Reviews in this issue:
Alan Parsons - A Valid Path
Tracklist: Return To Tunguska (8:48), More Lost Without You (3:20), Mammagamma 04 (5:05), We Play The Game (5:35), Tijuaniac (5:10), L’Arc En Ciel (5:22), A Recurring Dream Within A Dream (4:06), You Can Run (3:52), Chomolungma (7:07)
It happened to Mike Oldfield a couple of years ago and now it's happening to Alan Parsons. Musical Midlife Crisis. As with Oldfield Alan Parsons has decided to leave his musical past - including his old time collaborators Bairnson, Cottle, Elliot and Powell - behind and go for 'something completely different'.
Now, change is good, especially with Parsons. After working with Eric Woolfson for years and years I found it a bit of a relief when Parsons continued without his co-writer and teamed up with other session musicians and writers for Try Anything Once, a splendid album. On Air, which followed was another highlight in Parsons' catalogue but The Time Machine, released in 1999 and consisting of compositions by Bairnson & Elliot, was a very mediocre album for Parsons standards.
And now Parsons has changed directions again, and this time more drastic than ever. Of the old Parsons Clan the only remaining person is David Pack (Ambrosia), who does the vocals on You Can Run. None of the other 'usual suspects' can be found on this 8 track CD. Instead Parsons teams up with names like P.J. Olsson, Shpongle, The Crystal Method, Nortec Collective and Uberzone. Right. These might ring a bell to people initiated in the modern dance scene but I personally have never heard of any of these. Oh, and I forgot to mention that Parsons also got his son Jeremy to play on this album. Parsons junior is credited with "Nuendo Programming & Sequencing". For those of you who, like me, are wondering what a Nuendo is, it is a high-end digital audio workstation developed specifically for the demands of modern multimedia productions. There you have it. Welcome to the 21st century. What it means in practice is that he's probably responsible for all of the silly sound effects on the album. These are probably meant to make the music sound very hip and modern. But they don't. As a matter of fact they will probably annoy the hell out of you after a couple of minutes and actually make the music sound very dated. Especially all of the dodgy vocal effects, which were already used 20 years ago by the likes of Jarre, Kraftwerk and The Art of Noise.
Okay, and I still haven't mentioned what the music is like, but you probably have guessed by now. Parsons has gone electronic. The CD is packed with electro, techno and bouncy dance rhythms. Parsons has tried to maintain some of the mystery and rock in the music, something which works well in some tracks but fails in others. Imagine an album full of old Parsons tunes like The Time Machine, Apollo and Mammagamma or some of the instrumentals from the Stereotomy album and then you're still nowhere near the sound of A Valid Path. As a matter of fact Mammagamma is one of the two tunes which Parsons decided to re-record for this album, the other one being A Recurring Dream Within a Dream. In case you might wonder, this is nothing more than a shortened version of A Dream Within a Dream and The Raven, the way the Alan Parsons Live Project used to play it on stage in the nineties. I will gladly admit that I was immensely interested to hear what father and son had done with these two classics. Well, they certainly aren't improvements on the classic originals. Interesting ? Sure ! Fun ? Indeed ! In a 'bonus material on a CD single' kind of way, but certainly not improvements. Mammagamma 04 is much more up-tempo and builds quite well, with layers of the melody coming in bit by bit. Unfortunately, the sound effects are really annoying here. And A Recurring Dream features the full lyrics of The Raven performed through the vocoder. The end result lacks the enormous tension building and climax of the original version of Tales of Mystery and Imagination. The 'Orson Welles' guest appearance advertised in the promotion of the album is nothing more than a sample from the narrative that was added on the CD re-release of Tales.
How about the other material ? There's a couple of good tunes and a couple of bad ones. Best track is without a doubt the album opener Return to Tunguska. This is a song that would not have been out of place on a 'regular' Parsons album. It also features one of the increasingly more rare incidents of Pink Floyd's David Gilmour picking up his guitar. As a matter of fact, the song eventually turns into something that sounds quite a lot like Keep Talking by the Floyd while uncle Dave goes into a solo that reminds me of Obscured By Clouds/When You're In. It's a shame that none of the material which follows is on par with this tune.
