Reviews in this issue:
- KingBathmat - Fantastic Freak Show Carnival
- Rain - Cerulean Blue
- Parallel Mind - Colossus ADEA (Duo Review)
- Imago - Derrière Le Rideau
- Ion Quest - Ion Quest
- Heartscore - Straight To The Brain
KingBathmat - Fantastic Freak Show Carnival
Tracklist: Ghosts In The Fire (4:31), Fantastic Freak Show Carnival (3:58), Rejected (3:04), King's Ransom (3:17), Hornets Nest (1:24), Sweet Iris (4:55), Simpleton Know It All (3:18), Illuminous Pups (3:26), Wonderful Life (4:57), Interval (1:36), Soul Searching Song (11:27)
In 2003 we had Son Of A Nun, 2004 saw Crowning Glory and now, in 2005, KingBathmat release a third album, Fantastic Freak Show Carnival. John Bassett, he who is KingBathmat, continues his idiosyncratic musical odyssey with probably his most aggressive, and certainly his best, album to date. It is the same one-man effort as on the previous albums but this time the sound is altogether more adventurous; multi-layered harmonies, additional sound effects and a sound that suggests that Mr Bassett has been doing some homework to improve his production skills. As much as is possible these days, KingBathmat have quite a unique sound: a mixture of progressive, psychedelic and rock music, carefully blended and filtered through beds of late sixties influences which has added a soupçon of folkish tinges and a degree of experimentation.
The album is broadly a concept album dealing with freaks of the modern world. However, the interpretation is, as it should be, left up to the individual listener. Perhaps concept is too strong a word, you'd certainly be hard pushed to derive a cohesive story from the included lyrics, perhaps thematic would be a better description. Not that the individual songs all subscribe to a single theme, far from it. Opener (and downloadable single) Ghost In The Fire sets the tone with phased vocals and an echoed guitar line setting the psychedelic scene before breaking out into a glorious chorus. The layered vocals really make this song a joy to listen to. The title track steps up a gear and announces that this album is going to rock, amply demonstrated by King's Ransom with its grinding guitar and powerhouse drums. Breaking up the songs are two short instrumental numbers, Hornet's Nest, a bass heavy almost Ozric Tentacles groove, and Interval which has distant echoes of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys in its vocalisations. These pieces are interesting snippets of music that, although possibly not standing up by themselves as individual tracks, fit in well with the album as a whole providing natural breaks, as was no doubt their intention.
One of the album's standout tracks is Sweet Iris, a lovely song hiding somewhat darker lyrics that manages to balance a delightfully light melody with a denser middle eight. Leading effortlessly into Simpleton Know It All, the lighter tone is maintained, again a strong melody and well structured vocal backings demonstrate how far Bassett has come in his song writing (check out the acoustic demo version on the KingBathmat website!) The instrumental Illuminous Pups has a very atmospheric beginning with a treated piano floating over waves of synths that gently lures one away before being assaulted with layers of riffing and wah-wah laden electric guitar. Wonderful Life is the track I would choose if anyone wanted to know what KingBathmat sounded like. It is a five-minute distillation of the core elements of Bassett's music. Great stuff indeed! Rightly or wrongly, a lot of attention is being paid to the final track of the album Soul Searching Song, all eleven minutes and twenty-seven seconds of it. Not dissimilar to an early Porcupine Tree track this extended piece obviously comprises several sections but hangs together very well providing a satisfying ending to a fine album.
With Bassett having recruited two extra musicians to take the Fantastic Freakshow out on the road, KingBathmat have finally become a band. I hope that his venture into live performance is as successful as his recording career thus far. However, with the current scarcity of music venues I don't think many of us will bear witness to the live carnival for a while, but at least we now have three excellent albums to keep us busy with.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
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Rain – Cerulean Blue
Tracklist: The Lammas Lands (8:58), Parsifal (6:08); Starcrossed (4:52), The Silver Apples Of The Moon (7:38), Light And Magic (10:53), Jerusalem (9:13), Cerulean Blue (6:36)
Rain is not a band, but in fact the latest in a number of one-man projects which seem to be increasingly popular in the modern progressive rock scene. Despite this being, to the best of my knowledge, his debut release, Rain has in some respects gone straight in at the deep end with Cerulean Blue, an ambitious concept piece which aims, through both narration and music, to tell the story of a young man’s journey across America, the characters he meets and the experiences he has along the way. The story is effectively told in a series of ‘postcards’, with the narrator (Rob Brown, who starred in the BBC’s recent adaptation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales) setting the scene as our hero fetches up in such places as New York, Hollywood and Alaska.
