Reviews in this issue:
- Lizard - Psychoplus
- Edition Speciale - Aliquante
- Gerard – Power Of Infinity
- Lu7 - L'esprit de l'exil
- Soma Soul Transfusion – Albedo Adaptation
Lizard - Psychopuls
Tracklist: Psychopuls 001 Part 1 (1:23), Psychopuls 001 Part 2 (7:22), Psychopuls 002 Part 1 (0:34), Psychopuls 002 Part 2 (8:17), Psychopuls 003 Part 1 (1:35), Psychopuls 003 Part 2 (4:36), Psychopuls 003 Part 3 (4:23), Psychopuls 002,OA7 (3:50), Psychopuls 004 (11:36)
Right, cards on the table. Lizard are Red-era King Crimson singing in Polish! Okay, so stylistically they have copied a lot from Mr Fripp and colleagues, but hot damn, they do it so well! Psychopuls(e) is the second studio album from Lizard, the first, W Galerii Czasu (In The Gallery Of Time) being released way back in 1997. In-between these two releases, the band put out a limited edition live recording, containing three cover versions of songs by, you've guessed it, the Crimsos! At least there is no pretence here.
The band is fronted by vocalist and guitarist Damian Bydlinski with Andrzej Jancza on keyboards, Janusz Tanistra on bass, Mariusz Szulakowskion drums and percussion and Krzystof Maciejowski on violin and keyboards. The seven years between studio albums has seen some changes in the band, notably in the departure of the original guitarist. However, rather than try and find a replacement, Bydlinski took up the challenge himself and it has to be said does an admirable job.
All the Crimson elements are included, to the extent that at times one does believe that it is actually a long lost Crimson recording (some guitar sections have, shall we say, accurately 'captured' the style of the master Fripp!). However, in the final analysis it doesn't seem to matter. Yes, it is a definite sound derived from another band but the overall conception of the music belongs to Lizard and there is plenty of their own personality stamped on the recording. Not least is the fact that all the vocals are in Polish. Surprisingly, they fit amazingly well with the music, quite an achievement considering that most Western Europeans consider languages like Polish to be rather harsh on the ear. For those interested, an English translation of the lyrics will soon be posted on the band's website.
There is little more I can say about this album except that a) I am drawn back to it again and again, b) each listen reveals a little bit more and c) I think it's great!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Edition Speciale - Aliquante
Tracklist: Vedra (6:35), A La Source Du Rêve (7:45), So Deep Inside (5:45), Le Temps D’Un Solo (5:43), La Ville En Béton (5:00), La Fille Du Ruisseau (6:45), Alone Completely Unknown (6:55), Camara (9:24), Aurore (4:45)
The reissue of Edition Speciale’s 1977 album Aliquante reveals a band performing nothing other than stellar fusion-tinged progressive rock in the old-school style. Edition Speciale was part of the French rock scene in the 1970s, taking its cue largely and equally from British progressive rock and American jazz-fusion. Aliquante (which word apparently means something similar to “syncopation,” or an irregular division of something whole) was Edition Speciale’s second album, following a successful debut (Alles Des Tilleuls). On Aliquante the band features Ann Ballester on keyboards and vocals, Mimi Loenzini on guitar and vocals, Josquin Turenne Des Pres on the string bass, bass guitar, and vocals, and newcomer Alain Gouillard on drums. Each member of Edition Speciale had a hand in the compositions, which are all complex and intricate. This is a formidable unit, in short, Aliquante should please even the most jaded fans of either progressive rock or fusion.
The first track is Vedra, a mid-tempo instrumental. Edition Speciale sets the theme for the entire album with the first offering: the listener will be treated to fantastic bass work, quicksilver rock drumming touched up with fusion embellishment, numerous rapid-fire guitar licks, and synths aplenty. The compositions don’t shy from odd time signatures but they do always manage to stay more to the rock and roll side of fusion a bit more structured with identifiable motifs. The mix of Vedra and really all of Aliquante is first-rate; there’s never a point where the separation of instruments isn’t crystal clear and well balanced.
A La Source Du Rêve showcases the true strength of Edition Speciale. The members all possess incredible chops but, where wankery might be expected, there is never any sacrifice of taste or ensemble congruity. All four musicians play expertly and accent the song without overriding other contributions. A La Source Du Rêve starts as a ballad but then breaks into a hard groove. The drumming is reminiscent of King Crimson’s Michael Giles, especially in the staccato work on the toms. The bright synth solo recalls Happy the Man and employs a great variety of keyboard tones. The precision and melodicism of the first two tracks is impressive.
