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Reviews in this issue:
John Young Band -
Live at the Classic Rock Society 2003
Tracklist: Significance (4:40), When I Was Young (5:02), Just One Day (4:41), All Grown Up (4:26), Underside (6:55), Unknown Soldier (14:20), Childhood's End (8:29)), Open Skies (4:04), Kings (3:51)
John Young is an artist for whom I have a lot of respect. Besides being a very nice guy to begin with, he must also be one of the biggest strugglers in the prog rock scene. John has been a much asked session musician, playing and composing for well-known acts as Greenslade, Bonny 'Total Eclipse of the Heart' Tyler, John Wetton, Fish and The Scorpions. Since the late nineties John has also been releasing demo and home recordings of his own solo work, some of which have been reviewed by DPRP (Life Underground (the demos), N.C.V., A Young Persons Guide ... and Significance). In the meantime John continued playing solo gigs as support act, at festivals and seedy venues around the nation, dragging his mini disc player with him as a back-up band. Most of this went by unrecognised by the major public, especially those outside the UK, which is a real shame because John's qualities as a composer, keyboard player and vocalist are outstanding. Some of the best songs on Wetton's Arkangel album were co-written with Young and I've always felt that Fish' Fellini Days could have been so much better if Fish had chosen John Young as his main writing partner instead of John Wesley.
John's compositions are a cross between keyboard driven prog rock and high quality AOR, resulting in splendid songs full of emotions, power and excellent melody hooks. Still, there is a certain limit to a man playing along with a mini-disc player or drum computer so after releasing his Significance album, John decided to put together a band and take the material on the road with a beefier sound. The lads joining him were no strangers to us prog fans: Robin Boult (Fish, Howard Jones) on guitar and vocals, John Jowitt (I.Q., Jadis) on bass & vocals and Dave 'Squeaky' Stewart (Fish, Camel, Deacon Blue) on drums and vocals. The band started rehearsing in December 2002 and throughout 2003 the struggle for recognition continued with many gigs, often playing for just a handful of people. Late 2003 John Jowitt decided to leave the band because of other priorities (IQ, work) and was replaced by Steve Vantsis (Fish) which makes the current line-up for the John Young band almost identical to Fish' backing band in recent years.
John has often voiced his frustration with the current music business where throw-away one-hit-wonders make up the charts and quality rock music is not supported by the big labels. This makes his struggle all the more fascinating and if there's one person I'd wish more success John would be the one. His music certainly isn't the problem, as can be heard on this recording of a gig for the Classic Rock Society in February 2003 (unfortunately another one of those gigs where the artists has to say 'thank you' first before getting applause). This CD therefore includes the wonderful talents of Young, Jowitt, Stewart and Boult, performing some of John's best material, with an emphasis on the Significance album (5 out of 9 tracks).
This recording shows that John's music really comes to live when played by a full band. Jowitt adds various warm bass lines and backing vocals, Boult some roaring guitar solo's and David a solid rhythmic structure. It certainly is the best thing I've ever heard John Young release.
There's quite a wide range of styles on this collection. Significance and Underside, for instance are wonderful atmospheric ballads with intelligent and critical lyrics. When I Was Young is an uplifting toe tapper, with a rather funky rhythm by Dave Stewart. Just One Day is a more straightforward pop song, but a very fine one at that. Especially the playful interaction between keys and drums is remarkable, reminding me of Pink Floyd's live version of Learning to Fly. All Grown Up is one of the favourites from John's earlier material and contains some of his best vocal melodies. Open Skies is a guitar-heavy rocker.
The more 'proggy' stuff can be found in the 14 minute epic Unknown Soldier (which contains some splendid emotional moments but would probably have been better as 2 or 3 separate tracks), the punchy Childhood End (which shows how tight this band actually is) and the dark and almost King Crimson-ish Kings.
To sum it up, this is a highly recommended album for anybody that likes good melodic music with prog rock influences (think e.g. Alan Parsons Project). Go out and get yourself a copy of this album. John really deserves a break and more recognition.
Until just a couple of years ago, the name John Young had almost totally eluded me, save knowledge of his involvements with Greenslade and John Wetton. However since then I have become more and more familiar with his music, having reviewed John's last two albums for DPRP and in the process becoming a bit of a fan. 2002 saw the release of the excellent Significance, a thoroughly enjoyable album, that still enjoys regular spins in my CD player. At the time of the review there was talk of a mini-tour to support the album, and I remember remarking on how the material might adapt to the live stage. Well I can tell you - very well indeed, in fact it has breathed new life into many of the compositions.