Besides A Recurring Dream, there's three more songs with vocals on the album. First, there's the catchy More Lost Without You with P.J. Olsson on vocals. It's a very poppy tune and Olsson hasn't got the most impressive voice in the world but for some reason I've found myself starting to enjoy this song after a couple of spins. Perhaps it's the (sampled) acoustic guitars which give it a more authentic feel than some of the other songs on the album.
Another song is We Play The Game, which has Alan Parsons doing real lead vocals for the first time. And he's doing quite a good job at it. The other song You Can Run has Pack on vocals. Both are bouncy pop songs with dance rhythms, but melody-wise not too far removed from the songs on the previous three Parsons albums. It's a shame though that it starts with a really really annoying sample of something which sounds like a talking baby.
The remaining three songs are instrumentals. Of these, Tijuaniac is the worst. It sounds like something you'd find on any bargain bin New Age or Lounge compilation. You know, music to be bored with. L'arc en Ciel (French for 'rainbow') is better. Although is features rather dated water effects it turns into something which is quite similar to the earlier mentioned electronic Parsons classics and even features an almost Floydian guitar solo by one Alastair Greene.
The album closer Chomolingma (a name for Mt. Everest) is another instrumental. It might sound impressive to some but it actually little more than an incredibly simple keyboard ditty combined with computer drums, silly vocal effects and Parsons and Olsson chanting "Miyo Lungsangma" (an earth goddess residing in Mr. Everest). Which brings us full circle to Oldfield's musical midlife crisis: dance rhythms and ancient chants. The album eventually ends with a rather redundant John Cleese sample (very true though: 'this is just rolling on and on and on sonny') plus a couple of seconds of a barking dog. Why ?!
On one hand this is quite a disappointing album if you compare it to Parsons' previous work and a lot of his long time fans will indeed feel cheated when they buy the CD and listen to it the first time. A Valid Path pales and withers when compared to previous classic albums. Then again, I have to admit that on some weird level I find myself enjoying some of the songs. Perhaps it's because I never had a big apathy against pop and dance music like some of you prog rockers have. Nevertheless I hope that Parsons has got this stuff out of his system and continues to make something either more retro or something truly innovative. And something more impressive than 40 minutes of mediocre music plus some recycling if he takes another five years until the next album. Anyway, I sure doubt that this will win him a completely new market of techno lovers.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Rush - Feedback
Tracklist: Summertime Blues (3:52), Heart Full Of Soul (2:52), The Seeker (3:30), For What It’s Worth (3:27), Shapes Of Things (3:51), Mr. Soul (2:53), Crossroads (3:16), Seven And Seven Is (3:27)
The first time that the Canadian rock pioneers have recorded material written by other artists, 'Feedback' is a unique set that along with a forthcoming European tour celebrates the band's 30th anniversary. With eight tracks spread over 27 minutes it includes groundbreaking rock classics such as The Who's The Seeker, and The Yardbirds Heart Full Of Soul and Shapes of Things plus an extreme version of Eddie Cochran's Summertime Blues.
The offering has already generated a wealth of different reactions from the tribe of Rush fans who are never afraid to express an opinion. Whilst differing wildly in their conclusions, almost all are valid reactions. That is because, what a listener will take from this album very much depends on what expectations they bring to it.
To maybe reduce some expectations, all I can say is that if you expect these to be totally re-worked versions in a totally Rush style, then be prepared to be disappointed. If you don't like the original songs then there's nothing here that will really change your opinion. However if you're merely curious to hear how Rush would play these songs, then it's a very interesting listen. Some are very faithful renditions, others have a more distinctive Rush flavour - yet all stick fairly close to the originals. The choice of material too could be surprising to those who thought that Eddie Cochran and The Who maybe strange bedfellows. Yes, Summertime Blues doesn't really do it for me either, but it does all hangs together really well as a package.
One common criticism I can't share is that covering other people's songs is just an easy way to cash in on their anniversary tour. In his recent interview with DPRP, Alex Lifeson was full of genuine enthusiasm for this disc. The whole band has clearly gained much inspiration by returning to their roots and paying tribute to the bands that they were inspired by in their formative years. The one thing that bursts out from this record is the sheer energy and joy as Lee, Lifeson and Peart turn back the clock to when they were teenagers. You can only guess at what this may mean for their creative potential when they go back into the studio later this year. Anyway, jeez, a band that has spent three decades recording some of the most spellbinding and innovative music ever created, can surely be allowed to relax and have a bit of fun.