So Deep Inside sounds quite a bit like Relayer-era Yes. In fact, the chord progression is straight out of the Yes songbook and the Shindleria Praematurus-style wetness and bass throb is instantly recognizable. Ann Ballester’s singing isn’t too grand, really, as it’s high pitched and sharp, but it’s tolerable since there isn’t much of it. Lorenzini’s recurring electric riff is a nice blend of Howe and Fripp. The acoustic piano fits well. The drumming here (and throughout) very much makes me suppose that Alan White has left for the States to form a jazz-rock band; it’s propulsive and blistering but it’s full of fusion flair and subtle fills.
The remainder of the album is in a similar vein with a few minor adventures (like the near-disco funk of La Ville En Béton and the English language singing on “Alone Completely Unknown” which sounds remarkably like Jon Anderson at times). Edition Speciale are to some degree a one-trick pony but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the music at all, and there is enough variation to keep each track enticing. At times the music recalls Jeff Beck and the early, heavily guitar-oriented Steely Dan (as on Le Temps D’Un Solo). In other spots, it’s nothing but pure American amped-up jazz. And there are moments, especially in the synth-driven songs, where the music is not too far away from, say, Gentle Giant, Happy the Man, U.K., or Utopia. Edition Speciale uses very strong hooks and repeating passages to anchor the listener’s attention and then the soloists shine over a very solid, sometimes wild rhythm accompaniment. I appreciated this aspect of Edition Speciale’s songwriting as it avoided dull, meandering passages. The band is maybe more adventurous in its actual playing than in the compositions, but the arrangements are lively and the instrumental sections are always forceful. Both Ballester and Lorenzini are as good as it gets in this era of popular music. They both not only understand how to play (that is, how to combine attack with refinement) but each is a master (or mistress: my apologies) at setting texture and ambience with note selection and timbre. Expert music, that’s all. And it’s expertly engineered.
I should mention that this re-issue offers two bonus tracks, both of which are demos for Edition Speciale’s third album Horizontal Digital. Camara is flat and unexceptional except for the killer jazz piano solo at song’s close. Aurore is interesting in its use of a darker atmosphere, something that Edition Speciale largely seems to avoid; most of the tracks have a vibrant jumpiness to them that is far removed from the blacker mood of King Crimson or Van der Graaf Generator. Both tracks feature the same tremendous playing and delightful mix. The album is a little too long with these bonus tracks. I tend to prefer the prototypical 45-minute effort, which Aliquante was in its initial form. Still, the entire set is so accomplished that I was more attentive than not throughout the entirety of the disc.
Keyboardist Ann Ballester comments in hindsight, on the re-issue CD insert, finds the album to be “a little cold”. I agree, I guess, that Aliquante could perhaps exhibit a greater warmth (via the engineering or maybe an increased dependence upon acoustic instruments), but this is at most a very, very minor complaint. The album is certainly indulgent, but hey, what wasn’t during the era? And it’s indulgence is also it’s magnificence. The Musea press release says that the band’s sound echoes Weather Report and Return to Forever and this may be true. I’m not especially familiar with either band (being more of a Miles Davis and John McLaughlin fusion man, to be honest). I can say that for anyone who really adores fusion, or for those who appreciate fusion but prefer it containing doses of Gentle Giant and Camel, Yes, Happy the Man, and even Gong, then Edition Speciale’s Aliquante should satisfy. And if you are a fan of synths, you really shouldn’t let this one pass you by, as Ann Ballester’s keyboard finesse is outstanding. And even if your only needing a break from your prog and fusion staples and are only wanting to hear some phenomenal musicianship from “back in the day,” in the glory days of progressive music, then pick up Aliquante.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Gerard – Power Of Infinity
Tracklist: Warning! Warning! (4:00) Only the Light (5:10) Infinity (7:35) Caravan on The Moon (11:14) Blue World Parts I-III (14:09)
Toshio Egawa is the virtuoso keyboard player at the centre of the prog power trio Gerard. Expertly assisted by Atsushi Hasegawa on bass and Masuhiro Goto on drums, Egawa has, for this disc, enlisted the services of Italian singer Alex Burnori (formerly of Leviathan). This results in a marked improvement in the overall sound, as some of the previous outings have suffered from Japanese singers struggling with the English language to the detriment of the music.
Instrumentally, things are largely as before, with a solid and speedy rhythm section providing the basis for Egawa to build layers and layers of keyboards over, with luxuriant symphonic textures, frenzied organ solos, hyperactive synths and massed mellotrons.
