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Reviews in this issue:
- Various Artists - The Spaghetti Epic
- Asturias [Acoustic] - Bird Eyes View
- Prime Mover - Prime Mover Alias Dravkraft
- Christian Richet – Waves
- The Black Noodle Project - And Life Goes On…
- Ritual [USA] - Nothing Strange
- Skyron Orchestra - Skyron Orchestra
Various Artists - The Spaghetti Epic
Tracklist: Haikara The West (20:02), Randone Jill (21:48), Tilion Cheyenne (21:48), La Voce Del Vento Harmonica (21:56), Taproban Morton (23:22), Trion Frank (24:59)
The idea of mixing progressive rock and Spaghetti Westerns must surely have been born following an evening of imbibing too many alcoholic beverages. Take a classic film of the genre, in this case Once Upon A Time In The West, and invite six modern prog bands to write a piece of music based on a character from the film. Not only that, but each piece should be between 20 and 25 minutes long and be heavily influenced by classic 1970s prog. Unsurprisingly there were no shortage of takers to the challenge, after all, progressive rock should be all about taking music in new directions and merging influences from numerous sources.
The results are universally impressive, each band rising to the occasion and, given the wide spread of nationalities represented (Finland, Italy, The Netherlands and the United Kingdom), fairly cohesive. That does not mean that each piece is remotely similar, the groups have been successful in taking the original concept and expanding on the theme. Yes there are references to the original film score (by the master of the western (Ennio Morricone) scattered throughout the album, and the seventies influences do lean towards the major Italian bands of the era (like PFM, Banco and Le Orme). The proviso that each track should be around the twenty minute mark has, in some cases, meant that a couple of pieces could have been rather more succinct (for instance Finnish band Haikara could easily have lost a couple of minutes from the middle of their piece, The West). However, this is generally not a problem and has allowed the groups to play around with their chosen theme. Prime example of this is Harmonica by La Voce Del Vento (none other than British duo Andy Tillison and Guy Manning from Parallel Or 90 Degrees, Manning and more recently The Tangent). For these chaps, writing 1970s inspired epics is a forte and their contribution is quite masterful and worth the price of the album itself.
Randone, one of three Italian bands on the album, have utilised a plethora of seventies keyboard sounds in their symphonic piece which uniquely features some female lead vocals (appropriate to their chosen character). In contrast to the gentler melodies provided by Randone, country mates Taproban take a rather more aggressive stance, with two sets of keyboards battling it out with melodies and counter-melodies providing an engaging composition although, again, they could have easily edited it down by a few minutes and still achieved the twenty minute minimum. Nice use of a saw and heavenly backing vocals tough! Final Italian band, Tilion, have taken a more experimental approach sounding at times like Faust in their more melodious moments. Naturally this takes the concept to the extreme and at times one forgets that the musical idea is for an imaginary cowboy movie! However, the piece does blend in well and, as with the rest of the pieces, the scope of each number is impossible to summarise in a few lines.
The final number, by Dutch band Trion rounds things off nicely with their hugely impressive composition Frank. This is the type of stuff that made their Tortoise album so enjoyable. Despite being the longest track on the album, it flies by leaving the listener wanting more of the glorious church organ and layered synths mixed with gentle acoustic guitar picking and mysterious piano lines. A great way to end the album.
Musea and Finnish magazine Colossus have come up trumps with their 'Six Modern Prog Bands For Six '70 Prog Suites' idea. Two and quarter hours of quality music and a booklet that has to be seen to be believed (including a documented story of the film, illustrated story boards and various photographs). The sheer audacity of such a concept has to be applauded and encouraged, particularly as the results are so good! Heartily recommended to one and all.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Asturias [Acoustic] - Bird Eyes View
Tracklist: Adolescencia (4:26), Global Network (5:08), Distance (5:22), Bird Eyes View (4:54), Ryu-Hyo (5:03)
Delightful - and that pretty much sums up my feelings towards this album, along with several other similarly complimentary words.
