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Reviews in this issue:
Happy The Man - The Muse Awakens
Tracklist: Contemporary Insanity (3:24), The Muse Awakes (5:36), Stepping Through Time (6:31), Maui Sunset (5:10), Lunch At The Psychedelicatessen (4:59), Slipstream (4:43), Barking Spiders (4:11), Adrift (4:04), Shadowlites (3:52), Kindred Spirits (5:26), Il Quinto Mare (7:22)
The return of Happy the Man makes for a whole lot of happy the prog fans. Way back in 1977, this band signed with Arista Records and released two albums which bombed commercially - remember this was the age of Night Fever, Night Fe-v-er! But later they achieved underground cult status. (For a more detailed report of this band's phoenix-like rising see our News Page from Week 44.)
The Muse Awakens follows Happy The Man's Crafty Hands almost as if the quarter-century between them didn't even happen. The notable differences, obviously aside from all new compositions, are in the modern production, and in the fact that the drummer and keyboardist are different. Original drummer Ron Riddle, who to my ears had a flair for the dramatic - kind a prog Keith Moon - has been replaced with the more conventional Joe Beramini. Conventional, but extremely accurate and dynamic. As for keys man David Rosenthal who eagerly stepped into the shoes of Kit Watkins, he seems to wear them with joy and ease. Stanley Whitaker's guitar has, unsurprisingly, been stripped of the 70's flange effect (except for one track). Also clear is that, like every mature guitarist who had a hand wrapped around a neck in 1981, he has absorbed some of the Holdsworth influence. Standing-wave-in-a-tube specialist Frank Wyatt pulls out both saxes (tenor and alto) as well as a clarinet and a flute in the first 3 tracks, playing counterpoint to the guitar & synth like the old days. Co-founder Rick Kennel's bass remains in its supporting role - no Jonas or Billy, he. There is even a 'token' vocal track, as there was on Crafty Hands.
Happy The Man has been called 'America's greatest prog band' by some, based on their original recordings. Personally I reserve that title for Kansas. But I will say this: I can only think of one other band that routinely handles odd time signatures with so much fluidity, that they feel like 4/4. (...That would be Gentle Giant.) What I mean by that is, while there are many bands that seem to insert licks into odd time signatures as a means of showing off, Happy The Man writes tracks that emerge as a whole, integrated composition - rhythm, melody and harmony all woven together. As a matter of fact, 4/4 is almost totally absent here. That's neither good nor bad, it just shows uncommon creativity.
So there you have it - If you like this band's old material, you will like this release as it is the same style. For those of you who have never heard Happy The Man, though, think of the Ozric Tentacles without the goofy, spacey vibe, Chick Corea's jazz concept, with a dash of Brand X spice.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Focus - Live In Southamerica
Tracklist: Focus III (7:42), House Of King (2:38), Focus II (4:42), Eruption (14:51), Sylvia (3:44), La Cathedrale De Strasbourg (6:38), Harem Scarem (12:05), Focus VII (8:21), Hocus Pocus (7:18)
This album seems to have snuck out with very little fanfare, it is not mentioned on the band's official site and the label is a small Mexican affair whose last album was, ironically, the local release of Focus 8. Possibly released to coincide with the recent gigs in Mexico, the album was recorded in October and November of 2002, although venues and locations are not identified. Indeed, the packaging is rather limited, the booklet consists of a collection of 24 photographs, many of which are of pretty poor quality (one is totally black!), two feature unidentified people (one even has no band members in) and focus (pun unintended) on Thijs Van Leer (there is one photograph each of the other three band members and three poor group shots); even the main photo on the sleeve is blurred!