There are signs of mellowing, however, as after the furious opening instrumental which fairly gallops along for four bombastic minutes, the following tracks get progressively (sic) longer and musically more varied, with the 14 minute, 3 part closer particularly displaying a more subtle and restrained side to Gerard, though it too has powerful and pompous passages.
If you are a fan of Gerard’s previous work you will unquestionably find plenty here to whet your appetite. Burnori’s vocals definitely add an extra element of professionalism to the group – he can deliver delicate vocals imbued with feeling (Blue World), but he can also belt ‘em out when required, easily standing up to the instrumental onslaught (Only The Light).
The two instrumental cuts work well too, with the aforementioned Warning! Warning! serving as a concise, if overblown, opening salvo, and the more lengthy and considered Caravan On The Moon containing some excellent neo-classical symphonics, with simulated violins sharing the stage with potent bass and drums.
If you’re looking for groundbreaking stuff, you are in the wrong place, this kind of stuff has been done many times before (often by Gerard themselves), and it lacks those truly memorable moments needed to achieve classic status but that aside, all the tracks on the CD are eminently listenable, with no real low points, making it a treat for all lovers of keyboard extravaganzas, and the pomp and power side of Prog rock.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Lu7 - L'esprit de l'exil
Tracklist: Itsumo Hajimari (1:30), Canary Creeper (5:11), Golem (6:45), Bluetail Of Passage (4:33), Air Flow (5:16), Secret Recipe (4:50), L'esprit de l'exil (7:03), Mariana's Garden (5:30), Danse Rituelle du Feu [Ballet Musique "El Amour Brujo"] (5:52), Ripple [Mizu No Wa] (6:20)
It took a little time to get a handle on this release from Lu7, which is collaborative release between French supremos, Musea Records and Intermusic (part of the excellent Poseidon Records) from Japan. Adding to the French/Japanese connection starts with our two principles in this, Tsutomu Kurihara and Luna Umegaki, collectively the writing force of Lu7, but strangely the album title is distinctly French. Peculiar, and at the point of writing this review no particular explanation seems to be apparent why this notably Japanese production does this. I can only derive that L'esprit de l'exil (The Spirit Of Exile) is taken from the 1992 film "Golem - l'esprit de l'exil". Track three is probably also a bit of a giveaway. Possibly a favourite film - I don't know. But does any of this matter and what relevance does it have the music? Well yes and no - let's look at the music.
Things don't become much clearer with the opener Itsumo Hajimari, for included in brief opening atmospherics are the sounds of Highland Bagpipes, but not played on keyboards but played by Scotsman, Mark Irvine Hamilton - ces't la vie :0). Moving on we go to Canary Creeper, with its wordless male and female voices, strong grooving rhythm, and with the guitar moving from Celtic, almost jig-like phrasings, to fluid Holdsworth influenced runs. Interspersed in this is the excellent keyboards of Luna Umegaki, who supplies both the excellent chordal structures, as well as interweaving lead lines between, and in harmony with the guitar. Hamilton also returns on his bagpipes to strength the Celtic vibe.
A more Middle Eastern flavour is employed for Golem strengthened by the use of a melodeon and programmed tabla percussion. The track features the solid fretless bass work of Toshimi Nagai and once again Kurihara's legato lead guitar playing is both tuneful and befitting. Musically Bluetail Of Passage continues in a similar vein, although the eastern textures are gone - the opening guitar parts are splendid as are the precise and delicate keyboard runs of Luna Umegaki.
Air Flow introduces another musical destination this time Africa and here the keyboards (and traditional instrument sounds employed) might suggest The Andes (panpipes etc). It was probably this track that made me question the music of Lu7. What is it that hasn't grabbed me yet? The conclusion I reached with Air Flow (and later on others from the album) was that it's just to slick and contrived for my tastes. Much as I can appreciate guys like Lee Ritenour musically his compositions just don't do it for me and similarly I found this to be the case with much of Lu7's music. The adaptation of Manuel de Falla's Danse Rituelle du Feu [Ballet Musique "El Amour Brujo"] was another piece that fell flat for the sake of keeping a constant programmed "dancey" beat throughout. It reminded of muzak produced by that dreadful string quartet Bond.