Asturias charts its history back to the late 80's and the first generation of the Japanese Progressive rock scene, with their first two releases Circle In The Forest (1988) and Brilliant Streams (1990) receiving critical acclaim. Although I have not heard these two albums myself, pointers suggest influences from Mike Oldfield and Camel. Band leader and composer Yoh Ohyama also cites Oldfield in his biography as an influence.
Bird Eyes View is the fourth release from Yoh Ohyama's Asturias and the first in a fully acoustic format, hence the title Acoustic Asturias. The selected pieces are taken from previously released (and unreleased) band orientated material and arranged for a "classical" style quartet. But these are not merely "unplugged" versions, rehashed to extract further mileage from previously written material, but serious reworkings. To undertake this task Yoh Ohyama who plays classical guitar and glockenspiel here is accompanied by Yoshihiro Kawaagoe on piano, Misa Kitatsuji on violin and Kaori Tsutsui on clarinet and recorder. These musicians form the core quartet, with Kanako Ito appearing as guest vocalist (wordless voice) on Bird Eyes View.
A brief glance through the instrumentation for Asturias will no doubt have dismissed any notions of a ProgMetal extravaganza, and the lack of any Mellotrons, Hammond organs and classic synths will have dispelled any Genesis comparisons. However do not be put off by the lack of authentic progressive instruments as Asturias have made excellent use of their more dated "classical" counterparts. With these aforementioned instruments each track on Bird Eyes View is finely contrasted offering great variation in rhythm, texture and mood.
Adolescencia is a sprightly, punctuated up-tempo piece with some gorgeous violin from Misa Kitatsuji along with fine ensemble playing from the other musicians. In fact the violin playing throughout is a delight to listen to and no more so than in dreamy Global Network. Distance opens with a superb piano section from Yoshihiro Kawagoe leading into excellently interwoven themes from all concerned. The clarinet work of Kaori Tsutsui dances effortlessly in and out of the piece, whilst in Bird Eyes View the longer drawn out notes act as welcome resting points with the music picking up a brisk pace. The final track catches some fine interplay between the piano and Yoh Ohyama's complimentary classical guitar work - considering that Ohyama composed all the pieces here it is a testament to him that he has not dominated these proceedings. Once again the instrumentation from the quartet is wonderful, with the recorder this time adding an almost Celtic timbre.
Now at a little under 25 minutes long we are more in the area of an EP rather than a fully fledged album, however I have heard albums in excess 70 minutes plus that contain less memorable or enjoyable material, so as the expression goes "length isn't everything". In fact Bird Eyes View is a breath of fresh air which is inhaled with the first few bars, only to be released in the final closing bars. Such is the quality of the tracks I did feel a little robbed - certainly another half an hour of this fine material would not have come amiss.
So who might enjoy the music of acoustic Asturias, well hopefully many, as not only should it appeal to many progressive music lovers, but I feel that given the right media exposure it could attract a much wider audience. Certainly fans of Mike Oldfield might have a dabble, along with those who enjoy melodic and accessible small ensemble Classical Chamber music - albeit arranged in progressive style. I did also ponder that fans of CGT may also find enjoyment hear (although the guitar is not an overly prominent feature) and finally possibly one for The Snow Goose era Camel fans.
Once again Hiroshi Masuda from Poseidon Records has shown great foresight by re-releasing this previously independent album, adding the weight of his and Musea Records' distribution networks to bring this splendid work to a greater audience. With the release of another Acoustic Asturias set for release later this year and a full (electric) band album also, things are look promising for Yoh Ohyama's Asturias in 2005. I will certainly be looking out for them.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Prime Mover - Prime Mover Alias Drivkfraft
Tracklist: Vykort Från Södern (4:07), Några Bagateller (4:49), Utbränd (11:08), Öppen (4:04), Begagnat Liv (3:17), Folk Är Inte Kloka (10:45)
Ok, imagine a band from Finland playing progressive rock but with lyrics in Swedish. Probably only interesting for Swedes. Right? And if you then add trumpet and violins to the music not even Swedes will like it. Right? No, wrong! Because Prime Mover is a very interesting band making progressive rock in the vain of early Genesis mixed with some folk and standard jazz. I have never known there is a Swedish speaking minority in Finland. And what a coincidence it is for a group of this origin to start a band that created an album that landed on my doorstep. It's a small world.
