Reviews in this issue:
Jethro Tull - The Jethro Tull Christmas Album
Tracklist: A Birthday Card At Christmas (3:37), Holly Herald (4:16), A Christmas Song (2:47), Another Christmas Song (3:31), God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (4:35), Jack Frost And The Hooded Crow (3:37), Last Man At The Party (4:48), Weathercock (4:17), Pavane (4:19), First Snow On Brooklyn (4:57), Greensleeved (2:39), Fire At Midnight (2:26), We Five Kings (3:16), Ring Out The Solstice Bells (4:04), Bourée (4:25), A Winter Snowscape (4:57)
I must confess that I tend to like Christmas to happen in December and not one who feels comfortable with the fervent hype urging us buy this years "Buzz Lightyear" just as Autumn closes its doors. However one small round object did spark an early glimmer of the festive season within me back in November of this year. This of course was The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, which triggered a little Yuletide cheer into my heart. As the weeks have passed and the frenzy that is known as Christmas has been blugeoned into my mind, Tull's album has enjoyed more and more spins in my CD player. If nothing else it offers some respite from A Spaceman Came Travelling, With Mistletoe & Wine, and Wishing it Could be Christmas Everyday!!. Heaven forbid!
But enough of this humbug and to the task in hand, an appraisal of Tull's Christmas offering. I must admit to having a few missgivings, prior to the first spin of the CD, but fear not as this is not a hastily re-compiled effort designed to cash-in on the mood of the moment. Rather more a collection of new and old; re-worked and re-vamped; traditional and contemporary pieces of music with a common Yuletide bond. Perhaps I should have had a little more faith in Messrs Anderson and Co - trusting in the integrity they have shown over many a decade.
The album opens admirably with a Birthday Card At Christmas, a track which could have graced any latterday Tull album, followed by the first of the seasonal tunes. A truly up-lifting interpretation of The Holly And The Ivy, gleaning much of its charm from the mainly acoustic arrangement. But never a band to keep things simple the track bustles along with lapses into off-beat rhythms, whilst picking-up the odd organ solo here and there.
From the fanciful to bitter-sweet as we are once again Living In The Past, some 31 years in the past with A Christmas Song. The track remains fairly faithful to the original. This poignant reminder that Christmas is not all turkey and tinsel is upheld as Another Christmas Song unfolds. Ian Anderson leads us once more to the traditional, with a gentle jazzy arrangement of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen. Perhaps a little tongue in cheek - although I have to say I loved this ditty, especially the little section with Jonathan Noyce and Ian ramping things up.
For those who favoured the folk/rock period(s) of Jethro Tull then this album will greatly appeal. The excellent Jack Frost And The Hooded and Last Man At The Party reminiscent of mid 70's Tull. Splendid vocal arrangements and the strong Elizabethan references. In fact most of the album drew references from this earlier Tull period, which is probably why I enjoyed the tracks so much. Tull's arrangement of Gabriel Fauré's Pavane provided one of the more intense and beautiful moments from the album, although I was less enamoured by the somewhat sickly First Snow of Brooklyn. The delightful Greensleeved and We Five Kings quickly restored things to their rightful place.
The second of the tracks from Songs From The Wood and possibly one of the more obvious choices for the album as we Ring Out Solstice Bells. The ever popular Tull classic Bourée, receives another splendid re-working before all is concluded with a gentle Martin Barre instrumental, A Winter Snowscape, the instrumentation of acoustic guitars, flute and keyboards nicely capturing a snowy winters day. Even the cover captures the mood, reminiscent of a Christmas card - and who's that figure entertaining the sheep?
Opinions I have read have been somewhat mixed over this latest release from the Tull camp, but there again when are they not! Personally I found this Christmas offering a welcome addition to the Tull collection. Granted it may not be another Thick As A Brick, Songs From The Wood or Roots To Branches, but I strongly believe it was never intended as such. As it stands it is a splendid Christmas album, with more than enough merit to be played at Easter, in the middle of summer or even Yom Kippur.