Impressive sound effects (including a very realistic opening sample of an aircraft taking off) and a haunting combination of violin and cello form the backdrop to these narratives, which serve to link the main tracks. As well as simply telling a story, the lyrics appear to raise a number of spiritual and moral questions – much is left to the interpretation of the individual listener, but for those keen to know more, the CD comes with a 40 page text file discussion of the album with Rain himself.
Of course, all this would be of no consequence were the actual songs themselves not up to par, but thankfully that’s far from the case. Whilst this can definitely be classified as a progressive rock album, one of the main influences I picked up on are Scottish band The Blue Nile – not usually associated with the scene. Partly this is due to Rain’s vocals, which at times are very close to TBN’s Paul Buchanan, and partly down to the music itself, which is at times reminiscent of the bands’ 89 album Hats, in that through relatively simple melodies and instrumentation it creates an evocative late night atmosphere. Rain clearly isn’t one for shows of instrumental excess, instead carefully building songs so that they develop from sometimes humble beginnings to reach some powerful, emotional crescendos – opener The Lammas Lands being a good example of this.
Elsewhere, the influence of Pink Floyd is readily apparent – Silver Apples Of The Moon is a strong symphonic number which invites comparisons to both Echoes-era Floyd and the latter day Division Bell incarnation of the band – strangely Rain’s vocals are reminiscent of both Dave Gilmour and Roger Waters at various times. The use of saxophonist Ian Ballamy furthers the comparison, with his high quality extended solos on Parsifal and Light & Magic bringing to mind Dick Parry’s famous work with Floyd. In addition Light & Magic, with its chiming keys and slightly haunting vocals, also has something of a circa-1982 Peter Gabriel feel. The aforementioned Parsifal, meanwhile, features effective use of a choir before developing into a song which has a more contemporary feel in the style of Elbow and (early) Radiohead. Impressively, Rain manages to weld these various influences together to create a varied yet fairly unique style, so that although its easy to see his points of reference, he does manage to create his own identity.
I wouldn’t normally conclude a review with comments on how an album is being marketed and sold, but feel that in this case it warrants a mention. Rain’s label, TelosMusic, is making the entire album available as (in their words) a ‘moderate quality’ download, free of charge. Downloaders are actually encouraged to copy the files and pass them on. The idea is to get the music to as wide an audience as possible, with the hope being that a significant number will then purchase the album on CD, which has far superior audio quality, and is being sold at a very reasonable £5.99. This is a brave approach, but hopefully one that will realise the aim of getting Rain’s music widely distributed, and enable him to cover the costs of making this album – which must have been considerable. Personally I’d recommend this album at twice the price, and would certainly say that the majority of progressive rock fans, particularly those into the symphonic style, should find something to suit their tastes here.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Parallel Mind - Colossus ADEA
Tracklist: Chromanic (14:18), Opposite of Know (8:13), Colossus ADEA: [i]The Guardian (4:33), [ii]Into the Depths (4:59), [iii] Underwater Cities (4:52), [iv] Resurface Earth (4:03), Casa de Jig (7:43), Beginning's End (12:45)
I have no idea what these three guys mean by 'Colossus ADEA'. But I think I know what they are all about after listening to their debut release. Parallel Mind is an instrumental trio (keyboards, bass, & drums) playing adventurous fusion along the lines of that played by Niacin, Liquid Tension Experiment, and Planet X. And they sound like they're having fun at it, too.
Now I've never been a big advocate of track-by-track analysis for CD reviews, because it is only interesting to someone who has already heard the CD (to validate opinions they have already formed). And it seems rather pointless for those who want to decide whether or not they want to give it a listen. However I do find it useful read descriptions of the musicians that contribute in a given project - especially in a small ensemble. So that's what I'll do here.
On keyboards, Nibandh Nadkani plays an amalgam of styles that spans the gamut of modern prog/fusion, with patches to match. Very difficult to be an original nowadays - I can only think of a few, Derek Sherinian and Hans Lundin among them, who I can honestly say I could identify by their playing alone. It seems keyboardists (and players in general) who are struggling for an identity either focus on a narrow specialty, like Mike Pinella or John Novello do, or playfully scatter themselves in as wide a direction as possible, like Tomas Bodin. Nedkani takes the latter tactic but with less abandon than Bodin. I might add that most of the music appears to have been composed by him. Sometimes he sounds like Jordan Ruddess, sometimes he sounds like Sherinian, and he even played a slippery-sounding solo in track 2 that reminds me of David Sancious.
