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Reviews in this issue:
- Porcupine Tree - Up the Downstair [Expanded 2CD]
- Karma Depth – Resilience
- House Of Not - The Walkabout Of A. Nexter Niode Part II : Sexus
- NoVox – NoVox
- My Empty Room – Grand Illusions
- The Red Masque – Feathers For Flesh
Porcupine Tree - Up The Downstair [Expanded 2CD]
Disc One : Up the Downstair: What You Are Listening To.... (0:57), Synesthesia (5:16), Monuments Burn Into Moments (0:22),
Always Never (7:00), Up The Downstair (10:14), Not Beautiful Anymore (3:25), Siren (0:57), Small Fish (2:42), Burning Sky (11:36),
Disc Two : Staircase Infinities: Cloud Zero (4:40), The Joke's on You (4:17), Navigator (4:49), Rainy Taxi (6:50), Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape (9:36)
Without a doubt, Porcupine Tree has been one of my favourite bands ever since I discovered The Sky Moves Sideways in the mid nineties. I have to admit though that, not counting two or three classic tunes, I have never been all that impressed with the 'first album' On The Sunday of Life. In the liner notes of this new version of Up the Downstair Steve Wilson explains that On the Sunday of Life was never really meant to be a real debut album, since it's actually a collection of half of the songs from his home-recorded tapes issued in the late eighties and early nineties (the other half appearing on the rare Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape album). To me, (most of) these early recordings always sounded more like playful experimenting with limited success than actual quality song writing. All of this definitely changed with Up the Downstair .....
In 1992 young Wilson set out to record his first real album, a double album no less. Eventually, following Delerium Record's advice, the album was scaled down to a single album, with Voyage 34 (part 1) being issued as a single and the remaining material appearing on the EP Staircase Infinities and the box set Stars Die in later years. What remained were three short soundscapes/samples and seven tracks, most of which have become Porcupine Tree classics and live favourites since.
I couldn't agree more with Steve Wilson that this album should be considered the 'real' Porcupine Tree debut. As a matter of fact, Richard Barbieri and Colin Edwin, who would soon become full-time band members, already appeared in one song each on this album. It also showed Steve Wilson becoming a bit more confident in his singing abilities, resulting in much less fiddling around with silly vocal effects than on the early tapes. And last but not least, Wilson clearly seemed to shake of the psychedelic doodling and chose the path of progressive rock instead; a choice which was still far from clear on the earlier material. On this album we can clearly hear Wilson moving in the direction of The Sky Moves Sideways and Signify.
Wilson was never really happy with the fact that he had to use drum computers on Up the Downstairs, and it was a long lasting wish to go back and re-do the album with real drums. After re-mastering the album in 1997 and having remixed some of the tracks for the Stars Die box set already, the time to make this wish come true finally came in 2004, when Wilson went back into the studio with drummer Gavin Harrison to lay down new drum tracks. On top of this Wilson also rerecorded a few guitar parts. Overall, the new version is not extremely different from the old one. For instance, Wilson asked Harrison not to steer away from the original drum patterns to much, and the compositions and arrangements basically remain unaltered; they just sound much better and more natural.
For those who don't know the original album yet, there's three instrumental pieces on this album, all of which have been live favourites during various stages of the band's live history. Up the Downstair and Not Beautiful Anymore have appeared on the (2CD version of) Coma Divine (still one of my favourite live albums ever) and Burning Sky was resurrected during the recent Deadwing tour. All of these three songs are tour-de-forces and real roller coaster rides with mood shifts and tension building as only Steve Wilson can produce. The other four songs are vocal tracks, with Fadeaway and Always Never being the most familiar ones. Fadeaway was another song resurrected for the In Absentia and Deadwing tours, where John Wesley sung the track in an annoying high pitched voice. A shame really since this song is a blueprint for other depressed classics like Dark Matter and Stop Swimming. So I'll take this original version over Wesley's rendition any day. Always Never has also been a live favourite in the mid nineties and clearly hints at the more vocal oriented direction the band would take with Stupid Dream and Lightbulb Sun. I haven't compared the original version and this new one note by note, but it seems like the vocals in some of these songs have been improved substantially and might even have been partially re-recorded. The re-mastering has also improved the place of the vocals in the mix a lot. As such, you can now actually hear what Wilson is singing in a song like Synesthesia or what's being said in Not Beautiful Anymore.
