Reviews in this issue:
Knight Area - The Sun Also Rises
Tracklist: Beyond… (0:27), The Gate Of Eternity (7:21), Conspiracy (5:38), Forever Now (4:21), The Sun Also Rises (5:51), Conviction (5:44), Mortal brow (6:21), Moods Inspiring Clouds (5:14), A New Day At Last (5:12), Saevis Tranquillis in Undis (3:14)
The Laser’s Edge is not a label that releases vast quantities of product, but when it does it’s usually of a high quality – and this debut release from Knight Area is no exception. Whilst the promo material comparing the album to the likes of Camel’s The Snow Goose and Genesis’ Selling England By The Pound is perhaps pushing it a bit, there’s no doubt that this is a strong effort within its chosen field - neo-progressive, symphonic rock.
The gestation period for The Sun Also Rises has apparently been over 20 years, although its really only in the last three that the wheels have finally been set in motion. The brainchild behind the album is one Gerben Klazinga, who (along with his lyricist/flautist brother Joop) effectively is Knight Area. Gerben handles keyboards and some of the drumming, which leaves a large supporting cast to fill in the gaps. No Mike Portnoy here though – Klazinga eschews the ‘special guest’ route and instead calls on largely unknown musicians from a variety of local Dutch bands.
The first thing that strikes you about The Sun Also Rises is that Gerben Klazinga has created a richly atmospheric, warm, textured wall of sound which immediately envelopes the listener. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the predominant instrument is Klazinga’s synths; he is very much from the Clive Nolan school of players, painting an epic musical backdrop with walls of symphonic, atmospheric keyboards; whilst there are certainly more than a few Wakeman-esque solo’s as well, much of the lead work is left to the guitarists (which on occasions gives the album a slightly heavier feel than the genre norm), whilst there is also skilful utilisation of flute (though not enough!) and, following on from Alias Eye’s recent use of the instrument, accordion.
All this would be nothing, however, if The Sun Also Rises didn’t contain some decent tunes, and thankfully the quality of the songwriting is similarly high. The main musical influences here are hardly original ones – the likes of Genesis, Camel, Pendragon, Arena and IQ clearly figure strongly on Klazinga’s listening material – but these influences have been integrated skilfully into a cohesive whole, and the album has a flow and a sound that is very much its own. In addition, Klazinga regularly takes inspiration from outside the progressive rock sphere – on Conspiracy for instance, there’s a wonderful evocative refrain with some fine harmony singing that has clear echoes of ‘intelligent pop’ outfit Prefab Sprout.
Lyrically, the album isn’t so strong, with occasionally faltering English and a fairly clichéd use of stock phrases and imagery. However whilst the concept is hardly original (a boy in search of his identity, who inevitably goes through some dark phases in his life before finally beginning to see the light), it does fit the material well. Vocalist Mark Smits does a decent job – he has a pleasing voice, although it perhaps lacks that tougher edge that would improve the heavier sections. In addition a female vocalist, Stephanie, is used on one track (Mortal Brow) – a pity she’s not heard from more, as she has a more powerful delivery than Smits, and also provides a nice contrast.
A mention should also go to the excellent cover art – Mattias Noren (well-known for his work in the progressive rock field) has done a fine job, and its one of those covers which complements the music inside very well indeed. In conclusion then, this is a fine effort from Knight Area which is sure to find favour with all fans of the aforementioned bands, and indeed anyone whose tastes run to melodic, atmospheric symphonic prog.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Høst - Live & Unreleased
Tracklist: Bilder Av En Dag (5:19), Stille Timer! (4:43), I Ly Av Mörket (5:56), Sandkorn I Ett Timeglas (4:26), Betong Boogie (3:14), Åse (3:20), Samhold (4:58), Fattig Men Fri (6:25), På Sterke Vinger (11:08), I'm A Star (3:12), Sweetest Song (4:53), Last Trip (3:28), No Regrets (3:37)
Høst were formed in Norway in late 1973 by Svein Rønning and Lasse Nilsen. The two guitarists were soon joined by drummer Knut R Lie and singer Geir Jahren with the line-up being completed by the addition of bassist Bernt Bodahl in early 1974. Signed to Polygram's Norwegian imprint, On Records, the first album, På Sterke Vinger ('On Strong Winds') was recorded in six days in October 1974 and met with a reasonable response from fans and critics. A year later massive changes meant that only Bodahl and Jahren remained. The second album, Hardt Mot Hardt ('Hard Versus Hard') was recorded with new members Halvden Nedrejord (keyboards), Fezza Ellingsen (guitar) and 17-year-old Willy Bendiksen (drums). However, with a more complex and progressive sound, Hardt Mot Hardt failed to sell. Another line-up change saw John Hesla taking over on guitar but Polygram refused to fund a third original album so, as a compromise, the compilation album Extra Extra with three new tracks was released in 1977.