The drummer, Joe Babiak, is a lot easier to describe. He's a Mike Portnoy acolyte. Tremendously talented, accurate, and attractive sounding, yet he displays all the classic Portnoy hallmarks even up to the occasional single muted splash fill on beat '4'. This is not to say he needs to be more original - I'm sure he's heard that, and from his own voice in his head - but he has picked one hell of a role model, and has no trouble at all playing at that level. He and Nadkani are big reasons why much of this CD sounds like what I imagine LTE would have sounded like without Petrucci. More Niacin-like groove, and no stun guitar (excepting one guest solo who is not Petrucci).
The third member of the ensemble is William Kopecky on bass. Here is another all-around good player - not a virtuoso like Dave LaRue or Victor Wooten, nor a specialist like Tony Levin. Like his band mate Nadkani, he seems to be searching for his niche. I heard some great, creative bass lines, a few even reminded me of Jimmy Haslip of the Yellowjackets for their smooth understatement. When Babiak overdubs his flugelhorn or trumpet, the effect is a cooled off jazz vibe contrasting with the Planet X-like aggressive passages.
This is a cool CD, with good production and effective playing. It's really tough to make an impression without a vocalist, but these guys are good enough to do it and with more development they might become a real force someday. The only thing I would have done differently is place something more ear-catching at the opening. The build-up over the whole CD is gradual, and the final track is the most forceful sounding IMO. It needed something more like that at the beginning to kick it off.
You know what they say about buses – you wait ages and then three come all at once, well it seems the same is true of Instrumental Progressive Rock groups. Having just reviewed the Dutch group Novox, and with Brits Blue Drift waiting in my review pile, this time it’s the turn of Chicago based trio Parallel Mind.
Their website cites Rush, Yes and Planet X as inspiration, but whilst this may be the case, I personally wouldn’t say that they sounded particularly like any of these groups. Being all instrumental, they may be closer to Planet X, but their approach is far less full-on (not to say Over-The-Top) and fusion styled as Derek Sherinian’s combo.
The core trio consists of: William Kopecky (Kopecky, Par Lindh Project) - bass; Nibandh Nadkarni – keyboards; and Joe Babiak – drums, percussion, trumpet and flugelhorn. There is a heavy keyboard presence throughout the disc, but all three musicians hold up their corners well, with Kopecky especially proving to have considerable chops.
The prevailing mood is symphonic, but with elements of fusion, an occasional harder edge and (in the softer sections) a glimpse of New Age. Compositionally, they favour longer pieces; considering that the central four tracks form a single suite, there is nothing here shorter than 7 minutes.
The instrumental palette is broadened by guests: Saar Schnilman adds guitar to the staccato rhythmic pulsing of opener Chromanic; Rene Spacapan buzzes along nicely on cello on Opposite Of Know, complementing the rippling piano runs to great effect; Jason Pachona and Harrid Assian add mandolin and violin respectively to the folky romp Casa De Jig. The suite Colossus Adea finds room to accommodate ethereal (are there any other kind in prog?) female wordless vocals and choir, producing atmospheric music that would fit nicely on the soundtrack to any number of Sci-fi or fantasy movies.
None of this detracts from the band’s identity, which is strongly held throughout. They have managed to find their own sound whilst operating squarely in the realms of their chosen genre. This is where they score over the aforementioned Novox, whose disc suffered from a lack of cohesion and continuity. Novox may occasionally reach heights that are never quite scaled by Parallel Mind, but overall I prefer this CD, it’s much more consistently satisfying. Nadkarni is a bit of a wiz on the old keyboards, I especially admire his piano skills, and there is some terrific, chunky organ soloing too. Babiak is constantly solid in the drum seat, and his brass instruments add a nice jazzy flavour to parts of Casa De Jig.
I used to avoid instrumental albums, but in recent years I have found my appreciation of this particular genre has grown immensely. I no longer require vocals to focus my concentration – indeed I often find poor lyrics to be a severe distraction – and I don’t mind foreign vocals or, as here, no vocals at all.
This CD is a strong debut from a proficient instrumental team, whose compositions never fail to hold the attention from beginning to end. If you fancy a slice of Symphonic Rock sans vocals, try this – I doubt you’ll be disappointed.
