Reviews in this issue:
- K² - Book Of The Dead
- Various Artists (Subdivisions) - A Tribute To Rush
- Russell Allen - Atomic Soul
- Systems Theory – Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies
- Opeth - Blackwater Park
- Elfonía - Elfonía
K² - Book Of The Dead
Tracklist: Chapter 1: Infinite Voyage (23:25), Chapter 2: Mirror to the Spirits (6:54), Chapter 3: The Edge of Light (7:03), Chapter 4: Aten [Window of Appearences] (3:22), Chapter 5: Cloak of Antiquity (5:54)
K² is the brainchild of Atlantis bass player Ken Jaquess who has certainly chosen a great line-up for this release, with the remarkably busy, guitar maestro Allan Holdsworth and Spock's Beard keyboard man Ryo Okumoto heading up the cast. Shaun Guerin takes on the vocal duties, however the "supporting" cast are certainly not to be overlooked. Yvette Devereaux, who is used a little too sparingly for me, supplies some wonderful violin themes, solo passages and contributes to the accenting and punctuation of the music. The drum stool is taken by Doug Sanborn who provides a strong backbone to the music, perhaps not with all the gusto and flourishes we might expect, but his parts are solid and conceal much of the complexity of his parts. Additional guitar parts come from John Miner and Ken Jaquess. It seems a tad strange that with someone of Holdsworth's stature playing on the album, that additional guitar parts are necessary, but I can assure you that without these additional parts, the music would have suffered. Last but by no means least is Ken Jaquess, who as previously mentioned, plays the bass parts, additional 10 string acoustic, along with some supplementary keyboards.
With the release of the Book Of The Dead, K² have been touted as the next "super group" to descend on the progressive market. Gosh do we really need 'em? With the obvious references to UK and Genesis being the most proliferated. Now whilst the influence of these two bands can be identified within the music, for me this was triggered more by Holdsworth's playing and the violin sections (UK) and Shaun Guerin's vocals along with some of the keyboard sounds for the latter (Genesis).
Some four years in the making, the Book Of The Dead is a complex concept album drawing its lyrical theme from the fabled Egyptian "Books of the Dead". These books of spells, written on sheets of papyrus and covered with magical texts and illustrations, were then placed with the dead in order to help them pass through the dangers of the underworld, and attain an afterlife in the Field of Reeds. Musically though we move forward a few thousand years and find our "concepts" drawn from the halcyon days of progressive rock.
The album opens with the ambitious twenty three minute epic Chapter 1: Infinite Voyage, which certainly starts the album in fine style - the first four minutes of music being truly captivating. Beginning with eerie keyboard atmospherics and deft piano flourishes before the band break in with a wonderful Holdsworth solo - awesome. This is then followed by an all too brief solo passage from Yvette Devereaux, which in turn leads to the first of the lengthy vocal passages. The accompaniment for the vocals is light atmospheric keyboards and Guerin's voice is a little exposed here, but effective, with his Gabriel-esque tone giving a familiar presence to what is a new piece. The band again rejoin the track with a gorgeous theme on violin followed by a more driving vocal section. We are now around the 8:00 minute mark and the second of the solo sections. A nod and a wink to UK with the violin and guitar exchanging solos, over a distinctive UK type rhythm, swiftly followed by a Moog solo from Ryo Okumoto. This pattern of vocal and instrumental breaks continues pretty much throughout the piece and in an effort to make this review slightly shorter than the track itself, I will merely add that a good balance of the two is maintained.
To interject a certain amount of criticism here, I am not entirely convinced that Infinite Voyage flows as one piece - more like several conjoined sections. And whilst on a bit of a down beat, there were also a few sections that I felt would have benefited from a "bigger" keyboard arrangement. But hey it makes little difference to the overall enjoyment and this is certainly the type of music that first attracted me to prog - great themes, ever changing rhythms, odd metering and superb solo sections....
Chapter 2: Mirror to the Spirits initially follows on from the previous track with a dramatic opening, but is quickly curtailed for a gentle bass solo from Ken Jaquess. The tempo then picks up with a organ guitar theme reminiscent of Focus. In fact the piece is driven by a strong Hammond(y) organ sound and with the catchy chorus lines reminded of early Spock's Beard. Good track and once again a beautifully fluid solo section from AH.
