Reviews in this issue:
Zero Hour - Metamorphosis
Tracklist: Eyes Of Denial (4:43), The System Remains (7:22), Rebirth (5:49), Voice Of Reason (8:41), A Passage (2:25), Metamorphosis: I. Descent (3:45), Metamorphosis: II. Awaken (4:33), Metamorphosis: III. Union (5:44), Metamorphosis: IV. Solace (1:03), Metamorphosis: V. Ascent (2:04), Eyes Of Denial (Demo Version) (3:57), Jaded Eyes (Demo) (3:29)
A strange one this. I usually find it much easier to write about albums that hit it with me, than those for which less complimentary adjectives trip off the tongue. In the case of this disc, I've found it incredibly hard to actually sit down and put my thoughts onto paper. Each time I start writing, I end up going back to have another listen. Worried whether I'd missed something? Or worried about my ability to do it justice? Anyway I've finally got my wife to hide the CD for an evening, so let's not mess around anymore - America's Zero Hour are one of the finest exponents of pure Progressive Metal around at the moment and this release more than shows why.
This album, originally came out as an independent, self-titled EP/demo in 1998. With a run of just 2,100 copies, it quickly sold out and has for many years been eagerly sought by the band's growing fanbase. Now, Sensory has done the decent thing and credit where it's due, this is no simple re-release either. As well as totally new artwork, Metamorphosis has allowed the band to complete the three tracks they were unable to include the first time around because they'd run out of money. So we have two instrumental tracks and the stunning I>Rebirth - plus an early demo version of Eyes Of Denial thrown in for good measure.
Now, don't worry about the 'debut album' tag. This is top-notch material, beautifully recorded, and performed with huge skill. Zero Hour play Progressive Metal at the more intense, technical and heavier end of the spectrum. But Metamorphosis manages to remain accessible thanks to a huge dose of melody and a total lack of self-indulgence.
It's always hard to describe exactly why one album hits all the right buttons at all the right times - to me it often seems to be in the small details - the way a riff suddenly acquires an extra beat, a sudden bass run at the end of a vocal line, the way the drums embellish but don't over power, the subtle change in vocal tone or holding a note just that extra bit longer. The more I listen to this album, the more I appreciate how everything is done in just the right way at just the right time.
I know it's an often quoted comment but it really would be difficult to pick out the highlights on this album. However, the diamond in a box of jewels is the new track - Rebirth. Erik Rosvold has a stunning vocal range and the track is initially a showcase for his talent. He glides over piano and guitar in a swayingly, gentle opening that gives me goosebumps every time. The track suddenly moves up a few gears with a cool riff from the guitar of Jasun Tipton, a catchy bass run from his twin brother Troy and another great melody from Rosvold. Again there's loads of beautiful little touches and details, all held together by the powerful and inventive drumming of Mike Guy. We then end as we began with plucked guitar, piano and voice. Worth the price of the CD alone.
I must also mention the title track. It may clock in at over 16 minutes, but your attention never dips at all. The second part especially is a great piece of song writing.
Metamorphosis is certainly less metallic and less heavy than Towers... and therefore probably more accessible to a wide range of rock, metal and progressive music fans. Mid-period Rush and Parallels-period Fates Warning wouldn't be far off the mark, albeit it with a bit more complexity and a bit more oomph! A more accessible Power of Omens with a more accessible drummer perhaps?
One obvious contrast, is that the keys are far more prominent than on Towers... For me this adds an added dimension to the band's sound that I do miss from their last album - especially when the keys are used to exchange whiplash solos with Tipton's guitar or to add an extra, lighter layer to his riffing. There's also the frequent little keyboard runs - the little details - that add so much to a track's identity and a band's sound.
So, if you like Progressive Metal with a big heart that won't disappear up its own backside, then with Christmas looming why not go out and buy yourself an early present? Personally, the slightly more restrained power; the melodies and the clever use of the keyboards makes this an even more impressive listen than its successor. A truly stunning work and as it's now December I think I can safely say that this is my album of the year.
Zero Hour's "previous" album The Towers of Avarice was the first on the Sensory label, and now we can welcome a re-release by Sensory of this band's self-produced debut album. The debut album only contained 38 minutes of music, so another 16 minutes of music has been added for this re-release. A debut album, self-produced could have meant low quality sound, well in this case it is not! The production of this album is just perfect.
