Reviews in this issue:
- Lee Abraham - View From The Bridge
- Root - Illumination
- The Watch - Vacuum
- Jinetes Negros – Jinetes Negros
- Jinetes Negros – Chronos
- Stencil Forest - Opening Act
- Runaway Totem - Pleroma
- Forbidden To Know - Obscurity
Lee Abraham - View From The Bridge
Tracklist: Goodbye (2:05), Overture No. I (5:03), Coming Home (9:05), She’s Leaving Home (3:38), Too Long In Your Spotlight (7:24), Recurring Dream (22:12), My Other Life (2:06), Overture No. II (5:15), The Last Sacrifice (5:19), Go Right Now (5:47), Goodbye/Recurring Dream (Revisited) (5:10)
I usually hate this kind of comparison, but I’m going to make it for reasons I’ll go on to explain: if you’re a fan of Spock’s Beard, especially their later work, you’ll like Lee Abraham’s View from the Bridge. The good news, though, is that you don’t have to be a fan of Spock’s Beard – or even of progressive-rock! – to appreciate this fine, ambitious, melodic album. I make the comparison only because, fortuitously, this album appeared just a few months before Spock’s Beard’s latest release, Octane, and setting the half-hour suite that begins that album (A Flash Before My Eyes) alongside Abraham’s whole album will allow me to begin to illustrate his welcome similarities to that band and also his originality. Let me preface that comparison by saying, though, that his originality will be my focus; though Abraham thanks Neal Morse “and the entire membership of spocksbeard.com message board,” it’s clear that the inspiration is mostly intellectual and that it’s Morse’s and Spock’s Beard’s example and ambition rather than their music in specific that has motivated him.
A Flash Before My Eyes details exactly what the title suggests: the vision of one’s life that allegedly flashes before one’s eyes in the moment before death, in this case the narrator’s death in a car crash. As some reviewers of the album on DPRP suggested a few weeks ago, Spock’s Beard’s suite (which I think very fine) is unified more by the lyrics than by the music. Abraham’s whole album, though, which deals with death as well, is (and in this way it’s superior to A Flash...) unified more thoroughly by music than is Spock’s Beard’s work, although the lyrics are obviously crucial too. So far as I understand the story – and, even if I have some details wrong, the main outlines are clear – Abraham’s album tells the story of twins separated as infants. One has something like a charmed life; the other, as is suggested in the song The Final Sacrifice, suffers all the wrongs and harms that the fortunate twin has avoided. The latter sings “Life has been so easy for me but not for you / It all came so simple to me that I never knew / That you were having the worst of my life / Everyday you made a sacrifice.” Lost love is involved, too, I think on the part of both twins, though it’s not clear; in a song called She’s Leaving Home, someone’s beloved packs her bags and leaves. Wait, you’re saying – doesn’t Abraham know that The Beatles used that title? He sure does. Guest vocalist Kirsty Voce is given these lines to make the allusion plain: “I close the door before he gets home / I’ll leave a note I hope will say more.”
The continuing story involves a chance encounter between the now-grown twins, as the fortunate one takes “a different route home / Just for a change” and sees the unfortunate one about to jump, and perhaps jumping (“He starts to fall or is it in my mind”), from a bridge. The scene is revisited in the two Recurring Dream songs, in which “The missing pieces fit together now.” The album ends with a revisiting of Goodbye and Recurring Dream, the lyrics, expressing the state of mind of the suicide just before he jumps, repeating those of Goodbye but ending “And it’s all revealed to me / This recurring dream,” leaving us in doubt about the characters’ actual fates. But the song not only brings the lyrical theme full circle but also intelligently revisits the music of the album’s first song and of its most ambitious, the lengthy and powerful Recurring Dream. The album’s clearly a labour of love – and of thought.