The opening of Chapter 3: The Edge of Light will prick the ears of UK fans with jerky organ lead rhythm and furious violin solo. Although the advent of the vocal sections give a different notion to the piece - the rhythm is more pulled back giving the powerful vocals an opportunity to shine. Once again the middle section of the song is filled with memorable solos sections from both Ryo and Allan.
Chapter 4: Aten [Window of Appearances] acts a resting point in the proceedings, with Ken Jaquess playing a melodic and meandering bass solo over a light flanging keyboard wash.
And so to the closing track Chapter 5: Cloak of Antiquity which opens with some busy drumming from Doug Sanborn and brief blasts from Ryo and Yvette, however the hook of track is a real stomping rhythm and what a great way to conclude the album. It takes little imagination to visualise this really working well in a live setting. Once again the balance between the vocals and instrumental passages is good, with the solos being exciting and never out-staying their welcome.
So is there anything that isn't wonderful on this album? Well I've seen numerous reviews on K²'s the Book Of The Dead and as yet have not witnessed a bad report. Now that could be because there is very little to find fault with, however after several fairly in depth listenings I do have some issues that were apparent to me from the very outset. Firstly I found the bass guitar a little to prominent in the mix. Granted Ken Jaquess is a bass player and this is his baby, but I couldn't help thinking that if his parts were notched down a few dB it would have improved matters. Secondly I found Shaun Guerin's voice a little hard to get into (but I did), which was not helped by it being over exposed within the music at times. Certainly the greater inclusion of harmony vocals would have benefited the opening track, as would a slightly less "dry" sound. Now as Shaun sadly passed away during the recording of the album it may well be that there are reasons, unknown to me, why those vocal sections remained the way they are. Or it could be that this is exactly how they were intended to be - so I'll move on. As mentioned above certain areas of the music would have benefited from a bigger keyboard arrangement and some of the movements between sections within the tracks seemed a little forced to my ears, but these are minor quibbles on what is a strong album and one I would expect to appeal across the broad spectrum of prog listeners.
I would suspect that this release would feature strongly in our 2005 Poll and deservedly so. It has many elements from the past and is likely to appeal, in varying degrees, across the prog community. Certainly one for fans of Holdsworth, or those curious about the man but who are unable to wade through some of his more idiosyncratic solo releases. He is on top form here. But the album is not a guitarfest and as already stated the balance between the vocals and instrumentals is spot on. Excellent contibutions from all concerned - Ryo Okumoto turns in his usually high standard of performance and there are some great Moog solos on this album. Yvette Devereaux, who may be unfamilair in the prog circuit has guested on many an album and her violin work here is fantastic. To be honest there isn't really a weak link on this album, musician wise, but I do have concerns that if Messrs Holdsworth, Okumoto and Devereaux were not present on the follow-up release, things may well be different. Is there anything else worthy of note - well the music remains melodic almost throughout which again raises the ante, although the songwriting certainly could use some honing in.
So finally, should more than two of the referencing artists mentioned in this article appear in your CD collection then I would certainly recommend you check this album out.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Various Artists (Subdivisions) - A Tribute To Rush
Tracklist: Distant Early Warning, Lakeside Park, Limelight, Subdivisions, Different Strings, Tom Sawyer, Bastille Day, A Farewell To Kings, Spirit Of The Radio, Didacts And Narpets, 2112 Overture/Temples Of Syrinx
Ever imagined what Rush would sound like if Alex Lifeson was a pure six-string-shredder? Well, if you've got nothing better to spend your time imagining, then this latest tribute album to the Gods of Progressive Metal will more than satisfy your curiosity.
From the label of guitar aficionado Mike Varney, we have 11 tracks mainly from the early days of the Canadian trio's career. All are fairly faithfully repeated, apart from the fact that each has a blistering guitar solo inserted in at least one point. If I give the names of some of the players as Vinnie Moore, Alex Stolnick and Daniel J, then you'll have a fair idea of what to expect. The use of Andreas Kisser from thrash kings Sepultura does give a different emphasis.