This is not an easy album, it took me a number of spins before I could grasp it, as this is a somewhat complex album. In most cases this means that there is a lot going on at the same time but not this album. Zero Hour is not a band that uses very complicated action packed solos to show off their musical skills. There is not one note too much on this album (and certainly not one too little either). The complexity of this album is not caused by all kinds of solos and things going on at the same time. It is the complexity of the compositions, a small group of notes here another one there. I found that especially the drum are the cause of this all. Mike Guy uses his drums not only for rhythm support of but also as a real solo instrument. That is of course a very good thing but mainly because of that it took me some time to appreciate the album. Less is more and modesty are words that describe this album best. It is as if each separate drum beat, guitar note and keyboard sound has been neatly placed exactly at the place it appears. I might make it seem as if this is mellow music to fall asleep on but that is not the case this is very vivid progmetal.
From the first few keyboard tones of Eyes Of Denial I knew that I had something new and original in my CD player. There are some recognisable metal guitar riffs in this song but they are used in a way that I had not heard them before. The voice of Erik Rosvold fits this music perfectly. Towards the end there are a number of high speed guitar riffs. If you read it like that it might come across as if Jasun Tipton is a high note density show-off but believe you me: he is not. The System Remains is the track that took the longest for me to understand, but after hearing it for the tenth time it did sink in. It leaps from one piece of music to another and then to another and then back to the first. So it has a high number of tempo changes in between a limited number of different pieces.
Rebirth has been my homing beacon during the time I was forming an opinion on this album. I liked it from the start and to me this is the most suprising track of 2003. It starts of as a mellow piano/guitar ballad but then the harmony of the voices climaxes to a high pitched scream and heavier guitars take over. In the case of Zero Hour this does not mean that the band just starts pumping without thinking but these guitars solos are filled with subtle notes. Voice Of Reason appears to start of as a more conventional progmetal track but because of sudden tempo changes it is not. It is as if they are stammering from tempo to tempo but again once I began to see the structure of this song it started making sense. And then A Passage, it is a piece of acoustic and electric guitar. How these guys are able to do speedy, almost trash metal like guitar loops without annoying me I don't know but they somehow manage. And not do the "not annoy" me but they make it a very very enjoyable experience.
Metamorphosis is made up of five separate tracks of which Awaken is my favourite, it has a sound that I like a lot: long stretched screaming guitar tones ( I might have mentioned them before ;-) ). This five part masterpiece does really show the complete potential of Zero Hour. I expect that every self respecting progmetal fan will like this example of musical craftmanship. Eyes Of Denial (Demo Version) is not too different from the first version on this album. Jaded Eyes (Demo) is a nice instrumental piece, with a lot of slashing metal guitars, to wrap up this album.
As with so many albums that need some extra time to grow, this album now really impresses me. The fact that I am not able to write down which band Zero Hour best compares to should speak for itself. This is original, well composed, superbly played progmetal. The kind that makes it all worth it. Although I am a bit reluctant to write down yet another high rating I just must. What can I do if they keep throwing albums of this quality at us. Only what I should: recommend this album to all people that are fond of progmetal.
Zero Hour - Towers of Avarice
Tracklist: The Towers of Avarice (7.50), The Subterranean (4.10), Stratagem (8.02), Reflections (3.55), Demise and Vestige (15.45), The Ghosts of Dawn (5.30)
One of the reasons I love going to festivals is the chance to discover 'new' bands and music. While the initial attraction will be the headliners, more often than not, it is one of the 'unknown' bands who end up being the most memorable of the weekend. Such was the case at the Headway Festival earlier this year. Freak Kitchen and Pain of Salvation were the main attractions, but it was Dutch band Morgana-X and US Progressive metallers Zero Hour who actually left the biggest impression.
Zero Hour was a lot of take in on a first listen but I was so impressed by their intense, passionate performance that I duly acquired a copy of their current album, Towers Of Avarice. It has turned out to be 14 euros very well spent. I will admit that it wasn't until the fourth or fifth listen - when I actually sat down with the lyric sheet and really listened to the whole package - that this album really clicked. Now I can safely say, that this is an astounding work.