Ed has covered the line-up chosen for the the mini-tour and also for this particular concert, so I shall not retread the same ground. I would, however, just like to pass a brief comment on the musicians, who have all gelled so well on this recording. The songs have taken on a new dimension, and a slightly less produced sound has been replaced with a passionate, almost "studio crafted" performance. The recording is crystal clear and all the instrument sounds are well mixed (although I did feel the keyboards could have been a touch higher throughout - a mute point perhaps). I was also pleased that John still undertook those solo's from Significance that I feared might have moved onto guitar - .
As I wrote in my review of the Significance album, what we had here was a strong album full of well crafted songs - well what makes this release from JYB so interesting is the added dimension that these four musicians have made to those songs. Granted there is "live" feel to the tracks, although this is an extremely polished performance, and granted that the sound has been beefed up, but what most intrigued me was how more "proggy" all the tracks have become. It is not there on Significance studio album, therefore, it can only be the influences of Messrs Boult, Jowitt, Stewart and Young. Given their backgrounds and band involvements perhaps not surprising but still a very welcome slant to the music.
The more dramatic and presumably "proggier" material is concentrated towards the second half of the show, with Unknown Soldier taking centre stage. A track I had not previously heard before, but with fourteen minutes of concisely written melodies and themes, is definitely one of the more emotional songs from the CD. Most impressive here was the restrained, solo work from Robin Boult. Following from this is the more up-tempo Childhood's End, an un-released track from A Young Person's Guide. A delightful song and a great rendition of it is played by the band. The dynamic of the track reminded of the stronger material that appeared on Asia's first album - very catchy, very melodic and very memorable, oh yeah, and excellently played. Open Skies sees our last visit for the evening to the Significance album, with this bouncy, grooving and ever tense track. The evening's performance concludes with another unknown track for me, the excellent Kings. Again following in the footsteps of the proceeding track, this intense "guitar riff" driven piece, with it's strong rhythmic vibe from Dave Stewart and John Jowitt - in a sort of King Crimson plays Are Friends Electric offering. Kings concludes this CD, although the concert included two encores, which are not featured here.
Music needs more guys like John Young, for not only is he a fine musician, composer and session player, but one not afraid to voice his dissatisfaction with the current state of the music industry. Personally I agree wholeheartedly with his views as it saddens me when I see guys like John (and the many other gifted musicians/bands I hear on a daily basis) who, not for the want of trying are unable to gain recognition for their work. Ermm - I shall leave this sore issue alone at this point and wish John every success with this current release.
If your taste in music encompasses well written and arranged melodic songs with a healthy portion of progressive ideals thrown in, then check out the MP3's on John's site or better still - buy the CD!
Djam Karet - Live At NEARfest 2001
Tracklist: Forbidden By Rule (6:55), The Red Monk (5:33), Night Of The Mexican Goat Sucker (6:42), No Man's Land (5:55), The Hanging Tree (548), All Clear (8:55), Web Of Medea (6:50), Feast Of Ashes (10:08), Burning The Hard City (8:59)
Unbelievably Djam Karet are in their 20th year and still revel under the title of 'America's greatest undiscovered band'. Live At NEARfest 2001 is the group's twelfth official CD although they have released numerous cassettes, live CDRs and solo albums over the years. As the title suggests, the album was recorded at NEARfest in June 2001, only the second gig the band had played on the east coast of America. The group had just released their New Dark Age CD and were about to issue the limited edition companion album, Ascension. It was also the first concert to feature new bassist Aaron Kenyon who joined after the albums had been recorded (although he didn't replace original bassist Henry Osborne as the two musicians share the responsibility for holding down the bottom end these days).
The entire Djam Karet performance is featured on the CD which can be divided into three sets, an opening trio of older songs, a quartet of pieces from the latest CDs and a finale featuring two numbers from the 1991 album Burning The Hard City. Entirely instrumental, the quartet present a very impressive and tight set centred around twin guitarists Gayle Ellet and Mike Henderson. Ellet also doubles on keyboards although they are never used more than as a source of atmospherics which increase the soundscape the band produces. The often involved and layered effects of the studio albums are obviously missing from the live album as what is heard is what the four pairs of hands could produce from the stage, no taped effects or backing tracks here! Considering some people lump Djam Karet in with 'jam bands' such as the Grateful Dead and Phish, the tracks are very focused with only No Man's Land being extended beyond the length of the studio version. In fact, five of the nine tracks are more than a minute shorted than their studio counterparts Burning The Hard City is actually over a third shorter than on the album of the same name.