This new 2004 version of Up the Downstair comes with the Staircase Infinities EP as a bonus disc. As mentioned, this EP consists of remaining material from the Up the Downstair sessions, plus two songs Wilson recorded especially for this EP. Among these was a rerecording of Yellow Hedgerow Dreamscape, which originally appeared on the early tapes and collection with the same name. Besides a better mix of The Joke's on You and improved mastering these recordings remain as they originally were recorded. I would therefore like to refer you to the review of the CD version of Staircase Infinities I wrote for DPRP seven years ago (crikey, how time flies !).
Now, the big question is: should you buy this new version of Up the Downstair? If you haven't got a copy of the original CD and you're a fan of Porcupine Tree than this purchase is long overdue. You should definitely get a copy of this fine album ASAP. If you do have the original CD you will have to decide if real drums are a criteria for a 'must have' purchase. The sound of the album does indeed improve a lot, but on the other hand, the drum patterns themselves are very similar to the original drum machines. So don't expect drummer Harrison to come with completely new innovative rhythms compared to the original. What might help you make up your mind is the inclusion of the bonus disc, which - although it doesn't contain Wilson's best material - comes with half an hour of extra music well worth adding to your collection.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Karma Depth – Resilience
Tracklist: Ask Yourself (10:35), Hope (5:53), The Price (12:19), The Ring (15:58), See How I Glow (12:19), Heal: [I] The Twilight, [II] Enter Reality, [III] The Dilemma, [IV] The Choice, [V] The Awakening, [VI] The Healing, [VII] The Learning (22:06), Nuweiba (2:47)
I realize that categorizing, classifying, and labelling are natural human activities: when we try to understand something new, we consciously or unconsciously sort it, classify it, put it into a context. I find myself doing so all the time as I review CDs, both for myself and to help readers understand just what kind of thing I’m talking about. But when I get a CD for review by a group described as “Belgium’s newest emo-prog band,” well, all sorts of questions spring to mind – the most obvious of which is “How many ‘emo-prog’ bands really are there in Belgium so that Karma Depth has to be set apart as the ‘newest’?” But that’s all promotion, of course, and whether the band’s responsible for it or not, we oughtn’t hold such a description against it.
And I’m glad I didn’t, because this is a very good album. I’ll admit that I can hear what’s supposed to be the “emo” in the band’s sound, and what there is of it – the sensitive (I guess you’d call them) vocals, for example, in a few places – I don’t much like. But the band’s sound is far more progressive than it is emo, and it’s that sound I’d like to concentrate on here. The four musicians (bassist/singer Hans Berten, keyboardist Dieter Cailliau, drummer Hans Mahieu, and guitarist Lorenzo Petralia) might well have found the current emo fad congenial, but from the sounds of the album, their hearts are in old-school progressive rock. I suppose the nearest I can come to describing the most interesting elements of their songs is to compare them to post-Hackett-pre-We Can’t Dance-era Genesis and mid-to-late-eighties Rush, but that’s only a rough analogy, giving you an idea more of the band’s ambitions than, strictly speaking, of their sound.
But some of the sounds are there, too. Petralia often essays a Lifeson-like guitar tone, and the tight Berten-Mahieu rhythm section handles tempo changes fluidly. Try to keep from thinking of Duke and the locked-in charge of Rutherford and Collins as you listen, for example, to See How I Glow (and Cailliau’s Banksian synths hardly undermine the comparison, I’ll add). But in other places – even in that same song – jazzy piano and bass breaks set this band apart from its influences. And the album-ending acoustic-guitar track, Nuweiba, might briefly call to mind Foxtrot’s lovely Horizons, but only for a moment, as Petralia’s Spanish, even remotely flamenco, soloing soars above his dextrous finger picked arpeggios.
