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Reviews in this issue:
Introduction - Lost for Words
Much of your possible interest in the following reviews will be largely dependent on your like or dislike of electric guitar instrumental music. Personally I have a great fondness for such offerings, nurtured in my formative years by such great exponents as Al Di Meola and Allan Holdsworth and as the years progressed, by guys like Steve Morse, Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen (to mention just a few). In this collection of guitar virtuoso's we have differing styles or slants upon the six stringed instrument, covering many forms of music. But is it prog! Well, I have no intention of raising this issue here, but suffice to say that the music reviewed below contains many of the elements that I enjoy within prog - but as always, the final decision rests with you.
Anand - Joy 4 Ever
The first in this collection of axemen is Dutchman, Anand Mahangoe, accompanied here by Mike Terrana (drums), Nick de Vos (bass), Rob Fabnrich (keyboards) and making a guest appearance is keyboard wizard Derek Sherinian [track 5]. One of two releases from Lion Music (to be featured in this Special), who are to be commended for paving the way for hitherto undiscovered craftsmen of the guitar.
Musically Joy 4 Ever treads a now fairly well trodden path, however what lifts this above many of it's counterparts is the melodic structuring, which is never forsaken for the desire for just another solo. What also made this album more palatable and in many respects more prog, was the inclusion of keyboards. Not only did this serve to add warmth and depth to the tracks, but variation to sound, so often missing with this "type" of album. Rob Fabnrich's choice of sounds are very complimentary and as he also pipes in with the several strong solo sections this offers a nice contrast to the guitar. This said we are very much in the mould of Joe Satriani with Joy 4 Ever and whilst Anand Manhangoe posses a similar fluidity in his guitar craftsmanship as the aforementioned, he does exhibit his own "voice", and therefore never appears to be like a plagiarist.
There is no great complexity within the structuring and arrangement of the tracks, we are in the territory of the big driving rock drums, the strong guitar riff and (something that has always puzzled me about the guitar instrumental album) the almost inaudible bass guitar! However the beauty within the pieces is derived from the melodic use of the guitar, which prevails throughout. Musically we are well within the confines of the rock market (no jazzy noodling here), however the boundaries are stretched, pushing into the areas of ProgMetal, with Petrucci-esque and Dream Theater references to be found. Possibly the best illustrations can found in Get Out and the track featuring ex-DT man Derek Sherinian.
All of which lead neatly onto the highlights and any drawbacks. Personally I would have preferred slightly more variation in the arrangements and possibly greater inclusion of some of the more delicate moments (there were some). And if I was to offer any criticism it would probably be aimed at the track titles - slightly more imagination might have been employed here :-). Favourite tracks were the beautiful Disillusioned, Get Laid, Intimate Dance and Get Out.
Bearing in mind my remarks at the very beginning of this Special and on the premise that guys like Joe Satriani feature in your CD collection, then all I can say is this is a great album and has received unanimous praise from those who have listened to it in my car. Great album go and buy it!
Conclusion: 8- out of 10
Joel Hoekstra - The Moon Is Falling
The Moon Is Falling is a totally different kettle of fish, nothing standard or predictable here. Joel Hoekstra takes us through an ever changing musical feast - fusing rock, jazz, funk and even classical. There are more twists and turns than in Agatha Christie novel and therefore this is an album that makes you sit up and pay attention. Also welcoming within all this complexity is certain amount of humour or "tongue in cheek moments", which help to break the intensity - a sort of respite for the mind.
The Moon Is Falling is the second album from Joel and follows up Undefined (2000). The core of that band are re-united here with Hoekstra himself (guitars), the formidable Virgil Donati (drums) and wonderful Ric Fierbracci (bass). Guesting throughout this album are Dan Cipriano (sax and flutes) and Jay Cappo (keyboards).
I can't say that this was love on first hearing, but more of an album that grew and grew on me. Initially it was the virtuosity of the musicians that attracted me, and the quirkiness that put me off. However subsequent listenings revealed some magnificent music and the oddness seemed less jarring and almost complementary. What made this album appealing was the variation within the guitar sounds. The multi-effects processing giving subtle nuances to the music and therefore building an unusual backdrop to the music. I was reminded of some of Steve Via's work circa Flex-Able in this respect. Layered over this canvass is the some great rock and jazz playing from all the musicians.
Selecting notable tracks from this album proved to be more difficult than I initially thought as each time I went through the tracks for this purpose, I found I had selected most of the album. But those that initially grabbed me where Translucent, with it's almost Holdsworthian intro and splendidly restrained guitar passages. The gentle and beautiful Antonia. The intense but infectious 9/11 followed by the tongue in cheek inter-galactic warnings of Join Us (and not in fact "Joanna". A totally strange title for this piece as I had initially thought - maybe the warnings will be wasted on some us :-)). Kaleidoscope for its great playing. And finally the delicate, concluding Lull.
