Reviews in this issue:
Kayak - Merlin : Bard of the Unseen
Tracklist: Merlin (7:50), Tintagel (2:49), The Future King (2:58), The Sword In The Stone (3:43), When The Seer Looks Away (4:18), Branded (3:51), At Arthur’s Court (3:15), The Otherworld (7:59), The Purest Of Knights (5:48), Friendship And Love (5:13), The King’s Enchanter (2:31), Niniane (Lady Of The Lake) (7:08), The Last Battle (8:11), Avalon (3:44)
More than 20 years ago Kayak already made a Merlin album, maybe it was their best symphonic rock album so far. Last year Kayak released a new Merlin album, which consists of 5 old songs and 9 new ones; all composed by Ton Scherpenzeel. The story of Merlin or King Arthur’s Court has already been dealt with on a lot of rock albums, just think of Rick Wakeman’s The Myths And Legends Of King Arthur And The Knights Of The Round Table or more recently Once And Future King (part 1 and 2) by Gary Hughes. The characters on this album are as follows: Merlin and Lancelot parts are sung by Bert Heerink, Mordred is Rob Vunderink and Morgaine and Guinevere’s “roles” are sung by Cindy Oudshoorn.
If you listen to the album for the first time you will be overwhelmed by the beautiful songs and the wonderful atmosphere. The title track is a real masterpiece with outstanding orchestration, while the classic “old” Niniane (Lady Of The Lake) sounds completely different on this 2003 version. I must admit that actually all the five old songs sound refreshing and more alive; although I rather prefer the new songs. Take for example the catchy, short but sweet The Future King or the amazing, gripping epic The Otherworld, or the rather bombastic and theatrical The Last Battle; all symphonic, progressive masterpieces.
For the easy listeners Kayak composed two ballads, Friendship And Love and Avalon and for lovers of folk music there is At Arthur’s Court. This album is a sublime, musical interpretation of one of the most well known British stories ever and singer Cindy Oudshoorn takes it to a higher level with her out of this world voice as Morgaine. The only “miss” on this breathtaking beautiful album is the rather dull song Branded, but for the rest it is probably the best Dutch symphonic rock album ever. Listen to it again and again, and enjoy Merlin again and again. Great job!!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Strangefish - Full Scale
Tracklist: Shifting Sands And Turning Tides (10:08), Oceans Deep (11:19), Listening To Ghosts (7:46), Take A Holiday (4:39), At First Sight (11:38), Touch Sensitive (7:12), Wallflower (5:29), Simple Life (9:05)
The English city of Manchester is probably best known in recent times (on a musical level) for the ‘Madchester’ indie scene of the early 90’s, and the ‘Britpop’ band Oasis. Its fair to say that quality prog bands are not traditionally what the city is renowned for, but that may be about to change with the arrival on the scene of Strangefish’s very encouraging debut album.
Strangefish have apparently been around in one form or another since 1989, but it seems that the arrival of bassist/violinist Julian Gregory in 2000 has proved the catalyst for the band to start taking themselves more seriously, and develop into a force to be reckoned with. Even by the standards of UK prog bands Strangefish currently have a very low profile, but recent championing by the Classic Rock Society (who were the first to really notice and provide support for the likes of Mostly Autumn and Karnataka) has given the band a much needed boost, and three ‘Best Of The Year’ awards from the CRS (best new band, vocalist and drummer) won’t hurt their cause at all.
The band’s formula is probably best described as a touch of retro prog a’la Spock’s Beard and The Flower Kings; a dash of neo-prog (there are shades of Marillion in their early eighties incarnation) and a hefty dose of the kind of reasonably heavy but melodic, guitar driven prog rock that It Bites used to serve up. As often with descriptions of a band’s sound this is a fairly loose one, but it’s fair to say that you can hear the influence of all the above bands quite clearly at various stages on the album.