The first point to make, is that Towers.. is a very different musical proposition compared to Metamorphosis. Basically it's heavier - several times over! The guitars of Jasun Tipton are right at the front of the mix and dominate almost every song. Meanwhile the keyboards, which shared the spotlight throughout the debut, are relegated to the substitutes bench - the equivalent of a last-minute substitution actually.
The first three tracks are all pretty much built on this basis. The first two, having no pause in the riff intensity at all. The third draws in a few more progressive elements but also goes to the other extreme with a passage that could've been lifted from Metallica's Justice For All.. sessions.
However it's on the fourth track that the band plays its trump card. Reflections is a remarkable, progressive ballad. Honest in it's simplicity, it comes as a total contrast to the rest of the album and superbly highlights that the band is not a one trick pony. It opens with a beautifully flowing guitar run - the sort that Chris De Garmo used to pull out of the hat - before Erik Rosvold's literally breathtaking vocals roll over the top and carry the delicate melody. It lasts for less than four minutes, but believe me this track is worth the price of the CD alone. The way it splits the album's heavier work in half, also makes it a clever piece of track listing.
Towers of Avarice is a concept album. However it is the type where the lyrics tell the story, not the music as a whole. The Orwellian story deals with a tale of industrial woe as, drawn to the only source of light and heat, a society becomes enslaved to a thoughtless industrial ideal. The towers' appetite for energy and progress is so great that human beings become its only remaining source of power. However outside lives the Subterranean, a self-proclaimed saviour who lives below the city and believes he alone can be the liberator. It's well told, doesn't over-power the music and clearly adds another dimension to the work.
The album's centrepiece is the story's centrepiece - the 15-plus-minutes of Demise and Vestige. It is here that Zero Hour best highlight why they stand apart from other band's lumped into the ProgMetal genre. Like the three opening tracks, this epic is really a composition rather than a 'song' - an ever-changing tapestry of musical ideas, each rising out of the one that comes before. However while many bands attempt such complex - almost classical - arrangements, few have ever managed to maintain such cohesion and thus maintain the listeners attention as Zero Hour have here.
They remind me regularly of early Rush. Heavier and more modern sounding of course - but the way the guitars and bass, and the bass and drums hammer out ever-changing riffs is as addictive as the Canadians were in their hay day. And throughout this album, the production by Dino Alden and the playing of the band is as tight as my tax inspector!
More than anything Demise.. is a showcase for the vocal talent that is EriK Rosvold. Reviewers often compare him to Geoff Tate. There are similarities but that doesn't tell the whole story. There's a certain rawness and edge to his voice that I like and he utilises a tremendous range - listen to the deep notes on Demise... Most importantly though, you get the feeling that he doesn't just hit the notes - he lives them.
The album closes with The Ghosts of Dawn, which with just voice, piano and keys, concentrates more on concluding the story than on the music. I'd have preferred the album to go out with a bit more of a bang but it's a valid way to bow out.
More accessible than Power of Omens and Watchtower, yet with more depth than Queensryche or Fates Warning, this album has firmly established Zero Hour as one of the finest exponents of pure progressive metal. As I said, this is one of those albums that you really have to sit down and really listen to. But from my experience, albums that take a little while to sink into your conscience, are generally those that you are still listening to in ten years time.
In terms of performance, raw talent and musical composition, this album will be a hard act to follow. I await the next instalment with interest. Until then, this will more than keep me happy.
Conclusion: 9+ out of 10
Thank You For Not Discussing the Outside World
Tracklist: The Zipper (2:58), Everybody’s Sneaking, Baby (4:03), Gagarin (3:18), What I Am Today (4:14), Vanity Fair (5:56), Melancholic Outs (3:41), Gone For Subway Gods (5:32), Beausoleil (5:02), Mono Hotel (2:03), Hey Joe/Ads (8:32)
Audiac are the young German duo of Alex Wiemer (Bass, Vocals) and Niklas David (Keyboards) assisted by Rudi Leichtle (Drums) and Brandow (Programming). This, their first CD, was recorded and produced by Hans Joachim Irmler (of Avantgarde/Industrial/Krautrock pioneers Faust). Audiac share Faust’s rule breaking experimentalism if not their sound or style. There is also a similar use of the studio as instrument and some Avant/Industrial touches.