Although it does not put me off, the fact that Prime Mover are singing in Swedish it is not exactly a plus point. I think singing in English would have gained them a bigger audience. But then again on their web site they say they have done that on the previous albums and no one really cared. How they obtained this knowledge I do not know. In the accompanying letter Prime Mover states they try to make a "mix of progressive rock, metal, folk, industrial, jazz, funk, pop and grunge with various other ideas". Well, if they set out to do that they did not quite succeed, because metal, industrial, and grunge are certainly missing on this album, but then again who cares. It is not the music they planned to make but the music they did make, and that should speak for itself.
"Modest" is the best word to describe the music on this album. It does not contain a lot of musical self-glorification. All the tracks have been created with just enough loops and solos and not one note more. The resulting music is in a way soothing and calming but never dull. The production of this album is also crystal clear and the cover artwork, by Aija Lumme, is also very good, I would very much like to see it in is original size.
Prime Mover have released an album to be proud of. They are fine musicians and their album turned out quite well. But ... (unfortunately there is a but) this album did not knock me off my socks. Maybe I have become spoiled lately to think that each new release should be an all time classic and judged by that standard Prime Mover did not succeed. I enjoyed this album and on more quiet moments it will find it's way back to my CD player. It is certainly above average but only just. Hopefully we will hear from these guys in the future because if they would add the missing ingredients from the list described above, who knows what it will bring.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Christian Richet – Waves
Tracklist: First Waves (6:12), Marching – Part Two (27:53), Obscure Waves (9:47), Hard Waves (11:58), When It’s Raining (5:28)
I’m afraid I don’t have a lot to say about this release – I’ve played it quite a few times now and ... nothing grabs me at all. Richet is a French synthesist and this is apparently his fifth album. He is entirely responsible for the music on the disc, and for this alone, lazy comparisons with Klaus Schulze and Vangelis may be drawn. Unfortunately, Richet displays none of the originality, character or passion which underlies the appeal of the aforementioned artists. To be blunt, though there are some interesting moments, the largest part of this album is frankly dull.
The worst offender is the centrepiece track Marching - Part Two, which is horrendously overlong at 27 plus minutes. Built on a repetitive percussive sequence, Richet doodles pleasant melodic phrases over the top, but it never transcends the level of background music. This track is a sequel to a track on his last album. (There’s even more of this?)
First Waves sounds like the incidental music to some TV action series; It is agreeable enough while it lasts, but is instantly forgettable once over. That’s the main problem with the album – it’s not that Richet can’t play or that there’s anything offensive or unlistenable, it’s just that it’s all too safe and predictable.
The only track which really interests me is Hard Waves, where barely audible ambient passages are brutally punctuated at intervals by upbeat segments that have a similar (though less successful) feel to Heaven and Hell by Vangelis. It’s not up to that standard, but it is the best piece on the album.
The overall impression of the album is that of pleasant background music, taking cues from the usual suspects of electronic music (Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre as well as those already name-checked) but failing to add anything new or to ever really engage the listener.
All of the above has been written from the perspective of a Progressive Music fan whose collection includes a fair sampling of works by the groundbreakers and leaders in the field of electronic music, but without an expert knowledge of the wider field.