However, the quality of the booklet is, thankfully, not indicative of the music on the CD. Surprisingly, given the tour was in support of the new album, the first with new members Jan Dumée (guitar), Bert Smaak (drums) and Bobby Jacobs (bass), there are no tracks from the excellent Focus 8. Instead we are provided with what could pass as a greatest hits package - all but one track from the definitive Focus Live At The Rainbow are included. But given that the two live albums were recorded the best part of thirty years apart and by essentially different bands, the new release is not simply a clone of the earlier album. Van Leer remains the consummate musician, his advancing years have not dulled his vocal prowess, he still attacks the yodelling so characteristic of the band with gusto. The other band members are also of the highest calibre, Jan Akkerman's shoes are able filled by Dumée, indeed it is fair to say that his playing is every bit as masterful as the original guitarist.
The performance cannot really be faulted either. Yes Eruption is shorter than on the Moving Waves album but is longer than on Live At The Rainbow. On the other hand Harem Scarem is present in a greatly elongated form and doesn't suffer for it either plus it is great to hear one of the earliest Focus tracks (House Of King) resurrected from the vaults.
All in all this is a very reasonable release that shows that the reformed group are as every bit as good as the classic incarnation. Despite that, one is reluctant to consider it an essential purchase. A nice tour memento, good for ardent fans or just for those curious as to how the new band come over live. But the casual fan should concentrate on the back catalogue or, if they haven't yet purchased it yet, Focus 8.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Salmon - When The Dust Settles...
Tracklist: King For A Day (9:22), Grey Velvet (6:26), Time To Fantasize (19:27), September Weeps (7:05), Three (7:46), Dubious Dried Ink (8:20)
The second album of this excellent Dutch progressive and symphonic band is again released by themselves as apparently their first album from 2001 Decade Reference didn't result in a record deal. That's actually a shame since they really produce good quality music that deserves a proper worldwide release! But on their website you can order a copy of this album. Should you then and if so why? Let me focus on that:
When The Dust Settles... is a great progressive/symphonic album on which on one side you can clearly hear the influences of some great names from the symphonic rock world like Genesis, Camel, Kayak and Landmarq and on the other side an unique and significant style! The excess of variation and the characteristic voice and singing style of Jan Jaap Langere creates this significant sound they developed.
To be honest I'm not really charmed by his singing, I can't lay my finger on it, but in some way it just don't seem to fit in with their music style. On the other hand you tend to get used to it and surely will miss it when it won't be there. Maybe it's just a personal thing, but to my taste his singing style often sounds very similar in tone and height and there is some vibration or tone in his voice that disturbs me somewhat; his singing is pure and technically correct, but I do miss something in there. This however does not much diminish my enjoyment of this album, so let's no longer elaborate on this.
The album only features 6 tracks, but still clocks just under one hour, mainly due to the lengthy third track Time To Fantasize that keeps you fascinated for almost 20 minutes. The song King For A Day (you can hear a sample of it on their website) starts the album off with a building up intro with some great organ sounds, then the singing kicks in which after a while comes to a sudden halt to be followed by very nice multiple voice unaccompanied singing. The song is classical styled with some Genesis influences and with a major role for the piano that is really driving the song and not so much the keyboards. There are several nice tempo changes and variations in this song that is actually typical for the whole album.
Grey Velvet is dedicated to the deceased mother of guitarist Gerrit Hoogebeen, the man behind all lyrics which are often very poetical and fantasy enriched. It's a standard sentimental ballad, but again with some unexpected changes in melody and rhythm. When you think the song is over after a standard ending it however goes on and gives an instrumental encore dominated by a Spanish guitar as if to say there's still something happening after a seemingly definite ending.
Time To Fantasize is, as already mentioned, the epic song of the album and absolutely a magnificent piece of music. Despite its length it never gets tedious, boring or ending up in repeating itself, which is an accomplishment for a song of this length. You're thrown into the song by the sound of falling dice and then a harpsichord and a flute start off, a very nice mediaeval sound! Then the piano and other instruments take over for a long and varied intro (over 4 minutes!). The track is actually divided in four pieces, each with their own subtitle, that flow into another. The changeovers to the next segment happen almost unnoticeable since each piece is quite varied and doesn't have a significant style or melody line of itself. The third segment called The Sand-Witch includes some very nice mediaeval singing and there's again a long instrumental part between the 3rd and last segment. All in all an absolutely great song that can match itself with other great prog epics even though it doesn't include much bombastic and extravaganza!