In order to expand their audience, the band decided to write songs with English lyrics and co-opted Eric Willcox from fellow Norwegian band Flax as a lyricist. At this point the group also decided to change their name to Ice. Despite writing sufficient material for a new album, the band split in mid 1978 without recording anything new. The original Høst line-up briefly reformed for a couple of concerts in 1991 but it was not to last and the group members soon went their separate ways again.
Interest in Høst was rekindled by the Live & Unreleased CD initially released in 1994 on Research Records and now reissued on Oddity Records. The CD includes tracks from three separate concerts: a complete, albeit brief, performance recorded for Swedish radio in April 1975; four tracks from the Ice line-up recorded for Norwegian television in March 1978; and a trio of tracks from the 1991 reunion concerts. The CD is sequenced so that the tracks from the concerts featuring the original line-up follow each other allowing an immediate comparison of two performances by the same musicians recorded 16 years apart! This also has the effect of grouping the English-lyric songs at the end of the CD.
Given that two of the three concerts were professionally recorded for broadcast the quality is first class, a standard matched on the 1991 recordings. In terms of performance, the reunion concert could have been played a matter of weeks after the Swedish radio show and not after a break of 16 years! The songs played by the original line-up are mostly guitar-based and there is some quite marvellous guitar interplay between Nilsen and Rønning. Keyboards, played by Ronning, when present are mainly utilised as backing but occasionally feature as a dominant instrument, Sandkorn I Ett Timeglas being a good example. Overall the music is very melodic and has a similar vibe to early Nektar albums while some of the twin guitar work, particularly on the instrumental Åse and the impressive På Sterke Vinger, has shades of Wishbone Ash. The fact that the vocals are in Norwegian was not an issue to me as Jahren is a very solid singer, nothing fancy or histrionic but strong and melodious. I imagine that it is not easy to write Nowegian lyrics that flow as well as they do in Høst songs.
Unsurprisingly, the three tracks from the reunion concert all come from the band's debut album. Considering the length of time since the group last played together and the fact that they only performed two concerts, these recordings show how good the band could have been if they had remained together. The ensemble playing is exceptional, the performances have a harder edge to them and Jahren's voice has matured well, giving it rich and sonorous qualities. These guys really mean it! The version of the first album's title track, På Sterke Vinger, is a firm favourite, guitar solo and all!
The four tracks by Ice three of which are unavailable elsewhere in any form, is less overtly progressive than the previous material. I'm A Star is more simplistic and has an almost new wave quality to it, Sweetest Song is a lovely ballad dominated by the guitar, flute and backing vocals of John Hesla and No Regrets is a slightly heavier number with a very gritty guitar sound. Jahren doesn't seem as comfortable singing in English and the lyrics don't seem to flow as well. However, the instrumental Last Trip shows that the band hadn't lost their edge.
I was very impressed with this album. Despite being virtually unknown outside of Norway and Sweden, the album demonstrates that the group had the ability to compete with the 'big boys' of the period. Recommended for fans of 70s prog and lovers of good music everywhere!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Bunny Brunel - L. A. Zoo [Revisited]
Tracklist: Tropicana (7:02), Ivanhoe (4:39), Vivian's Boogie (4:44), Blue Touch (7:28), Maybe Tuesday (6:12), Led Boots (6:19), Ten Years Later (3:52), Bunny's Blues (4:09), Stratus (6:50), L. A. Zoo (4;25), Vlad (5:58), Michael (4:18), Tiger (6:39)
Bunny who? Bunny Brunel, fusion bass player extrodinaire. Being a bit of a fan anyway, this album proved to be an absolute pleasure to review. For those not familiar, then hopefully you will bear with me through this article and hopefully it will prompt you to dig a little deeper or even buy this album.
