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Reviews in this issue:
Ozone Quartet - Live at Local 506
Tracklist: Backbone Of Night (5:23), Dragonfly (4:10), Mutoid Man (4:53), Flood (5:18), Missing Link (5:18), Diamond Eye (4:59), Surge (2:50), The Watcher (5:00), Stash (4:26), Fresh Blood (4:02)
Formed in Raleigh, North Carolina, USA in 1992, originally under the name Cloud Nine, this band released several demo cassettes under that moniker but changed their name to Ozone Quartet before the release of the first of two studio CDs – Fresh Blood and Nocturne. The band split up in 2000, but the release of this Live album, recorded shortly before the split, sees the band reformed and gigging again.
The band’s line-up is Wayne Leechford – Chapman Stick, Hollis Brown – electric violin, Jeremy Shaw – guitar and Fran Dyer – drums and percussion.
Their area of operation is an intriguing blend of instrumental progressive rock with fairly laid back Jazz-fusion and a splash or two of world music influences for good measure. The main stylistic pointers would be King Crimson, Mahavishnu Orchestra and Dixie Dregs but Ozone Quartet comfortably asserts their own identity on this recording. They are never as jazzy as Mahavishnu, nor are they quite as self-indulgent when it comes to solos. The tune remains the king here, though the players are not without the chops when it comes to ability.
I have not heard either of the studio releases, nor have I seen the band live, (there is the small matter of a very large ocean acting as a barrier to this) but received wisdom says that the band is at their best in live performance. This disc supports that assertion in spectacular fashion.
The sound, for a live recording, is superb. Often it is only the modest applause from a small but appreciative audience that reminds you that this is not a studio creation. The band appears to be on top form, and they are all great players. Wayne Leechford is a terrific stick player, in the manner of Tony Levin, and fans of Levin will surely appreciate Leechford’s contributions to this disc. His bass lines twang, dance and twist their way across the tracks with considerable aplomb. Fran Dyer adds plenty of percussive texture to the sound as well as providing the sturdy backbone of each tune. He is a busy player and his style fits right in with the other players. Jeremy Shaw is a fine guitarist, reminding at times of Steve Morse or Eric Johnson, but his playing here is fairly subdued. When he does step forward for the occasional solo (as on Missing Link and Diamond Eye) he proves to be capable of concise but fiery blasts of some considerable power.
The real star of the show, though, has to be the captivating violin of Hollis Brown. Throughout the performance she takes centre stage (sound wise) with a passionate display of the violinist’s art. I have loved electric violin since being entranced by Daryl Way on Curved Air’s early albums, and have eagerly devoured the works of Jean Luc Ponty, David Cross, Kansas and P.F.M (to name but a few) ever since. Hollis plays in a slightly more jazzy style than some of these players, but is more restrained and melodically based than Ponty or Jerry Goodman of Mahavishnu fame. She also displays a classical leaning absent in the purely fusion-oriented groups. It would be difficult to pick out highlights of her playing as she is fantastic on every track, and is the main reason for listening to this disc. She is exceptionally good, however, on the eastern tinged opener Backbone Of Night.
This is a very even disc with no real standouts, and certainly no substandard cuts, but I have picked out a few tracks to give a flavour of what is on offer :
- Flood and Dragonfly both have the minimalist jangle of Discipline era Crimson, sans vocals but plus a melodic verve that is most appealing.
- Missing Link initially revisits Crimson circa Red, but not quite matching the original in intensity. Brown can do the David Cross bit in fine style, but Shaw, for all his talent, is no Fripp. The tune mutates into a more sedate, classically inspired piece, before returning to the crunch and swagger of the opening for its conclusion.
- Surge is a Mahavishnu–ish romp where Brown’s playing equals Jean Luc Ponty at his peak.
Overall, This is a great recording, catching the band at the height of its powers, and would make a good introduction for newcomers. For those favouring instrumental music, those who find Mahavishnu et al a trifle flash, and particulary for lovers of electric violin, I can heartily recommend it.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Alan Whittaker - Top Of The World
Tracklist: White Noise (5:05), Sunset Dream (3:33), Set Me Free (4:15), Top Of The World (4:28), Flowers On Your Heart (5:46), Heaven (4:55), Moods (2:30), Powder & Champagne (6:33), Still In Love (2:56), Coming Round (4:41), Colours (3:54), Fading Embers (4:42), Café Paris (3:01), Home (3:30)
Rush once sang "You can't get something for nothing..."; Alan Whittaker disagrees. In a spirit of generosity so widely lacking in the music industry as a whole, Alan is giving away his albums free of charge to anyone who cares to send him a stamped addressed envelope!
Alan's musical career started during the resurgence of progressive music in the early 1980's when, as part of the band Moriarty, he released a three-track tape entitled Elementary. Like a lot of the bands that formed in that era, success proved elusive and it wasn't until 1995 that Whittaker's first solo album Wake Up & Welcome To The Real World was released. This was followed in 2002 by Out Of This World and relatively quickly thereafter by the third, and current, solo album (and also the third release in succession to have 'World' in the title) Top Of The World.