Now, what of the kind – or rather kinds – of music Abraham uses to support and underline the lyrics? I can probably indicate the disc’s general sound with shorthand: this is excellent, melodic second-wave progressive rock. Again, only as a general guide, if you think of what Spock’s Beard has been doing for its last few albums, you’ll be in the ballpark. But View from the Bridge is in no way derivative of that or any other band. With the help of a few other talented musicians, notably keyboardist Martin Orford, drummer Gerald Mulligan, and lead guitarist Gerry Hearn, Abraham (who himself plays guitar, bass, and keyboards on most songs) has created a wholly coherent concept album whose individual songs can very much stand alone. I can’t think of much higher praise for an album that’s meant to be heard as a whole than that many of the songs are separately memorable, mostly because of their strong melodies. Too Long in Your Spotlight, Recurring Dream, and The Last Sacrifice have been stuck in my head for weeks, so catchy are they. The album, that is, is in no way self-consciously progressive, as are some records that proudly parade instrumental chops for their own sake; the excellent musicianship here is always in the service of the songs, and the songs themselves are made to suit and are suited by the lyrics. That’s not to say that Abrahams doesn’t know his progressive-rock history: nobody who lived through the seventies and had good taste in music at the time can avoid thinking of early Genesis during the first few syncopated minutes of Recurring Dream – and probably of later Genesis in The Last Sacrifice. And the propulsive first half of Overture No. I, with its long, incendiary guitar solo courtesy of Gerry Hearn, might well put you in mind of Symphony X or another similar progressive-metal band. For the most part, though, this album’s music is rather gentle than heavy, any instrumental virtuosity supplementing rather than grappling for precedence each song’s melody and lyrics.
I shouldn’t end without saying a word or two about Abraham’s singing. This being a concept album, it’s probably only right that he has a few guest vocalists (most notably Kirsty Voce, as I mentioned earlier, who sings an entire song herself) help him tell the story; but he handles most of the lead vocals himself. And, fortunately, he has a voice that’s both strong and subtle, capable of dealing tactfully but not histrionically with the shifts of mood required by the songs’ lyrics. I eventually realized that his voice reminds me in some ways of Pete Townsend’s, but the resemblance is in no way exact – it didn’t strike me until my eighth or ninth playing of the album, I don’t think. It’s a good voice, though, and Abraham uses it intelligently, trusting his lyrics to convey the meaning and not emoting unnecessarily.
I want to go on but won’t. This is an excellent album; but you can’t know how good it is by reading about it, so you should get it. By doing so, you’ll help ensure that Abraham can make another album, and, when you hear this one, you’ll agree that we all should want him to make another – and another, and another.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Root - Illumination
Tracklist: Wishing Man (5:55), Anything (5:06), The Meaning (5:07), Healing In Me (6:17), Sometimes (4:25), Anymore (4:09), The Most (5:36), Always (5:45), My Pride (5:00), No Mercy (9:40), Younger (4:43), Boy Genius (5:38)
Root, in the form of multi-instrumentalist David Kendall, kicks off 2005 with a new album, Illumination. Expressing a desire for each album to be a "progression from the last" has meant that Kendall is putting more thought into each release, as he explains himself: "As I write and record each album I feel that I become more driven by a need to be 'true' to the songs. The songs arrive quickly and easily, but the lengthy part of the album is deciding how the songs should sound and how they should be arranged." This philosophy seems to be working as it would be hard to describe a specific Root sound, no bad thing in this age of universal conformity.
Opening track Wishing Man starts off quite the up tempo rocker with a prominent guitar, a funky rhythm and layered vocals. The quieter sections, with faux keyboard horns and a rather jazzy guitar solo, sound vaguely reminiscent of early Chicago, if only in the quality of the playing and arranging. Anything takes the tone down with a gentle piece and is more representative of the album as a whole, generally more reflective and pastoral than on previous releases. Kendall has a strong voice which, although not possessing the greatest of ranges, is very warm and is well suited to the more tender love songs. Displaying a pop song feel, The Meaning is a jolly ditty based on a keyboard riff while Healing In Me features impressive harmonised vocals in the chorus and a variety of different instrumental sounds, although I felt that the keyboard solo was a bit sparse. Sometimes ups the ante somewhat with another very impressive love song which begs to be fully orchestrated with sweeping violins, gentle wind instruments and the magnificence of a concert grand piano. Obviously Kendall's limited budget doesn't allow this but he has done a very impressive job suggesting these parts with the instruments he has available to him.