Full Scale kicks off in confident fashion with Shifting Sands And Turning Tides, a lengthy track which is very well arranged, maintains a convincing momentum throughout and has a good balance of heavier sections and more melodic, reflective ones – all traits which can be found throughout the album. The overriding influence on this song is probably It Bites; in particular, enigmatically named guitarist “Bob” uses a guitar tone and produces some solo’s which could have come from Dunnery’s guitar circa Once Around The World. Musically this track also bears some comparison with Rush in their nineties incarnation. Singer Steve Taylor, meanwhile, instantly makes a positive impression. He has a strong voice capable of carrying each of these varied tunes – I’d probably describe it as more of a general ‘rock’ voice than a typically ‘prog’ one, although that very imaginative pronunciation rather peculiar of the English prog style does creep in now and again (i.e. experiences becomes Ex-spear-eeee-Ences!). Next track Oceans Deep is a gem; it has a laidback, mellow and very positive feel with a nice lilting central melody. The general vibe of the song, and the middle section which sees some very bouncy melodies come into play, reminded me of Spock’s Beard in their pomp – I could almost visualise Neal Morse tapping out the main keyboard lines.
Listening To Ghosts is the most consciously neo-prog sounding song; from its atmospheric, haunting opening this develops into a fine track that brings comparisons with IQ, or early Marillion, particularly in Paul O’Neill’s use of some evocative keyboard sounds which recall those once used by Mark Kelly.
If these three tracks can be described as the pick of the bunch, that’s not disparaging the rest of the material. Both Wallflower and Take A Holiday are comparatively short, straight-forward songs with catchy choruses which nicely complement the more epic tracks. Final track Simple Life, meanwhile, has a very upbeat feel, and whilst could again be called an ‘epic’, actually seems to take its influences more from Eighties American pop-rock in both the instrumentation and Taylor’s vocal delivery.
The lyrics deserve a mention, as they are well written and have a nice dash of humour, not something you find in every prog album released. In particular I noticed that water, and in particular the ocean, are often referenced, both directly and as a metaphor; this, coupled with the positive feel the album as a whole conveys, lead me to think that the album would probably sound even better listened to on a summer’s day on a beach somewhere. Perhaps the main criticism you might aim at the band is the fact that they haven’t found their true voice yet – much like fellow Brits Magenta. Also, whilst in general the influences are fairly obvious rather than overt, occasionally you do get the feeling you’ve heard something before – such as the fade-out section of Touch Sensitive, which bears more than a passing resemblance to Marillion’s Falling From The Moon. This criticism is, in my mind far outweighed, however, by the high quality of the songwriting, the excellent musicianship and the fact that the album never drags and is thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end. For an album obviously recorded on a tight budget, moreover, the sound quality and production are very good – although I’d imagine that live, with a fuller sound, the songs really gain an extra dimension.
Overall, this CD was a very pleasant surprise – an excellent album which should give a welcome boost to the UK prog scene, and is recommended to all prog fans, particularly those partial to those of the band’s I’ve referenced in the review.
Sticking to the old adage that 'Fools Rush In', Strangefish have taken their time in delivering their first album, fourteen years to be precise! Originally formed in 1989, the first decade or so were years of "regular rehearsals, lots of enthusiasm and the occasional gig or two." The arrival of Julian Gregory (bass and violin) at the start of the 21st century prompted the beginning of a more professional and organised outfit, one that would actually start recording and releasing material, firstly with the Reeled In EP and now, finally, with the album Full Scale. Hailing from the Manchester area of the UK, the rest of the band comprises Steve Taylor (vocals), the enigmatic Bob (lead guitar). Paul O'Neill (keyboards) and Dave Whittaker (drums).
So what have their years of rehearsals and writing come up with? Well Full Scale is simply an accomplished debut album. Unlike a lot of young progressive bands, Strangefish have not fallen into the trap of thinking that the benchmark of a great prog song is based on its length. Although, three of the songs on the album exceed the ten-minute mark and the remainder can hardly be classified as three-minute pop songs, the group haven't fallen into the trap of simply extending their songs by adding interminable and pointless solos. A prime example is album opener Shifting Sands And Turning Tides. Although ten minutes long, it positively zips past without overstaying its welcome. Infused with various themes, the song is a powerful start to the album and is very well balanced, demonstrating the talents of all band members, who each give an exemplary performance. To extend the fishing analogy, it certainly hooks the listener and reels them in!