Whether you like this album or not will depend on your opinion of instrumental music, some people can't get over a lack of vocals which is a pity as when Djam Karet gel, as they do on Live at NEARfest 2001, they are largely unbeatable. The guitar interplay, particularly on tracks like Night Of The Mexican Goatsucker and Burning The Hard City, is right out of the top drawer, Chuck Owen Jnr's drums are solid and precise and one would guess that Aaron Kenyon grew up playing in the band rather than having joined it a matter of months previously. The band have been criticised for being almost schizophrenic, being comfortable playing music based on hard rock guitar or more ambient sampling and looped effects, often on the same album (or even within the same piece). Not the case on this album, the closest they get to sedate is on The Hanging Tree, where Mike Henderson's guitar takes on a blues-based form over Ellet's keyboard backing. Even pieces like No Man's Land, which in its studio guise was accused of being too jazz rock, leaves behind the jazzier elements and focuses on the rock.
You can literally hear the audience at NEARfest, who were mostly uninitiated Djam Karet listeners, awakening to the band as the performance progresses - the group is fully worthy of the standing ovation they were awarded at the end of their set. Although on reflection I probably prefer the band's first official live recording, Live At Orion (coincidentally also recorded on the East coast of the US), Live At NEARfest 2001 does provide a good introduction to the group for those who are not too comfortable with the more jazzy, ambient and improvisational sides of the band.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Apogee - The Garden of Delights
Tracklist: The Garden Of Delights (16:24), To Keep The Balance (15:52), The Cassini Division (2:45), Paying The Bill (13:40), Swallow The Illusion (21:26)
Apogee is, in effect, a solo project for Arne Schafer, guitarist and vocalist for German band Versus X, and is his third release under this banner (and the first since 1997). Featuring material written and recorded over a four year period, this is clearly not something dashed off quickly in his main band’s down-time, but a project that he’s put a lot of time and effort into. Schafer plays all the instruments here, bar the drums which are handled by his Versus X band-mate Owe Vollmar.
The music on The Garden Of Delights is best, if occasionally loosely, described as symphonic prog, with strong elements of psychaedelia and electronica in the mix as well. Bar the short, acoustic guitar instrumental The Cassini Division, all the tracks are lengthy pieces which evoke a variety of moods and atmospheres, and contain a mix of instrumental and vocal sections. In fact I was somewhat surprised by the sheer wordiness of the album – not something you generally associate with this style of music, and in some cases this proves problematic, as the lengthy verbal onslaught can struggle to fit in with the music – Paying The Bill being a prime example. This is not to say however, that the vocals are poor - Schafer’s voice has a surprising (and welcome) edge to it, and reminded me (strongly in places) of Peter Hammill, particularly with regard to his enunciation, tone and emphasis.
Keyboards are the predominant instrument here and carve out most of the main melodies; however, guitars are also well to the fore, both as a lead and, most prominently (and effectively) as a rhythm instrument, combining with bass and drums to flesh out the songs and give them a strong backbone. Combined with the sharp vocals, and the frequent steps up in tempo, this gives much of the material real bite, something that’s particularly noticeable on To Keep The Balance, in my opinion the strongest track here (this track also caught my attention due to the fact that the introductory section sounds eerily similar to the theme from the old British TV series ‘Doctor Who’!).
The structure of the songs should also be commented upon – all the tracks sound like complete entities rather than a rag-bag of different ideas bundled together, and there are plenty of strong melodic and vocal hooks throughout.