As it really is Christmas Eve, it is time for me to put the children's stockings on the mantlepiece before retiring to bed. Finally, one last task before signing off is to give a DPRP thumbs up to this album!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
"Hey, Santa: pass us that bottle, will you?"
Rick Wakeman - Christmas Variations
Tracklist: Silent Night (4:36), Hark The Herald Angels Sing (6:19), Christians Awake Salute The Happy Morn (7:02), Away In A Manger (5:28), While Shepherds Watch Their Flocks By Night (5:33), O Little Town Of Bethlehem (6:06), It Came Upon A Midnight Clear (5:14), Once In Royal David’s City (4:58), O Come All Ye Faithful (5:17), Angels From The Realms Of Glory (4:27)
I have always considered Rick Wakeman to be one of the best keyboard players in the world and his role in one of my favourite symphonic rock bands (Yes) has always been crucial and extremely important. As a solo musician his best work was made in the seventies, e.g. with his superb first solo album The Six Wives Of Henry 8, an album that sold a staggering 10,000,000 copies worldwide!! His second solo album Journey To The Centre Of The Earth (1974), again was a brilliant album, featuring a rock band , The London Symphony Orchestra and The English Chamber Choir. His third one, The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table was also a musical and commercial success, but then I lost track of his solo career, unfortunately…..
To my great surprise Rick released a marvellous new solo album in March of this year, called Out There. Wakeman and band, together with the New English Rock Ensemble, proved with this excellent prog rock album that he still knows how to make a progressive album in 2003. A highly successful UK tour followed and now Rick releases his “new” album.
Originally this album Christmas Variations was released in 2000, but I think that almost nobody knew about this... So, three years later Rick tries it again, a Christmas album with 10 well-known songs, such as O Come All Ye Faithful, Silent Night or It Came Upon A Midnight Clear. It really is a “simple” album, and Rick’s performance is effective and atmospheric, and as Rick points out himself: “I love Christmas carols, beautiful melodies that even the ardent atheist seems to enjoy singing.” So listen and enjoy, but it is not my cup of tea, I would much rather listen to his other stuff, even at Christmas time.
No. This is not what I expected. What did I expect? A warm and gentle selection of Christmas songs, played on a grand piano with some strings maybe behind it. Music to have your family Christmas dinner to. But as much as I like Rick Wakeman, as the well known musician that he is, this one is a missed chance.
The combination of Mellotron and Christmas don't do it for me. This album isn't exactly new, I think it was released last year also, with a different cover (a snow-owl) so I guess Mascot Records somehow saw the chance to re-release it for the season. It just lacks the right atmosphere, it's as simple as that.
The selection of the songs or carols, as Wakeman sees them in the liner notes is not that good either. I personally have never heard of Away In Manger, Once In Royal David's City or Angels From The Realms Of Glory. Maybe they are traditionals in the UK? I wouldn't know, they are Christmas songs allright but not the ones I love to drink my hot cocoa to under the mistletoe.
So if you are a Yes fan, and if you can find it (because it is out of print), you would do better to put on Jon Anderson's Three Ships, which is a wonderful and joyous Christmas album. Don't E-Bay for this one, the offers for the original CD range up to $80 sometimes. Maybe if you Google for this one you will find a fan who's willing to share it for copying cost only - as it is out of print so you are not harming anyone.
Wakeman has a solo catalogue of over 120 albums? when 30% are really good it still makes a score of 36 albums. This album isn't among them.
Art Of Infinity - New Horizon
Tracklist: The Dragons Flight (1:25), Ocean In Space (4:20), Written In The Sand (3:35), Three Days Winter (8:45), Evolution (21:04)
Tracklist: All Galaxies Sun (2:20), Cosmic Rain (5:12), Supernova (5:19), Passing The Pulsar (5:55), Drift Upon The Sky (14:15), Lightyears (2:35), Planet Dawn (5:05), Trimelar Starflight (11:55)
If the blandness of a lot of the modern ambient (or 'chill out' music to use modern parlance) leaves you somewhat cold but you still hanker for something relaxing to soothe the pressures of life, the universe and everything, German duo Art Of Infinity may have the solution. Their two albums, New Horizon, released in 2000, and the brand new Dimension Universe, offer a blend of "cosmic ambience" that provide a more substantive take on this genre of music.