And that, in conclusion, is what this album is. Three musicians putting their own stamp on some of their favourite songs and having a blast while they do it. If you can take Feedback on that level, I'll guarantee that you'll go away with a smile on your face.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Triangle - Retreat
Tracklist: The Summer Died... (6:29), This Day (8:14), Goodbye (4:26), This Vacuum Inside (8:25), We Will Wait (5:59), Retreat (part 1) (4:20), Heroes Are (6:10), ...A Winter's Death (9:45), Retreat (part 2) (3:54)
Dutch band Triangle have been around in one form or another since 1993. In that time they have recorded two demo tapes and released one CD, which, somewhat confusingly, appeared on two different labels. What is more confusing, all four releases were called Square The Circle. Three and a bit years after the original release of the debut CD, comes the follow-up Retreat. (Strangely enough, German progressive band Rousseau also had albums called Square The Circle and Retreat!). Recording started on the follow-up CD way back in September 2002 with mixing being completed by January of last year. However, record label troubles (Bee & Bee Records, who released the second version of Square The Circle, were apparently "too busy with several other projects" and "didn't have time to release the CD") and the frustrated hope of attracting interest from another label meant the group had to go the independent route.
Fortunately for the band, prog is not subject to the fickle whims of more mainstream music where three years would represent more than several lifetimes of most chart acts. Although undoubtedly frustrating for the band, one would hope the extended delay won't have too much of a negative impact on the career of the group who were widely considered one of the brightest hopes on the Dutch progressive rock scene for the new millennium. Three of Triangle's four musicians (guitarist Roland van der Stoep, bassist Jan-Willem Verkerk and keyboard player / vocalist Martijn Paaschens) remain from the first album with Edward Bijnsdorp completing the line-up on drums.
Having not heard Square The Circle, Retreat was my first exposure to the band and I have to say I came away impressed. Paaschens has a decent voice, which although perhaps lacking a bit in range, is quite mellow and pleasing to the ear (he also sings with perfect diction, just why are the Dutch so good at languages?!). The music bears strong similarities to IQ in places, with interplay between guitar and keyboard prominent throughout. However, Triangle tread a sufficiently different path to avoid any overt comparisons. The resemblance is strongest on ...A Winter's Death (lyrically linked with opening number The Summer Died...) which is mostly built around van der Stoep's guitar, although there is a rather pleasing keyboard interlude in the middle. Being the longest track on the album, the music takes prominence for a large part of the almost ten minute running time, although better ensemble playing can be heard on the instrumental title track which is split into two separated sections. Retreat part 1 is an atmospheric number: swathes of synth and guitar form the backdrop over which is laid some prominent, but gentle, bass at the beginning of the track and tinkling electric piano and layered vocalisations towards the end. Subtle percussive additions that are almost out of hearing complete the picture. In contrast, Retreat part 2 is more lively and in your face. Threatening to breakout into what sounds like a sailor's hornpipe in places, the piece acts as a dramatic ending to both ...A Winter's Death and the album as a whole.
Elsewhere, This Day successfully manages to meld different musical atmospheres into one track while This Vacuum Inside takes on a more rhythmic approach with an insistent drum pattern permeating the song throughout. The Dave Gilmouresque guitar stabs at the beginning of the song are effective but perhaps it takes a bit too long for the song to really get going. We Will Wait has a structure similar to ...A Winter's Death with guitar sections top and tailing the piece split by a quieter keyboard section. Goodbye is rather strange in that the lyrics don't seem to fit the song and contain some awkward phrasing, although the music is interesting, energetic and forceful. Finally, Heroes Are starts off dominated by keyboards and, with the introduction of guitar, develops into a piece that would not be out of place on a Jadis album. However, again, I thought the piece would have benefited from being a trifle more succinct and could have withstood a degree of editing.