The overall feel is of downbeat electronica fused with European Art music, with a minimalistic approach, creating a surreal, dreamy atmosphere. The pervasive mood is of melancholia and romantic desolation. The vocals have a sultry quality – a kind of fin-de siecle world-weariness – which in places sound like Russel Mael (of quirky Pop Duo Sparks) on a particularly heavy dose of downers. Be warned, though, that there is none of Sparks’ playful exuberance or danceability here.
It is not all doom and gloom; there is an (admittedly austere) air of quite beauty running through this, with some exquisite piano melodies amongst the mechanical beats. I found this to be an interesting detour off the progressive highway onto a less travelled but relatively new road. It may appeal to fans of Radiohead’s more radical material or possibly fans of Icelandic explorers Sigur Ros or Mum.
The best tracks are: Everybody’s Sneaking, Baby which fuses an orchestral feel with electro beats and a gorgeous vocal performance to create a small hours atmosphere that is melodic and adventurous at the same time, and which has a cool organ passage towards the end. Vanity Fair featuring looping accordion sounds and some strange wordless vocalising as well as spoken word samples, giving a futuristic sound. I was reminded of the way Bill Nelson makes extensive use of samples and Drum’N’Bass rhythms in his recent work AND the radical reworking of the perennial folk standard Hey Joe. This treatment really works for me, breathing new life into an overused chestnut, for the first time highlighting the desolation that must surely follow such an act of driven desperation. Towards the end it mutates into quite a different song, with Industrial grinding riffs imbuing the piece with a feel of real menace. This is the highlight of the album for me.
This disc is well worth a listen for fans of the bands I’ve mentioned and anyone seeking a fresh twist on bed-sitter balladry with an electronic slant for the new millennium. I would say it will have limited appeal and therefore is probably a “try before you buy” item.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Opus Est - Opus 1
Tracklist: The Bonfires (4:18), Ventis Rem Tradere (5:56), A Walk After Dark (6:43), Times (8:39), Miss Gee (4:41), O What Is That Sound (7:40), If I Could Tell You (2:32), Mirrorcle (9:46), Another Time (5:02), The Witnesses (8:42), No Change Of Place (live) (6:47)
Originally formed in 1975 as Krishna, guitarist Kent Olofsson, drummer Anders Olofsson (no relation!) and bassist Torbjörn Svensson began their musical career mostly playing improvised jazz-rock in the style of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Over the next three years they gradually began composing more structured material that relied less on jazz influences and started to demonstrate the more progressive aspects of bands such as Yes and ELP. By the late 1970s the trio realised that in order to complete their musical vision they needed to expand their line up and so recruited their friend Håkan Nilsson on vocals and, after a long search, Kent's 14-year-old brother Leif Olofsson on keyboards. Thus, with a full compliment of musicians and a name change to Opus Est, the quintet was set to take the Swedish music scene by storm. However, things didn't quite turn out as they envisaged. Spending all of their time rehearsing and composing, and very little time gigging, it all became too much for Torbjörn Svensson who quit the band in early 1982. Ironically, a few months later the four-piece Opus Est won a band competition organised by a national radio station, the prize being the loan of a mobile recording studio for a week. Taking the opportunity to record as much material as possible, the group laid down seven tracks in five days, which combined with the three tracks they had recorded for the original radio competition, gave them over an hours worth of professionally recorded music. Almost as an afterthought, the band privately pressed 500 copies of Opus 1 featuring eight of the recordings (the other two tracks being omitted because of the limitations of vinyl). However, by the end of 1983 the band had ground to a halt - lack of success (not really surprising considering the lack of concert performances [estimated to be a total of less than 25 concerts in their entire history] and the limited availability of the album) yet almost constant rehearsals had taken their toll.
The album is predominantly a musical interpretation of the writings of WH Auden, the 20th century English poet, whose works are used as lyrics in eight of the eleven tracks. The major instrumentation is provided by keyboards, unsurprising as the majority of the music was written by Leif Olofsson, who was, remarkably, still a teenager at the time. The guitar only really comes to the fore in the pieces that were written by Kent Olofsson - the hard rocking Times, which has an opening reminiscent of early Rush, and the more acoustic If I Could Tell You. The only other Kent composition on the original album was Mirrorcle, which is in the style of mid-period Yes. This is one of the tracks that features original lyrics, again by Kent, who originally started writing music to classical poetry as he "found it hard to write lyrics that were good enough for the music." (He was right!)