Formed in 1996 by Thorsten Sudler-Mainz (keyboards, vocals, guitar, percussion, programming) and Thorsten Rentsch (keyboards, guitar, bass, vocals, percussion, programming), the duo's first album, New Horizon, was released four years later and gained wide-spread recognition, even resulting in the album being included amongst the in-flight entertainment programme of a renowned airline. Album opener, The Dragon's Flight, is very Floydian, a sustained keyboard chord overlaid with a sax solo (by Stefan Höllering one of several guest musicians on the album) that would not be out of place on Wish You Were Here. The short introductory piece leads into Ocean In Space which, with the female chant-like vocals and Celtic influences, is reminiscent of early Mike Oldfield. Written In The Sand, a simple wash of keyboards with a spoken lyric, is lifted by a sympathetic saxophone solo which saves the piece from being largely forgettable. The spoken vocals are continued in Three Days Winter although this time they are embellished with ethereal female backing vocals. A very nasty edit cuts the track after approximately two minutes (I initially thought there was a fault in the CD!) resigning the remainder of the piece to a mass of synthesisers that really fall into 'New Age' territory. Things pick up towards the end of the track and, once again, good use of saxophone provides suitable contrast. However, overall this is probably the weakest track on the album meandering for too long.
The final track, Evolution, is a soundscape of epic proportions. Very evocative, it is not surprising that the piece has been used to accompany a documentary film. Once again the vocals are spoken which can be rather grating, but are in the main masked by synth washes and the marvellous multi-layered vocals of Eva Wolf. Things get a little bit lost mid way (think of Pink Floyd's Echoes as a template), where the more dramatic music may have provided atmospherics to accompany visuals but tend to break the mood that the earlier part of the piece evokes. That is the problem with the track as a whole, it lacks the consistency of mood to make it a totally laid-back accompaniment for meditating one's naval but the changes in tempo and style are not dramatic enough to make it a stand-out long form composition. A brave debut effort, none the less.
On Dimension Universe Art Of Infinity had reconvened with most of the contributors to their first album but have added BAP guitarist Klaus Heuser and even have a real drummer for the first time. Once again the album opens with the short preface piece All Galaxies Sun which sets the tone, accenting instrumentation this time being the dobro and acoustic guitar. Cosmic Rain is a more up-beat number (very drum 'n' bass) with Antje Schultz providing the main vocals. Rick Wright's influence is all over Supernova but the addition of live drums and an expert guitarist really make their mark. Despite the piece not having a rigid structure, the in-fills by both Klaus Heuser and drummer Sibi Siebert provide the right accents to provide highlights to the main keyboard parts.
Unfortunately, Sibi only appears on two of the tracks and I found his input was missed on the rest of the album. This is particularly evident on Passing The Pulse which sees the welcome return of Eva Wolf's haunting vocals and the not so welcome return of the spoken vocal! The electronic beat was, I found, too intrusive and too perfect - indeed one would venture to suggest that it was entirely superfluous. No such problems with Drift Upon The Sky. The composers have come up with a long track that draws the listener in and captivates them for the entire 14 minutes. The piano and acoustic guitar during the intro are crisp and pure in tone, the choir provides an almost Russian flavour, Stefan Höllering's sax is incisive and, for once, the spoken vocals fit the mood of the piece. Just when you think things are going to meander too far into the ambient arena, a scorching electric guitar breaks through driving the song to a fine conclusion that sees the reintroduction of the choir and saxophone. Easily the stand-out piece of the album. Sensibly, the arrangers have not tried to follow Drift Upon The Sky with another song but instead have included a short linking piece, Lightyears which leads smoothly into Planet Dawn whose main redeeming feature is the female vocalisations of Eva Wolf and Ann Kareen Mainz. Final track Trimelar Starflight is resplendent with atmospherics throughout the slow build-up but finishes on a high with more acoustic guitar and chant-like female vocals. Altogether, Dimension Universe is a significant step forward from New Horizon.