I ought to devote a paragraph to the album’s concept piece, Heal. It’s much, much stronger musically than it is lyrically, though it may be that the fact that the lyrics consist almost entirely of New-Age-y clichés can be blamed on the band’s perhaps imperfect English. I don’t know. In any case, the seven parts of the song essentially reiterate and confirm the assertion of the first part, that “Where there’s hope there is life / And that love resolves your inner strife” – good news for all of us, I guess. The suite is, so far as I can tell, intended to take us, lyrically as well as musically, from a state of uncertainty and pain to a state of, well, healing – The Healing is the title of the suite’s second-last song. And if the lyrics are pretty lame, the music is anything but. The first few songs alternate between peaceful piano and aggressive guitar riffing, with the occasional synthesizer solo; by the time we get to the last two parts, The Healing and The Learning, the music is (predictably but also satisfyingly) triumphant and even anthemic. The playing of all the musicians throughout the suite (as it is throughout the album) is simply superb, thankfully drawing the listener’s attention away from the lyrics, which are nonetheless sincerely delivered by Berten.
Berten’s voice, incidentally, is a wonderful instrument in itself – full, powerful, capable of the delicacy needed for the emo moments on the album (which occur, mercifully to my ears at least, mostly in the first few songs) and also of the soaring needed in those anthemic moments I just mentioned. The timber of his voice is not miles away from that of Michael Sadler, and it’s more than distantly related, too, to that of Neal Morse; but I make those comparisons only to give you a rough idea. The vocals are perfectly matched to the music in most of the compositions, and one can’t ask more than that from a vocalist.
I think that anyone who likes either earlier or later progressive rock will like this album. Ignore, as I mostly did, the emo elements: they don’t significantly damage the album, and it might well be that the band will not only drop but perhaps actively avoid the emo label next time around, since what they are is a solid, talented, progressive-rock band – period. This is a more than creditable debut album, and I recommend it with only those few and minor reservations I’ve noted.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
House Of Not -
The Walkabout Of A. Nexter Niode
Part II: Sexus
Tracklist: Séance (1:42), Voodoo Bitch (3:37), Whitehouse (4:15), Lady In Waiting (3:42), Icons (4:30), Is That The Best You Can Do? (4:52), Black Out (2:07), Footnotes / Hurt (3:16), State Of The Union (4:12), Behind The Veil (5:47), It's Your Mother (5:09), Secret Garden (5:24), Pipedream (10:03), Chase The Dragon (2:31)
Canada's House Of Not return with the second of their five-part "counterculture rock opus" The Walkabout Of A. Nexter Niode. In the first part of the tale, Off The Path, the hero Nexter sets off on his wanderings encountering the mysterious and beautiful Silk, the mistress to a powerful tyrant. In the latest episode, Nexter returns to steal Silk away but is ambushed and badly beaten by the tyrant and his henchmen. Cursed and delivered into Silk's hands, Nexter regains consciousness in a secret hideout with only Silk and her servant girl for company...
If you have heard the first instalment of this ambitious tale then you will know what to expect from this second outing. The music is of an essentially similar style, although there is a slightly greater variety and, in particular, the inclusion of some fine female vocalists adds an extra dimension. The House of Not trio of composer and singer Brian Erikson, and twin guitarists Ken O'Gorman and Lou Roppoli (the latter of whom only plays on three tracks) are joined by an impressive list of 'House Guests' including ex-Harem Scarem keyboardist Omar Ales, April Wine guitarist David Henman, the award winning Canadian vocalist Dee Brown and no less than three 2005 Juno award nominees - Dione Taylor (vocals), Ricky Vehkavaara (rhythm guitar) and Glenn Smith (saxophone).
The female vocalists are an inspired inclusion: Dee Brown adds some great wailing backing to Voodoo Bitch and sings lead on the rather lovely ballad Lady In Waiting. Not to be outshone, Dione Taylor proves an ideal foil for Erikson's voice on Is That The Best You Can Do? (an intriguing blend of styles which includes O'Gorman on Mandolin), Behind The Veil (a more acoustic number that provides contrast to the more frantic rock numbers) and Secret Garden which climaxes (literally and figuratively!) in a sax and guitar duet.