The choice of vocalists also holds a similar level of interest to the label's previous Rush tribute album entitled Working Man which featured the likes of Ray Alder and James LaBrie. This time around we have Randy Jackson (Zebra) on Distant Early Warning, Subdivision and A Farewell To Kings; Sebastian Bach on Lakeside Park and Tom Sawyer; Kip Winger on Limelight and Sprit of the Radio, plus Robert Berry (Ambrosia) on Different Strings and Jani Lane (Warrant) on Bastille Day and Temple of Syrinx.
It's well produced (involving long-time Rush producer Terry Brown), the musicianship is spot-on and the addition of totally fresh guitar work adds an interesting dimension to some classic songs that any self-respecting metal fan will at least have a faint recognition of.
Following a similar mould to a previous Rush tribute album by the same label, this must have dubious artistic merits. And while most listeners will obviously prefer the original songs, this disc provides a rather entertaining distraction. One of the better tribute albums.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Russell Allen - Atomic Soul
Tracklist: Blackout (4:25), Unjustified (3:43) Voodoo Hand (3:54), Angel (5:14), The Distance (4:49), Seasons of Insanity (4:19), Gaia (4:34), Loosin' You (4:01), Saucey Jack (4:02), We Will Fly (7:55), Atomic Soul (3:09)
Last month it was James LaBrie, now another voice behind a premier-league ProgMetal band is seen treading the solo path towards an album. However, in contrast with the Dream Theater front man, Atomic Soul sees Russell Allen producing a disk that, while staying within the field of metal, is about as far away from his main band as you can get. This solo album from voice of Symphony X aims to make it perfectly clear where his musical roots lie - namely in the heavy, blues-based rock of the 70s and 80s.
Also, while LaBrie chose to surround himself with a full band for his latest solo project, almost everything on this CD is Russell Allen. He composed and produced it and provides most of the guitar, bass and keyboard compositions.
He sings a bit as well (!), but vocally too his performance is often unrecognisable from his work elsewhere. Sure, if you listen carefully, the tone and rhythm is still present but this is a much rougher, rawer (yelling?) Allen than has been laid bare on disc before.
As mentioned at the start, listening to the songs here, you'll find Allen's musical roots mostly embedded in the big rock bands of the seventies. In his own words he recalls: 'I was fascinated with bands such as Rainbow, Dio, Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Later Badlands, Alice in Chains, and Soundgarden.' All of these provide a pretty good reference point - each band having a common ground that has songs based on the blues. And with the 11 tracks on Atomic Soul, Allen certainly offers a menu that encompasses hard-rockin' blues in pretty much all of its styles.
Unjustified has a very Sabbath-esque doom sound to it, that reminds me of Soundgarden or even Grand Magus. To the other end of the scale, The Distance is a softer song that could have come from one of Kip Winger's solo albums - albeit with a heavier guitar sound.
My favourites come at the beginning, middle and end of the album. We start with Blackout, a dark and heavy hard rocker that has a bit of a Motley Crue vibe about it, while we end with the title track - a real belter that drives along in a Deep Purple groove but with a few modern twists and turns.
In the middle, we have Angel, a track that mixes a chorus in the vein Jorn Lande's melodic hard rock solo material, with a more shouty version of Govt Mule for the verse. There's also a moody, light guitar run that acts as a great intro and outro to this track.
Elsewhere, Voodoo Hand is a fair stab at mid-period Whitesnake, Seasons of Insanity is a dirty 80's blues rocker of the sort that Quiet Riot used to put out, Loosin' You boasts a 70's Zeppelin feel with a melodic Rainbow-esque chorus, while Saucy Jack is a real blooozey tune, with a Louisianna swamp vibe and lyrics written with tongue firmly in cheek.
Listening to this album, it's clear that this is an attempt to show that Allen can use his voice in different ways.
Where it falls down, is that he simply hasn't got a great blues voice. As an example, check out Voodoo Hand. He makes a good go of it, but there's just not the swagger, the bluesy lilt that oozes from the likes of David Coverdale or Govt Mule's Warren Haynes. The songs too don't possess the immediacy and the 'can't-get-them-out-of-my-mind' hooks that made albums by the likes of Rainbow and Sabbath, all-time classics.
In terms of his instrumental work - well I guess you could say that there's nothing here to suggest he should ever give up his day job, but neither does he fail to meet the demands of what is one of the more technically straightforward forms of rock.