When September Weeps starts you might think you're listening to Steve Hackett who performs with his brother John a song by Satie; a serene melody by a Spanish guitar with flute. When the piano and singing take over the almost magical fairytale atmosphere slowly changes into a ballad structured song in the best sympho tradition that builds up after a while with some military drums to end again in a tranquil style. Three is the only instrumental on the album and although I'm always very keen on instrumentals I can't say this one is totally fabulous. Again you can find here some Genesis influences, or even borrowings, but the lack of the vocals is not really compensated by keyboard or guitar extravaganza (which I'm very fond of), so it sounds a bit as if the vocals just have been erased from the track. Maybe it's also fair to say that the music of Salmon lends itself better for vocal tracks with lengthy instrumental intersections than just instrumental tracks. It's still a very enjoyable track though, quite up-tempo, very varied and inspired by the three Maya kings that ruled Palenque in Mexico many centuries ago.
The lyrics for Dubious Dried Ink are printed as a newspaper article (in a imaginative paper called 'The Fishy News'!) in the booklet and handle the topic of writer's block. When after the short intro the vocals start I shortly long back to the previous instrumental song because they sound a bit forced and therefore inappropriate to me, but soon enough this annoyance flows away again as the rest of the song is back to the high standard that can be heard throughout the album. A great instrumental middle section brings on some more enjoyable minutes and although the ending of the song and album is a bit sudden and unexpected I'm left with the impression to have listened to a great album.
When comparing this album to their previous one, which was reviewed late 2001, (click here for that review) it's very clear that Salmon has developed their skills and talents a lot and produced not only more solid compositions, but also improved their own style despite that several influences still easily can be spotted. Although this album won't blow you away with extravaganza of any kind it surely will appeal to any person that also can thoroughly enjoy for instance Genesis, Camel and Landmarq and can drift away in beautiful sounds and really wants to explore melodic music that has much offer in diversity.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Trio96 - Quartet'99
Tracklist: Nana (Up) (6:37), JB (6:02), 5 Beats (6:51), 9 Beats (5:25), Hayai Kyoku (6:22)
I detest free-form music. While I appreciate both the artistic iconoclasm and the volatile energy behind some of the performances, most often free-form music sounds to me like a) a too insincere, too cerebral display of chops and avant-garde pose and b) the caterwaul of a despairing, dying soul. Think John Coltrane’s Olatunji Concert: I have no better example of poisoned musicality. And yet, I love to hear an artist salt-and-pepper a composition with several shakes of discord and noise. Because, when it is only an accoutrement, when the free-forming is a pointed expression of emotion that resolves back into cadence and structure, I find it far more effective and entertaining, even cathartic. Absolute free-form is chaos, unpleasant and unhealthy; the oscillation between measure and abandon is more often than not satisfying. Think Mahavishnu Orchestra, Thelonius Monk, and Wetton-era King Crimson.
And now, also, think Trio96, sometimes a quartet, sometimes a duo, a band that pushes an excellent blend of fusion, free-form rock, be-bop solo intensity, and polymeter into the ear canals. The outfit hails from Japan and its 2004 release, Quartet’99, is a well crafted effort at jazz-rock for the present day. Quartet’99 finds Trio96 in, unsurprisingly, its quartet guise and although the tunes were recorded in 1999, every track is fresh and crisply motivated.
The CD starts with Nana (Up). The guitar tone is slightly reminiscent of Island-era Fripp: biting, trebly, and nuanced. The drumming here (and throughout)) is frenetic, a manic throb in many places. The guitarist, Ishikawa Kenji, drives the song with a funky riff until the tenor saxophone (played by Yano Tomoaki) finally joins in with an abrasive but appropriate bout of blowing. Here-and-there the music turns messy, with too much overlap of parts, but any danger of excessive disharmony is saved in a return to full-throttle propulsion. In spots the track hints at Sailor’s Tale on Islands. Kenji does a fine job of altering his tone to avoid repetition and he shreds well without it seeming gratuitous or nonsensical. The mix of the track is possibly a bit too bright and the bassist, Ejiri Hiromitu, is often buried, but overall Nana (Up) is a good first offering, situating the band strongly within the jazz-rock tradition.