With Whittaker singing, playing and programming everything with the exception of keyboards on a couple of tracks, fretless bass and the odd vocal/backing vocal, Top Of The World is a genuine solo album. Although the music has deviated from the progressive rock of Moriarty to become rather more mainstream, it still contains a degree of quirkiness within an enjoyable pop/rock idiom.
The more commercial songs, including the title track, Coming Round, Colours, White Noise and Café Paris amongst others, are well produced melodic numbers that are open to comparisons with bands such as Crowded House, the chorus of Top Of The World being particularly worthy of mention given it's infectious hook. Sunset Dream is not a million miles away from the current Marillion sound whilst Home is a bit more experimental with a mixture of styles meshed into one. Unfortunately, it doesn't work as well as the more straightforward compositions and is probably the weakest track on the album. There is one instrumental cut, Moods, which, with the fretless bass and keyboard effects, has a style similar to Japan at about the time of Tin Drum. However, the addition of guitar to the mix lifts the song from the limitations of relying too heavily on synthesisers. Heaven has a more acoustic basis and is a pretty decent ballad. I feel it would have benefited from a bigger production (which would obviously have required a bigger, and prohibitive, budget) and it cries out for a better ending. Still, The guitar work is good and blends well with the piano. Standout track though is Powders & Champagne written with Steve Lomas who also contributes keyboards and lead vocals. A slower number, the arrangement is quite sparse centred around the piano and a fine guitar solo. But it is in the relative simplicity where the strength of the song lies.
Overall, a very professional album that contains a variety of melodic, well-written and well-performed tracks. If you are a sucker for a good chorus and enjoy music that has a more commercial edge, then Top Of The World is well worth checking out, after all it will only cost you the price of a stamp!
Top Of The World and other Alan Whittaker albums can be obtained by sending a stamped address padded envelope to:-
Federation Music, Briar's Cottage, 21 Coombe Rise, Shenfield, Essex, UK.
If outside the UK please e-mail Alan at the address given above for details of how to obtain the album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Van & Borner - Miracles
Tracklist: Shadow Dancing (6:36), Walking On Clouds (3:44), Golden Spirits (7:28), Masai Boy (4:06), Evening On The Island (4:46), Miracles (3:20), Mystic (5:26), Lullaby For Goodnight (4:28), Walking On Clouds [Radio Version] (3:44)
I must admit that Electronic or Ambient music albums would not be my first choice of listening, however after a cursory listen to Van & Borner's debut album, I was intrigued enough to put the headphones on for a closer and more detailed listening. The initial run through had been conducted whilst working on DPRP related topics, and the CD had served as a pleasant background to my work. The second listening in a dimmed room, with the headphones on, did reveal a much more intricate and interesting album.
I had some difficulty pinpointing just what it was that made Van & Borner's album seem so much more appealing than similar albums I had listened to, eventually I decided that it stemmed from the fact that the music had been written and performed by musicians. Granted the material had a sequenced nature to it, but the absence of drum patterns and the inclusion of percussion and percussive timbres tended to give the music an ebb and flow - irrespective of tempo. Along with this free-flowing movement was a sense of melodic progression and recurring structures, therefore the music was not just some homogenous drifting mass of sounds.
This enjoyable musical feast has been acheived by Barbara Zieliñska-Van and Sabina Borner who both play the multi-layered synthesizer parts on Miracles. The additional instrumental parts and textures are supplied by Darek Budkiewicz (bass guitar), Marek Gorlitz (guitars), and Jola Literska (vocals). The mixing of the music is also very subtle and although it is possible to pick out each of the indivdual parts, non of these protrudes outside of sound. The melange of ethereal keyboard sounds mixed in with Jola Literska subtle vocalisations blends well with the fluid fretless work from Budkiewicz. The final touches come from Marek Gorlitz's guitar work, again low in the mix, but very effective. Dave Gilmour's atmospheric guitar section as in the middle of Floyd's Echoes came to mind on occasions. Faint jazzy licks and gently picked acoustic guitar also drift in and out of the music.
Van & Borner have also written for television and documentaries and I can well imagine that their music would be a great enhancement to the visual aspect of those programmes.
Miracles is a gentle, soothing and textural album, without suffering from blandness. In the main very enjoyable, although some tracks did drift a little for me. Certainly some of the influences listed on Barbara Zieliñska-Van's website make good reference points. Jean Michel Jarre, Vangelis and Tangerine Dream. To this list I would add Mike Oldfield and Enya. So if any of these particular artists feature in your CD collection, then Miracles is certainly one to check out!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Epica - The Phantom Agony (Single)
Tracklist: The Phantom Agony (single edit) (4:35), Veniality (4:36), Façade of Reality (8:12), Veniality (Orchestral version) (4:37)
A relatively short time after the release of their fantastic first album The Phantom Agony, Epica are back with a single release and a video (currently only viewable on cable in The Netherlands). The single was issued with two different covers, one of which was printed in a limited edition of 1000 and those are already long gone. The same songs feature on both editions of the single, which includes 4 tracks, 2 of which are different versions of Veniality, a non-album track and I would guess that for many fans, this will be the main reason for purchasing this single.