Not wanting to be harsh or unfair, I feel that this CD is unlikely to win many fans other than for hardcore electronic collectors who may be more attuned to the subtleties of the form and whose appetites remain unsatiated after exhausting the catalogues of the more well known exponents. From a prog rock standpoint, I’d say try Heaven and Hell by Vangelis, Oxygene by Jarre or anything from eighties Tangerine Dream first. If these really, really do it for you then you just may enjoy this too
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
The Black Noodle Project - And Life Goes On…
Tracklist: Time Has Passed (5:23), Do It Alone (4:08), Where Everything Is Dark (6:29), Face the Truth (5:33), Drops in the Ocean (6:23), Interlude (2:48), Where Are U? (4:52), Somewhere Between Here and There (5:46), Lost [I Miss You] (4:31), Disappeared (5:03), She Prefers Her Dreams (9:25)
If you really, really love Pink Floyd, and you really, really enjoy bands that heavily imitate Pink Floyd, then The Black Noodle Project’s 2005 debut And Life Goes On… might be just your ticket. However, it’s hardly stellar, so caveat emptor.
The Black Noodle Project is the brainchild of Frenchman Jeremie Grima. (I’m fighting the urge to write “Wormtongue” here, unsuccessfully it seems.) Grima is the vocalist, guitarist, lyricist, and principal songwriter for the BNP and he is clearly a devotee of Roger Waters-era Pink Floyd; the CD is littered with musical references (in the form of sound effects, guitar passages, dark worldview, etc.) to Waters' tortured art. The remaining personnel of the BNP are Arnaud Rousset on drums; Anthony Leteve on bass guitar; and Matthieu Jaubert on keyboards and vocals (who also assisted in the composition of a couple of tracks).
Instrumentally, And Life Goes On… is skillful. Although the disc starts to suffer toward the end from a general uniformity, still, the music is well arranged and, if none of the players are virtuosi, they all contribute intelligently to each song and have a good understanding of group dynamic and musical tension and resolution.
The majority of the tunes incorporate effects and trappings straight out of the Pink Floyd bag of tricks: thumping heartbeats, soughing winds, chiming bells, and the patter of rain. They’re not offensive, but by now (post-Floyd, post-Queensrÿche, and post-Dream Theater), the effects are gratuitous and lack impact.
The acoustic guitar is prominent throughout the debut. I liked the spaghetti-western flavouring in Time Has Passed and the acoustic strumming drives Do It Alone perfectly. Jeremie Grima is quite impressive on the electric guitar as well, utilizing a Gilmour-ian style in most spots (although I caught him sounding like Brian May on Interlude). The guitar work is probably the highlight of the recording, but the keyboard work by Jaubert is impressive, especially his attention to mood and coloration, and his shifting from acoustic piano to synths. The fade out in Drop in the Ocean is excellent and I wanted to hear more in that vein from Jaubert and the BNP.
The drumming is sometimes stiff and Rousset struggles once or twice to find the proper fill but this is never harmful to the music. He shifts from brassy snare rolls to mellow cymbal embellishments nicely. Sadly (and this seems very common in the CDs I review for DPRP), the bass guitar is buried in the mix. Although the balance of the other instruments is well moderated, I felt that Leteve’s playing was too often lost amongst the other sounds.
The band is complemented occasionally by Katrin Waldteufel on cello and Yogi on saxophone. The sax solo on Do It Alone is straightforward, subdued, and sparse but it’s effective. The cello at the end of Face the Truth and in tandem with the acoustic guitar in Where Are U? were high points.
The band never truly swings, instrumentally speaking: the ensemble is more rigid and unrelaxed than grooving. But the BNP is near the mark: you just get the sense that the members need more time together to establish their collective voice. There’s plenty of potential here, no question.
Now, lyrically and vocally, the band faces obstacles. Jeremie Grima is simply a bad singer. Grima’s tone is very nasally and doesn't have much punch. I suspect that setting the lyrics in English was a mistake because the phrasing is atrocious throughout the disc. By the middle of the effort I was tired of the syllabic butchery. I’d prefer to hear the whole recording in French with fluid, graceful vocals then to hear Grima’s stunted, jerking delivery in English. And, with all apologies and with some credit for the honest attempt, the lyrics are downright shitty. Here’s an example from “Where Are U?” (and by the way, if you’re not The Artist Formerly Known As, don’t use “U,” use “you”):
"It’s a strange feeling, But sometimes I feel lost, As a boy alone, In a children store".