Continuing with a second long track, Oceans Deep doesn't, to my mind, flow as well as the opener, overuse of a cowbell (or other percussive effect) in the initial section is a bit distracting and the lyric doesn't seem to merge too well with the music. Despite that, there are some nice guitar and keyboard parts and some harmony vocal parts that I would have like to have heard developed further. Listening To Ghosts features a very melodic guitar part wrapped up in a very catchy hook, although the overly dramatic keyboards effects at the start and end of the song do seem to be somewhat superfluous. In contrast, Take A Holiday is very, for want of a better term, punk-prog. An energetic, up-beat and biting song which raises the energy level and even throws in a little humour. From the shortest track to the longest, At First Sight. Starting as a seemingly sensitive ballad, with dominant keyboards and vocals, things are beefed up with an increase in tempo and the arrival of the guitar. At about the 4:30 mark a totally different song seems to take over, riffing guitars and an overall much heavier sound. The transition is far from subtle but effective in its own way. A couple of minutes further along and the pattern is repeated, another keyboards and vocals section followed by heavier guitars (and an impressive solo to boot) before things finally quieten down as we head for the conclusion which is an effective mirror image of the opening. A fairly unusual track but one that I think will only impress more on repeated hearings.
Touch Sensitive fairly plods along in a quite uninspired way for the first three minutes and then, in what is becoming something of a Strangefish style, is taken over by a guitar solo (overlaid with some effective vocalising) ending with a more melodic component. I have to say this was probably my least favourite track on the album, the spoken vocals before and after the guitar solo were rather incongruous, the beginning was rather dull and the end was too nondescript. Altogether better was Wallflower which once again has an angrier feel to it. The band certainly seem to perform better on the shorter, more aggressive, tracks as this, and the earlier Take A Holiday, are the two that are the most immediately enjoyable pieces. One possible reason for this is that Steve Taylor's voice is more suited to the powerful rather than the passionate, somehow he doesn't sound as convincing on the slower material. Simple Life, with its initial reggae-ish groove, jazzy guitar solo and relatively simple structure is a bit of a disappointing way to end the album, the harmony vocals are not all that convincing and, unlike the other longer tracks, the one tends to drag a bit, particularly over the first six minutes. Saving grace is the final, mainly instrumental, section where Bob proves again that he is a guitarist to watch out for.
Strangefish are unlikely to be hailed as the saviours of British progressive rock on the basis of this album (despite what the Classic Rock Society think). Full Scale is a solid release that is worthy of congratulations but if the band want to really make their mark they have to up the ante for their second release, due, hopefully, sometime before 2017!
KingBathmat - Crowning Glory
Tracklist: As Ever (4:45), The Final Star (3:12), Top Of The World (3:59), Almost There (4:00), Alcohol Sea (5:22), Rain On (3:02), Fair Weather Friend (3:46), The Sun And Moon (4:19), Sunflower Eyes (3:11), A Million Dreams (6:15)
All hail, for the King has returned! King as in KingBathmat that is. Following-up his critically well-received Son Of A Nun debut album was never going to be easy, after all, as is often said, an artist has a lifetime to prepare for their first album. Still resolutely an independent artist with no management, no promoters and no label backing, John Bassett does everything himself - writes, produces, plays all instruments, sings lead and backing vocals, designs CD sleeves, booklets, press kits and merchandise, and no doubt even makes the tea! I am still somewhat in awe that one person can do so much on limited budgets without sacrificing quality. For that is what Crowning Glory is, a very fine, quality album.
Treading familiar ground to the first album, Crowning Glory is a collection of 10 modern rock songs that are replete with instantly memorable melodies and superb musicianship and ably demonstrate that Bassett's skills as a songwriter are continuing to develop and progress. Once again, the arrangements are very full and sound like a very tight five-piece band. This time round there is a greater use of backing vocals, tracks like Rain On, Fair Weather Friend and The Sun And Moon come to life with the multi-layered harmonies. There are more obvious psychedelic influences throughout the album, not that the songs freak out in a mass of feedback and distortion, more that some of the sounds employed behind the melodies hark back to times when new electronica could first create spacey echoes and subtle distortions, could that be a theremin whining away in the background during Top Of The World?! Almost There exemplifies the psychedelic pop aspects of the album in a wonderful amalgam of influences and styles. And to top it all, it has a pretty funky beat as well!
Topping and tailing Crowning Glory are two tracks that sum up the changes that King Bathmat has undergone since Son Of A Nun. Album opener As Ever demonstrates that if anything has improved it is Bassett's singing, he is more assured and has a greater range, changes that have no doubt inspired and encouraged the more adventurous vocal arrangements. A Million Dreams provides the perfect ending, a veritable tour across genres that sums up everything I imagine John Bassett is trying to achieve.
