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Reviews in this issue:
Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic –
The Iridium Controversy
Tracklist: Primordial Sludge (5:45) The Iridium Controversy: Before (2:59) The Iridium Controversy: After (5:30) Make The Camera Dance (7:19) This Way Out (4:21) Lost In The B-Zone (4:47) Tectonic Melange (4:08) Sherpas On Parade (6:05) 166 years Of Excellence (5:42) Race Point (3:57) Centrifuge (4:08) The Beat Of The Mesozoic-Part 1 (6:14)
I know that the packaging shouldn’t be very important, but I also know that a good cover can help to create a favourable first impression. It is also undeniable that there is a special bond between Progressive Rock and the artwork of Roger Dean. Although his paintings have graced the covers of a few dodgy albums over the years, it is generally true that a Roger Dean Cover is often a good indicator of a top-class product. It certainly engenders a warm and comforting feeling to an old progger. Whilst Birdsongs Of The Mesozoic play a different type of Prog Rock to many of Roger’s previous clients (famously Yes, Uriah Heep), this superb disc of Neo-classical / Chamber / Avant Prog easily lives up to the promise of the fantastic cover.
Longstanding fans of this enduring (they originally formed in 1980) and prolific group (this is album No.8), and also fans of specialist label Cuneiform in general, will know what to expect here, at least in terms of quality. We are talking musicianship of the highest calibre, married with an extremely high level of compositional craft, but seasoned with a subtle, witty approach, ensuring that this intricate instrumental music never becomes an arid academic exercise.
Birdsongs... is essentially an ensemble of composer/performers, executing the elaborately scored pieces with spooky precision (for those interested, the scores are available on the band’s website). The lion’s share of compositions on this disc are by founding member/keyboardist Eric Lindgren (six tracks) with saxophonist Ken Field and guitarist Michael Bierylo each contributing a couple of tunes. Synthasist Rick Scott and Roger Miller have one track apiece. Miller was also a founding member of the group, but left in 1987. Aside from writing the concluding track The Beat Of The Mesozoic (which originally appeared on an EP released in 1983) he appears as a guest performer on that track and one other.
Beginning with the intoxicatingly insistent rhythmic pulse of Primordial Sludge, nicely overlaid with melodic sax and some tortuous, incisive guitar, this disc is choc full of invention, with surprising twists and turns coming thick and fast. There is more than a hint of Canterbury style prog here, with Egg, Henry Cow and Hatfield and the North springing easily to mind. But this is no nostalgia fest. We are talking “New Music” in a very real sense, as Birdsongs... blend Neo-classicism, chamber music, and minimalism with the tension and excitement of the post-punk era, finding room to squeeze in influences from Rock, Jazz and Pop along the way.
It would take more space than I have here to adequately describe the treasure trove of delights to be found on this disc, but I would like to highlight a few of the tracks. Firstly, the two-part title piece is absolutely terrific, with percussive piano lines driving the work forward, whilst more pianos weave delicate melodies around soaring woodwinds. There is a hint of Frank Zappa’s jazz-rock style here. The whole thing is just delightful.
Similarly, Make The Camera Dance is a vivacious caper, with simmering electronics and modern beats providing a backdrop to a whimsical melody, reminiscent of some of Bill Nelson’s recent flirtations with drum and bass styles, married as they are with affection for cheesy 50’s Americana.
It is something of a tradition for Birdsongs... to include irreverent if affectionate remodelings of others works on their discs, and this time around, it is The Animal's hoary old chestnut We’ve Got To Get Out Of This Place which forms the basis for the witty retort that is This Way Out. Beginning with the famous piano intro, it is quickly modified and mutated, providing the springboard for some exotic musical exploration, featuring delicious acoustic guitars, snaking smoky sax lines and all manner of percussion. Lindgren’s Race Point is a beautiful, reflective, classically inspired little piece with an otherworldly shimmer that is most appealing.