At this early juncture I should point out that this is not just about Mr Brunel, but is a collaboration of all the musicians and the end result is the sum of all their influences, characters, styles and efforts. Perhaps note here that a different version of this album was originally released in the States only in 1998, (hence the Revisited), but a major re-working of the pieces has gone into this re-issue. Firstly all of the drum tracks have been re-recorded along with the bass tracks and extensive re-mixing. The production is excellent and I found that the drum tracks especially served as a good workout for my audio system.
Firstly about the music. We are in the territory of jazz rock/fuzion with distinct blues references and with truly great playing and stella performances from all involved. In what seems to be coming fairly common place, is the notion of taking an idea based on the "style" of an artist and then imprinting your own interpretation upon those thoughts. As with Steve Morse's Major Impacts, Bunny has selected bands or artists that he has listened to in the past, or have inspired him as a musician. More on this later.
Of the core band, and with brief resumes of the people they have worked with, we have - Bunny Brunnel [basses] - Chick Corea, Al Di Meola, John McLauglin, CAB; Virgil Donati [drums] - Derek Sherinian, Planet X, Eric Norelander, Steve Vai; Brian Auger [keyboards] - Trinity, CAB; Vivian Campbell [guitars] - Def Leppard, Dio, Whitesnake, Jack Bruce; and along with these are the guest musicians - Mike Stern [guitars] - Miles Davis, BS&T, Jeff Berlin; Ray Gomez [guitars] - Stanley Clarke, Patrick Moraz; Mike Palmer [guitars] - Craig Adams [guitars] and Jeff "Hyper Harp" Grossman. And it is this cross-section of musicians from across the jazz-fuzion, rock and blues fields that gives L.A. Zoo its musical spectrum.
The rockier material can be found in tracks such as Tropicana which nods to Mountain man Leslie West, Maybe Tuesday which nicely captures Jimmy Pages distinctive riffing style and Ten Years Later brings Alvin Lee to the party - although the arrangement here more reminded me of Steve Morse. The bluesy material, Vivian's Boogie, which pays tribute to Canned Heat. Mike Stern once again adds his guitar to acknowledge Blood Sweat & Tears in Blue Touch. And one of the album's most delicate moments is in Bunny's Blues which features the man himself simply playing the blues on the bass accompanied by Brian Auger on the piano. The album also has four tracks with one of my least favourite instruments, the harmonica, which I have always believed would sound much better with all the holes blocked off ;-). However Jeff Grossberg breathes new life into the instrument with his distinctive (and not overly harmonica sounding) style.
Vivian Campbell may not have been my first choice of guitarist for this album (based upon the bands he's played with), but I have to say that he compliments the music greatly adding a distinctly rockier edge to the sound. He really captures Jeff Beck's mood during Led Boots. Great performances also from the unique Ray Gomez (Vlad), Mike Stern and Mike Palmer. Surprisingly I've not mentioned Bunny Brunel much - no need to really!
What was very enjoyable about the album was that the music didn't drift into those areas of self indulgence (although some may disagree), and although solos are in abundance they always remain in context. I have to say all the music is top notch and would certainly appeal to those fans of Steve Morse, Dixie Dregs, CAB and Chick Corea/Return to Forever. Highlights, well I would like to single out just four tracks that would make the album worth buying by themselves. Firstly Billy Cobham's Stratus with its truly infectious guitar parts and Virgil Donati excelling himself and showing what a great player he really is. Max Middleton's Led Boots which holds fairly true to the excellent Jeff Beck version from the Wired album. The title track L. A. Zoo for its great upbeat jazzy themes, driving rock beat and cool solo sections. Last but not least is Bunny's own composition Ivanhoe which pays tribute to Stanley Clarke and based upon one his compositions - Lopsy Lou from his eponymous 1974 album.