The slow tempo is maintained throughout Anymore and The Most, the latter employing a keyboard-generated string quartet underpinning a lovely melody topped off with a simple, yet effective, guitar solo which progresses from acoustic to electric - nice song! Always is a tad more mysterious with Eastern undertones; again the layered vocals stand out and the sound of the guitars and keyboards is well considered. My Pride is a big song that is, in my opinion, not fully realised. The elements are all there but I feel that it deserves to be rather more dramatic with a punchier ending. By emphasising, or indeed over emphasising, some sections and maybe extending the piano solo it would make the song stand out more amongst the abundance of slower tempo songs. In contrast, No Mercy is what Kendall does best, extended pieces that chop and change but maintain a coherent inner structure. The song sits admirably well within the general mood of the album but stretches out with more up tempo sections mixed with areas of reflection. Slight resemblances to Pink Floyd of the Wish You Were Here era can be made but that is more in terms of song structure (and the guitar solo!) than song style. The album is rounded off with Younger, probably my favourite track on the album simply because it is so good and Boy Genius which is the most incongruous track on the album. Not that it is bad, although I wasn't that enamoured with the lyrics, just that it did stick out as being of a different style to the rest of the album. Best viewed as a bonus track perhaps and considering the album proper to end with Younger.
Kendall has managed to maintain the high quality standards he set himself on previous albums while producing something a bit different. Illumination is a fine set of songs, and at nearly seventy minutes is great value for money. This is an album to really listen to, late at night or early in the morning, when all else is quiet and dark - a progressive chill out album if you will. As much as we may dislike it, the future of prog largely lies in musicians doing it themselves. Fortunately, with people of the talent and calibre of David Kendall, the immediate future is secure.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
The Watch - Vacuum
Tracklist: Hills (1:26), Damage Mode (7:17), Wonderland (7:05), Shining Bald Heads (5:55), Out Of The Land (6:05), Goddess (5:48), Deeper Still (3:24), The Vacuum (8.53), The Vacuum [A View From The Hill] (2:06)
The burning question here is - do you like Genesis? Or more specifically the classic Gabriel period Genesis? If the answer to this question is no or not really, I suggest you move on to the next review. The second all important question would be - do you believe that it is possible for a band to recreate Genesis' music so closely without it sounding like plagiarism? Again if the answer is no or unsure, press on to the next article.
Still with us? Good. So for those unfamiliar with The Watch (me included until this album), a stroll around their website will further strengthen the Genesis comparisons. For lurking within the Live Pages are photos of large and elaborate stage settings, theatrical costumes, double neck guitars, vintage keyboards, in fact the full armoury is there. All well and good but tell us something about the band and the music!
The Watch comprise of five gifted musicians starting with the tight and dynamic rhythm section of Roberto Leoni (drums and percussion) and Marco Schembri (bass, electric and acoustic guitars), who handle the changes in tempo and dynamic with great precision. Sergio Taglioni displays a multitude of vintage keyboard sounds including Mellotron and Moog synths, organ and piano. The combination of Taglioni's technique and these wonderful sounds recall Tony Banks at his creative best. Ettore Salati takes on the guitar mantle with an array of electric and acoustic six and twelve string guitars as well as producing the bottom end rumble with the bass pedals. Perhaps a little under used certainly in the solo department, however the blending of guitar and synths is wonderful. Certainly the textural side of his playing is undoubted. Last but not least is vocalist Simone Rossetti, who's voice so befits this music. Like Gabriel he drifts effortlessly from the stronger "grittier" vocal sections to the softer falsetto tones with consummate ease. These subtle variations in timbre are nicely complemented by the highs and lows produced by the band. Oh yeah, and to cap it all Simone Rossetti plays the flute.
I was not surprised to learn that The Watch had performed as a Genesis tribute band, this level of understanding would certainly require the painstaking process of learning many tracks from the bottom upwards. So under the name of The Night Watch the band paid their dues and in fact released their first album Twilight under this name. Not having heard the first two albums it is difficult to determine what progress the band have made, but on the evidence of Vacuum, I would hazard a guess at substantial.
To undertake a track by track overview I fear would be nigh on impossible with this level of complex arrangements, ever changing moods and tempo changes - best think Genesis at their most complex and inventive and you have Vacuum. I would add that certainly The Watch have benefited from the 30 year (plus) time span that has elapsed and therefore the production values are very good. Along with the production values is the meticulous attention to detail, allowing the band to capture the innumerate musical, lyrical and melodic nuances that go to make this a fascinating and studied album.
I suspect that many staunch Genesis fans might well be sceptical or even opposed to The Watch and to this album, deeming it as mere plagiarism, much as they did with the advent of 80's neo-proggers Marillion et al. But as it was then, each new generation of progressive music lovers need their own heroes. However unlike their 80's counterparts who saluted the masters, The Watch have endorsed and embodied the music, unashamedly recreating "new" music very much in the style of Genesis. Whether or not Vacuum will stand alongside such revered gems as Nursery Cryme, Foxtrot or Selling England By The Pound only time will tell. I can tell you though, as with the previously mentioned albums, each listening of Vacuum reveals something new and interesting - and a familiar growing kudos is emerging.
