Reviews in this issue:
Etcetera - Tales Of Ardour & Deceit
Tracklist: The Song Of Marsh Stig (a. Premonition, b. Deceit, c. Despair, d. Outlaw) (16:27), Songs (4:11), Kentish Suite (8:17), The Lady Of Castela (a. Ines de Castro, b. Dom Pedro) (7:40), Lament (3:58), The Ghost Of Yang Part 1 (a. Ardour, b. Nepotism, c. War And Escape) (11:37), The Exit (3:42), The Ghost Of Yang Part 2 (3:39)
Apparently there is only one Danish progressive rock band that is currently active - Etcetera. Fortunately, they are a great, if relatively obscure, little combo! The group have been around, in one form or another since mid 1986, although the only constant member is composer and multi-instrumentalist Frank Carvalho. Amazingly, recording sessions for Tales of Ardour & Deceit started way back in 1999 and although recording was completed in June 2001, problems with mixing meant that delivery of the album to the record label did not occur to February 2002 and further unforeseeable events delayed release for another 20 months. If the problems beset by the band over the release of this album is anything to go by, it is not surprising that in their seventeen year history they have only managed to release two albums and two collections of demos!
A core duo of Frank Carvalho (guitars, bass, vocals, synthesisers and organ) and original drummer Johnnie McCoy were responsible for most of the music on the album, although original vocalist Michael Munch-Hansen sings on the opening track and Per Solgaard (now the full-time bassist of the band) adds Moog to Kentish Suite.
The album kicks off with the impressive The Song Of March Stig. Split into four distinct sections - Premonition (powerful yet melodic), Deceit (more laid back, some great guitar), Despair (heavier, industrial and a church organ!) and Outlaw (a summation of the previous parts) - the song relates the 13th century Norwegian tale of Marsh Stig who, in revenge for the rumoured rape of his wife, assassinated King Eric Klipping, was outlawed and eventually killed following a life of plunder and piracy Featuring a couple of sympathetic interludes from guest saxophonist Torsten Hagemann, the piece hangs together well - nice to see a band open with an epic! Songs starts with vocals and electric piano and has a very Gentle Giant feel to it, particularly in the vocal arrangement. A truly lovely piece of music, I haven't heard anyone do something like, or as good as, this in years. The Gentle Giant style continues with the opening bars of the instrumental Kentish Suite, a staccato rhythm with keyboards and guitars battling it out for prominence. More saxophones and some classic Hammond organ by Asger Baden-Bensen, the fourth, and final, musician to guest on the album, fill out the sound. Although there are some fascinating sections in this piece, I found that overall it was a bit long, the quiet middle section being rather too extended in my opinion. However, its starts and ends with intent!
A change of pace, and location, as we travel to Portugal for the setting of The Lady Of Castela. Another instrumental track, consisting of two themes, one for the murdered Inês de Castro, the lady of the title, and the second for her lover Dom Pedro, heir to the throne. Each theme is beautifully played and the acoustic sections bear comparison to early Ant Phillips: cleverly, the end of the second theme draws away from the acoustic with some contrasting electric guitar that leads perfectly into Lament which, despite being a separate track, could arguably be considered as a third theme in The Lady Of Castela - it fits musically and also in terms of the story. The final three tracks, again all instrumental, are also worth considering as a trilogy. A musical rendition of the story of Yang Guifei, the 9th century mistress of the Chinese emperor Xuanzong, it is another sad tale of love and death. The moods evoked by the pieces are loosely related to the story, although knowledge of the tale is not a prerequisite for listening to the music! The Ghost Of Yang part 1 is predominantly keyboard based with some interesting synthesiser Mellotron sounds at the beginning while The Exit is basically an extended guitar solo. The Ghost Of Yang part 2 is the end of the tale and features synthesised representations of "the wind at the slopes of the Mawai village" in which "you can still hear the cries of Yang begging for mercy."
