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Reviews in this issue:
Abydos - Abydos
Tracklist: The Inhabitants Of His Diary (1:17), You Broke The Sun (5:39), Silence (6:55), Far Away From Heaven (5:37), Coppermoon [the other side] (5:09), Hyperion Sunset (4:46), God’s Driftwood (6:10), Radio Earth (5:38), Abydos (7:25), Green’s Guidance For A Strategy Adventure Game (1:17), Wildflowersky (8:28), A Boy Named Fly (12:03)
In 1995 a German prog metal band called Vanden Plas released their debut album Colour Temple. Right from the beginning I was a fan of their complex, intriguing prog metal, which reminded me most of all of my favourite rock band Dream Theater. Since then they have made three more studio albums, one live CD and one acoustic (boring!!!) mini-album. Although I always enjoyed their music, there was however something that bothered me; namely the nasal singing of Andy Kuntz. Especially his live performances always made me shiver and almost gave me cold feet, so to speak… Now, Andy releases his first solo album and I must say that I rather enjoy Abydos.
Since the early eighties Andy played leading roles in musicals like "Jesus Christ Superstar", "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" and "Evita". He is also involved in the album production of Vanden Plas and now he uses this complete musical background to make Abydos. Abydos is regarded as the birthplace of theatre and theatre plays an important role in the life of Andy and this was one of the reasons to choose Abydos as the title for his first solo project. He asked musicians Stefan Glass (guitar and keyboards), Michael Krauss (guitar and keyboards) and Andreas Lill (drums) to assist him on this CD.
The overture The Inhabitants Of His Diary mainly features drums and keyboards, before the band bursts into the first real track You Broke The Sun. An almost genuine Vanden Plas-like song, rather melodic, with a superb catchy chorus, orchestral, diverse, but of course with Andy’s typical vocals. In Silence, Andy’s nasal voice really gets on my b*** nerves, although that song is musically very interesting. On the rest of the album Andy really sings rather well and the music starts to get better and better as the album progresses.
The absolute highlights of the album are: Radio Earth (beautiful melody), the title track (a theatrical, dramatic power ballad), Wildflowersky (real heavy material with a smashing guitar solo) and A Boy Named Fly (a magnificent epic with great guitar riffs and melodic piano passages); a song comparable to the best Vanden Plas material. All in all Andy did a great job, and this CD is a must for prog metal lovers, although his voice (I sometimes call him the modern Klaus Meine) still sometimes irritates me to the bone…. But, you cannot win them all and maybe I am just a stickler for details, or just a pain in the bloody neck?
Abydos is the solo project of an artist well known in the prog metal scene. For 20 years Andy Kuntz has been the front man of Vanden Plas and his 20 years of experience can be heard throughout the complete album. I have never been really fond of Vanden Plas, although I don't dislike them either, and their live performance on ProgPower Europe was one of the highlights of the first festival day, so you will not here me say they are up to no good. Maybe it never really connected with me, but OK, that's Vanden Plas, this is Abydos.
The bio included with this release states that the year preceding this album has been one of the hardest for Andy Kuntz. He had to deal with the loss of four people close to him and that that experience is part of the basis for this album. Abydos, in Egypt, was significant in historical times as the main cult centre of Osiris, the Lord of the Netherworld. Kuntz regards Abydos as a kind of reincarnation site for the painfully missed ones. The complete story of Abydos is in fact a play (written by Andy Kuntz) but the essence of the story is on this CD.
Although Abydos is a concept album it is full of tracks that can stand on their own very well and there are some major highlights on this album. Also the tracks are not all in the same musical vein, as to be expected a number of tracks are like Vanden Plas and Dream Theater but some tracks are much better described by mentioning Spock's Beard and maybe even Porcupine Tree. This album is one of those rare albums that I liked immediately because the tracks were really easy to get used to, but on the other hand not tracks you get bored with quickly. In fact, although it was love on first sight some of the tracks are still getting better, the more I hear them.
One problem common to almost all prog (metal) coming from Germany is the way they sing their English lyrics. There are some real nasty extremities on Abydos but the majority of the tracks do not suffer from that. There is another thing though that I have to comment on: although tracks like You Broke The Sun, Silence and Radio Earth are pure gems, the tracks like Abydos and Far Away From Heaven come very close to being too large, too bombastic because of all the instruments (like violins) used. Most of this album is on the verge being overproduced, there is nothing raw in these tracks. It is rather picky, but if I had to give one point of criticism that would be it, but please do not use them as my comments for the complete album.