With the chances of a Genesis reformation being as likely as me seeing in the next Millennium, this may well be as close as you will ever get to rekindling the music of the classic Genesis period. Granted you may be fortunate enough to see one of the ever growing tribute bands - some excellent like The Musical Box, but there will be no "new" material on offer. Therefore if you have an open mind and are a fan of classic Genesis, then I can recommend you buy this album unreservedly.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Jinetes Negros – Jinetes Negros
Tracklist: El Jinete Negro (4:11), La Anciana (4:23), Cinco Tigres (3:42), Floreces, Tiemblas Y Te Vas (4:39), Un Verano Al Sol (4:42), Soldados De Fuego (3:52), Sacro-Cielo 5:10), El Ray (6:50), Bonus Tracks: Floreces, Tiemblas Y Te Vas –version (5:17), Soldados De Fuego – version (3:25) + Video Clip (mpg) La Anciana
Jinetes Negros – Chronos
Tracklist: Heroe De Ningun Lugar (4:18), Noche (4:43), Alucine (4:48), Tiempo Y Mente (4:13), Espectros En El Aire (4:35), Rostros Que No Estan (5:34), Celidas (4:15), La Desolacion (5:03), Me Veras Desangrar (4:55), Separarte En Parte (4:25), El Fruto Del Espacio (4:57), El Hada Blanca (4:32)
When I started reviewing CDs for this site more than two years ago, the first CD I was sent to review was an Argentinean obscurity, on the Viajero Inmovil label, by a group called Anima. Whilst my eager enthusiasm may have led to a slightly higher rating than was perhaps deserved, I still have a soft spot for that recording. Now I am faced with reissues of the first two recordings (from 2000 and 2001 respectively) by Jinetes Negros, a group formed by the keyboard player from Anima – Octavio Stampalia. Aside from some recognisable keyboard flourishes, the music on these two CDs is quite different in style to the aforementioned group. In fact, there is also quite a change apparent from the first disc to the second.
The first (and by far the best) presents an enjoyable menu of accessible prog rock songs in a largely conventional song-based format, significantly enhanced by judicious use of (simulated) orchestral textures. What really appeals to me is the subtle but effective use of choral arrangements on many of the tracks. These are far more successful than many other examples I could think of in the prog genre, with Rick Wakeman being the prime offender. His attempts on Myths and Legends... seem particularly cheesy when compared to these. I would recommend a listen to this album for the choral arrangements alone; they are extremely effective and really add a touch of magic to the recordings.
There is nothing to indicate that this is any kind of concept album (Spanish speakers may be able to put me right on this) but the whole work has the feel of a rock opera. Something about it reminds me of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds opus, but this is a vague feeling I have, rather than any concrete musical similarity.
The musicianship is solid throughout, with Stampalia contributing most of the prog elements through the symphonic sweep of his faux-orchestral accompaniment. I was quite taken by vocalist Marcello Ezcurra, especially on the passionate-sounding ballad Floreces, Tiemblas Y Te Vas. This is a very commercial sounding ballad, on a grand scale, but very enjoyable for all that. It might be my imagination, but I was reminded of Don’t Cry For Me, Argentina.
The only real drawback is that all the vocals are in Spanish and the songs are very lyrical, with little in the way of extended instrumental passages, so this may restrict its potential appeal to the Spanish speaking listeners, which is a shame. I did enjoy the album, but I do feel like I am missing out on something. This problem is compounded on the second of the two discs, as not only has the music coalesced into more of a mainstream melodic hard rock sound, with minimal prog trimmings, but also, the album is a concept piece (based on a Salvador Dali calendar) featuring, apparently, fittingly surreal lyrics. As there are no actual Dali pictures included in the package (though the cover is appropriate enough in style), again one feels like a major part of the picture (sic) is missing.
Musically there are still some nice subtle touches to pique the interested prog fan (again mainly in the shape of symphonic splashes, but this really is a hard rock album in disguise. For its type, it sounds pretty good to me, with plenty of crunch, and some strong melodies, and the main focus on electric guitar is justified by some sterling solos from Pablo Robotti. Ezcurra once more contributes a powerful vocal performance (some lovely contrasting delicate passages on Noche for example), but again, I feel that music this heavily lyrical demands an understanding of the language to really achieve its full effect.