Next is JB which begins with a pseudo-Medeski, Martin and Wood grooviness: Kenji plays a quick, mildly distorted strum while Tomoaki goes to work with be-bop intensity. As in Nana (Up), the drums (by Tanaka Yasuhiro) are wildly paced and hornets-nest busy. The track slows down for a moment and the bass rollercoaster's over a clean set of lingering chords. This alteration in timbre and tempo works well for the band and is used too sparingly. There’s a nice break in the middle where the guitar is crunchy and then Kenji delivers a nice Crimsony solo over a fluid bass line and steady percussion. Kenji has the balancing act mastered: he never leans too far over to the side of either heavy metal power chords or McLaughlin excess, but walks the wire using both influences deftly.
5 Beats opens with a ringing arpeggio and then moves into a sound reminiscent of California’s Djam Karet. Tomoaki plays his most conventional solo on this track and it fits perfectly. The entire quartet plays with restraint and a quiet finesse for the most part and shows a mastery of ambience which stands out especially in contrast to the frenzy of the first two tracks. In the second half of the song Kenji offers an unconvincing bit of bland hard rock power chording but only for a few measures until the band takes off on a very angular progression that recalls Gentle Giant and Van der Graaf Generator.
Track number four is 9 Beats featuring a very irregular (of course) but catchy rhythm. The saxophone again sails over the ensemble playing with a low-range but energized melody. The band slips into a calmer passage and Yasuhiro’s contribution is evident: he’s filling the space but also expanding it to give everyone a wider canvas to paint. With 9 Beats Trio96 starts to suffer somewhat from both an over-employment of sheer noise and same-soundingness: at this point the band has lost a touch of its originality although the vitality and eagerness are abundant. Quartet’99 concludes with Hayai Kyoku, throughout which the guitar protrudes a decidedly Achilles’ Last Stand-era atmosphere. Again, the band ventures too far into obscure sonics to suit my particular pleasure, but I love the Zeppelin undercurrent too much to dismiss the song. Kenji and Tomoaki play a nice staccato duet that leads into perhaps the most Zappa-esque segment of the recording, rife with weird sounds, unusual effects, and marginally disjointed virtuosity. In the finale Kenji displays an affinity with John McLaughlin as he belts out some light speed runs before he returns to a Jimmy Page-style hardness to conclude the disk.
In all, I thoroughly enjoyed Trio96’s Quartet’99. For my tastes, the band does an outstanding job staying well to the side of progressive (even classic) rock with fusion flourishes rather than trailing off into the no-man’s land of random noise and fills. Kenji shines especially as he controls the impact of each tune with his tonal control, shifts of pace and colour, and willingness to accent the ensemble dynamic with backdrop. Yasuhiro and Tomoaki both play admirably if sometimes too crazily. I would’ve preferred to hear Hiromitu on bass a little better in the mix and with a tad more syncopation.
The improvements could come in these forms: perhaps a touch more melodicism throughout the compositions, perhaps the addition of an instrument other than the saxophone, and perhaps a few more diverse moments from song-to-song. But these are minor complaints: Quartet’99 is top-notch and even more so coming in at just over a half hour? There's a certain thriftiness and economy to this disk that makes it attractive. I would recommend this disk to fans of fusion, fans of King Crimson’s first seven albums, Djam Karet, Boud Deun, and progressive rock fans who enjoy a dose of jazzy bombast from time-to-time. All-in-all, an energetic and at times stellar job by Trio96; I’ll be excited to hear more soon.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Verdun - Verdun
Tracklist: Dream of the Black Horse (5.56) Page of Swords (3.27) Purple Haze (4.54) Stand By Your Man (4.15) Song to a Sparrow (2.53) April (3.20) Nightfall (3.18) Forty-seven (2.57) Fate (6.54)
Fancy a trip into the unknown? Does the sound of a band that mixes Prog with traditional Vietnamese music, with a regular filling of rock, soul and blues appeal? Then take a peep behind the bamboo curtain to see what's happening in the world of Verdun.