If you like your prog metal on the softer side or your progressive rock, with a heavier (metal) edge, then this is an enjoyable album - quality is written all over it. The tracks are not too complicated or far-fetched but nice and firm pieces of music. Andy Kuntz has created a superb album, it is just a pity its basis is so sad.
Persona Non Grata - The Fine Art Of Living
CD1 : A Thousand Julys (5:49), It's Not How You Play The Game, It's Whether You Win Or Lose (4:27), The Only Person I Hate More Than You, Is Me (4:18), Lament For Mayer (5:09), Parfait Amour (7:30), Russian Satellites (2:55) Gliders V1.1 (6:57), (Water Machine) (1:50), Beachlife (4:59), I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now, When I Was Younger (4:42)
CD2 : (Vulgar Unicorn Demos) : The History Of The World [1. Marco Polo's Lost His Way (4:21), 2. The Battle Of Kadesh (10:40), Stile Over The World (10:18)], Under The Umbrella [1. The House At Fudge Corner (12:36), By Post-Chaise To The Primrose league (12:47), Waiting Under The Umbrella (18:19)], Kill Your Darlings [Banished Mix] (5:54)
A mere four years after Vulgar Unicorn's last official album (2000's Jet Set Radio), the one horned beast returns with a new album and a new name, Persona Non Grata. It's still the same protagonists, Neil Randall and Bruce Soord, who have spent the intervening years on individual projects (respectively, Schloss Adler and the marginally more successful Pineapple Thief). Ever since the progressive excesses of the 1995 debut album Under The Umbrella, Vulgar Unicorn have ploughed a particularly eclectic furrow releasing albums that took inspiration from just about every element of the musical spectrum. The results were, in equal measure, disappointing and exciting, even going so far as to seemingly create whole new musical genres.
Fortunately, for those who were not enamoured by these musical explorations, The Fine Art Of Living heralds a return to the progressive rock roots of the band. A Thousand Julys opens the album with intent; a faux church organ unleashes a heavy guitar riff and energetic, almost angry, sometimes treated, vocals. Laden with sound effects (although not samples from film scores that have peppered previous releases, these are all effects derived from the instruments), this opening number certainly grabs the attention. It's Not How You Play The Game, It's Whether You Win Or Lose will be a delight to fans of Soord's Pineapple Thief as this would comfortable fit on one of their albums. After a rather sedate start, The Only Person I Hate More Than You, Is Me turns out to be a classic track, some eerie chord changes set the tone before the vitriol of the chorus which somehow manages to wrap sentiments of loathing within a joyous sing-along tune. The song writing is leaps and bounds ahead of previous albums, there is a more compactness and greater direction on this album; the superfluous and unwarranted excesses, having been successfully expunged.
Continuing with the more sedate Lament for Mayer, the sonorous bass underpins a lilting piano backed by gentle keyboard chords. Add in a restrained vocal performance and one can begin to draw comparisons with a less dance-orientated No Man. Parfait Armour possesses an unusual staccato rhythm during the intro but then settles down into a gentle plod. One of the least effective tracks on the album which takes over seven minutes to go nowhere. Russian Satellites, a brief piano solo, precedes Gliders v1.1, a radically reworked version of the track that appeared on last year's Cyclops Sampler 5 compilation. Version 1.1 is a bit more schizophrenic; the first two verses bear resemblance to The Streets recent hit in their spoken delivery, a manic section (the original first verse) turns things on their head before calm is restored with Edith Keeler repeatedly intoning "It's summer. Do you like summer?" Rather different from the other stuff on the album, the underlying melody is very good, although the repeated spoken phrases can become rather wearing.
Beach Life is the last up tempo number. A good tune coupled with interesting lyrics (the chorus rephrases the words of the preceding Water Machine, which is programmed into the CD as a hidden track, except of course you know it's there as it's written on the sleeve!) Final track I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now, When I Was Younger is another keyboard-dominated piece. Vaguely, very vaguely, possessing shades of Porcupine Tree it is a lovely end to the album; one can imagine a brass band and orchestra towards the end. If only finances permitted eh boys?!