The story is pushed along by the variety of textures; one can almost visualise a stage show of the complete work with Nexter losing consciousness during Blackout with its sole acoustic guitar accompaniment, the scene shifting during the rather atmospheric instrumental Footnotes / Hurt which leads into the ominous meeting of hypocrites where Nexter is put on display and cursed by the tyrant. The ten minute Pipedream has a bluesy vibe, primarily induced by the electric piano, and is rather laid-back, but still managed to break out into massed voices and guitars every now and again. There is an almost Allman Brothers feel in places, particularly with the organ stabs underlying the electric piano and guitars soloing over the top. Bassist Stan Miczek makes his sole contribution to the album an important one holding the song together with his melodious bottom end.
With Sexus House of Not have expanded on the delights of the first album and driven the story along. Once again the artwork is superb (the inlays from the five CDs apparently join together to give a pictorial representation of the story) and the website is an excellent adventure in itself. House of Not are developing more of their own style and rely less on the Pink Floyd influences of the first album, although some arrangements are vaguely similar to some Roger Waters solo compositions. Again, I am full of admiration for the scope of the concept and although each of the two albums so far do stand up in their own right, playing the two albums back-to-back was quite enlightening and brought out the strengths of the concept. Whether they will be able to maintain the standard and interest throughout a further three albums remains to be seen, but it will be an interesting trip finding out. Well worth a dabble.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
NoVox – NoVox
Tracklist: ! WRONG! (0:17), Be My Guest (5:29), 1st Bridge Of Tears (1:38), Looking Up To The Sun (5:52), Never Mind (7:02), Galactic Storm (6:54), Then There Was One (7:05), Valentine Fuzztrations (5:39), Sunset On A Sad Horizon (5:41), Eclipse (3:26), 2nd Bridge Of Tears (1:51), Emptiness (9:31), Untitled Track (3:26)
Novox is, unsurprisingly, an instrumental combo. Hailing from The Netherlands, this is essentially the same group as Cliffhanger, but with the addition, on three tracks, of guitarist Mark Vermeule. With this pedigree, and sharing several members from the lauded Knight Area, one might have high expectations indeed.
Unfortunately, these expectations are only partially met. Recorded over a period of two and a half years, with various combinations of musicians on different tracks, there is a distinct lack of cohesion on the album. Whilst much of the music is good stuff, and some of the tracks are superb, the whole thing fails to hang together.
The opening and (hidden) closing tracks are just studio silliness
Eclipse is an organ and bass duet
Valentine Fuzztrations similarly features just bass and drums (Wow! Gijs Koopman is a phenomenal player – on this track he’s all fuzzed up and dangerous – elsewhere he plays in a thrilling, dynamic style, much like Chris Squire of Yes.)
The two Bridge Of Tears tracks are symphonic sketches by Gijs Koopman, nice enough but not amounting to much.
Then There Was One is a piano solo by project leader Dick Heijboer. He is a very skilled player, and this piano piece shows his chops nicely, having a slight Patrick Moraz feel in places. It is quite a long piece for this type of thing and might prove a bit heavy going if piano solos are not your kind of thing. On other tracks, Heijboer is a demon on the organ, synths and Mellotron, and his perceived status as the group leader is well deserved.
This only leaves 6 tracks where anything like a group sound is allowed to emerge, and even then there are signs of musical schizophrenia, as Galactic Storm tries on Space rock clothing, morphing into a electronic Tangerine Dream Phaedra-like passage in the middle, and Never Mind adds prog metal elements, leading the band into waters previously charted by Liquid Tension Experiment, though less intense.
Looking Up To The Sun, Sunset On A Sad Horizon and Emptiness are far and away the best tracks, achieving a powerful symphonic rock style that is equal parts Yes, Genesis and a more powerful modern twist of their own. If the whole album was up to this standard, it would have been a fantastic CD.
The other tracks do all have their own merits but are less fully realised tracks and just don’t gel together as a unified piece of work.
Of course, the lack of vocals may put some people off, but when the band is firing on all cylinders, as on Emptiness, the music is deeply engaging, and vocals are not missed at all.