I freely admit to not being a particular fan of so-called ambient music. However, Art Of Infinity are ploughing a rather different furrow and have managed, particularly on Dimension Universe, to draw together a combination of musicians that add to the basic soundscapes created by the two Thorstens. Although neither album is likely to receive heavy rotation in my house, they are ideal to play as background music whilst having a bath, enjoying a glass of one's favourite tipple or even in the twilight time before sleep. The music is relaxing and washes over you in gentle waves, yet retaining the human element so often lacking in totally synthesised music. There is a large market for this kind of material and the group are very good at what they do. I can easily see Art Of Infinity following in the footsteps of fellow countrymen Tangerine Dream as expert exponents of film soundtracks.
New Horizon : 6.5 out of 10
Dimension Universe : 7.5 out of 10
Morsof - Heap
Tracklist: Cos (1:50), Underdog’s Blues (7:00), Heap Suite: Heap#1, Rain Drop, Ghost Of Children, Heap#2 (13:34), Afro Zone (8:07), Dada (12:13)
The prolific French Progressive label Musea has been responsible for issuing (or re-issuing) many a superb classic CD over the years. In recent times, their inclusive policy has meant that their releases have become a bit hit or miss. However, more recently they have begun, often in tandem with Japanese label Poseidon, to mine the rich field of Japanese Jazz fusion. Releases from Six North, KBB and Diamonji have all proved to be winners.
The latest in this series of collaborative releases is Heap by Morsof. They take their name from an amalgamation of "Morning Musume" (a Japanese pop band, apparently) and "Soft Machine" (who should need no introduction). Thankfully, it is the latter band that seems to provide the over-riding musical inspiration, as there is no trace of pop to be found in these deeply jazzy workouts. Any fans of the legendary Canterbury Jazzers will find lots to indulge in here. The saxophone supplies the main musical drive, with some nice solo spots for electric piano and guitar. Don’t let the cover mislead you; it looks like it should be for an Animee soundtrack or a Heavy Metal group, but in fact it is nothing of the sort.
The opening cut is a brief but jarring sax-lead honk fest. It’s a jaunty enough tune but I found its stop-start nature grated on my nerves a little. Maybe you have to be in the mood for it.
Much better is Underdog Blues, which has an opening melodic section that establishes a very Soft Machine like vibe, with electric piano and (slightly squeaky) saxophone grooving along nicely for four minutes before a nice jazz/ bluesy electric guitar solo.
At the heart of the CD is the sprawling Heap Suite. After a short opening fanfare, the track begins with a great walking bass line and lively drumming, providing the backing for a lengthy saxophone workout. At around the five minute mark, the track lapses into an improvised section of percussive clattering and random piano notes. You will probably either love or hate this part of the track. I do think it works OK in the context of the piece, but I wouldn’t want a whole disc of this sort of stuff. One for fans of the more Free-form stuff I think. The opening theme makes a brief reappearance at the end of the track. Thankfully this track is as weird as it gets.
By far the best track for me is the stomping, percussive groove that is Afrozone. The rhythm section is firing on all cylinders on this one, and there is some snappy wah-wah guitar to supplement the usual saxophone soloing. There is also a trombone solo, to spice things up a little.
To round the disc off nicely, Dada is another strong track, opening with a powerful riff and having some nice melodic but intense solos from Mikio Fukushima on saxes. As this group is his brainchild, it is fitting that he dominates the sound, but he does step aside for the other players to show their mettle. The ensemble as a whole provides a tight backdrop throughout for the various soloists, making this an enjoyable romp for "sax freaks" and Soft Machine fans. It is pretty adventurous stuff, without venturing too far into the random squeaking of free jazz, and could prove a rewarding listen to many of the more jazz-inclined proggers out there.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10