Included with initial copies of the album is a bonus disc of Vulgar Unicorn demos, which I suppose can be seen as the drawing of a line under the old band name. Featuring the very rare History of The World demo tape from 1991 and a complete demo of the ambitious Under The Umbrella from the first Cyclops album, it provides a sharp contrast to the music the band is producing more than a decade later, represented by Kill Your Darlings, an outtake from The Fine Art Of Living. For Vulgar Unicorn fans it is a fascinating insight into the genesis of the band, even if, as the linear notes warn, the early material varies in quality of the song writing, performance and recording fidelity. Still, worth having if you are a fan!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Forgotten Suns - Snooze
CD1: Dreaming Of Reality (2:43); Senses (9:47); Strange Affair With The Night (8:32); Dream Killer (19:52); Floating Spirit Dimension (1:12); Pay The Price (6:20)
CD2: Struggle (13:21); Death (1:26); Angels’ Embrace (6:27); A Truce (1:31); The Final Sentence (9:38)
Portugal’s Forgotten Suns released their debut album, Fiction Edge I, some four years ago. In the interim a combination of business problems and line-up reshuffles seem to have stalled their progress somewhat, but thankfully they’ve persevered; although Snooze is perhaps not the most wisely titled progressive rock disc, it is an entertaining one.
Snooze is a concept, dealing with (as far as I can tell) a man (‘X’) who has lost all hope in his daily life, but both finds solace, and confronts his demons, in his dreams. Whilst there is an inter-linking story-line, and many musical segues, the main songs stand alone as compositions in their own right.
Musically, Forgotten Suns straddle the border between neo-prog and prog metal, in much the same way in fact as the likes of Enchant and Arena. The latter act are certainly a discernable influence (especially their recent material), although to be fair Forgotten Suns, whilst clearly drawing inspiration from a number of established prog rock/ metal acts, have managed to create their own identity and sound.
I found that the first disc of this album was loaded with the more accessible material. Following a very Dream Theater-esque introductory instrumental (Dreaming Of Reality), first track proper Senses kicks in, a strong, punchy number which, in its early stages as a verse-chorus-verse number, is somewhat similar to Grace Under Pressure era Rush. The latter half of the song sees the band stretching out musically, going into darker territories (and not for the last time). There is also a superb extended keyboard solo, which is possibly the highlight of the track. The man responsible for the keyboard work on the album, one Linx, also handles the vocals, and he immediately creates a positive impression; his confident and expressive delivery reminded me a little in places of (The Police-era) Sting.
The next track, Strange Affair With The Night, is for me the highlight of the album; a sublime mid-paced track with a solid build-up, excellently worked changes of pace and mood, and a fantastic vocal performance from Linx. The climax of the song, where guitarist Ricardo Falcao plays a soaring solo over the chorus fade-out, is particularly good; in fact Falcao’s playing throughout is of a very high standard, although it’s the very melodic and expressive solo work that crops up throughout the album which particularly stand out.
The first disc also contains the major ‘epic’ on this album, Dream Killer. Coming on as something of an amalgamation of the title suite from Dream Theater’s Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence and IQ’s The Narrow Margin, this took a while to sink in, but repeated listens have shown it to be a high-calibre work, which is notable for the skilful way the band move from the darker sections to more up-beat, rockier parts. Particularly interesting is the rather dark and ominous chanted vocal section about a third of the way in, the use of a glockenspiel-like keyboard riff in the central section of the song which lends matters a suitably spooky feel, and the well-worked introduction of some effective female vocals towards the track’s end.
With the exception of the smooth, flowing ballad Angel’s Embrace, I initially found much of the second disc made for rather ‘difficult’ listening. In particular, Struggle just seemed like a collection of various disparate ideas jumbled together, but again it rewards repeated listens – its’ still a dark and somewhat disorientating listen, but I suspect that’s the idea. The band push the envelope on this one; at times there are moments when it sounds like they’re about to go down the full-blown jazz-fusion route, whilst Falcao’s guitar work in the last part of the track is very reminiscent of mid-80’s era Killing Joke. Closing track The Final Sentence, meanwhile, builds well from a simple acoustic opening section to provide a fitting grand finale.
The production throughout is pretty good, with all the instruments well balanced in the mix. The album also comes in suitably evocative cover artwork by the prolific Mattias Noren. It’s also worth noting that Snooze comes with a multi-media section, which features lyrics (and storyboard), a ‘making of’ diary and track by track notes by Linx, plus a video clip for Senses.