I would definitely like to hear more from this band, particularly if they stick to the potent symphonic rock they clearly excel at in parts of this album. As it stands, this is a nice enough debut, with some fantastic moments.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
My Empty Room – Grand Illusions
Tracklist: Blind (10:19), Slippin’ Away (12:22), Still Searching (8:38), Illusions (9:40)
So, yes, this is a four-song CD that’s still longer than most of the 1500 vinyl records in my collection. The songs are not so much songs as compositions, and each one, like the album as a whole, is extremely ambitious. My Empty Room, who claim to be inspired by Dream Theater, Yes, and Genesis, have clearly listened to Metallica, too – check out the thrashy beginning of Slippin’ Away – and those influences make for some interesting music. Jesper Nielson (vocals, guitar, and keyboards), Niels Vejlyt (lead guitar), Regin S. Lund (bass), and Jakob Vand (drums) claim that they create “varied and often complex music” that “will be able to have its own place on the present symphonic and progressive rock/metal scene,” and while nobody can yet assess the accuracy of that prediction, I think there’s a chance they’ll be proven correct. Now, though I usually don’t like to read and thus don’t often write song-by-song reviews, that might be the best way to make clear what’s best and what’s wanting on this interesting if flawed album.
Opening track Blind begins promisingly for those of us who like our progressive rock with an edge. Interestingly syncopated power chords and drums give way to wonky-time-signatured riffs ridden over by nice seventies-sounding synths. If you think Farewell to Kings-era Rush with more conventional (which is not to say uninteresting) lead guitar, you won’t be miles away from imagining this song’s sound. The song continues – and goes on too long, in my opinion – through more guitar solos, keyboard solos, and time changes, the cryptic, unfortunately often clichéd lyrics ("Jump into the fire / Burning every bridge behind you / Breaking every rule. . . ." "We can’t see if we don’t open our eyes / Why do we want to be blind?" is a not-unrepresentative example) delivered by Nielsen in a rather thin if more than serviceable tenor voice. I find the entire song pleasant to listen to (and I can say the same for the whole album), but it meanders, I think, and could have benefited from some editing to limit it to fewer, more effective riffs, hooks, and solos.
Slippin’ Away begins, as I said earlier, with some crunching chords that might remind you of Metallica’s early songs – but within a few seconds you’ll forget about Metallica and think of Genesis. It’s those Watcher-of-the-Skies synthesizers. In fact, much of this song is reminiscent of mid-seventies Genesis, although neither the singing nor the lyrics are quite so good, for the same reasons I detailed before. And this song, like the first one – though even longer – goes on too long. I’ve no objection to long, even extremely long songs, but I like to hear a coherence to them that isn’t apparent in most of My Empty Room’s compositions. That’s certainly not to impugn the musicianship or the local details, all of which are interesting, but I just can’t hear that the many changes of tempo and the many, many solos really serve the song’s purpose.
The simple but effective piano echoing through the beginning and returning to bring closure to the end of the third track, Still Searching, provides the much-needed unifying element absent from the first two songs. This song is as close to a ballad as you’ll find on the album, and as a ballad it’s pokey and utterly conventional. It gets a lift from the fairly brief guitar solo near the end, but once the singing has started, several minutes into the song, interrupting rather than elevating the pleasant instrumental work of the song’s first few minutes, I find myself losing interest. A coherent song, then, this one, but not a terribly good one.
Album closer Illusions constitutes a return to the souped-up Genesis sound of the first two tracks, and the whole song alternates nicely between syncopated odd-time slow passages, quiet semi-acoustic passages, and fast passages. The lyrics still don’t strike me as worthy of even the minor bombast we hear in the music, though, and – once again – I think the song is a bit too long, even at a comparatively brief nine and a half minutes, to sustain the concept behind it. As I said about Slippin’ Away, though, this song is good to listen to and, if overlong, never exactly dull – just stretched a bit thin.
“A bit thin” is how I’d describe another minor problem with this CD, too – its production. And I want to return to my Genesis comparison to deal with this flaw and the one I’ve emphasized throughout. In the mid-seventies, Genesis was making challenging, exciting music – but music that, in retrospect, deserved fuller production than it got, to my ears. By the time they made The Lamb Lies Down, they had a nice hefty sound; but Foxtrot, my personal favourite, is just a little trebly, a little thin. Grand Illusions shares that fault – and, let’s face it, even demos can get pretty good production these days. Again, Genesis was guilty (I could hear it at the time and hear it even more clearly three decades later) of self-indulgence. Well, stop the presses. However, they were doing their kind of thing for the first time, and I never found myself bored by their meandering keyboard solos and sometimes unmotivated tempo changes. However, thirty years later, we can probably do without the indulgences we might in retrospect permit to the bands that essentially created the progressive sound we all love. It’s not, as I’ve said, that My Empty Room’s instrumental work is unimpressive; it’s that there’s too much of it and a bit too little of a quality Genesis seldom lacked: strong songcraft.