Overall, my main criticism of the album was lack of differentiation between tracks, the overall sound when all band members were in full flight was very similar and, with one or two exceptions, it was quite hard to separate individual tracks. Of course, the flip side of the coin is that it is a very consistent album and, taken as a whole, is cohesive and replete with fine musicianship. Maybe the subtleties of the album will expose themselves in time but on the whole Triangle have come up with a decent album that will do their reputation as a promising young band no harm at all.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Glass - No Stranger To The Skies
Disc 1: The Studio Sessions: No Stranger To The Skies (9:14) Give The Man A Hand (6:25) Domino (8:24) The Myopic System (8:17) For Ursula Major and Sirus the Dog Star (12:12)
Disc 2: The "Live" Recordings: Broken Oars (29:56) Awakening (Main Theme) / Realization / Fear / Childhood & Reflection (including On Spirit Lake) / Final Realization / Acceptance (Reprise of Main Theme) Changer (10:54) Home (2:55) Patrice Mersault's Dream (12:29)
This disc is a reissue of the CD originally released in 2000 (though the material is from the 1970’s), so hopefully Musea can at last manage to find a larger audience for this great music.
An excellent and fully detailed history of the band, together with an in-depth review of the CD, by Nigel Camilleri, can be found in the Forgotten Sons Section of this site, so all I’d like to add to that is that I thoroughly enjoyed this instrumental voyage back to the glory days of Progressive Rock, when keyboards were kings (this disc is saturated in moogs, mellotron and more). Whilst I agree with Nigel that the sound is a little dated now, it’s still a great listen for fans of the genre. I must say, though, that I don’t really see the ELP similarities - Glass is much less bombastic than ELP – and to my mind they are much closer to Greenslade (with a low-key and quirky approach to light and jazzy prog) or Italian's Corte Dei Miracoli and particularly Le Orme (who also often erroneously suffer comparisons to ELP) – the second part of Broken Oars could easily be an outtake from the classic concept album Felona And Serona.
Broken Oars is a mini-masterpiece, with a fabulous, long Mellotron intro (though the recording is quite poor, making the first few minutes virtually inaudible, unless you crank your system to the max) and some excellent drumming, terrific bass and topped off with some great synthesiser solos.
The archive nature of the recordings stops this earning the highest marks, but it’s a solid purchase for keyboard buffs and nostalgia freaks.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Icycore - Wetwired
Tracklist: Wetwired (6:27), Upload (3:32), The Net (6:36), Visions Of Numeric Life (4:19), The Hollow Men (5:47), Watchdog & Virus (4:49), Chrome (7:20), Redefine Stru (1:57), A New Gestalt (7:18), Watch Me Now (6:12), Inner Void (3:09), Eternal Unlife (10:07)
There's been a bit of a drought in terms of decent progressive metal coming from German label "Limb Music". Pagans Mind must have been the last disc of such note and that came out almost two years ago. But just when you could be forgiven for thinking they'd decided to focus on heavy and power metal, they go all proggy with two such releases in a month. Alongside the new album from Eldritch we have the debut release from fellow Italians Icycore. Created in the historic city of Pisa in 1998, when students Tiziano Romano and Alessandro Bracaloni discovered that they shared musical interests and a love of progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater and Queensrÿche as well as thrash metal outfits like Megadeth.
A demo CD called Altered Feelings was released in 1999 which prompted Italian label "Underground Symphony" to finance their debut album. Unfortunately the material for Wetwired was left lying on the shelves for about three years until Limb Music stepped in to do the decent thing and let the music-buying public decide for themselves. It certainly would have been a pity if Wetwired had never been released.
Many may point at the early-era Dream Theater influences but I think Icycore have more than put their own stamp on their sound - a more simplistic metallic vibe persists throughout and the overall sound is very much in the Italian Progressive scene. Complex yet solid rhythms, rock-hard walls of keyboards, heavy dual guitar work and aggressive vocals are the cornerstones of Icycore's songs.
In Valerio Voliani they have a vocalist who's capable of touching the high notes and who can easily carry a song without a heavy accent. All that really lets this down is the lack of some really good hooks, both in terms of the vocal and instrumental melodies. The better moments can be found on the opening title track, the closing Eternal Unlife and the catchy A New Gestalt. In between there's some great musicianship but not everything sticks in the memory. However if you like intelligent, sometimes complex progressive metal music, then Icycore is definitely worth a closer look.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Arabesque - Tales Of Power
Tracklist: An Epic: Krall Mountain (11:53), Cobbler's Knob (10:42), We (The Farmers Song) (7:42), The Forgotten Pond (4:51), As The Novelty Wears... (8:37), Arcanum Of Atlantis (10:37), Except The Dreaming (12:06)
A quick search on the internet for Arabesque comes up with several definitions including a ballet position, an Islamic art form and a fanciful piano piece. However, you'd be lucky to come across mention of a 1970s progressive rock band. Hailing from a small suburb of Pittsburgh, the band existed from 1973 to 1980 but in the entire seven-year period failed to officially release any material despite several forays into the recording studio. Over twenty years later, "Shroom Productions" have managed to track down extant recordings from 1973-1979 and released them on the album Tales Of Power.