Overall, a quality release, that has the potential to appeal across the board to both neo-prog and prog metal fans. Not everything is top notch – there could still have been a bit of judicious editing – but to be honest there’s very little that’s actually dull, and the highlights are of a very high quality, with Strange Affair With The Night being the one track that particularly stands out. Well worth seeking out – especially if you’re a fan of the likes of Arena.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Acuity - Skyward
Tracklist: Vector (5:28), State of the Art Love Song (3:57), Transcendence (Culture of Hospice) (14:42), Milwaukee - An Essay On Morbid Hysteria (1. Tick, ii. Not One Of My Better Days, iii. The Milwaukee Song, iv. Tock, v. Pages, vi. That's Entertainment, vii. Shit-Eating Grin, viii. Titan, ix. Olympus Rising / Denouement) (21:58), Cul-de-sacs of Venus (4:22), Voyager (i. Curvature, ii. Skyward, ii. Go Forth, Son Of Mother Earth, iv. Ever-Weightless [including The Cosmic Waltz]) (17:21)
Acuity, an enigma wrapped up in a mystery, or however the old comedy sketch goes. Very little information seems to be available about this Michigan-based artist; the CD arrived at DPRP accompanied by a most succinct note, and the lack of credits on the album sleeve, bar an acknowledgement to Matthew Parmenter for playing on one track, leads one to assume that the album is the work of one man, namely Bradley Styes.
Of the three shorter tracks, Vector, the opening cut, is a quite frantic hard rock instrumental with a multitude of layered guitars and some breakneck drumming. State of the Art Love Song continues in a similar vein although is slightly more restrained. Cul-de-sacs of Venus, the final of the three numbers that come in at or below the five-minute mark, is another instrumental and is in quiet contrast to the other two numbers. With the initial acoustic guitars, mellotron and the violin of Matthew Parmenter, the piece provides a contrast to the long-form tracks it is sandwiched between. Also features a nice electric guitar solo that blends well with the synth effects that populate the hinterground of the track.
The bulk of the album is taken up with the three epic numbers. The first Transcendence (Culture of Hospice), covers the non-too joyous topic of an old man waiting for death. Accordingly the tone is rather subdued. Although this is the only one of the long tracks not to be split into subsections, it could easily be. The first lyrical section is mainly acoustic and sets the scene. This followed by an instrumental section that utilises a wide array of instruments, including a Theremin, and is rather disjointed and shambolic in the same way as The Waiting Room is on Genesis' Lamb Lies Down album (indeed, there are certain similarities!). Another vocal section before the final instrumental three minutes, which shares characteristics with some material by Discipline. An interesting track which is let down by a rather mediocre vocal performance in parts.
The nine-part Milwaukee - An Essay On Morbid Hysteria doesn't lighten the lyrical tone relating the tale of a serial killer and cannibal (or 'psycho-bastard' as the lyric describes the protagonist's preferred title). Again there are similarities with Discipline throughout the song which is probably a bit overlong (the last three sections tend to drag a bit and could have been cut back), although the various sections do flow well and there are sufficient instrumental breaks to split up the narrative and the limitations of the vocals. Final track, The Voyage appears to take lyrical inspiration from 2001 - A Space Odyssey, although some are rather too fanciful: "The curvature of space, like the curve in my spine"; "The gates of space and time, like the hole in my mind". The bulk of the song is instrumental and uses a range of synthesisers with the Theremin making another appearance or two. However, unlike Milwaukee, the attention is kept! throughout the whole 17 minutes with some impressive 'group' playing.
If the performance is all the work of Styes, then he has to be congratulated on his proficiency in the variety of instruments employed on the album. It would also seem that the album was recorded at home, or at least not in a fully-fledged recording studio (the only studio mentioned in the credits is the place where the album was mastered). To this end there are some limitations in the production but on the whole it sounds pretty good and any anomalous recording quirks do not detract from the album. For a debut album it is an impressive effort and will, I imagine, spark a lot of interest. However, on the whole something was lacking for me, that necessary spark that lifts it into a category above a lot of releases. Consequently, it just misses out on a recommended rating as it is not an essential album covering much new ground. I'll certainly look out for the next album though as no doubt Styes has learnt a lot from recording this album. As his writing matures we could be in line for something special.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Zyclope - Uno
Tracklist: Asesinato En Orient Express & Desenlace (7:44) Merlin (4:00) Mite & Mita (1:30) Viaje A Escocia (6:26) Notre Damme (3:44) Recorriendo Mundo (3:58) Zyclopea (4:04) Locura Temporal (4:33) Electrical Night (5:18) Fantasias Del Rey Arturo (4:27) En La Corte (3:25) Feeling Your Breath (3:23)
Uno is the appropriately titled debut album from Zyclope, a new Spanish group consisting of: Jorge Calvo – Flutes; Javier Mira – Guitars; Juan Olmos – Keyboards, violin; Javier Del Palacio – Bass; Ernesto Sanchez – Drums, and Yasia Shevchenko –Violins.