The disk opens with a single edit of The Phantom Agony, shortened to just cut over half its original length. In truth, it is probably still probably a little long for airplay, but it still works fairly well. However the song begins slowly and quietly, taking almost a minute to build up pace and one must wonder how, in the extreemly competitive radio world, this song will fare. Similarly the song fades out in the same way as it starts and one can imagine impatient radio producers fading in, over the beginning and end of the song.
Veniality was also recorded at the same time as the album, but, like the Japanese bonus track The Triumph of Defeat, it did not make the European release of The Phantom Agony. A slowish tune by the band's standards, the melody line follows Simone's solo vocals as she is supported by the orchestra. The band version, which adds most significantly drums and chugging guitar, sounds a bit more dynamic than the orchestral version that closes out the disk. There is no choir or growls to support and contrast with Simone's solo voice here and the song, particularly the orchestral version, drags. Bands usually have good reason for leaving tracks to one side, so while its nice to have another song from the band, I personally don't rate it as one of their best.
To hear the very best of Epica, one merely has to listen to the full version of Façade of Reality, which is presented here, sandwiched between the two versions of Veniality. This summarizes, in one single song, Epica's style and for anyone hesitating about purchasing the album, their reaction to this song would give them a good indication as to whether or not they would enjoy the album. It has everything; heaviness, calm passages, growls, great singing from vocalist Simone Simons and the Epica choirs, tasteful use of sampled speech from Tony Blair all arranged to give the listener a real emotional rollercoaster of a ride. Quite possibly my favourite song of 2003.
So their you have it, a nice introduction to the band, which also offers something for the keen fan. As for it being a hit single, well, we can hope.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Michael Harris - Words Collide
Tracklist: Shockestra (1:01); Wash my Soul Away (4:32); Mask Of Deception (4:45); Myopia (4:14); Words Collide (5:07); Tears Roll Down (4:52); Mr. Strange (4:01); Prosthetic Brain (5:04); Into The Spiral Rain (3:32); Mandy Slang (4:36); Incarcerated (3:13); The Cozmic Desert (3:52); Battle Fatigue (11:04); Coffee With Mozart (2:04)
Michael Harris is a Texas-based guitarist who, despite playing in a number of heavy metal bands such as Surgeon and Tyrant (who the promotional blurb optimistically states ‘gained massive commercial and critical success is Europe and Japan’!) is actually probably best known for a string of solo instrumental albums. I heard the last of these, Sketches From The Thought Chamber, and was pleasantly surprised – despite being clearly from the Joe Satriani / Steve Vai school of guitar virtuosos, his love of progressive rock, particularly the likes of Rush and Dream Theater, came shining through.
As its title might imply, Words Collide is Harris’ first attempt in a solo capacity to incorporate vocals into his work. Harris himself handles the vocals as well as all other instruments, bar the drums which are played by his brother Brian.
The tracks on Words Collide are roughly split between (fairly) straight-forward heavy rock and more ambituous pieces which see Harris trying his hand at a range of different styles and some more complex compositions. The former are generally reasonably constructed, and Harris pleasingly shows some restraint, going more for riffs than endless shredding (this is pretty much kept for the one instrumental on the album, Prosthetic Brain) - when he incorporates solo’s these are generally melodic and there to serve the song. The problem is that, bar the nicely dark Mask Of Deception and the breezy harmonies of Into the Spiral Rain, the results are generally reasonably enjoyable but ultimately rather workmanlike, with nothing particularly standing out. Part of this may be due to Harris’ vocal. He has a limited range but, to his credit, obviously realises this and sings well within himself. Whilst this has the advantage of not being off-putting, it does mean that there is a lack of power in the vocal to really drive the heavier material forward.
Harris as vocalist fares better on the less conventional material which peppers the album. Both Mr Strange and The Cozmic Desert have a definite psychaedelic feel; Mandy Slang is something of a lounge bar/ cabaret number, whilst Coffee With Mozart is (perhaps unsurprisingly) a classically inspired piece. Battle Fatigue, meanwhile, is clearly Harris’ attempt at a progressive metal epic, consisting of 8 ‘phases’ and chock-a-block with complex time and pace changes – like the album as a whole its something of a mixed bag, with some sections working better than others. It does hang together well though, and Harris carves out some of his most incisive riffs on the album.
Overall, this is a reasonable album, and a partly successful attempt to bridge the guitar virtuoso and progressive metal genres. Perhaps the next step forward for Harris would be to hire an outside vocalist, and to concentrate on writing stronger songs and developing a more unique style to make him stand out in the overcrowded prog metal genre. There is certainly potential here, and Lion Music are probably the ideal label to develop this, so Michael Harris’ future should be bright.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10