The project is the brainchild of Neal Barnard, who previous played with post-new wave Pop Maru, who mutated into the rock/jazz/baroque, Quartet. His compositions here incorporate odd meters by the bucket-load, foreign languages, electronica, ethereal vocals, crushing rhythms and hard-driven guitars.
The vocals come from Martha Roebuck and Ngec Hoàng. Martha has a very serene and light touch that tends to float over - totally unaware of the often-unstable music below. Ngec, who came from Vietnam with her film producer father in 1987, adds a distinctive touch to, I believe, three songs: Nightfall, April, and Dream of the Black Horse. Drummer Mike Stetina drives complex and changing rhythms, seamlessly diving into 7/4, 11/4, and other meters most bands would never have even heard of. Viit Nguyen plays an electronic version of the dàn tranh, the Vietnamese instrument that closely resembles a Japanese koto, as well as the traditional dàn beu, dàn cò, and dàn nguyet. There's a clever use of the sax and cello from guest musicians, whilst Jon Best's bass drives the music along, or holds it back, depending on the need.
The opening song is where all these ideas come together perfectly. Dream of a Black Horse is based on a Vietnamese folk song that tells of a bridegroom readying his horse and carriage to bring his bride home. In Verdun's Dream..., the black horse rebels, casting off bit and bell, and bringing his own love home. Musically it's brilliant. The mixture of hard but spare guitar, punchy drums, traditional Vietnamese instruments and electronica gives the whole track a real drive and energy - yet held in check by Martha and Ngec's beautiful soaring vocals. Page of Swords is a lullaby sung by a mother to child that shows off Martha's voice to further effect as does the tender Song To A Sparrow - very Clannad, with just voice, guitar and cello.
The three short tracks which follow, are based around instrumental ideas, utilising more odd meters with some spoken word and electronic samples. The closing track takes similar ingredients to the opening one, but comes up with a different taste - less of the Vietnamese influences and rather spoilt by a rather repetitive, march-like drum pattern.
The choice to do a cover version of Purple Haze is a debatable one. Clearly Bernard has tried to give it a totally fresh sound with odd meters (7/4 at one stage), Martha's very bluesy vocals and by taking the whole thing down to around a third of the speed of the original. It could work on some songs but when the original version is as well known as this, it's very hard to listen to without comparing to the original - and to these ears it just sound yuk! Tammy Wynette's Stand By Your Man is also given the Verdun treatment. This is also slowed down from the original but this time with a male voice and a broken, bluesy guitar that works much better.
Truly fresh and innovative music is hard to find and there's enough here to spark a hundred and one possible follow-ups. It's not totally fulfilling. Tracks 2 and 5-8 are a bit light in terms of not really developing some nice ideas a bit further; the version of Purple Haze is regrettable and unnecessary and clocking in at under 40 minutes, the whole thing is a rather on the short side. I'd like to see Verdun develop the combination of influences found on the first track across a full album - something I think would be very rewarding. You can make up your own minds with samples of every track on the band's website. As I said at the beginning - well worth a peep.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Sean Edward Ghannam - Fusia
Tracklist: The Time Machine (6:00); Fusia (5:02); Andromeda M31 (5:53); Sonic Playground (3:20); Galactica (5:46); Planetarium (4:54); Starfleet Patrol (7:34)
Sean Edward Ghannam is the guitarist in a Rush tribute band called Toronto Airport, and first among the four guitarists he claims as his influences is Alex Lifeson. So let’s take it as a given that his album Fusia sounds a lot like Rush in a lot of ways. I’ll even specify a few of the most obvious ways, but I’ll also want to point out what else Ghannam has to offer – since, after all, this isn’t a Rush tribute album but an album of original, albeit unabashedly Rush-influenced, material.