Their chosen field of combat is Instrumental Symphonic Rock, heavy with classical influences and risking occasional sorties into the fields of Fusion and Folk. There are a couple of tracks with vocals (Electrical Night and Feeling Your Breath) but whilst these add variety to the album, the vocals are nothing special and it is the instrumentals that really shine. If you seek comparisons, Camel, Focus, Finch and Dutch obscurities Bonfire are all good pointers to the lively blend of melodic rock (as represented by the confident and fluid guitar of Javier Mira) and classical (The Ian Anderson/Van Leer/ Latimer like flutes of Jorge Calvo, and the vibrant and rich violins of Yasia Shevchenko) which dominates an album that is pregnant with promise.
The compositions are lively and varied, all featuring numerous twists and turns and many a delightful melodic embellishment. Although the album starts off OK with the sprightly Asesinato... which reminds me of the storytelling music of Alfred Mueller’s Soniq Theater releases, the best tracks can be found later on, with keyboardist Juan Olmos contributing some fascinating tunes, rich with orchestral textures and pleasing melodies. Recorriendo Mundo, Locura Temporal and Fantasias Del Rey Arturo are three of the best tracks, with the group-composed Zyclopea following close behind. The compositions are mature and well developed, in a mostly mid-tempo groove, with the occasional sombre passage and a few moments where the pace hots up a little, thanks to the fiery electric guitar of Mira
Two oddities are; the brief acoustic showcase Mite & Mita, which sounds like a less intense Roy Harper, or perhaps more pertinently Gordon Giltrap; and Electrical Night, which fuses the symphonic style with a chugging Heavy Metal riff-monster to at least partly successful effect.
The weak point of the album for me is that the drums –credited to Ernesto Sanchez – often sound programmed and plodding, which detracts somewhat from the overall excellent musicianship. Maybe some of the drums are machine generated, and Sanchez only contributes to certain tracks? At the least, if the drums weren’t so prominent in the mix, this wouldn’t be such a problem.
As it stands, there is a lot to enjoy on this album. As first albums go, it’s a pretty damn good one and I would expect that Zyclope are capable of producing something even better next time out.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Djamra - 14 Faces
Tracklist: Time Flies Like An Arrow (4:34), Assassin In Sin (5:09), Pliable Clockwork - The Cave (6:40), To India - Uncork (13:35)
14 Faces is released on the Vital Label, a sub-division of Poseidon Records. Vital's goal is to release and promote live and demo material that would not normally be available outside of the band's circle of followers. Sometimes keeping such music confined to a small number of loyal fans may well be a blessing, however Djamra at least deserve the opportunity of greater distribution. This CD from Djamra falls into the live category, (recorded on 4 May 2003 at Fandango), and as is fairly standard with Vital's releases - production values are not a priority and the packing is kept to a minimum, thus ensuring that the album remains affordable.
Now what is evident from the very outset is the abilities of all the four musicians, but as these players are the same as those who can be found in Dave's review of Djamra's Transplantation, earlier this year I will leave the background info with him. My recollections of Transplantation are a little hazy now, but looking at the relative track lengths it would appear that the pieces have not been stretched out for the audience, nor is this evident to me. A glance at the track listing also confirms that all the material selected comes from their previous studio album, transported here into the live arena.
Musically the band are equally tight live, and as is quite common appear to be less constrained, flowing more fluidly through the complex instrumental pieces. I have to agree with Dave here, that the most striking aspect of Djamara's music comes from its' leader and bass player Masaharu Nakakita - he opens the first track and his presence is felt throughout. This is not to denigrate any of the other players, I just found his parts the most cohesive - sadly the quality of the recording did not meld the drums and bass which certainly would have brought the recording more together. Ms Shinji Kitamura's alto sax takes some excellent passages only loosing my interest in the more freeform areas. Sadly the trumpet is not one of my favourite instruments and although Dai Akahani is a worthy exponent, he has done little to change my opinions on it, or its use in the 'jazz' field.
Ultimately this live recording from Djamra will not find many new friends at DPRP I fear, as the emphasis of the music lies towards the borders of prog - appealing to those with leanings to the avante, jazzier side. The production doesn't really help matters either, as the sound of the drums comes over fairly poorly thus dragging the music down - hopefully Djamra will have the opportunity in the future to lay these (and other) pieces down again and with the benefit of better live recording facilities. As it stands this live document is interesting, but as said above, unlikely to gain them further recognition.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10