Once again we see that not all "guitar albums" are the same. Joel Hoekstra has made an album that features the guitar as its principal voice, but shows that variation and imagination hold a far greater key to good music. As mentioned in the opening of this Special Feature, much of your possible enjoyment may on the surface be influenced by your like (or dislike) of the guitar instrumental, but it would be a shame if you missed this one purely from a pre-conceived notion.
Conclusion: 8- out of 10
George Bellas - Venomous Fingers
I have to confess that on the first run through of George Bellas' Venomous Finger, things did not bode well for this review. However after much perseverance I can reveal that this album was certainly worth the effort. Steeped in the Neo-Classical ProgMetal market, George Bellas offers up many enthralling guitar instrumentals. My initially dismissive thoughts probably came from a lack of any real analysis of the tracks and a great deal of bias. Merely lumping this album within a category I confess not to listen to in any great depth. And at the end of the day, much great music is dismissed merely by a closed mind. You just have to look at the general view of Prog to know this!
Venomous Finger is pretty much all attributed to George Bellas, as not only has he written and produce the material, he also plays all of the guitar parts, as well as the bass and keyboards. And as no other musicians are credited in the sleeve notes, we can only assume that the drum arrangements and programming are down to him as well. George Bellas credits many classical composers within his list of influences and this is evident throughout the vast majority of the material to be found here. Some of the tracks reminding me of intricate arrangements for a stringed quartet, whilst others brought some of Liszt's more frenetic pieces to mind.
So as I started the first run through of Venomous Fingers, my initial thoughts were, wow this guy is impressive and I would certainly argue the case that it would be impossible not be impressed by Bellas' mastery of the fretboard, just a little difficult to maintain this awe, for almost an hour. Musically this is an intense and note dense album, with numerous guitar parts being used to make up each of the tracks. This, for me, proved to be one of the drawbacks of the album as many of the parts were overly rich and saturated in harmonies.
As with most instrumental albums a track by track summary proves to be slightly more difficult, so the following are some of the pieces selected by me as being worthy of greater note. Certainly the track that says it all is Shedding Skin, not only is it played at a million miles an hour, but the accuracy of playing is beyond words. No holds barred as we are 'swept' and 'shredded' from the early harpsichord sounds to end chord crunch - brings a smile to admiration every time. This is followed by Above and Beyond, with its sampled voices and gentle melodic guitar, slowly rising through an ever increasing melange of layered guitar parts - this track being the one which most helped put an early perspective on the music. Journey To The Stars, for its epic qualities. Also Timewarp, the all too brief Unearthed, the quaint Forever and the charming, delicate and oddly titled Mayhem
Personally I would have preferred less pyrotechnics and greater development of those more delicate moments. But I cannot take away the dexterity, speed and accuracy of the guitar playing displayed on this album, which is a wonder to behold. Fans of Yngwie Malmsteen, and of the Neo-Classical guitar style should certainly check-out this album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Cosmosquad - Live At The Baked Potato
Cosmosquad offers us one of the many side projects from the three band members - Jeff Kollman (guitar), Barry Sparks (bass) and Shane Gaalaas (drums). A visit to their respective sites will fill in these details. Although glancing through the list of luminaries they have worked with may give the wrong impression as to the material found on this album. The music of Cosmosquad shows yet another slant on the guitar instrumental and is again completely different to any of the other albums featured in this special. The band have released two previous albums, Cosmosquad (1997) and Squadrophenia (2001).
From track one to track fourteen, we are entertained by three great musicians laying it all on the line at the Baked Potato, North Hollywood. There is very little respite as the guys fuse prog metal/fusion/rock with a smattering of blues styles into this captivating live recording. Each player is awesome in his own right and overall the coalescence of this works really well. The only distraction might be who to listen to - Creepy Spider pt.2 ably demonstrating this, as here the playing is breath-taking, grooving, as well as being incredibly tight and flowing.
Jeff Kollman is not only a gifted player, but obviously a versatile guitarist as well, and this shines through in the material. Differing styles and/or influences are present throughout the music, far to numerous to offer as indicators, but the sum of this is that the music very seldom loses its interest. If you add to this the combined genius of Barry Sparks and Shane Gaalaas, who each in their own right offer not only a cohesive backbone for the music, but also excellent instrumentalists, then this is a formidable trio.
Picking highlight's from this album are futile, tracks one to fourteen would be my choice ;-). Tracks to mention, only as they offered contrasting styles to those already mentioned, would be El Perro Vaila, with its splendid Latin-esque rhythms, interspersed between the grooving ones of course! Sheer Drama as it not only opens the performance, but very quickly displays the melodic strength encompassed within the music on this free-flowing album. Great stuff!