Despite my many adverse remarks, I think this is a very promising album; it’s one I’ll play again, if perhaps not daily, for pleasure, enjoying (in the same way that I enjoy elements of Spock’s Beard and Porcupine Tree) the echoes of my first favourite progressive bands. I hope these talented musicians will work a little more on developing distinctive, unified songs, though, and realize, as the great bands and great musicians always do, that no solo, no demonstration of virtuosity however brief, is ever justified if it doesn’t in some way advance the integrity and effect of the song in which it appears.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Red Masque – Feathers For Flesh
Tracklist: House Of Ash (12:07), Passage (14:12), Yellow Are His Opening Eyes (14:47), Beggars & Thieves (9:38), Scarlet Experiment (3:46)
If asked to give someone an example of what was meant by the term ‘avant garde progressive rock’, you really couldn’t give a better answer than to play them a burst of Feathers For Flesh, the third release from Philadelphia’s The Red Masque. All the elements you might expect of the genre – overtly theatrical lyrics, grand guignol-esque atmospherics, almost wilfully ‘difficult’ musical passages, lots of tempo and mood changes, plus more than a passing nod to (post 1981) King Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator – are here in abundance.
No quarter is given on the opening House Of Ash, with the lengthy atmospheric intro (howling winds, manic laughter, the distant, ominous beating of a drum) abruptly giving way to a loud pounding bass rhythm over which vocalist Lynette Shelley engages in some rather demented chanting whilst guitarist Kiarash Emami bashes away on his instrument with abandon. If the band had wanted to produce something that would get the ‘average’ prog fan running away at top speed with their hands over their ears, then job done! If you can weather this somewhat inaccessible opening, the song does become slightly more accessible and has some strong sections, with a particular highlight being at roughly the half-way point, where a strong church organ-generated melody blends with violin and a stirring guitar motif to take the track in to vaguely symphonic territory. Shelley’s vocals also becomes more accessible in places – although many of the lyrics are delivered in a rather morose, semi-spoken monotone, when she does actually sing she is revealed as having a pleasant, breathy delivery that’s similar to that of Laura Martin, vocalist of the now-defunct Echolyn off-shoot Finneus Gauge. The lyrics do however remain wilfully arty throughout (a representative sample being ‘My Limbs Float Vaporous As Feathers/ No Mote Of Light/ Once I Tasted Honey/ Now My Lips Are Parched With Dust’). The one thing you can say is that they do seem to suit the mood created by the music, and this sort of thing is merely continuing a tradition started by the likes of Sinfield, Hammill et al.
Elsewhere, Yellow Are His Opening Eyes is if anything even more discordant and experimental than House Of Ash, although even this has its more melodic sections – there’s some great lead guitar work from Emami, whilst a strong choral vocal section in the latter half of the track is genuinely evocative and gives hope of a rousing conclusion, although in truth the track drifts rather aimlessly in its closing stages.
Better is Passage, which, although still featuring some harder-edged parts, is built around a mellow, pastoral melody than has an almost baroque feel to it. The album’s standout track for me, however, is Beggars & Thieves; this is a relaxed piece which has far more straightforward melodies than are found elsewhere on the album, with the use of mandolin as the lead instrument being an inspired choice. The gothic feel of the album as a whole is still retained here, but is somewhere more effective in this context and feels less forced than elsewhere.
I pride myself on liking a wide variety of music, and certainly don’t turn away from material that many may describe as more, erm, ‘challenging’ than your average fare. I also like many of the bands that obviously provide inspiration for The Red Masque. However, overall I found this was just too hard going and overtly theatrical (in a student theatre kind of way) to really engage; as I’ve mentioned, there is some good stuff on here but you have to wade through some distinctly difficult material to get to it. Having said all this, I’ve read several glowing comments on the web about this album, so it may be a case that fans of this style of prog may wish to try a few samples from the band’s site before forming any opinion. For me, this was a bit of a trial to listen to all the way through.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10