Ironically, I found the most interesting tracks to be Another Time and The Witnesses, both joint musical compositions by the Olofsson brothers. Both are more balanced pieces that were inexplicably left off the original LP! Drummer Anders Olofsson, who also wrote the lyrics to Ventis Rem Tradere and Times, is worthy of particular attention, providing a very dynamic and inventive backdrop to the songs, particularly on O What Is That Sound and Miss Gee where his work rate around the kit leaves the almost pedestrian keyboards in the shade. In my opinion there are two main drawbacks with the album, the compositions by Leif Olofsson are fairly naive and all seem to be in the same tonal range - several tracks seemed to blend into one. This is confounded by vocalist's Håkan Nilsson's delivery which, I found, quite bland and lacking in any real emotion (to be frank, I don't like his voice at all - comparisons with the excellent Peter Hammill are not only unfounded but seriously misplaced!). It is not helped that the vocals are very high in the mix, making it very difficult to hear a lot of the instrumentation. But to be fair, singing poetry, particularly that written in a foreign tongue, is not the easiest of undertakings, a lot of the subtle nuances in the language is easily lost and maintaining the correct metre whilst providing an interesting musical score is a challenge that does not often succeed. Where the band is able to let loose, particularly in the longer compositions such as Times and O What Is That Sound, there are some very interesting moments. The band could cut it live as well, as the final bonus track No Change Of Place demonstrates. It is a tribute to the musicianship (and regular rehearsal) that, with the exception of some unintentional feedback and a spot of reverb on the vocals, it is hard to differentiate between it and the studio tracks.
On the whole, Opus 1 is a decent enough album considering the circumstances of its genesis. It is no slight that the album did not 'click' with me, my DPRP colleague Jerry Van Kooten dotes on this album (indeed, he was instrumental in the album being reissued and even wrote the booklet notes!). This current, and deserved, reissue on the influential Musea Label, complete with an extra 20 minutes of material, should attract a new generation of listeners, specially considering the current progressive music scene in Sweden.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
XII Alfonso - El Canto De Las Piedras
Tracklist: Bewitching Stones (3.15), Song Of The Stones (part 1: Trance) (1.09), Hand-Prints (1.00), Anima (2.13), Red Hands, Black Hands (1.33), Song Of The Stones (part: Journey) (2.26), Born Again (2.28), Song Of The Stones (part 3: Vision) (2.31), Fertility (1.22), Call Of The Ancestors (3.51), Initiation (1.14), Song Of The Stones (part 4: Return) (3.24), The Power Of Ochre (2.00), The Dance Of The Bull-Headed Man (2.07), Origins Of Time (4.11), Invisible Presence (4.11)
On the album Odyssees French band XII Alfonso recorded one track which was entirely played in a cave, using the stalactites and rocks as musical instruments.
During the recording of their first Claude Monet album, they were approached by the Altamira Museum in Lugo, Spain to record a whole album of 'music' in a cave in southern France.
The album was originally only available through the museum (as a nameless project), and accompanied an exposition on paleolithic music research. However, increased demand has prompted Musea to re-release the album under the XII Alfonso moniker.
François Clarhout, Philippe Claerhout and Thierry Moreno, who together form XII Alfonso, were aided by four more friends to play the compositions live in the cave, without having to use overdubs or studio enhancements of any kind.
Apart from using the stalactites in the cave (so called Litophones), the band also used prehistoric instruments like bone whistles, Jew's harp and wooden drums and the occasional use of shamanic chants.
The music sounds indeed like museum music. The type of music that is played softly accompanying a prehistoric exposition or documentary, without a real melody or structure. In that respect it is certainly not everybody's cup of tea and would normally not be reviewed on this site, were it not for the band. I shall therefore refrain from giving it a numerical rating from a DPRP viewpoint.
I would however recommend fans of the ambient and new age, or people interested in hearing something completely different and original, to check this album out.
Conclusion: Not Rated