I have a great reluctance to categorise the style of the songs as it would do nothing but demean them. Are they pop? Rock? Progressive? Well yes, and no, they contain elements of all of these categories but don't fit neatly into any of them, the proverbial square peg in the round hole. I have no hesitation in repeating the words with which I ended my review of Son Of A Nun: "this is simply a very fine album laden with great melodies, compelling songs and fine musicianship". Do yourself a favour and get yourself a copy.
Note : If you buy a copy of Crowning Glory from the KingBathmat web page, you will also receive a free multimedia CD. This contains a video for The Final Star (again, Bassett produced this very interesting video practically single-handedly, is there no end to this chap's talents?) as well as MP3 files and a variety of other links and information. The MP3 files consist of seven tracks from Son Of A Nun, four previously unreleased songs, an extended version of Sunflower Eyes as well as 10 demos, eight of which are of songs that have yet to be released. Quite a bargain really, so why are you still reading this and not heading for the KingBathmat website?!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Sixnorth - Prayer
Tracklist: Magnetic Factor (6:46), The Fourth Way (7:48), Everything Becomes Circle (7:00), The Enneagram (9:36), From Sri Lanka To Titan (8:41), The Age Of Horus (5:56), Introduction To Richard (3:47), Richard (5:46)
Prayer is the second offering from Japanese Jazz-Fusioneers Sixnorth and follows on from their 2000 debut disc I'm Here In My Heart. There are also direct connections to label mates Budderfly and Strings Arguments – in fact, in addition to shared musicians, the last named group’s CD The Encounter also includes alternate versions of Everything Becomes Circle and From Sri Lanka To Titan. I haven’t heard the Strings Argument CD, but I have got the first Sixnorth album. I found that to contain some good music, but it was overlong and a bit patchy. I do feel able to report that Prayer is an improvement on the first album, swinging the sound in a significantly more Canterburyesque direction and making this an album likely to appeal to fans of Hatfield And The North, National Health and Bruford. The musicianship is certainly of a high standard throughout.
Magnetic Factor starts off sedately with wordless vocals from Chizuko Ura, but the mood is rudely shattered about a minute and a half in, when a maniacal laugh ushers in a section of complex twisting fusion, recalling Alan Holdsworth era Soft Machine or Brand X. This then alternates with passages of smooth vocalisation and slick saxophones, creating a sound very much influenced by Hatfield And The North. The combination works really well and this is one of my favourite tracks on the disc.
The Fourth Way has a more straight Jazz-Fusion sound, dominated by electric guitar. It’s a very relaxed performance, pleasant to listen to, but lacks the edge of the preceding track. Towards the end, there is a spacey improv section, which is pretty good. Everything Becomes Circle features violin from Akihisa Tsuboy of KBB, which adds a fresh twist to the proceedings. The vocals switch between an almost operatic style and a more jazzy Scat style. The track remains firmly in the jazz field, with a nice saxophone solo to top things off.
Its back to a more Progressive/Canterbury style on The Enneagram, but whilst this is an interesting track, the opening, lengthy keyboard theme has an irritating whiney pitch, which is a little off-putting. There are some nice strummed guitar parts that work particularly well and, later on, a nice noodley keyboard solo, without the whiney voicing. At 9:36, this is the longest track, and has some intriguing changes of pace and style, so overall it is worthwhile.
From Sri Lanka To Titan (a dedication To Arthur C Clarke?) has an unusual opening section, with eccentric, spidery guitar and squeaky sax, but soon moves back into more usual fusion territory, with a touch of funk creeping in. Again, there are strong hints of National Health and Hatfield to be heard. There is a nice organ solo, making for the kind of Jazz that I find appealing. The Age Of Horus is very much in the vein of latter-day, Caravan Of Dreams period Richard Sinclair material. It has a lovely, dreamy atmosphere, and includes some nice piano work and relaxed bass guitar.
The debt to Richard Sinclair is openly acknowledged by the concluding track Richard, preceded by a short improvised guitar piece, and including an excerpt from the Hatfield’s track Fitter Stoker Has A Bath and also a guest spot from his cousin Dave Sinclair on organ. This track contains the most avant-garde moments to be found on the disc, with a fairly chaotic section towards the end of the track.