Having said that, there are some good tracks here – Alucine has a gritty swagger, and Tiempo Y Mente sounds, in places, like a track by Dan Swano’s Melodic rock project Nightingale, which I have to admit I am a big fan of. The ballad Rostros Que No Estan, like its counterpart on Jinetes Negros, is radio friendly but not without its subtleties to appeal to the more discerning listeners. In fact, the more you listen to the album, the more you can pick up on, lifting it from the mass of mundane rock albums, but what it lacks from its predecessor is the choral vocals.
I’d like to conclude this review by heartily recommending the CDs (especially the first one) to any Spanish speakers, and advising the rest of you to maybe try some of the samples, you never know, you may well like them.
Jinetes Negros - 7.5 out of 10
Chronos - 6.5 out of 10
Stencil Forest - Opening Act
Track List: Opening Act (5:46), Celestial Voices (4:16), Just a Fantasy (4:36), Crossroads (3:47), Looking Back (3:59), The Pandemonium Shadow Show (8:48), Indian Summer (4:16), Five Studded Poker Player (5:59), Five by Five (3:30), Just a Fantasy (Acoustic Version) (4:17)
I’m torn in two over Stencil Forest’s 2004 release Opening Act. On the one hand, the CD is chock full of 1980s clichés straight out of the record executives' corporate manual. Think Journey at its most saccharine, or Styx fully DeYoung’d, or Survivor in Toto. Basically, Opening Act is “pomp-prog,” to borrow Jerry Lucky’s fitting tag, and at times it is simply too predictable and too coy. But on the other hand…there is just enough instrumental flair, adept arrangement, and progressive rock embellishment to keep this CD occasionally appealing.
On the first spin, and after reading the band’s projected itinerary for 2005, I was stumped. I thought, “Well, this is a contemporary project, but it sounds like it’s straight out of the vaults of the 1980s, just pre-big hair bands.” And I also thought: “This band has no chance with such a retro sound.” Even where the composition is classy and tasteful, it's hardly novel. So, I wondered why Stencil Forest was making music in this vein, for which the market must be very slim indeed. But I soon found that tracks one through eight were in fact recorded during the early ‘80s, and I was moderately more charitable toward the effort. Now, rather than an anachronistic tribute to the era of processed guitars, drum machines, and spandex, I was listening to the genuine article, something created in the heyday. Although I still felt that there were significant problems with Opening Act, I was far more respectful of it as a product of its time. (I should mention, though, that Five by Five was recorded in 1992 and the charming acoustic version of Just a Fantasy was recorded in 2004.)
Stencil Forest originally hailed from Elkhart, Indiana, and was formed in 1980. The band had some moderate success opening for Night Ranger and Head East, among others, and in 1983, the first eight tracks of Opening Act were recorded. Stencil Forest toured despite the distraction of personnel changes. In 2004, after finding that the band’s output was still in high demand in Europe, Stencil Forest remixed, re-mastered, and reissued Opening Act. The band intends to record a twelve-song follow-up CD (tentatively titled The Abyss), for release in the Spring of 2005, which will include a twenty-minute epic.
The original line up of Stencil Forest consisted of Doug Andresen (lead vocals), Frank Cassella (guitars, keyboards, and vocals, with lead vocals on the full-band treatment of Just a Fantasy), Rick Cassella (keyboards and vocals), Rob Nilsen (guitars and vocals), Scott Noyes (bass guitar, bass pedals and vocals) and Stan Swaim (drums and percussion). Five by Five features Mr. Andresen and Mssrs. Cassella plus Jim Cassella on drums and percussion and Bill Stout on bass guitar and vocals. The acoustic version of Just a Fantasy was recorded with just Mr. Andresen on vocals and Frank Cassella on the guitar. Frank Cassella is the principle songsmith. I’m not sure I know what is the line up of Stencil Forest now in 2005, except that Frank Cassella is involved, as is a gentlemen named Ron Perron, who produced Opening Act.
As for the music, transport yourself back to the early days of the 1980s, when MTV was nascent and Poison, Ratt, Warrant, Bon Jovi, and Winger were yet to come. Think back to the days of well-groomed frontmen with blistering falsetto ranges, the guitar virtuoso (albeit commercially tempered), the obligatory live drum solo, and tunes with prog-rock hangover keyboard flavouring. In short, arena rock, the good, the bad, and the downright damnable! And Opening Act showcases a bit of all three.