Conclusion: 8- out of 10
Sergei Dudin - Mirage
I would love to offer some insight as to Sergei Dudin, but as with most languages other than that of my native tongue, I have very little comprehension - Russian presenting further difficulties as even the letters offer little or no guidance. However the album had been sent to me by Sergei and on the recommendation of Progressor's Vitaly Menshikov, so my interest was certainly piqued. I gather that this is not the latest release from Dudin and that there appears to be two subsequent albums. This release sees Sergei (guitar, keyboards & programming), Yori Marcossian (bass), Slava Tenenbaum (drums) and Dominik Esposito (vocals on What Is Wrong, What Is Right).
Mirage opens very effectively with the droning, atmospheric Introduction, with its musical box theme, gently tapped guitar and picked acoustic guitar - superb. This is followed by the medium paced Rescue Expedition, bringing to mind Jeff Beck around the time of Flash and ... Guitar Workshop. Mirage combines many musical styles, always held within the boundaries of rock, with Dudin hinting at other guitarists that may have influenced him, but never dwelling upon them. This therefore makes the music more tantalising and combined with the occasional glimpses to his ethnic culture there is much to take in here.
Whilst compiling this guitar special, this album was one that came up through the ranks, each listening revealing its treasures gradually, but most assuredly. Even those tracks that I had dismissed at first, as with the strong riffed, AC/DC like rocker, Friday, showed many hidden gems. Some of the programming and the electronic parts of the drum kit also took a little getting used to, giving the album a late eighties, early nineties feel, however Slava Tenenbaum did manage to inject some feel into this. Finally on points of note, I did find the guitar tone a little difficult to come to grips with, as the timbre in the lower register was a tad rasping and somewhat boosted in the mid-high frequencies - although further up the neck the sound was much richer for this.
So looking at the album and selecting those tracks that stood out. The splendid opening track Introduction. The languid and emotional Latimer-esque Reunion, which is worth buying the album for. Nylon Ditty speaks for itself. The aptly titled Middle East played on acoustic guitars, but with a sitar effect! The title track Mirage with it's 'eastern' ethnic touches. Finally the only track on the album (and in fact in this Special) to feature vocals. Dominik Esposito's excellent voice contrasting against the plodding rhythm, gentle fretless work from Yori Marcossian and fluid soloing from Dudin.
As stated earlier this was an album that grew on me and although not all of the material has lodged with me, a great proportion of the tracks have become firm friends. I feel over the coming years this will be an album that I will listen to often.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Audio Fatigue - Starting Backwards
Tracklist: Nubulous (1:56), Into The Grey Wide Open (4:55), Blues For Picasso (3:57), Machines That Fly (6:01), Aerial View (4:07), Racing With The Moon (3:56), Glisten (2:03), A Clockwork Heart (5:10), Until December (4:42), Lord Stuart's Jig Pt I (2:30), Pt II (4:23)
Audio Fatigue consist of Sean Patrick (electric, nylon & 12 string guitars and E-bow), Jaam (bass, nylon & 12 string guitars; synthesizer, midi pedals and E-bow) and Robert Casey (acoustic & electric percussion; nylon & 12 string guitars; programming and E-bow). Additional contributions from David Olson (dijeridoo and flute). Collectively they perform atmospheric tunes, primarily centred around the guitar, but nicely held in balance by the minimal percussion and sparse synthesized parts. However not wanting to paint a too tranquil picture, some of the earlier material on the album is more up-tempo. Racing The Moon being possibly the best example.
Of the many influences that Audio Fatigue list, I felt that overall guitar textures were most reminiscent of U2's Edge - the clean, jangly and echoing guitar lines have a similar distinctive sound. No Bono singing here of course, although the band have recently recorded a single Pre-Adolescent Robot Love, which features vocals. However, along with the above referencing I did find some of the distinctly 60's guitar sounds very off-putting (Machines That Fly). Perhaps in keeping with Audio Fatigue's view of their album, but in a prog sense, little or no attraction.
Highlights : Aerial View - nicely lilting flute and gentle percussion; Glisten a strangely familiar melody gently being plucked on a nylon guitar and A Clockwork Heart, with its hypnotic 'tick tock' rhythm, delicate multi-layered parts and echoed guitar melody - wonderful.
Personally I enjoyed the more 'laid-back' material towards the latter part of the album, as this not only offered another contrast to this guitar extravaganza, but added a gentle, warm and soothing conclusion to the music featured in this article. Perhaps not the most demanding material I have listened to during the year, but certainly not without its own merits. Not for everyone, but certainly worth trying to get into the bands website to have a listen?
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Overall Conclusion - Just a Few Words
On a final note (and I have listened to many during this review ;-) - this has been a thoroughly enjoyable diversion to the norm. But it is time to move on - I need to hear human voices again!
However I did want to add comment to the ratings offered above and the fact that none of the albums have received a DPRP Recommended! tag. This is purely as this tag suggests that the encompassed music is recommended to all prog fans. Well I'm not sure it would be, but if like me you have penchant for instrumental albums, you could certainly add another half point to the above.