I can wholeheartedly recommend this album, although I know it will not appeal to all and may be put off by the strong blues influences I have refered too. Personally the word "blues" is normally a huge turn off for me but the arrangements here are enough to make the more overtly "twelve bar riff" songs work effectively. So if you enjoy great jazz/fusion then this albums a must, and if not, and you only buy one album this year that's outside your normal remit, then give this one a go.
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10
Les Fradkin - Reality The Rock Opera
Les Fradkin has a long musical pedigree. He has been a producer, played on many hit records during the heyday of the 45rpm single in the early 1970s, wrote a French number 1 and even played George Harrison in the original Broadway musical Beatlemania. His involvement with psychedelic folk-rock group The Godz, The Left Banke and Edison Lighthouse (remember Love Grows [Where My Rosemary Goes]?) will ensure his place in the annals of music history.
And now, he is adding to that impressive list of achievements by venturing out as a solo artist. Reality - The Rock Opera has lofty aims as is described by the artist as being "a symphonic rock CD about real life in contemporary business, social and pop culture today" giving "a panoramic sweep of many important contemporary life issues today: reality TV, marriage, corporate America, job downsizing, obsolescence and even retirement". A bold and ambitious undertaking if ever there was one. Of course, 'Rock Opera' will forever be associated with Pete Townsend's genre defining works Tommy and Quadrophenia, although the only thing that Reality really shares with those two classic albums is the rock opera epithet.
The album itself is well structured and arranged and does incorporate many classical overtones, the best examples being The Overture and the opening to System Crash both of which one can clearly imagine being taken into another dimension by a full orchestra. In effect there are two separate 'tales'. Reality 1 deals with reality TV and manufacturing of pop stars through such pitiful programmes as Pop Idol, while Reality 2 takes on the corporate world and the fact that longevity in any kind of business is no longer valued in the Western world. Neither reality contains a definite story, being more thematically linked. However, given the rather weak plots in both of The Who's efforts, maybe that is not a bad thing!
Although Fradkin is a consummate keyboard and guitar player I feel the album is somewhat 'cheapened' by the programmed drums. I have never been that big a fan of drum machines, possibly only Geoff Mann and, at the other extreme, early Sisters Of Mercy have got away with using them successfully. The big symphonic sound that Fradkin is striving for really demands live drums. Then again, it also demands, and deserves, a proper orchestra but, as ever, reality (excuse the pun!) strikes and the big budgets required for such an undertaking are ridiculously prohibitive.
The music is quite a mixture, drawing on bands like Procol Harum (particularly the keyboard sound of Rehearsals For Retirement) and The Move/ early ELO (the classical rock of You Can't Change Me). Memorable melodies permeate the album, with songs like Reality, Reality Idol, Everything Is Wrong and It's Plastic being of particular note. The vocals are fair but not spectacular, just like some people have commented about George Harrison himself, fine as a backing singer but perhaps not strong enough for lead.
Grandiose statements like "This CD touches all of our emotions like few dare to try" may stretch the reality somewhat and Fradkin's hope that the album will "have a great impact on my generation" may ultimately lead to him being rather disappointed. However, one can but applaud the motivation behind the lyrical messages and for people who like keyboard dominated, classical inspired, pseudo symphonic music, this album will have something to offer.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Ars Nova - Biogenesis Project
Tracklist: Introduction - Biogenesis Meltdown (6:01), Escape (8:17), Mother Earth (2:27), Metamorphosis (6:17), Humanoid’s Breakfast (3:12), Against The Meteors (3:27), Trust To The Future (15:21)
I must admit to being disappointed in this latest CD from Japanese keyboard trio Ars Nova. From their live performance, documented on the Progday box set, I was looking forward to some bombastic, heavily ELP influenced instrumental prog rock, in a similar manner to Gerard, with whom they have shared a joint CD (Keyboards Triangle). I knew, before I heard it, that this was a concept album, with vocals, but as it also boasted contributions from Arjen Lucassen, Italian greats Claudio Simonetti (Goblin), Gianni Leoni (Balletto Di Bronzo), and Lucio Fabri (PFM) as well as Gerard’s bassist and drummer, my appetite was well and truly whetted.