Where he's wanted to expand the sound, Allen has been able to make use of his Symphony X colleagues (Pinella and Romeo) plus the support of a handful other good friends. The drums were played by Robert Nelson; Brendan Anthony contributed to some of the guitar arrangements; Stratovarius keyboardist Jens Johansson contributes a solo for the title track with Jason Freudberg and Larry Salvatore playing guitar and bass, respectively, for one song.
Production took place in the "Dungeon" studio where Symphony X has recorded their albums for many years. the sound isn't crisp and clear but very rough and dirty - but then that's exactly what the blues requires.
So overall, if you are a ProgMetal purist then probably stand well clear. If you are a blues-based hard rocker, then you should be able to run off a long list of people who can do this sorta thing a lot better. But if you're curious or just out for an enjoyable hard rock romp, then there's certainly a whole lot of worse companions you could choose.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Systems Theory – Soundtracks For Imaginary Movies
Tracklist: Green Miata Baja Bound (6:39), The Cool Vibe of Asia C (5:44), Four Piece Suit (13:18), Silent Service (11:36), A Lifeboat, Tallulah and Me (5:00), Water Through Fingers (7:21), Zero Sum Equation (7:20), One Step to Freefall (7:12), Last Letters from Stalingrad (9:36)
If you like the sound of this CD’s title and take it literally, you’re likely to enjoy the sound of the album, too. It delivers what it promises, though I find it even more interesting than the title suggests. If the album title and song titles don’t quite persuade you to check out this album, though, I can tempt you further: how can you resist an album whose instrumental credits promise “fuzz violin,” a Mellotron whose sounds include “Ian McDonald Flute,” and – my favourite – “‘Hitler’ sound collage”?
The CD is divided into three “sides,” each consisting of three songs. I’ll admit that I can’t discover the rationale for that division, but I’m happy to accept that the group probably has very good reasons for it. The group, incidentally, consists of three main members – Greg Amov, Steven Davies-Morris, and Mike Dickson – although the album features several guests on instruments like flute, electric guitar, and even dulcimer. And, although Davies-Morris plays such “real” instruments as guitar, bass, and acoustic piano, to my ears those instruments are very much in the service of the electronic instruments that dominate all nine compositions.
What impresses me the most, I guess, is the variety of the album. Although each composition could very well serve as the soundtrack to a movie (if a short one), none of them is as boring as soundtrack music too often is. I haven’t tried the experiment of listening to this album in the dark, trying to imagine what might be going on in the imaginary movie to which each song is a soundtrack, but such an exercise would probably be interesting to someone with a livelier imagination than I have. The song titles might or might not be useful to someone who wanted to perform such an experiment: again, that lively imagination might be able to work up a tentative plot from such tantalizing titles as One Step to Freefall and Green Miata Baja Bound, but I wouldn’t know where to begin.
What exactly does the music sound like? I’ll describe a few of the songs to give you an idea of the kind of thing you’re in for if you listen to this album. A Lifeboat, Tallulah and Me, one of the compositions that strikes me as sticking more or less literally to the promise of its title, begins with the sounds of seagulls and then a thunderstorm; viola and processed piano slowly introduce the ominous theme as the thunder continues. Waves crash, the storm continues, and, towards the end, threatening synthesizer chords tell us that, in this movie, all is not well.
Last Letters from Stalingrad (the song, obviously, that features the promised “Hitler sound collage”) is another “movie” in which all is not well. The body of the song might well remind you in some remote way of Giorgio Moroder’s claustrophobic electronic score for Midnight Express, not in its sound but in its feeling. And one of my favourites, The Cool Vibe of Asia C (the one in which we hear, unless my ears are wrong, the Ian McDonald flute sound courtesy of the Mellotron), mixes Eastern sounds with some almost-funky bass playing and Enigma-like synthesizer soloing. If that sounds an unlikely combination, it sure is, but it works, rendering the imaginary movie it’s meant to accompany all the more mysterious.