Overall, this is a quite nice Japanese take on the Canterbury scene, throwing in quite a few other Jazz Fusion influences as well, but with the rock element kept to a minimum. It doesn’t quite match the originality or wit of its forebears and may not have much appeal beyond committed adherents of all things Canterbury. I found most of it to be pleasant listening, but a touch too smooth and jazzy in places to really light my fire.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Product - On Water
Tracklist: Raising Of The Mainsail And A Song For The Damned (6:59), Eye For Eye (4:20), When The Smoke Fades Away (5:03), Water Bodies (3:25), Yardarm To Yardarm (2:45), Safe harbour (1:16), London Towne (3:45), You (3:26), Islands (6:15), Lemmings (7:39), Ghosts (3:55), Underwater I (1:04), Without You (5:25), Underwater II (1:02), On Water (6:05)
Tracklist: City Of Gold (5:14), Age Of Reason (3:59), Mighty Maze (4:35), Here Comes Tomorrow (4:17), Still Here (4:00), Value Of Gold (5:16), Wonderful Dreamers (1:40), Other Worlds (5:31), Everyday Business (4:00), Autumn (3:46), Beyond All Reasons (4:47), Angels (2:11), Black Is The Day (4:46), Fall (5:29), The Calling (4:43), Last Word (3:39), Breathing (4:57)
Product consists of songwriter, vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Arman Christoff Boyles and bassist/drummer Scott Rader, who, in their own words, create ‘historically based musical theatre geared towards the ears and mind’. In essence, this means that Product are creators of that old favourite of progressive rock artists, the concept album.
Product have released two albums to date. Their first, On Water, was originally issued in 2000, yet the band state that they were unhappy with the limited distribution of it, so appear to be doing some re-promotion to tie in with the release of the new album Aire (on the Cyclops label).
On Water is set against the backdrop of the American Revolution, and is based on a journal by a young sailor named Jacob Nagle, focussing on the confused, surreal and unsettling reflections as he slowly drowns. It is hardly upbeat material, and Product have produced a dark, constantly shifting musical backdrop to these troubled recollections. Instrumentation is used primarily to create atmosphere, and it’s rather disingenuous to look at individual ‘songs’ in general as this is very much a whole piece, to be listened to in totality. Having said that, there are some tracks that stand out in their own right, in particular You, a powerful ballad with a fine duet between Boyles and guest vocalist Marianne Joan.
Much of the material could be labelled melancholic and balladic, but there are regular shifts into heavier, industrial flavoured territory, where distorted guitars and clanking drumbeats rule the roost. This shift, often very abrupt (as in Eye To Eye) can be disconcerting, which I’m sure is intended given the nature of the story. The nautical theme is well used throughout, giving the album a feeling of unity, and also lending itself to certain musical styles (not least the sea-shanty-esque romp Yardarm To Yardarm).
Aire, the band’s most recent album, is based on the life of Galileo, and purports to examine ‘the internal and external conflict between church, science and politics’. The setting and context of the album is not so clearly defined this time, but this is more than made up for by the fact that the band have come up with stronger, more varied and accessible material, especially in rockier, mid-tempo tracks such as Age Of Reason and Value Of Gold which show a stronger sense of melody, and there is an epic sweep to the album that I felt was missing on On Water.
Influence-wise, the main ones I identified on both albums were Salem Hill, latter-day Porcupine Tree, late seventies Pink Floyd and mid-90’s Marillion – indeed, Boyles’ expressive voice has a definite echo of Steve Hogarth’s, particular in the quieter, more reflective sections. Other points of reference include more mainstream acts such as Radiohead and Elbow, and the now-defunct avant-garde popsters Talk Talk – the latter’s influence being particularly noticeable in the way that silence and the ‘less is more’ ethic are utilised.
Overall, these aren’t the easiest albums to listen to, and the starkness and minimalism of some of the material may alienate some people, but it’s worth persevering as there is some fine music here. If asked to recommend one over the other I would go for Aire, due to its (relative) accessibility and the stronger songwriting, but in all honesty if you like one you’ll probably want the other, as both are stylistically similar. Ones for those into the darker side of prog.
On Water: 6.5 out of 10
Aire: 7 out of 10