As first impressions are often influential, I will deal with the cover first. In my opinion, it’s tacky and smacks of exploitation - not the kind of imagery one associates with progressive rock.
On listening to the disc, unfortunately, the first aural impressions are also less than favourable. The introduction features narration by Robert Allen (who?) in which he attempts to set the scene of the ridiculously convoluted (or perhaps just plain ridiculous) storyline, cramming novel length ideas into a short passage of narration. I don’t like to be harsh, but his delivery is as limp as a wet lettuce; he delivers the portentous line “The earth is doomed” with all the passion of a man buying a bag of sprouts. This spoils what otherwise would be a good piece of music. Luckily, this is his only contribution to the album, and things do get better from the next track. In fact, skipping the first track improves the disc considerably.
If you want a quick clue as to how this album sounds, the presence of Arjen Luccasen is a giveaway, as most of the material here is very similar in style to his Universal Migrator and Star One projects, marrying progressive pomposity with metallic bombast. The instrumental palette is primarily keyboard heavy, but there are some fine guitar solos and also some excellent violin-work from Lucio Fabbri, boosting the sound considerably. His countrymen Leone and Simonetti chip in with characteristically superb organ and synth solos. Ars Nova mainstay Keiko Kumagai more than holds her own against the Italian maestros with a full arsenal of synthesisers and organ, creating a very full, often grandiosely symphonic sound.
The vocals are never great, and are often eccentric. Gianni Leone is a far better instrumentalist than a singer, and all the vocals suffer for being of the “English as a second language” variety. The best tracks are the three instrumentals in the second part of the CD, recapturing some of the power and fury I was expecting from an Ars Nova album, with the furious Metamorphosis being my favourite. The closing Trust to the Future is the best of the vocal numbers, redeeming the CD by melding the best elements of what has gone before in an agreeable brew.
I often like concept albums, and have no problem with Science Fiction themes, though I’m admittedly no great fan of narration at the best of times. It has to be said, however, that the concept elements of this work (the narration in particular) are not very successful and this would have been far better as an instrumental album. With baroque touches, metal flash and keyboards galore, the musical elements of this disc makes it probably worth the attention of Ayreon fans and Ars Nova completists, but anyone wanting a first taste of the Japanese combo should probably try any of their other discs in preference to this. Even the presence of some Italian legends cannot entirely save this flawed offering.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Big Big Train - Gathering Speed
Track list: High Tide, Last Stand (7:06), Fighter Command (10:44), The Road Much Further On (8:39), Sky Flying On Fire (6:04), Pell Mell (6:36), Powder Monkey (9:08), Gathering Speed (7:23)
This is the fourth album from the English progressive rock band Big Big Train. The group consists of well-schooled musicians and their music could be best described as neo prog rock music with early Genesis influences. Their three previous albums were filled with long instrumental passages and Big Big Train has a tendency to explore the poppier side of progressive music.
Gathering Speed is a concept album; the story is set in the summer of 1940 and it is about a fighter pilot whose Spitfire is shot down during a combat patrol. The lyrical concept deals with the personal experiences of that fighter. The album starts with the sound of a Spitfire engine and I must say that the first track High Tide, Last Stand is really proggy and worthwhile to listen to. It’s diverse and the guitar sound reminds me of Steve Howe. However I must also say that I disliked the singer Sean Filkins voice right from the start; he sings much too high and he sounds rather nasal. Nevertheless the singer was chosen because he was an accomplished vocalist and he had a real passion for the album concept, as his grandfather had been involved in the Battle of Britain. In my humble opinion this guy would not survive the audition round in pop idols ... but there is no account for taste.
Fighter Command is a rather mystique song, very quiet, acoustic and rather boring, but most of all, approximately 6 minutes too long! The first real good track is the instrumental Sky Flying On Fire, which starts acoustically and later on changes to a very diverse progressive rock song with excellent rhythm changes and a heavenly guitar solo. The title track however is again a real disappointment; too much singing, too many “folky” influences and it is just mediocre rock track, nothing special. So, at the end of the album, I think, where is the progressive edge, where are the exceptional compositions; I have heard it all before, but much better by other bands.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10