The band employed a variety of instruments to generate their often complex and involved sound, with each member of the group having multiple roles to play. Jim Renda plays drums, percussion, bongos and glockenspiel, August Smarra handles the guitar, E-bow and other 'devices', Budd Kelly sings most of the lead vocals and also handles keyboards, Tom Ketterer holds down the bottom end on various basses and RJ Ketterer plays just about everything and anything else (vibraphone, congas, kalimba, snare, bells, drums, sundry percussive and 'found' instruments). All group members, with the exception of Renda, also contribute backing vocals.
With lyrics including castles, giants, beastly talons and the obligatory wizard, opening track, An Epic: Krall Mountain is a sword and sorcery fantasy from 1976 that exemplifies epic progressive rock of that era: contrapuntal melodies and rhythms, sweeping keyboard runs and everything but the kitchen sink thrown into the mix. Lyrically there appears to be a link with Arcanum Of Atlantis, one of the earliest pieces, originally composed in 1973 but again recorded in 1976. One wonders if the group were working on a suite of songs to form some grandiose concept? This piece has a lighter touch to it and employs a greater use of percussion. It is also the only song to features Smarra on lead vocals. Despite not being as strong as those of Kelly, he makes a reasonable attempt, not helped by being pushed too far back in the mix. The final track from the 1976 sessions is We (The Farmers Song), an allegorical song about the music business and the struggle between artists and industry. An enjoyable piece with overtones of late period Gentle Giant, the song is dominated by Kelly's keyboard solo as well as his fine vocals.
Three of the tracks stem from the final days of the band having been recorded in a band member's basement in 1979. The three tracks include two instrumentals, Cobbler's Knob (a local landmark) and The Forgotten Pond. The first of these has an almost oriental feel to it at the start but the introduction of a variety of percussion effects changes the feel of the song and it is the percussion that dominates for most of the track. The limitations of the recording process are evident with poor separation of several instruments and the drums and cymbals dominating and drowning out a lot of the background. Pity as there is a lot going on and the track is a good demonstration of the musicianship of the members. The Forgotten Pond was the overture to a much longer piece called Fable for which there are only very rough demos available (and hence its omission from the CD). As with all overtures, the piece is really an introductory number to set the scene for what was to follow and consequently has the band flitting around different time signatures, which they do with ease. Despite being taken out of context of the larger composition, the piece successfully stands by itself. Final track from 1979 is As The Novelty Wears.... With disco music all the rage, the band were obviously frustrated by their lack of progress within the industry and the fact that creative musicians were being overlooked and ignored in the clamour to make a quick buck from short-term commercially hot performers (nothing changes!). At times quite sad and melancholy, at others more energetic, the song has a great deal of variety and is one of my favourite on the album.
Final track is also the earliest being composed in 1973. The version presented on the CD was recorded live in 1978 and has a very dramatic and quite dark introduction. For the first time one is aware of backing vocals which add considerably to the mood. However, the vocal section is completed before the six minute mark leaving room for the instrumental prowess of the group to shine through. With a couple of very different solos, plaudits go to Smarra on this one, although Kelly chips in with a nice organ solo. The rhythm is similar to that employed by Deep Purple on their extended jams (Mandrake Root / Space Truckin' kind of thing) with the soloing going on over the top.
Tales Of Power is an interesting find dragged out from obscurity and lovingly presented to the progressive world at large (the artwork and comprehensive booklet are first rate). Considering that none of the tracks were recorded in professional studios the audio quality is as good as can be expected and any deficiencies are relatively minor and do not overtly detract from the music. Arabesque certainly were a group of competent musicians and had some interesting ideas. However, they possibly lacked a spark or originality that would make them really stand out from the crowd, particularly in the relatively crowded prog scene of the early Seventies and the disco obsessed music scene of a few years later.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10