that there are at least some autobiographical elements in the lyrics. I hope this does not hold true for the rest of the material, as they present some of the most scabrous, scatological and profane lyrical matter it has ever been my misfortune to encounter. My only term of reference would be Frank Zappa, but although he could be pretty outrageous, I don’t think even he ever sank as low as this. I assume that this is meant to be humorous and satirical, and I know there is a long tradition of bawdy songs in the folk genre, but these extremely explicit tales of bestiality and coprophaegea (which are overflowing (Uggh!!) with p*ss and sh*t and bizarre practises involving cows) are too over the top to be funny. Speaking as one who, in my youth, found much to enjoy in the obscene ramblings of Peter Cook and Dudley Moore (in their Derek And Clive guise) I can safely declare that I am no prude, rather, I think it is because the lyrics sit very uncomfortably atop the rather high-minded and intelligent music, making for a very queasy mixture indeed. Try as I might, I could not blot out the vocals, and often found myself cringing at the crudity of it all. There may well be some of you who will enjoy this. The fact that they’ve reached their fifth album would indicate that there is at least some market for it, unless they’ve got much cruder as they’ve gone on.
As it stands, and despite containing some very good prog/folk music, this remains a novelty item in very poor taste. For me, prog and porn just don’t mix - sorry guys.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Condition Red - II
Tracklist: The Warning (1:20), Eye Of A Storm (5:25), Cycles (5:03), Time Passes By (4:46), The Eagle's Return (3:03), It's Not Too Late (6:58), Rondo (3:24), Why Won't You Hear Me? (6:05), Seven Stars (3:42), Your Freedom (5:02), In / Out (2:19), Train Insane (4:21), Out Of The Red (2:12)
This new album does not have as many guest appearances as their previous release. The former Dream Theater keyboard player Derek Sherinian who made a guest appearance on Condition Red I takes no part in this album, and also Torgny Stjärnfelt, Esa Pietilä, Eddie Sledgehammer are not re-appearing on this album too. The current line-up is as follows: Ella Grussner (vocals, violin and flute), Gerald Kloos (drums), Alexander King (keyboards), Alex Masi (guitar) and Lars Eric Mattsson (guitars, bass and additional keys ).
Ella Grussner's violins on this album give a nice new touch to the prog metalish sound of the band. Musically this album is rock solid. These people understand how to make music. But again I am writing a review of an album that is nice and certainly not bad overall, however it doesn't swipe me off my feet. The compositions are good but not stunning - the real spark is missing here. One of the reasons for this is Ella Grussners voice: it is as if it does not quite fit the music. And then in some songs her voice is really good (and I mean really good) while in others it is no more than mediocre. The other reasons might be that this music is a sequence of smart solos without really delivering a complete sound. The solos on their own are good, maybe a bit too technical. The keyboards and guitars get an almost equal amount of soloing and both are of the speedy (but not trashy) kind.
Most of the tracks lack some imagination, they appear to be products of decent hard work, not of talent. With a line-up of people that have been in other (some even famous) bands this is somewhat of a disappointment. At first listen I would suggest: The Eagle's Return an up-tempo musical track of guitar tricks that turns out nicely. Some parts of it would best compare to Ayreon's Into The Electric Castle. To me this is the highlight of the album so if you don't even like that one I wouldn't bother to buy this album. Some parts of It's Not Too Late lean a little towards a number of gothic acts (a very little), so if you are into that you may also want to check this one out.
It might be advisable to first have a listen to the samples on the site mentioned above, maybe the music is highly appealing to you, but I heavily doubt it, given what other stuff has been released this year Condition Red does not really stand out of the crowd.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10