I really liked this album: music that was well written, arranged and played, tales that were historically interesting and thought provoking, and to top it all packaging that was well designed and laid out. It is a real shame that apparently progressive rock is held in less reverence than it is in England as this band have a lot to offer. I, for one, am going to try and track down their other CDs.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Thieves’ Kitchen – Shibboleth
Tracklist: The Picture Slave (5:00), De Profundis (12:36), Cardinal Red (6:35), Spiral Bound (4:58), Chovihani Rise (23:50), Surface Tension (13:18)
Thieves’ Kitchen are a British band who are now on to their third album, although this is the first I’ve heard. Probably the most well-known member of the band is drummer Mark Robotham, formerly of Grey Lady Down. This led me to expect an album in the neo-prog vein, which this emphatically isn’t. Describing what it is however is a little more difficult!
Broadly speaking, this fits (fairly loosely) into the prog-fusion category. There are some valid comparisons to be made with the well-known seventies acts in this vein such as Soft Machine and Hatfield And The North, but more helpful references include contemporaries such as Sphere3 and, in particular, the now-defunct Echolyn offshoot Finneus Gauge, particularly due to the darker nature of some of the music, and the use of a female vocalist. Another major influence is undoubtedly King Crimson, particularly their early to mid seventies (Lark’s Tongues/ Starless/ Red) era.
On their previous albums the band had a male singer, but they now employ the excellent Amy Darby, whose voice bears favourable comparisons with Joni Mitchell – and as Mitchell is one of my favourite female vocalists, this is high praise indeed. The band’s jazz influence primarily comes from keyboardist Wolfgang Kindl, who comes from this background, whilst guitarist Phil Mercy has a very fluid style which at times is reminiscent of Allan Holdsworth. Together with bassist Andy Bonham’s time spent playing in hard rock bands and Robotham’s more conventional prog background this combines to make a potent and very individual brew; whilst acknowledging the influences mentioned above, you would have to say the band have succeeded in carving out a niche all of their own.
The pieces on Shibboleth are split 50/50 between short (in relative terms) tracks and lengthy epics. As you might expect, the shorter tracks are the more accessible: The Picture Slave and Cardinal Red are both upbeat, slightly quirky numbers with strong choruses and driving, choppy rhythms (with the latter featuring a short (and uncharacteristic) organ solo very much in the Tony Banks vein), whilst the more sombre, balladic Spiral Bound serves as an excellent showcase for Darby’s vocal talents.
The three epics, meanwhile, take a little longer to get to grips with. The general structure of these doesn’t bear too much comparison with some of the better known prog epics, which often tend to be six or seven short and distinct tracks joined together; these are very much self-contained songs, with distinctive, consistent and repeated musical themes and motif’s. The strongest of these (and my favourite of the album) is the excellent De Profundis, which counterbalances a generally mellow feel with some darker tones, noticeably a slow-burning guitar riff which gradually creeps into the song and into your head. This is one occasion where I missed the presence of some real woodwind and brass – there’s an excellent flute-like synth motif which crops up throughout the track which just cries out for the real thing. Maybe next time…
As good as the album is, it’s not entirely above criticism. Chovihani Rise, effectively two songs (one at the start and the end, and another in-between), has some fantastic moments but does rather outstay its welcome at this length, whilst Surface Tension, despite a powerful (and relatively heavy) opening section and some great guitar/ organ duels, ultimately doesn’t seem to gel. Also, some of the vocals (good as they are) don’t seem to quite fit the melodies, making for some awkward passages where it seems the lyrics were added as an afterthought.
Really though, these are fairly minor criticisms of what is, by any standards, a strong release. Fans of prog-fusion will certainly want to have this, whilst its relative accessibility means that I would encourage all prog rock fans with open minds and a taste for something a bit different to give this a try.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
R H Factor - R H Factor
Tracklist: Behold The Blue Sky (5:41), Sign Of A Mystic Moon (5:08), Extrinsic (6:11), Miracle Of A Great Device (5:22), Lifetime (6:18), No Sale's Final (3:14), Game Of Chance (4:47), Handed Down (5:43), Winter In July (7:05)
You can’t keep a good band down!
R H Factor is the project of Kevin Hultberg (formerly of X-it) on bass and vocals, together with the prolific Rodler brothers (veterans of such estimable prog bands as Leger De Main, Gratto and Mythologic to name but three), Chris on guitars and Brett on drums.