This is imaginative ambient music, though even “ambient” doesn’t quite do justice to the variety and ingenuity of the “soundtracks” on the album. If I have one complaint, it’s that I’m not quite sure what the ideal occasion is for listening to this album. It’s not quite gripping enough to listen to all the way through more than a few times just for enjoyment; however, it’s too attention-grabbing to serve as background to other activities, as some ambient music can. That’s a problem for the listener rather than of the music, though. It’s a good album that, as I said at the outset, delivers what its title promises and more.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Opeth - Blackwater Park
Tracklist: The Leper Affinity (10:23), Bleak (9:16), Harvest (6:01), The Drapery Falls (10:54), Dirge For November (7:54), The Funeral Portrait (8:44), Patterns In The Ivy (1:53), Blackwater Park (12:08)
I knew Opeth quite late because I never considered the band was in progressive scene as I heard the band name at the very first time from metal community mailing list. When someone posted an email mentioning that Steven Wilson of Porcupine Tree did contribute in Opeth’s album, I started to ask who is this band. So it’s clear that Steven Wilson was the linking pin that connected me to Opeth. I was actually quite hesitant to know the band as people telling me that the singing style was growling. Later, I found Opeth’s live DVD Lamentations in one of famous record shops in my country. So I purchased it. As the DVD contained some mellow tracks at the first half of the gig, I was not interested about the music. What amazed me though was the second half that contained more heavy stuff with growling style. I don’t know why I was not bothered at all with growling style the band produced. It’s probably because I assumed that vocal has the same role as other instruments – it produces sound as part of total music. Having this in mind, I could accept any sound produced by the band.
The album opener The Leper Affinity starts off with ambient keyboard sound that increases in volume followed suddenly with heavy riffs in relatively fast tempo music, growling vocal and double bass pedal sounds typical in the metal scene. The music is so loud and fast but for some reason I like the melody as well as the rocking guitar work and dynamic drumming style. Interesting to note here that during the lyrical part, the drummer (Martin Lopez) does not use double pedal bass drum sounds. It’s basically a hard driving style with heavy guitar work. The music turns into quieter passage to feature vocal in slower tempo with excellent acoustic guitar work.. It reminds me to Porcupine Tree’s sound. What surprises me is that this track ends up unexpectedly with an excellent piano which influenced by classical music. Overall, this is an excellent track with some variations in melody and complexity.
The second track Bleak is still a hard driving track in a little bit slower tempo than the opener but it still produces another nice melody. The intro part contains a nice combination of acoustic guitar and drum work followed with stunning electric guitar fills. When the growling voice enters the music, guitar provides simple sounds at the background and gives a gothic style. The combination of growling voice and the music is excellent especially it is accentuated by a dynamic drum work. In transitions to quieter passages the acoustic guitar fills the gap nicely. When the music accompany non-growling lyrical part, it reminds me to Porcupine Tree's music. In the middle of the track the music turns into a blues-based style featuring voice line. The music turns louder suddenly with faster tempo. Overall, it’s an excellent track with relatively complex structure and frequent tempo changes. It forms a solid and cohesive music.
Harvest brings the music to a more relaxing mood with beautiful acoustic guitar rhythm that features vocal in an ambient medium tempo style. Structurally, it’s a relatively simple track with excellent clean guitar solo in the middle of the track. It’s a reminiscent of Porcupine Tree’s Light Bulb Sun or Stupid Dream.
The fourth track The Drapery Falls opens with a nice acoustic guitar rhythm followed with full music in medium tempo style built around long sustain and distorted guitar work. The music turns into a quieter passage with main feature of acoustic guitar rhythm followed with distant vocal singing style. What a great sound produced in this part! The music flows smoothly with a nice tagline melody. The vocal part changes to a growing style in a faster tempo music with louder volume. Overall, it’s a song with relatively long duration that basically comprises two styles: the light one at the beginning and the heavy one at the other part.
Dirge For November starts off with a mellow singing style with acoustic guitar work, followed with a stunning guitar solo in a bluesy style accompanied with excellent acoustic guitar fills. Unexpectedly, the music turns louder with a distorted guitar work in gothic nuance. The electric guitar solo takes the melody of the opening part and brings the music with growling singing style. A very nice segment. The music turns suddenly into a break followed with a combination of guitar fills and soft keyboard at background. This quiet passage brings the song to the end.