Lastly I would like to mention The Beat Of The Mesozoic, which closes the disc. I have not heard the original, but this version is a real winner, with spacey synths, tribal percussion and lashings of Ken Fields superb saxophone wailing. There is a palpable sense of excitement and tension running through the piece. Halfway through there is a section for clattering multiple drummers and percussionists before a rolling piano and menacing guitar adds to the exhilarating mix. It’s a great finish to a tremendous CD.
In conclusion, I would highly recommend this disc to all manner of prog fans. Whilst it is highly complex and adventurous music, it is never harsh or particularly dissonant. Indeed, there are some wonderful melodies to be heard. It’s never a chore to listen to, but successive spins reveal more and more depth to the compositions. It is a very satisfying CD that could well be a future classic.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Ritual - Ritual
Tracklist: Wingspread (5:48), The Way Of Things (3:35), Typhoons Decide (5:19), A Little More Like Me (5:17), Solitary Man (8:11), Life Has Just Begun (3:34), Dependence Day (4:45), Seasong For The Moominpappa (7:35), You Can Never Tell (4:49), Big Black Secret (6:56), Power Place (4:57)
Ritual are a band that definitely consider themselves to be in for the long haul rather than a quick sprint. From humble beginnings in the late 1980s as a band called Bröd playing experimental music (whatever that may entail), Patrik Lundström (vocals and guitar), Fredrik Lindqvist (bass) and Johan Nordgren (drums) linked up with keyboard player Jon Gamble in early 1993 and thus was formed Ritual. The eponymous debut album was given a limited release by Musea in 1995 and was largely ignored outside of some rather small Swedish circles. Persevering the group released the heavier Superb Birth in 1999 and the well-received Think Like A Mountain in 2003. Not that the group members have been idle in the gaps between Ritual albums, Fredrik Lindqvist is a member of the improvisation group Altaír with whom he has released at least one album whilst, Patrik Lundström can be found moonlighting as the vocalist in the reformed Kaipa alongside the ubiquitous Ronnie Stolt. Of course, this is in addition to Lundström's rather less prog past in the principle roles in the Swedish versions of "The Buddy Holly Story" and "Hair", singer in the "One Voice" gospel choir and his 1997 pop album with "Blond" who also had that year's Swedish entry into the Eurovision Song Contest (they came 14th!).
The success of Think Like A Mountain and the two Kaipa albums to feature Lundström have prompted the re-release of the debut album in the hope that it will reach a wider audience this time round. It's certainly deserving of wider acclaim. With a diversity that is largely missing from a lot of progressive releases, Ritual manage to successfully fuse a wide diversity of musical styles and influences into the hour of music presented on this disc.
Wingspan opens proceedings with the twittering of birds before a forceful 6/8 rhythm drives the song along. Lundström sounds remarkably similar to ex Uriah Heep and Lone Star vocalist John Sloman, indeed, Wingspan could almost be a long-lost out-take from the exceptional Lone Star Firing On All Six album. A more folkier, acoustic approach is taken on The Way Of Things which blends nicely into Typhoons Decide, whose string synth backing nods in the direction of Zeppelin's Kashmir. The slow pace is maintained with A Little More Like Me, which features keyboards that are strongly reminiscent of Just The Same by Gentle Giant, before the tempo is upped with Solitary Man, a great rocking track that is one of those rare accomplishments - a heavy song with a great chorus. As the longest track on the album it offers more space for the individual instrumentalists. However, one slight criticism is that the extended keyboard solo, despite some nice moments, is rather pedestrian and the guitar solo doesn't really take off. Good ending though!
A trio of tunes that can loosely be described as folk rock follows. Life Is Just Begun for some reason reminds me of Echolyn (possibly because of the vocals), Dependence Day, a personal highlight of the album, has a great tune featuring violins, a tin whistle and a powerful vocal arrangement (Gentle Giant are, again, the inspiration) and an epic musical interpretation of a Swedish folk tale Seasong For Moominpaapa. This latter track is quite a gem, although the 'drunken sailor' section can be a bit tiring despite the nice little jig in the middle! You Can Never Tell is another wonderfully arranged song replete with harmonics and acoustic interludes. In a subtle twist, Big Black Secret starts with a classical piano solo before shooting off into a heavier direction with robust guitar power cords and a rather ambiguous lyric. Power Place, recorded live in the studio, provides is an enigmatic finale to the album, a rather non-descript track that is the most experimental (how many other songs can you think of that features a hammered dulcimer?!)