The title track starts with a very cheesy guitar riff (in the shadow of cheap ‘80s Kiss, it seems). The singer, Doug Andresen, is a little rough and a little off pitch but he has good range (and he reminds me strongly of Survivor’s lead singer…whatever his name might be). The keyboards are very jangley and “twee” as the British sometimes remark. There are good prog-inflected breaks throughout the song, in which the keyboards and guitars mesh well, but overall the tune is remarkably lame. I just couldn’t appreciate such a sugary-sweet song about the torturous existence of a band relegated to opening act status; I was even less tolerant of the pipe-dream lyrics regarding the band’s impending fame, as if Stencil Forest were just this far away from the big time. It all reeked of schmaltz. A few of the instrumental breaks were impressive but the bridge was soft and generic. The guitar solos reminded me slightly of Queen; here and throughout the guitarists manage their tone very capably. The song is marred by a very poor mix; the vocals and guitar solos are clear but the rhythm section and keyboards are buried. Ultimately, this is just a boring, sappy pop song, with wimpy lyrics, and the prog accoutrements are too miniscule to save it.
Celestial Voices presents more of the same bland corporate rock sound: it’s Boston-meets-Triumph-meets-April Wine-meets-Asia. The song is fairly ambitious and well arranged but it’s so canned and biteless. This song has a little better drive to it than does Opening Act and the major recurring rhythm is even mildly syncopated and funky. The keyboards do standout on this track and the guitar work is again palatable; there’s even a hint at Kansas/Styx grandeur for a few moments. The band members are obviously talented but the songs just aren’t formidable vehicles for the musical articulation. And sadly, the lyrics are again abominably dated and pretentious.
But not all is vanity and vexation of the spirit on Opening Act. Just a Fantasy is likely the best track on the album. It opens with a clean, precise acoustic guitar arpeggio and a plaintiff keyboard line over the top. I commend the smart use of atmosphere and the sparse but keen arrangement on this tune. It’s reminiscent of something like Epitaph from King Crimson’s seminal debut album. In this case, the lyrics have a poignant effect without slipping into maudlin whining. I found the acoustic piano a great touch. When this song stays in the minor key it’s powerful and moving; the major key chorus suffices as a contrast against the minor key. All-in-all, well done. It’s not coincidental, I believe, that this song notably steers away from some of the bubblegum motifs evident on the other tracks. It’s a bit more serious and sullen but it’s well executed. Crossroads is another fine effort that begins with some Steve Howe-type guitar work and incorporates a very agreeable, very singable melody line. Mr. Andresen’s high range is absolutely a strength on this song. Unlike some of the other tracks that feel tight and forced, Crossroads is loose and relaxed, although, in places, it’s frenetic in a UK vein. (In fact, there are many spots on the CD where the guitar-keyboard interplay did remind me of an apprentice version of the late ‘70s supergroup.) The instrumental break is stale but otherwise this is laudable.
Looking Back struck me as a near-Journey outtake. As with much of this CD, the band handles the motifs and clichés well and no one is a butcher, but there is too much contrivance for my taste.
The proggiest track of the CD is without question The Pandemonium Shadow Show. The initial dramatic keyboard section smacks of finer moments by Yes, Styx, UK, and Boston, and maybe even E.L.O. The shift into the acoustic guitar passage worked well. Here (and in other spots on the CD) the lead and backing vocals are nearly shrill. The lyrics are unique, if vague, having something to do with life described as a dark, bleak circus or carnival show, within which good and evil war and good comes away victorious. Well, often “good” suffers at the hands of "evil" but I still liked this line: “And the darkness always disappears/when you wait it out awhile”. It’s not always true, unfortunately, but it sometimes is very true and that fact gives us hope and the ability to persevere. Unfortunately, although this is an ambitious song with an extensive and sensical arrangement, by now the singing is grating: too prefabricated and high-pitched.
Indian Summer is a departure of sorts. It’s lush and employs a soft rock treatment, sounding something like latter-day Ambrosia, Asia after its debut, or even Journey at its most light. I even hear an echo of The Beach Boys, strangely enough. Once again, the acoustic guitar is excellent but the songs are starting to sound very similar. I did enjoy the break, which recalled Breakfast in America-era Supertramp.