The sixth track The Funeral Portrait starts beautifully with an acoustic guitar work that brings the music into a hard driving style in fast tempo with growling voice style. The music reminds me to power metal band’s rhythm section where the energy moves upward in line with the lead singer’s voice. Even though this track can be considered to have a straight forward structure, there are some excellent transitions with great acoustic guitar work that fills the gap between musical passages.
Patterns In The Ivy is a short track that explores excellent acoustic guitar and nice piano work. It provides a nice break after the hard driving tracks performed previously. The CD continues with a hard driving style album title track Blackwater Park. It has heavy and distorted guitar sounds at the beginning part. As the music moves, there are some transitions into quieter passages exploring clean guitar fills accompanied with acoustic guitar. This track has a wide variations in terms of styles as well as density. The structure is relatively complex because it changes as the music flows with various singing styles.
In summary, this is an excellent album with tight composition, exploring various sounds that can be produced from musical instruments, frequent tempo changes which sometime occur abruptly. The style can be categorized under progressive metal. However, this is not the kind that might appeal directly to those who like Dream Theater, Threshold, Symphony X, Kamelot or Rhapsody. For those who hate growling vocal, I suggest that you change your perception from vocal’s role to deliver message with lyrical part with vocal as musical instruments. This might help. I would say, this album might favour death metal fans immediately.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Elfonía - Elfonía
Tracklist: Eldalindalë (4:47), Nuestro Descanso (4:05), Aura (4:07), Drama (3:44), Dentro (4:16), Modos Humanos (4:25), Hatshepsut (4:54), Añoranza (4:05), La Vida Que Emana (0:59), De Todas Mis Heridas (4:00), Alma Infinita (6:09), [unknown] (1:38)
My interest for the Mexican band Elfonía was sparked by the fact that the lead singer of Elfonía is Marcela Bovio. Indeed, she is the "unknown" singer that worked with Ayreon on The Human Equation. To make sure there are no surprises: this album is completely different from the Ayreon album. The only recognizable thing is of course the impressive voice of Marcela.
It's hard to describe the musical style of this album as it goes back and forth between a number of styles. Elfonía themselves describe it as a combination of "doom, gothic, atmospheric and progressive". I would like to add to that: Mexican style mellow guitars and classical jazz, but all of that in a very dissimilar way. The clear voice of Marcela is one of the main attractions, but not the only one, there is music to match: the music is very original and used mainly to create a certain atmosphere. There are little to no guitar solo's and although Elfonía say they have included a gothic element no double bass drums, bass guitars or church choirs are found on this album.
Although the combination of styles might give a different impression: this Elfonía album is not up-tempo or bombastic. Contrary to that: it is the perfect winding down music. And although in some cases atmospheric means drained from melody and dynamics, not in this case, these tracks are rich of melody and have a very comprehensible flow. The more I listen the more I appreciate it, mostly because I am really starting to get into the mood of this album. Another typical example of less is more, very interesting and exciting. The lyrics are in Spanish and it suits the music.
To give you an impression on the kind of music Elfonía creates: some parts of their music sound a bit like the more experimental phase of The Gathering. Maybe that's why they were the support act for the Mexican tour of The Gathering. I have said it before in other reviews and will say it again: this comparison is just to give you some general idea- Elfonía is most certainly not a Gathering clone. I have been wrestling with this music mainly because of its originality and because I did not really now how to judged it. For instance: violins are not uncommonly found, but here they are totally the opposite to bombastic use found in other female fronted bands - I name no names. But here the violin is used in a more subtle fashion as with De Todas Mis Heridas, which features a violin solo played by Marcela Bovio.
There are more marvellous tracks on this album: Drama has an intimate acoustic guitar and shows Marcela is not the only one in this band with an excellent voice. There is a nice contrast between Drama and the next track Dentro especially the refrain of this track deserves the gothic predicate, but is also very progressive in its nature. De Todas Mis Heridas has the aforementioned violin but also is a very good up-tempo track. There are other tracks that are also very good but these 3 really stand out.
I got to know Ayreon at the time of The Electric Castle, because I was a fan of Fish, now it's the other way around: it is Ayreon who has introduced me to Elfonía. I am glad he returned the favour. A glass of dark beer, a good book and Elfonía through the speakers (not too loud but just loud enough) sounds like a good combination. And probably you will lay down the book just to give your undivided attention to the music.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10