If you are a fan of albums that contain a variety of musical styles then the re-release of Ritual's first album could be a great way to start 2004. Let's hope that all other debut albums released this year are of as high a quality.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
California Guitar Trio - The First Decade
Tracklist: Yamanashi Blues (2:22), Melrose Avenue (2:11), Beeline (1:20), Carnival (1:46), Blockhead (2:17), Kan-Non Power (3:17), Train To Lamy Suite (PTS 1-3) (4:22), Punta Patri (4:22), Train To Lamy (PT 5), Above The Clouds (5:34), Arroto (3:39), Pathways (4:29), Great Divide (2:32), Scramble (2:00), Kaleidoscope (0:56), Ananda (2:46), Invitation (2:49), Happy Time In Fun Town (3:17), Train To Lamy (PT 3) (Reprise) (1:16)
Sometimes, you read about a band or artist and remain intrigued by what the reviewer has said about them even though you have never heard their music before. Well I guess that is what the aim of these reviews are all about! I had read much about the California Guitar Trio and thus was not too surprised at what I would come across when I had to review The First Decade. In fact it seems that this album is a great album to start off from for the uninitiated as it incorporates most of the best stuff of what their previous albums contained.
The First Decade is not your typical progressive rock album, mainly because the bulk of the musical impetus is entrusted to the sound of the acoustic guitar(s) which flit from one musical style to another. This is something that one would expect out of these guitarists (Hideyo Moriya, Bert Lams and Paul Richards) whose history together started under the guidance of Robert Fripp and his League Of Crafty Guitarists. However, expecting too much in terms of musical complexity within each individual track prior to listening to the album would be tantamount to committing a grave error. Though the guitar work and combination between the three guitarists is admirable, one also has admit that the variety in styles comes across only in the different tracks, which are in turn coming from different albums. Each piece on its own holds very little in diversity and that is possibly one of the main reasons why the tracks in themselves are pretty short.
From a stylistic point of view, one could say that this album incorporates everything from country (Train to Lamy) to blues (Yamanashi Blues) to jazz-fusion (Pathways, Happy Time In Fun Town). However, even though this might sound as if the album is varied, there seems to be a lack of continuity between the various tracks with the overall sound being to similar. Hearing a couple of acoustic pieces worked well, but hearing the album over and over again proved tedious with the album relegated to one of background music.
Reading around on the net whilst trying to gauge the reaction that many people have had to this album, I tend to get the feeling that this band tends to be one of those groups whose live performances have absolutely nothing to do with their studio albums. One of the chief "complaints" seemed to have been the omission of what seem to be live favourites, such as the group's rendition of Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, Bach's Toccata and the theme to the film "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly". However these form of comments are what one always expects when a compilation album is released.
So how can I actually give a verdict on this album. Well, for starters I would not actually classify the band as an out and out progressive rock band and where it not for the fact that they are on the Inside Out label, they would not make it to our pages for reviewing purposes. From a musicianship point of view, this is an excellent album, though I think I would opt to go an buy one of their studio albums where I feel the overall music would be somewhat more cohesive and united thematically.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Jack Foster III – Evolution Of Jazzraptor
Tracklist: Bohemian Soul (7:28); Cat’s Got Nine (3:19); Feel It When I Sting (6:47); The Shy Ones (5:30); Tiger Bone Wine (3:39); Dream With You (4:46); Lucifer’s Rat (6:04); Every Time You Smile (6:42); Nirvana In The Notes (14:04)
Jack Foster III is a Californian singer songwriter who appears to have been working towards this debut release for quite a few years. The catalyst for its final completion seems to have been the arrival to the project of Magellan maestro Trent Gardner, who produces, plays keyboards and has had a hand in the song-writing. Long-time Gardner associate Robert Berry handles drums and bass, whilst there are a number of guests playing a range of different instruments, including sax, fiddle, piano and steel guitar. Many of the lyrics were written by one Melanie Myers, whom Foster admits he has never met or even spoken to, their communication being purely by e-mail – a very 21st century way of songwriting!