The final song by the original line up, Five Studded Poker Player is simply dull (as in “not too sharp” but include “boring” and even “boorish”). The lyrics are amateurish and the banshee vocal is intolerable. It does have a fusion sound to it, OK, and the final synth-acoustic piano combination is effective, but it’s the weak link of the album.
Five by Five, with a different band formation, is lively and fresh. I preferred the energy and feel of this song to the majority of the original line-up's effort. It’s centred on a Police-style reggae guitar backbeat and the tone is great. (The drum sound on this track is abysmal, however, and the mix is somewhat sterile.) It’s a straightforward rocker featuring a Jamaican-sounding keyboard interlude. Weirdly, this reminds me of Gentle Giant’s Civilian, in its movement away from dominant prog trappings. This actually has an inviting maturity to it and I’d like to hear more in this fashion. And to conclude, a bonus track. (Is anyone else weary of bonus tracks yet?) It’s a completely acoustic version of Just a Fantasy, utilizing a nylon string guitar and solo vocals this time, without the rest of Stencil Forest. Frank Cassella’s strum pattern is exquisite. This rendition has a nice troubadour feel to it, and the double tracked guitars are sweet. I’ll take this version, as it’s warmly uncluttered and open, but I will admit that the vocal on the full-band track is more emotive and convincing.
So, overall, I didn’t love Opening Act and some of it is dreadful, but there are gold nuggets scattered throughout the ten tracks. As an ‘80s album, it’s not too shabby, I guess. I don’t really care for this style of music so all I can say is that Opening Act features some decent playing and a few provoking moments, but there are plenty of other CDs I’ll spin before I’ll ever return to this one. If the band can shake some of the clichés, maintain its well honed sense for arrangement, and focus on a more intense, more genuine, more modern musicality, I think Stencil Forest might produce a very worthwhile album. The Abyss may prove to be just that; we’ll certainly find out.
I’m guessing that Opening Act would appeal to fans of both late ‘70s-early ‘80s prog-influenced arena rock and fans of first-wave neo-prog. At least, those are the categories under which I’d file this CD. Maybe the perfect use for this album is the following: If you have a friend who likes straightforward rock and who maybe enjoys ‘70s arena pomp rock, but you want to transport your friend into the prog world, use this CD. (But note my caveats first.) It might serve well as a bridge and facilitate the entry into the often-foreboding realm of progressive music.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Runaway Totem - Pleroma
Tracklist: La Porta Del Duat (18:35), Il Lago Di Fuoco (8:52), Restau (5:39), Abisso Delle Acque (8:05), Sokari (7:29), I Due Orizzonti (20:23)
Italian duo Runaway Totem have been around since the late 1980s and in that time have produced four albums. Their fifth, Pleroma, is the final part of a trilogy and, apparently, relates "the soul's journey to heaven, its fight against demons and its judgement by God". Sung in Italian throughout, the nuances of the narrative are lost on non-Italian speakers, although this doesn't detract from the dramatic effect of the music. And dramatic it is, La Porta Del Duat kicks off the album on like a musical version of Dante's Inferno with heavenly (although by no means angelic) choirs, dissonant melodies, and vocals that are, shall we say, 'challenging' yet fit the mood of the piece. There are moments of almost classical intensity, dark and gothic with symphonic grandeur that belies the fact that the group comprises just two musicians, Cahal De Betel (vocals, guitars, bass, programming) and Tipheret (keyboards and drums). Beginning and ending with a brief, almost sweet melody, La Porta Del Duat entices one into the album with a strange blend of fascination, intrigue and a degree of disbelief.
It is hard to think of comparisons that fit. A splash of early King Crimson perhaps in the instrumental sections of Il Lago Di Fuoco, a heavy dose of Magma throughout and an infusion of the spirit of the first incarnation of Van Der Graaf Generator. These are influences admitted to by the band but one the whole the album is, to my ears anyway, quite innovative and more modern sounding than any of the three bands mentioned. Keyboards dominate throughout, although don't expect displays of virtuoso playing as Tipheret strives for, and largely achieves, huge chunks of atmosphere. Of particular note is the very effective Church organ and piano combination on album closer I Due Orizzonti.