The disc to hand was originally recorded in 1991 for cassette-only release, and was revamped and re-recorded for CD in 1998. Chris Rodler, the brains behind the PMM label, is currently re-promoting the recording, hence the appearance of this review.
So, as it would seem that this is a disc that is just not going to go away- until we’ve all bought a copy – now may seem as good a time as any to take the plunge. If you do, you will be rewarded with an accomplished set of highly charged, intricate prog rock, blending elements of Rush, Dream Theater and Yes into a potent brew. Whilst always full of complex arrangements and fiendishly convoluted time signatures, the songs are also full of winning melodies.
Hultberg has a strong voice, which he projects with gusto. Occasionally he reminds me of the singer with Grobschnitt, more often there’s a John Wetton or Greg Lake vibe. Instrumentally, the performances are top-notch and everyone gets plenty of room to display their considerable chops. They all play with the skill of the best jazz fusion players, but keep things much closer to the rock camp than to jazz.
I found myself favouring different tracks at each playing, but here are some highlights:
- No Sale’s Final is an energetic instrumental, which has something of a Dixie Dregs quality.
- Extrinsic features some tortuously tight playing, particularly in the drum department, with some very nice chiming guitar parts, and a vocal melody that Sting would be proud of. (Not that Sting or The Police ever attempted anything quite so complex as this)
- Miracle of Great Device has a very Rush like opening and includes some superb deep bass runs. The chorus is especially engaging, with great harmony vocals. Tom Black provides some nice keyboard colouration on this and three other tracks. Gary Madras gives a similarly sterling performance on Behold The Blue Sky and three others.
- Winter In July is worthy of mention for a guitar break that could have been lifted from Close To The Edge.
These songs are all ones that repay repeated listens, with rich arrangements that gradually reveal their hidden charms. Despite the influences cited above, I wouldn’t class this as prog metal, even though there are elements of the sound that could be traced directly back to Deep Purple and bands of that ilk, and Rush and Dream Theater are definitely in evidence. At the end of the day, RH Factor is a trio of seasoned musicians, who manage to create their own identity and show off their abilities without losing sight of what it is that makes a good song. This slow burning CD should (eventually) find and please a large audience.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Robbie Rox - Earl Owns The World
Tracklist: Bumper Stocker People (4:11), Earl Owns The World (4:44), Everyone's Gone Rhinoceros (7:14), Ding Dong, Ding Dong, Who's That Ringing? (6:17), I Don't Wanna Play (3:01), Albert (5:06), Ever Been To Sea Billy? (7:31), And The Alien Twitched (8:34)
Do you fancy something a bit different? Do you believe that humour does belong in music? Want a bit of a giggle while listening to some interesting and well-played music? Miss the narrative tales as performed by Frank Zappa and his various ensembles? If you answered yes to any of these questions then I have a suggestion...check out Earl Owns The World the new CD by Robbie Rox & The Monster Horn Band.
Unbelievably, Canadian Robbie Rox has had a musical career that spans a third of a century during which time he has produced twelve idiosyncratic albums. Starting out in Quebec in 1970 as a local opening act for visiting American and European bands (notably Mitch Ryder & The Detroit Wheels and Gentle Giant), Rox has spent the past 33 years touring Canada with a variety of bands and indulging in all sorts of musical theatre. The Monster Horn Band was originally formed in 1984 and lasted for three years before Rox took a break to write and produce a musical called Ever Been To Sea Billy and then getting side-tracked by a couple of other band projects - Cazzotto and The Rude Band. Finally, in 2000, the charismatic performer reformed The Monster Horn Band and set about recording Earl Owns The World that also sees a return to elements of the "Ever Been To Sea Billy" musical.