Describing this album’s musical content is not easy, partly because Foster covers so many bases. Despite the title it’s not a jazz album – although both Bohemian Soul and Nirvana In The Notes both feature lengthy jazz sections. Its not really ‘prog’ as people would usually define the term, although there are parts which definitely occupy this sort of territory, helped no doubt by Gardner’s presence. Easiest perhaps to define the album as a collection of songs which mix a range of styles, and let the listener make their own mind up.
The album is book-ended, as previously mentioned, by two tracks which mix jazz sections with a rockier core; Bohemian Soul is a confident opener, a well arranged track which has a solid classic rock feel, into which is inserted a jazzy instrumental mid-section featuring Ken Stout on sax and Trent Gardner on trombone (a Gardner speciality), whilst Nirvana In The Notes was inspired by a performance Foster attended by pianist Shelly Berg. Foster managed to persuade Berg to appear on the song (an unusual case of a musician appearing on his own tribute), which intermingles free-form jazz sections with structured and melodic chorus sections, which feature some fine harmony singing. Despite the apparent contradictions in styles, the songs do feel ‘complete’ rather than a collection of unrelated sub-sections – indeed the whole album is well arranged and thought out, for which praise should go to both Foster and Gardner. Vocally, Foster has an appealing voice with quite a deep timbre, capable of covering a wide range of styles.
Elsewhere, the material ranges from the self-styled ‘swamp music’ of Cat’s Got Nine, which features fiddle, dobro and pedal steel guitar, to American-style hard rock (Tiger Bone Wine); from straightforward pop songs (the wistful lullaby-ish Dream With You, and the rather Eighties-sounding Every Time You Smile) to more complex arrangements such as The Shy Ones, where the band move smoothly through a number of complex time signatures. The highlight for me, though, is the excellent Feel It When I Sting; at its core this is a fine rock song, with a strong introductory guitar riff and a more restrained, melodic chorus. It also allows room for the band to stretch out, with Gardner in particular reeling off some fine and, yes, quite proggy keyboard solos. There’s also some great guitar/ keyboard duels, and it’s to Foster and Gardner’s credit that they never lose sight of the song, returning to embellish the chorus at the end of the song.
Overall, then, this is a quality album where the standard of song-writing and musicianship rarely dip. Apart from Nirvana In The Notes, which non-jazz fans may find a little hard-going in places, it’s an accessible release which should have a wide appeal – although perhaps its very diversity may act against it, especially given the way that music is so compartmentalised so much these days. As to whether it’s an album that will appeal to the average prog fan, that’s again open to debate; I’ve perhaps erred on the side of caution with my rating, but I’d say that those with an open mind and who like some diversity in their music should certainly investigate further.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Talisma - Corpus
Tracklist: Crisis (3:38), L’Empale (3:34), Corpus (2:36), Satanusky (3:46), Le Druide (1:09), Samba Tapping (2:31), Gavotte En Rondeau (1:07), Step Flange (4:06), Freezone (3:10), Interlude (1:33), Corpus 2 (3:18), Untitled (3:13), D Double U (4:08), Mr Twitts (3:31), Mandoly (1:39)
Talisma is a Canadian progressive art rock trio formed in 1993 and they quickly gained recognition as one of the most original and promising new bands. In 1994 they released their first demo, followed by a second effort in 1999, which was filled with an interesting melange of musical styles and arrangements. This release, called Corpus, a completely instrumental album, takes you on a musical journey that deals with every musical style possible. So, you can hear rock, jazz, latin, classical, as well as various ethnic musical influences. Personally I hear Guardian Knot and sometimes Flower Kings influences; e.g. in songs like Crisis or L’Empale. Tracks with mind boggling rhythm changes, gloomy guitar solos and heavy bass guitar riffs, which you could also describe as “difficult” music.