There is a general musical theme to the album that is maintained through each piece (well it is a concept!) although by the forth track, Abisso Delle Acque the onslaught of heavy guitars and gothic keyboards was beginning to grow a bit tiresome. That is not to say each track was identical, the guitar parts in each track were different (with plenty of soloing) and the more percussive Abisso Delle Acque has some great drum sounds. But the overall effect is one of atmosphere rather than individual songs. A perfect horror theme score perhaps, dark and foreboding, intense and mysterious but definitely not an album to sit in a darkened room listening to hoping for a relaxing hour or so before supper.
Pleroma is, on the whole, quite a fascinating album. Its grand designs are cinematic in scope and the album is at times quite uncomfortable to listen to. Fans of the gothic and mysterious will probably be drawn to this album and will no doubt find a lot to rejoice in. Although I will keep the album in my collection and inevitably drag it out every now and again to listen to a track or two (particularly the opening and closing 'epics' La Porta Del Duat and I Due Orizzonti), it is not an album that I can imagine playing from start to finish with any regularity. However, I applaud Runaway Totem for doing something different and challenging.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Forbidden To Know - Obscurity
Tracklist: They (11:56), Fearless (14:25), Souls (8:43), The Fallen (9:14), Lost (7:56), Woe (11:39), Genocide (11:40)
We receive many CD's for review at DPRP, some from familiar names and therefore an inkling of what is in store is inherent, however many more come from unknown independent sources and for me these hold a far greater fascination. For until the point you have placed the CD in your player and pressed play you have a possible new masterpiece or a possible DPRP 10 out of 10 (something I have never encountered, but am always hopeful). Amongst these offerings have been many gems and new discoveries, which have been a delight to listen to, to review and to impart those positive views on to our readers. Another plus for me is that not all of the music has come from within my general listening parameters and therefore, the widening of my horizons continues - of which I am extremely grateful.
Now you may well think that this is an extremely long preamble and be curious as to whether or not Forbidden To Know are such a discovery. Sadly not, because along with the possibility of a masterpiece comes the possibility of a poor imitation or even a worthless piece of art.
Now the literature tells us that the music best fits in the "Dark Progressive genre and contains the following elements, Experimental, Electronic, Strange, Noise, Grime vocals, clean vocals, narratives child like voices, etc...". Personally I didn't find much in the way of "musical" content at all, merely a string of uncoordinated synthesizer drones, strange sound effects and the entire alien cast of Stargate (who regardless of planet, universe, time or form seem to have the same "processed" voice) in conversation with Gollum (Lord of the Rings), and "precious" little else. The "vocals" or spoken word as it is, are merely rambling cliché ridden sentences uttered through a digital processor. Forbidden To Know ask us to "Join me in this musical madness, a one way ticket to hell, a place where hope is nonexistent and the dead rise from their graves". Says it all really.
Until track two that is, and then a really dreadful drum machine is added into the equation, which neither improves the proceedings or serves any useful purpose, as far as I can see. So what we now appear to have, is all of the above elements with rhythm - and even this just enters and departs from the music with no apparent reasoning.
Now about Forbidden To Know - well they have a least chosen their name befittingly as nothing is known of the perpetrators of this CD. The accompanying press literature offered little, save to say that the CD was made on a limited budget, "but was able to create something unique. Personally, I like listening to my own music that is what really matters." Well that evens the score so far - one for, one against. Personally I thought the point of music was to share the enjoyment.
You may have gathered by now that I really didn't enjoy the listening experience that came with Obscurity, and you would be right. Over recent times I have listened to much that falls under the broad umbrella of Ambient music - some good - some bad - and some excellent - but none that have been pointless and consistently bad from start to finish. Putting to one side my likes and dislikes, it should be possible to find some endearing qualities within any music, and certainly I would have expected to find something in an album that lasts for an hour and fifteen minutes. But I didn't.
I conclude this article by assuring you and Forbidden To Know, that it has given me no pleasure whatsoever vilifying this album - I am aware that it is very easy to be critical and certainly more difficult to be constructive when reviewing an album you dislike. The literature that accompanied the CD suggested that "the reviewer who reviews this should have an open mind and have an interest to Dark, strange music". Well I hope that I am open minded and I have no aversions to dark or strange music, but on this occasion I can only say - "switch on the lights"!
I see no merit whatsoever in this album and have therefore given it only one point, and this is purely for the fact that it is not a CDR but a properly produced CD accompanied with cover artwork. This at least shows a financial commitment and belief in the project. Sorry!
Conclusion: 1 out of 10