Imago - Derrière Le Rideau
Tracklist: Après Avoir Collé (4:26), La Dentellière (3:49), Fanzine (4:04), Dors, Dors (3:49), Le Baba Débile Et Le Vampire Dément – Fable (3:17), L’Ami Américain (5:14), Le Cachot (3:41), J’Aimerais Bien Gagner Le Hit-Parade (4:15), Dernier Voyage (3:33), Journey (3:16)
Well, here’s another “blast from the past” courtesy of Musea Records. Imago’s third album, Derrière Le Rideau, was originally released on the L’Escargot label in 1978, during which time Imago was touring extensively throughout France, delivering “funny, iconoclastic, and ironic lyrics about their society, filled with humour, lucidity, and revolt against stupidity”. Now, since I don’t speak or read French (despite my childhood in a French-Canadian mill town), I can’t attest to the alleged success of Imago’s verse. (Note to Musea: Maybe English lyrics could be included with the CD insert for releases headed to the States?) And, I have to say upfront that I don’t find Imago to be a true progressive rock band. Nonetheless, that is not at all a detraction from the work and this is a very good offering, showcasing many of the elements of 1970s-era rock music that I most enjoy.
The members of Imago are Claude Six (guitar and vocals); Vincent Absil (guitar, harmonica and vocals); Bernard Benguigui (flute and vocals); Jean-Paul Verrier (bass guitar); and Charles Benarroch (drums). “Clever” might be the best word to describe the individual playing and the ensemble product, as well as “facile”. The band is confident and utilizes numerous sly tricks-up-the-sleeves, all to good effect. Derrière Le Rideau is a nice potpourri of 70s Anglo and Gaulish rock sounds and conventions, and the entire musical collage is notable.
The CD opens with Après Avoir Collé, which starts with a lilting flute solo and features a reprise of that solo throughout the track. Although the CD liner notes comment that the flute work is influenced by Ian Anderson’s playing, I didn’t find it to be especially Tullian here or elsewhere, as it lacked any of the growling bite or Kirkian howl employed by the Baker Street Muse. And it really is only used to occasionally colour a section, it’s never the dominant instrument. Après Avoir Collé, like L’Ami Américain as well, is funky, with a jazz-lite groove, and smacks somewhat of porn soundtrack music. (Not that I’d I know how porn soundtrack music sounds.) Both songs employ Steely Dan-style synths and electric piano and include a smarmy vocal tone, and I can’t tell if perhaps the tone of the singing matches well the lyric’s intended impact. Both songs are very clean, very smooth, and show off a tight rhythm section. The vocalist is fair but like many French singers I hear on the Musea re-releases, he overloads the phrases with too many syllables sometimes. Both Après Avoir Collé and L’Ami Américain reveal the degree to which Imago was influenced by jazz and/or the jazzier elements of 1970s pop music.
The CD contains a few softer tunes in a decidedly acoustic vein. La Dentellière offers a sweet, melodic guitar ballad opening almost in an America/C, S, N & Y style. The chorus, with its nursery rhyme, chimey keyboard part, is touching and perfect. Nylon guitar licks are sprinkled here and there as is again a soft, mild jazz flute. Dors, Dors is finger-picked and very accomplished, reminding me of Paul McCartney on, for example, Blackbird, Her Majesty, and I Will, but with more finesse and dexterity. The female vocals in the chorus are a little fey but are pleasant. Dernier Voyage is a country-rock pop tune, sort of like Dylan circa New Morning and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, especially with the harmonica fills. It’s a bouncy little ditty and the singalong chorus is nifty. This song even reminds me of Queen’s 39 from A Night at the Opera. All-in-all, I was glad that Imago included some of its acoustic adventurings on Derrière Le Rideau.