Those two tracks, together with Satanusky are the “highlights” of this rather obscure album; the rest of the songs are just short interludes or rather boring, mediocre instrumental, jazzy, funky tracks. There are also two songs with “vocals”, Step Flange and Freezone feature scat style female “whispering”, which add nothing to these songs. I will not make this review too long, because this is not really my cup of tea. It is progressive, but rather boring and definitely not an easy album to listen to and most of all there is a giant lack of good compositions. That being the basis of a good rock album I cannot grant a good rating to this debut album; sad but true?? No, not really!
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
Miles MacMillan - Alienated
Tracklist: In The Wake Of The Comet (5:22), Irreversable Fall Into An Abyss Of Obscurity (5:34), The Light (4:50), Waves Of Delusion (2:48), Arrival (4:25), The Age Of Enlightement (4:52), Day Of Reckoning (10:41), Lullabye For The Aliens (4:15)
Prog meets Ambient Techno? An unusual combination or so it seems. After hearing Alienated by Miles MacMillan several times now, it still appears like “a soundtrack to an imaginary Sci-Fi film” and as is stated in the accompanying the bio. I just think it is a flawled effort. Apparantly Alienated is a sort of conceptual CD, butmerely leaning on a synthesizer and putting some horrible drum computer rhythms behind it just don’t do it for me. To ‘top’ it all Miles also brings in handclaps as rhythm instruments. I can’t help but laugh...
There are some ideas that sound interesting but then a real band should perform it to give it the dynamics that are lacking now. So I see this as demo CD to lay down the base of greater album of later to come. But knowing that the greater album will never be recorded out of this one I can only base a rating on this one.
MacMillan is a resident DJ at a club in Ontario Canada and I think his talents may lie better in that area.
One positive remark I must add in all honesty; maybe Electro fans can do something with this one, Jean-Michel Jarre or Vangelis like sounds, occasionally slip through the cracks.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
Mask - The Ancient Illusion
Tracklist: Tales From The Ancient Illusion (0:32); Satan’s Fall (5:37); Black Magic Dragon (5:35); Holy Sister (1:15); The Day Of Dead (4:54); Christ The Lord (0:47); Circus (4:22); Dance With Time (4:25); Woman In Blood(4:48); Dream Magic (5:48); Nightmare (6:01); Farewell (1:00)
Mask are a Japanese band, and have four members. Beyond that I can’t tell you much – there’s no info on their promo bar the track listing and band members names (in Japanese script!), and the band’s website is in Japanese. I’m guessing that this is an album of new material, but given both the style and the recording quality I wouldn’t be that surprised if it turned out to be a re-release from the 1980’s.
The Ancient Illusion appears to be a concept album, judging by the song titles and the short instrumental keyboard pieces that pepper the album. Stylistically, the band’s stock in trade seems to be bombastic heavy metal, veering from traditional power metal to hard rock and clearly influenced by the likes of Dio, Rainbow, Helloween, Iron Maiden and UFO. The keys give proceedings a slightly symphonic feel in places.
Rather disconcertingly the middle of the album almost seems to be the work of a different band; firstly Christ The Lord, a faithful (instrumental) version of the popular hymn O Come All Ye Faithful, then Circus, an instrumental work-out that’s pure prog, with the keyboard player widdling away in an OTT manner that would make even Keith Emerson blush! I’m all for variety, but these pieces are so out of sync with the rest of the material that the effect is disorientating.
The rest of the songs are generally OK – nothing wildly original or exciting, but Mask clearly know how to pen a decent riff and construct a reasonable chorus. However, The Ancient Illusion is hamstrung by two major defects. Firstly, the sound quality is woeful; most instruments sound muddy and distant, the vocals are buried in the mix and the sound levels seem to vary almost randomly. I could forgive this if the songs were of outstanding quality, but here they patently aren’t. Secondly the vocals are poor – they are of the ‘shrieking banshee’ style but even given this wide remit the singer frequently wobbles out of tune in a painfully obvious manner and after a while you become thankful that the other instruments generally drown him out!
Overall this isn’t a terrible release, but the two faults outlined above coupled with the fact that there are literally thousands of bands writing better quality material in this vein means I can’t really recommend The Ancient Illusion to anyone, especially as I had trouble sitting through the album in its entirety myself.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10