But certainly there are some really good tracks as with the quirky Baroque-like Secret Recipe, or parts of the title piece capture the imagination with its strong classical sections, interspersed between the progressive and jazzy sections that is. Golem as mentioned above, but for me the best track was left to the very end. A simple melancholy tune with piano, guitar and the beautiful violin of Anri Sekrine. Luna Umegaki plays some great piano, showing her un-doubtable skills. Pleasant to hear a more restrained sound from Kurihara, but the simple romantic melody from the violin was worth waiting till the end for.
I posed the question earlier about the French and Japanese connections and its influence on the music. It is not perhaps those two factors that cloud the issue, but the inclusion of so many differing influences (mentioned above), that have made this release difficult to digest. Now it is not uncommon to find musical influences from around the world embodied within progressive music, but on L'esprit de l'exil its more like a travelogue. Hey, this maybe the intention, but for me the band seemed to just incorporate these influences with the resultant album as whole lacking any real focus.
Now don't get me wrong, if any of the comments made above might suggest that this is not a superbly played and well presented CD, then I apologise. You cannot fault the execution and chops displayed on the album, it's just that it's a bit to well executed and a little to clinical for my tastes. However if you like your progressive jazz rock immaculately played, with "cool" sounds and excellent sonic quality then step no further than L'esprit de l'exil.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Soma Soul Transfusion – Albedo Adaptation
Tracklist: And the Clouds Keep Changing (7:35), Lifeline (7:21), Darkness (7:03), Storm (9:59)
This Swedish band doesn’t play what I usually think of as progressive rock, but their brief CD is worth an equally brief review, I think, both because they do play is interesting and worthwhile and because this kind of music may very well constitute one of the possible futures of progressive rock. I’m not suggesting that this band sounds anything like The Mars Volta, but the kind of music Soma Soul Transfusion plays perhaps fits better into a category that would encompass that profoundly inventive new band than into one that would include, say, Spock’s Beard or Marillion.
I know that not all (perhaps few?) readers of this site are fans of heavy metal, but to those who are I can give a very concise and pointed idea of this band’s sound. Imagine some of the quieter and more ambitious songs of System Of A Down and Slipknot. Now imagine that those bands’ singers, Serj Tankian and Corey Taylor, did not begin screaming partway through the songs and that the bands’ guitarists and drummers did not begin thrashing out the power chords and wild double-bass rhythms. That’s exactly what I think of when I listen to Soma Soul Transfusion’s songs: System and Slipknot without the excess.
But many of you won’t be familiar with System or Slipknot, so here’s the sound I’m trying to describe. Despite prejudices against musicians in the genre, those in Slipknot and System are superb, as are the musicians in Soma Soul Transfusion (bassist Mikael Mangs Edwardsson, singer Erik Skoglund, guitarist Fabian Ericson, and drummer Mattias Axelson). And, like the players in those metal bands, these musicians care as much for the nuances of their instruments’ sounds as for the music they create. I must single out bassist Edwardsson in this band, not just for his skill but also for the excellent full but growly sound he gets from his instrument. Both his sound and his playing will remind you of Geddy Lee’s – the playing’s not so complex, but, like Lee’s, it both supports the songs and grabs one’s ear with its own countermelodies and embellishments. Guitarist Ericson has a huge arsenal of sounds, too, from crunchy chords to clean rhythm guitar to nice semi-distorted leads. And drummer Axelsson keeps the (often weird) time while filling in here, there, and everywhere – not overcrowding the songs but keeping things interesting.
The songs themselves (and this is both a virtue and a fault) can be lumped together in a single description, because there’s not much variety among the four on this EP. However, each song exhibits great internal variety – good thing, since the first three are seven minutes long and the last one is ten. Within each song, you’ll find fast bits, slow bits, louder (though not too loud) bits, quieter bits; introspective singing and powerful belting; nice variations in dynamics and tones; and, unfortunately I think, very little melody. These four tracks are ambitious compositions, but “compositions” really is the word, rather than “songs.” That’s probably also the reason that the four sound pretty much the same. There’s no hook, no chorus, no vocal or instrumental melody that stands out in any of them. Locally in each song, there are many moments to appreciate, but (at least to my ear) those moments don’t cohere into satisfying wholes.
It’s a good EP. I like it and will play it for pleasure now and again. But I’d like to see these musicians stretch out a little less – confine their instrumental skills to compositions with a bit more internal unity and a bit more distinctiveness one from the other. That might not be an ambition of the band, and I’d respect them no less if they continued to make the kind of interesting music we get a taste of on this CD, but I don’t think they’ll find a wide audience unless they pay a little more attention to creating memorable songs than is evident on this EP.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10