At seventy minutes, this album perhaps outstays its welcome a little and some of the songs could have done with some editing, but this is a decent release – I’d say that if you like symphonic prog with plenty of twists and turns and a bit of oomph, then The Garden of Delights would be well worth investigating.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Taproban – Outside Nowhere
Tracklist: At The Fifteenth Orbit (1:16), Outside Nowhere (19:02), Broken Shell (1:37), Il Difficile Equilibrio Tra Sorgenti D’Energia (7:40), Ves Ml’ tahghach (4:59), Pieces Left Behind (5:07), The Deep (2:32), Nexus (4:16)
Outside Nowhere, the second CD from Italian trio Taproban, is an enthusiastically executed set of songs on a general theme of space exploration with some of the tracks paying homage to specific Science Fiction films (2001, Bladerunner and Star Trek). This is not a staggeringly original idea, nor does the music present anything particularly groundbreaking or revolutionary, but the core trio of Gianlucca De Rossi – keyboards and vocals, Guglielmo Mariotti – bass, vocals and acoustic guitar, and Davide Guidoni - percussion are all fine musicians, as is guest Alessandro Papotto (from the superb Periferia Del Mondo) on saxophone. Also, they look for inspiration in all the right places, with ELP, Yes, Rick Wakeman, Vangelis and Rush being the main, but by no means the only, influences.
The pieces are largely instrumental, but the vocals, when they do occur, are pleasant enough, particularly on Broken Shell (an acoustic ballad) and Pieces Left Behind with the merest trace of an accent failing to dampen proceedings. I still prefer it where, as on Nexus, the vocals are presented in their native Italian.
From the opening Wakeman-esque synth fanfare of At The Fifteenth Orbit, through the dynamic Chris Squire-like bass which powers the album’s centrepiece 19 minute suite Outside Nowhere and that same track’s bolero–like opening, melodic dancing sax solo, Peart-like percussion and lush layers of keyboards, to the spooky desolation conjured by the short but effective The Deep, this album is an enjoyable ride through an ever-changing landscape of prog rock staples and tried and tested styles. That said, they never stoop to blatant plagiarism and manage to pull all their influences into a cohesive whole. Of course, like ELP and Rick Wakeman, this is keyboard-dominated music, and is most likely to appeal to fans of these and similar artists. Di Rossi is a very capable player, with a wide range of styles at his command, from gentle piano to majestic organ, enabling him to conjure up appropriate atmospheres for this evocative music. The rhythm section are also considerable better than in many similar groups, where the backing is purely workmanlike.
Il Dificile Equilibrio… has a more modern, spiralling synth sound, edging towards Ozric Tentacles in places but retaining a neo IQ inspired feel, mixed with some frantic ELP organ runs. The unpronounceable fifth track is apparently a Klingon translation of “War Dance” and this is an apt title for this lively Star Trek motivated piece, laced through with vibrant percussion, making for an easily likeable track. The album closes with the Bladerunner inspired Nexus featuring lovely, mournful saxophone, treated vocals and it ends with a sweet, melancholic piano mixed with samples of the last words of Russian cosmonaut Vladimir Komarov who died aboard the Sojuz 1. This is a reflective way to end an album whose moods are many and varied.
While this is unlikely to top anyone’s “best of year” lists, it is a pleasing work with much to offer the old school prog fan. It manages to steer clear of the bombastic overkill employed by Japanese proponents of similar music (Ars Nova, Gerard) and also avoids the overt metal influences that are currently in vogue with many Neo-Prog groups (Star One, Aryeon). All in all, this is an agreeable album for all fans of keyboard prog.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
David Foster - Open Road
Tracklist: Time and a Word (4:20), Hiroshima Hangover (3:55), Days of Men and Women (4:40), Sweet Maria (3:11), Open Road (4:11) Great Star of Fraternity (4:37), Give it Up Mama (4:55), Look Out (4:31), If You Can't Have Love (4:27), Give It A Chance (5:29)
David Foster... now that's a name that may ring a few bells, particularly amongst Yes fans. Still can't place him? Well Foster was an original member of The Warriors which featured Jon Anderson on vocals and Ian Wallace on drums, co-wrote Sweet Dreams and Time And A Word (as well as allegedly having an uncredited hand in composing Yours Is No Disgrace) with Anderson and was last heard of in Badger, the excellent prog band featuring Tony Kaye after he departed from the original Yes (see the review of their One Live Badger album). Since the demise of Badger in the mid 1970s, not a lot, musically at least, has been heard from Foster: he acted as producer on albums of modern Celtic music for 'several British bands' (not named on his website) and has written an autobiography, although I am not sure if that has found a publisher yet.