Fusia contains seven songs, ranging from three and a half to more than seven minutes long, and all with space-y titles: Galactica, Planetarium, Starfleet Patrol, and the like. Instrumentals all, they can’t rely on lyrics to evoke the wide-open starry spaces their titles invoke, so it’s up to the music to carry that burden. For the most part, it succeeds, but the album’s overriding compositional weakness is that the songs, even the longer ones, too often get by on too few musical ideas. A decent hook, riff, or melody will be proudly introduced and developed – and then repeated. And then repeated. And then – well, you get my meaning. Opening track The Time Machine is probably the worst offender in this regard, while the final song, Starfleet Patrol, most successfully avoids that fault, being a cornucopia of hooks and instrumental change-ups. However, Starfleet Patrol will, probably unfortunately, remind you strongly of another multi-part instrumental composition – Rush’s La Villa Strangiato – and that leads me to the specification I promised: what of Rush do we hear on this album?
Well, mainly, this being a Rush-influenced instrumental album, we hear lots of things that remind us of La Villa Strangiato and YYZ. As I say, the final track, Starfleet Patrol, is the mostly explicitly reminiscent of Rush’s effervescent twelve-part suite (also, of course, a final track – the last one on 1978's Hemispheres), and Sonic Playground, with its doubled guitar-and-bass riffs and alternating fast and slow passages, is in places all but a dead ringer for YYZ. But both those Rush songs are in the background of most of the seven cuts on this album, and that fact works to the album’s detriment. How can we care much for songs that are sort of like but – inevitably – inferior to those great originals? Fortunately, Ghannam does have more to offer. Although on most tracks his guitar and bass sounds (he plays all instruments save for drums) are almost exactly those of Hemispheres/Permanent Waves-era Lifeson and Lee, he comes up with a few surprises. I’ll be damned if the penultimate lovely acoustic song Planetarium didn’t have me searching my brain for the guitar sound and song that it reminded me of: it’s Pat Metheny’s Sueño con México, from 1978's New Chautauqua. Even better is Galactica, which puts me in mind so strongly of Camel’s wonderful First Light (from their 1977 album Rain Dances) that I found myself whistling the Camel tune after each time I played the Ghannam one. He’s not, then, just a reflector or channeler of a single band’s influence.
I suppose I should now be blunt about the album’s faults. As pleasant as it is to listen to, it’s not really complex enough to command one’s full attention; I won’t go so far as to call it progressive-rock background music, but there just aren’t enough musical ideas in each song to challenge the listener. Perhaps a more serious fault, though, is the choice of instrumentation. Remember the thrill when Steve Negus would switch in concert from his regular kit to an electronic kit for Saga’s first big hit Wind Him Up? And can you imagine Rush’s great Red Sector A without electronic percussion? Unfortunately, the electronic drums on Fusia, rather than complementing the other instruments as Negus’s and Peart’s did in those songs, are simply annoying. (So is the too-loud sixteenth-note tick-tick-ticking of the hi-hat through almost every song.) In most songs on the album, the guitar and bass are doing their thing, and the electronic drums are doing theirs, and, sure, they’re in synch, but they just don’t seem to belong in the same song. With a few exceptions, the same can be said for the synthesizers, which too often (especially on Andromeda M31) sound like those little toy Casio keyboards popular in the eighties. I’m pretty sure the songs would have fared better with acoustic drums and few or no keyboards, if Ghannam had just let his guitars do all the work.
Fusia is, then, an enjoyable, if fairly derivative, progressive-rock instrumental disc, and Ghannam has talent to spare. But if his music is to appeal to a larger audience, he’ll have to work to make it thus appeal. If he can step further away from his influences and cram a few more interesting ideas into a song – and, even better, if he can add a good singer and some interesting lyrics – he might really have something. Until then, though, his work leaves something to be desired.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10