That just plain sucks, I’m sorry, and there's plenty more of it on this CD. Additionally, beyond the concerns of verse aesthetics and poesy, the entire debut is mired in the lyrical mud of clinical depression. A touch of regretful ennui? OK. A small dose of suicidal angst or loony-bin mania? all well and good. But Grima’s lyrics are grey-sky, cold-rain bleak and very adolescent. I know most prog fans discount lyrics, but in this case (especially if the BNP is seeking to emulate Floyd, a band with better-than-average to classic lyrics), the words really detract from the overall sound. Instrumentally, this band intrigues me and I see enormous upside; vocally and lyrically, I don’t care if I ever hear this album again. Jeremie Grima should be limited to guitar, on which he excels (e.g., on the Indian-tinged solo on Where Everything Is Dark), and perhaps song composition sans lyrics, and then the BNP should hire another vocalist with some bona fide poetic talent.
Lastly, perhaps the band could stand to deviate from its Floyd fixation. I mean, the chord progression on Do It Alone was cut wholecloth from Dark Side of the Moon. It’s noble to honor your influences but artistry should transcend them (or at least conflate them well even so that they’re unidentifiable). This band could prosper if it abandons sheer imitation and realizes its own expressive style.
And Life Goes On… is an album that smacks of grand promise but doesn’t really scale the heights. To its detriment, it sometimes plays like the perfect soundtrack by which to snuff out your own existence. Although musically this band can and does impress, the vocals are insufferable and the lyrics are vapid and doom-laden, and the tunes are simply too repetitive and too derivative. But I sincerely recommend that this band keep at it. I sense that it could develop into a focused, formidable unit with a few changes to its modus operandi.
I guess I can recommend this CD to those die-hard Pink Floyd fans who find second-tier mimicry to their liking, although, you’d do better with the genuine article. Otherwise, wait for the follow-up.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
Ritual [USA] - Nothing Strange
Tracklist: My Little Victim (4:24), Little Gods & Bastards (6:04), Mirrors (6:58), The Pop Song (4:28), Second Thought (4:58), Ava G (5:19), Blues for Scheherezade (6:16), Sarcasm (5:51), Yesterdayhead (6:17), Face Down at the Apocalypse (4:41)
A principle I’ve articulated in several reviews is this: the right singer can elevate a good band to excellence, but the wrong singer can drag a good band down to mediocrity – or worse. Okay, so it’s hardly an original idea, but, often enough, I’ll hear a good (or at least decent) band whose singer is so bad (or at least inappropriate) that I can’t imagine what the band was thinking. That’s the case with Ritual. I don’t particularly care for much of the music, which is jazzy, occasionally even sort of funky, semi-progressive rock, but it’s not at all bad, and I can imagine why others would like it. But singer Mike Day is so eccentric, so deliberately eccentric, that I find this album difficult to listen to.
I doubt that many readers of DPRP are familiar with the work of former Parliament-Funkadelic bassist, later leader of his own Bootsy’s Rubber Band, William “Bootsy” Collins. Well, Mike Day may or may not be familiar with Bootsy, but his vocals remind me of the singing of the Rubber Band’s vocalist, Robert “P-Nut” Johnson – “singing,” I’m afraid I want to say. Like Johnson’s, Day’s vocals go up and down and all around, looping wildly, never, or seldom, settling on anything as mundane as a vocal melody. Worse, though, is the acting, the “dramatic” quality of the singing. Although even the greatest singers will occasionally stoop to enacting the words they’re articulating, Mike Day emotes all the way through every song, never content to let the actual meaning of the words communicate the feelings they’re expressing. And, frankly, it drives me crazy, and I don’t think many listeners are likely to feel otherwise.
What about the music? I can say many good things about the band, the other core members of which (there are then seven “Players” listed – including a lead guitarist and drummer!) are guitarist Jon Tompkins and bassist George Radai. Both do very nice work indeed; Ritual isn’t short on musical ideas or talent. Ava G, one of the songs I really do like, begins with strummed acoustic guitar, over which the bass doubles, in the high register, some tasty lead-guitar licks; there’s a lovely Spanish-guitar solo halfway through the song; and much of the last half consists of variations on a conventional but nicely played three-chord riff, backed by distant but tuneful chorus vocals.