And now this, a solo album. Recording details are sparse in the minimal CD booklet so it is impossible to tell if the songs on the album are all recent or have been written over the intervening years, although Give It A Chance, a tribute to John Lennon, would perhaps suggest that at least some of the songs have a degree of history to them. Under no dispute is the pedigree of album opener, Time And A Word. Foster claims that this new version is how he originally intended the song to be. Although there are differences between the versions, mostly in the greater use of backing and harmony vocals, the differences are not that great and, after all these years, the new version sadly can't escape leaving the impression of a well-intentioned but slightly inferior cover version.
Better is Hiroshima Hangover, a surprisingly upbeat song considering the topic of the lyric. Some great guitar effects (by Paul Rose and Jim Hornsby) and an always welcome Hammond organ (courtesy of Frank Gibbon) provide an interesting musical backing. A similar feel is obtained on Give It Up Mamma although there is a more blues basis to the latter song. Nice bass sound as well; good to hear a song were the bass is mixed more upfront with the guitars pushed back. Days Of Men and Women is ostensibly an acoustic ballad which again features some nice textural keyboard sounds and possesses a rather funky middle eight. Is that really Martin Stephenson, ex of The Daintees helping out on acoustic guitar?! Could be as the Stephenson-penned Great Star Of Fraternity definitely has a similar vibe to his solo material.
Sweet Maria is an undemanding but jolly little ditty and along with Look Out provide two of the more up-tempo moments on the album. Parts of Look Out reminded me somewhat of Chas 'n' Dave, which is not meant as an insult (both Chas and Dave are exceptional musicians), just that I can imagine the song being played on a pub piano with everyone joining in on the chorus! If You Can't Have Love is a reasonable ballad from the pen of Foster's ex-Badger bandmate Brian Parrish. However, it is not an outstanding song and tends to wash over the listener without really sticking in the brain (in one ear and out the other as my mother used to say).
And that's the main problem with the album. It is not that instantly memorable. The songs are all okay compositionally, the playing and singing is inoffensive but overall there is really nothing emanating from the speakers that grabs the listener. Open Road sits comfortably amongst the undemanding late night background music CDs that we all have in our musical collections and, on that level, is a perfectly acceptable record. However, apart from absolute Yes completists, this is not really something for the hard core progressive rock fan.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Side Steps - Steps On Edge
Tracklist: On The Eve Of The Time (1:50), Triumphal Return [Inner Space III] (10:51), Only One Wish (8:03), Latin Rhythm (6:17), preface - Private Eye (9:32), Jazz it (10:13), An Eternal Tide (9:00)
Since the bands formation in 1990, Side Steps have produced nine albums and this re-released CD, on the Musea Label, originates from the earlier days of the band (circa 1993).
In Steps On Edge, Side Steps have produced an instrumental album, very much in the areas of accessible jazz/jazz rock/funk/fusion and owes very little to the progressive field. This noted, all the tracks are extremely well played and the musicianship is top-notch with all four musicians display a flowing dexterity on their chosen instrument. The line-up consistes of Atsunobu Tamura (guitar), Hiroaki Itoh (keyboards), Kiochi Iwai (bass) and Ichiro Fukawa (drums). I am not expert in this field however I see that Side Steps music most owe some allegances to Al Jarreau and Chick Corea. Coupled with this is seventies Spyro Gyra and eighties dance-funksters Shakatak. However as the guitar takes a prominent and distinct role in the music, then I would add influences from Carlos Santana, Lee Ritnour and Frank Gambale.
The album is very up-beat with the band laying down an initial rhythm/theme before diverging into the solo sections. Key tracks (for me) were the aptly titled Latin Rhythm with Tamura and Itoh in a question/answer solo section and all over a great Latin pulse. preface - Private Eye as it was the track that best captured all of the band - including some great bass parts from Kiochi Iwai. Worthy also of specific mention is An Eternal Tide which concludes the album - slightly more laid back than the rest of the material and with some soaring guitar passages from Atsunobu Tamura.
In essence this is a fine album, musically tight, infectiously melodic and rhythmically strong, with Iwai and Fukawa forming a formidable and cohesive partnership. The downside for me was that the music remained very much on an intense level and coupled with the lack of variation in both the keyboard and guitar sounds, the whole thing at times became a bit over-powering. As instrumentalists I could find very little to fault and the empathy between the players is commendable, as in Jazz it - the title says it all really. The band are cooking on gas here.
A difficult one to wrap up really - not one for the traditional prog listener, I suspect, but for those who are heavily into the free-flowing soloing stuff that does not venture into free-form, then this could be an ideal album for you.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10