The album itself simply defies categorisation, which, I have no doubt, is very much intentional. The nine-piece band (drums, bass, keyboards, guitar, trumpet, trombone, saxophone, flute and vocals) is very tight and switches between musical genres with consummate ease. The album opens with Bumper Sticker People which riles at people who demonstrate their humour (or lack of it), ideals and politics by sticking stupid slogans on their cars... "Fish eaters make better lovers" indeed. A very funky number with a great combination of the horns, Hammond organ and a biting guitar solo. And that is just the starting point! The rest of the album is quite simply a musical adventure, a listening odyssy. Lyrical inspiration throughout the album is derived from a variety of sources - a Romanian playwright (Rhinoceros), old television commercials (Albert and Ever Been To Sea Billy) and even the Alien films (And The Alien Twitched). However, in each case there is a subtle twist to the tale, the lyrics become an incisive stab at the original premise which results in a mostly wry, often humorous and generally thought provoking read.
The standard of musicianship is extremely high, the years of touring is certainly evident from the tightness that the band achieves. The arrangements are imaginative and full, but still allow room for the pieces to breathe. That is partly thanks to the crystal clear production (by guitarist Jono Grant and drummer Vito Rezza) that allows each instrument to shine through, the separation between instruments is as good as on any major label release that probably cost a good deal more to record.
Overall, it is the fact that this album is so different from anything I have heard in recent years that makes it stand out. The insertions of narrative, as in the 'Twilight Zone' interludes in Rhinoceros and the extraterrestrial conversations in And The Alien Twitched add to the enjoyment of the album. Zappa freaks should lap this up and anyone partial to a bit of rhythm and blues tinged progressive jazz rock all served up with a healthy dose of funky swing will not be disappointed. You never know, this could be the start of the rock opera revival!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10 (for the adventurous and open minded, a bit lower for the prog purists!)
Dead Air Radio - Strange Frequencies
Tracklist: Reach (7:23), Gathering The Flies (5:26), Killing Pace (4:20), I.M.T (5:01), Trying To Remember (8:56), The Real Me (8:40)
Dead Air Radio is a three piece band originating from Nashville, USA. However, on this album, Strange Frequencies, a fourth musician is mentioned: Dean Mares - who plays the bass. Currently DAR are seeking a bassist and keyboardist. As the band states their music "fuses elements of progressive rock found in Dream Theater, Rush, and Yes with the heavier sounds of Tool and Metallica".
Some of the songs indeed fit that description but not all of them. I find the links to Yes and Tool the hardest to understand. Especially because these bands make pretty complex music and my first impression of Dead Air Radio was that they make music that is a bit too straightforward. It's all a bit heavy and at times appears it is more hard rock than anything else. And maybe the higher pitched (at times even screeching voice) of Bill Givens sounds like Geddy Lee (but only a little) it is not enough to mention Rush.
This album, for me, did not kick in, and it did not get better with a number of spins. It is all decent musicianship and in each song there are some moments that are more interesting than others, but all in all Bill Givens' voice is the thing that turns me off most.
Reach has a lot of rougher pumping guitars at the start and that's almost all that there is to this seven minutes song. Only the keyboards in the chorus break up this song a little, and the short silences also could have made this an interesting song, if it wasn't for the lifeless guitar blows. Gathering The Flies compares most to a Rush song but the subtlety that is promised in the first part is beaten down by the guitars in the rest of the track. Killing Pace is the ballad that seems to be necessary for all self respecting metal bands - that fact might make it less original but I must say that I do like the song, it is the track that I remembered best from this album.I.M.T also has a nice intro that you forget easily because of the music that follows. Trying To Remember is a sudden wake-up call: this is an excellent track! After its nice intro it has a more creative build-up. It still has heavier guitars but that's fine to me. It is somewhat complex and not too easy. Why did they not come up with an whole album like this? The Real Me at first seems to go back to where we have already been, hard rock guitar without too much creativity, but this track also has a decent build up and a number of interesting parts.
Some reviews are hard to write and to me this was one of them, I have listened to this album a number of times but still am not able to whistle, hum or sing more than one track off the album. The hard part for me was to find out the reason behind that: It is a combination of the hard fanciless guitar with the voice of sometimes just too high pitched voice of Bill Givens. Because it's music is not badly played (they are good musicians) there must be an audience for this music. I find it hard to give pointers. Maybe if you like the older Dream Theater more than the Dream Theater of Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, combined with a great fondness of the more straightforward tracks by Rush. Just try out the first track Reach and if you like that, you will probably like the complete album.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10