Yesterdayhead kicks off with some simple but fun drum work before a fretless bass announces the white-reggae-ish body of the song. Again, though, Day’s vocals won’t let the song work on its own, can’t leave the instruments unembellished: he’s up front, acting out the lyrics (which would have made their own point even if sung straight: “She liked coming in through the window / I never gave her a key / And she slithered into my dreams eventually” – hey, cool: just sing them!).
In fact, leaving aside the vocals, most of the songs are pretty good, and the band manages the difficult feat (all the more impressively since they employ so many extra players) of sounding like themselves even when playing in quite different styles. Progressive-rock fans of a certain ilk might quite like the band; if your tastes run towards the jazzy and eccentric, you might be willing to tolerate Day’s singing just to hear the music. But, try as I might to enjoy or at least understand his reason for singing in that way, “tolerate” is the kindest word I can come up with.
Note: Along with this CD came a more recent (2004) CD single, “Good War.” The song itself is pretty straightforward pop-rock with some odd but nifty jazzy/bluesy lead guitar; but the lyrics are perhaps too self-important, written (as Day explains in a long accompanying letter) “just before the U.S. invaded Iraq.” I’m all for well-intentioned political commentary, however naive it might be, in pop music; but I don’t really want to hear that commentary sung in this histrionic manner.
Conclusion: 5.5 out of 10
Skyron Orchestra - Skyron Orchestra
Tracklist: Free Ride (3:19), The Tunnel (3:52), Call It Love (5:11), Earthly Ground (3:09), Soft Palate (4:01), Nobody's Diary (4:21), The Doll (4:24), Exploding Mind (3:10), Pax Aeterna (6:37), Alena (4:13)
I don't know a lot about this band, the review copy we received was not accompanied by any information other than what was included in the rather limited CD booklet. What is known that is the five-piece band (Anna Glans [organ and electric piano], Stefan Örström [drums], Veronica Lostjärna [vocals], Tomas Modig [guitar, vocals] and Jonas Elgemark [bass, trumpet]) come from Sweden and base their sound on sixties psychedelia, albeit with a more modern pop sensibility, psych-lite if you will.
An authentic Wurtlitzer organ sound is prevalent throughout the album with some moderately heavy guitar accompaniment. Opening track Free Ride is catchy enough to be considered a contender as a single release while Call It Love, heavily laden with reverb on the guitar and bass (which has an excellent throbbing quality), is suitably novel to differentiate it from the rest of the album.
Elsewhere, the over reliance of the organ sound becomes a bit monotonous particularly as it is monophonic! The level of keyboard playing is basic to say the least particularly on Earthly Ground and Nobody's Diary. The Doll is another slightly darker track which is let down by the slightly naff lyrics. The singing throughout is rather mono-tonal but suits the music and is in tune; the singer handles the lyrics well annunciating clearly with only a slight trace of an accent. Guitar work throughout is again apt for the style of music but could have been more prominent in places as to my mind the guitarist is a more competent and inventive player than the keyboardist. This is shown in Exploding Mind, another interesting track that is notable because of a slightly different feel to the music. Unusually the album ends with an instrumental, Alena. The slowest piece on the album the band strive for moody effect with individually plucked notes on the guitar echoing throughout. A three note keyboard bass line is consistently repeated with the lead organ line played note-by-note over the top.
Overall, Skyron Orchestra have produced an album that is quaintly charming in some places and slightly annoying in others. It does not really offer anything new to what has been done before and, unfortunately, been done better. However, DPRP is probably not the best forum for this group or album as the affiliations to progressive music are, at best, slight. If anything in this review has sparked any interest then you'll probably be better served by visiting the band's website and checking out their samples or searching for reviews from other, more pertinent, sites
Conclusion: 5 out of 10