The 70s influence continues on the remainder of the tracks. Fanzine could be an All Things Must Pass outtake, in the spirit of Wah-Wah or Beware of Darkness. It utilizes a fat “wall of sound” production and layered horns. In fact, speaking of solo-Beatle recordings, Fanzine also recalls mid-70s John Lennon material, again echoing certain Phil Spectorisms. The keyboards do still evoke the handwork of Donald Fagen but this time there’s a slight Gentle Giant ambience, especially in the tone selection. Le Baba Débile Et Le Vampire Dément – Fable stands out with its quirky, jerky rhythm and a near-rap enunciation of the lyrics in places. The vocals are annoying, unfortunately; there’s no strong melody and the delivery is too wordy and busy. We’re treated to both more Gentle Giant-influenced music in the instrumental passages and concluding faux sheep bleating, about which I can say no more. Le Cachot presents the only really crunchy, Led Zeppelin-style guitar riff on the album: it’s a power-chord workout until the song shifts into a Marleyian reggae swing. The vocals are too atonal for my liking and the shift from heavy metal to island jam doesn’t work too well for me. J’Aimerais Bien Gagner Le Hit-Parade is mournful and sad at first, with its flute-piano opening stuck somewhere in the compositional realm of The Long and Winding Road and Let It Be. The choruses struck me as comparable to the better efforts by The Alan Parsons Project. But then, to assuage the grief, the tune dives into a conga-driven, “Star Wars” cantina groove, with a major chord resolution, and then a return to the lamenting piano verses. The CD finishes with Journey, an innocuous piano-guitar ballad. It’s nice but that’s all.
Overall, I am pretty fond of Derrière Le Rideau. I love the band’s willingness to play in any musical voice or style. The album wins me over with its variety in the same way (but to a lesser degree) that both the White Album and Physical Graffiti do with their sprawl and experimentation. Now, there isn’t much on Derrière Le Rideau by way of drastic tempo changes or extreme structural innovations. This is a pop album with a scattering of prog references included on the tracks and it’s all pretty straightforward stuff. The lack of epics and grand variation might leave the hardcore prog fan bored and wondering what the fuss is all about. And while sometimes the band tries too hard to marry two very incongruous musical sections, still, the musicianship is fantastic throughout. All of the members of Imago play exactly the right parts to fit the song, whether the song is ultimately successful or not. As well, the CD is well arranged, expertly recorded, and carefully mixed. I heard everything cleanly and with sharp definition. My one regret (and see my note above to Musea) is that I suspect that I’m loosing a HUGE portion of the band’s excellence and artistic intention by not knowing the lyrics. That’s my sole gripe, though, and I have to recommend this album to anyone, like myself, who finds the period between 1965 and 1975 to be the stellar era of rock music. Imago uses the motifs and hallmarks of that period without sounding hackneyed or tired. I guess I can only say: fine band, fine release, and thanks Musea, yet again.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Ion Quest - Ion Quest
Tracklist: Shazbot (6:08), Logic (4:27), Gunk (7:19), Gran Falloon (5:15), Julio's Thesis (4:01), Pablo Prequeño Vencio' El Toro Part 1 (7:38), Pablo Prequeño Vencio' El Toro Part 2 (4:05), Peanut Butter (5:16), Slogo (7:10)
Ion Quest are one of the latest in "jam bands" to come out of the US. Their origins stem from after school jam sessions featuring brothers Matt and Dave Gueldenhaar and friend Dan Byrd. However, a group consisting of three guitarists wasn't likely to get far and so they taught themselves to play bass and drums and for the next four years played at local house parties as an instrument-switching improvisational power trio. A move to Bloomington, Illinois in late 2000 was fortuitous as they linked up with permanent drummer David Mays and percussionist Chris Hogan. With Dan settling down to play the bass and Matt switching to keyboards, the five-piece played their first gig in late 2002.
Ion Quest's eponymous debut album in an instrumental affair featuring a fine blend of various styles. Opener Shazbot is almost funky with the keyboards and guitar combining well in a fairly loose and light groove. Logic continues in a similar vein with a bit more emphasis on guitar and bass, Matt's keyboards adding a somewhat more ethereal and spacey backing before taking a jazz-tinged solo. Although they describe themselves as a psychedelic rock band, they are rather more than that. In Gunk the keyboards once again add some jazz touches to a piece that moves around from soothing chill out music to a very infectious stomp that is bound to get live audiences bopping in unison!
Pablo Prequeño Vencio' El Toro starts with an interesting lead electric piano playing at a slower tempo than the rather more energetic guitar and bass. The contrast works well and the switch to everything playing in a frantic rush in the middle of Part 1 is effortless. Some nice guitar work draws the first part to a close culminating in another change of tempo leading into Part 2, which is generally of a more sedate nature. This leads nicely into Peanut Butter, a classy number enhanced by the sax meanderings of guest musician Louis Puskas. The inclusion of the opening melody of Somewhere Over The Rainbow midway through is very apt. A perfect accompaniment to a lazy summer afternoon by a river drinking a long cool one!
Throughout, the musical orientation is more a mixture of the light psychedelia of Ozric Tentacles blended with a dash of early Funkadelic and even some traces of the first few Santana albums thrown in for good measure. Although falling in the category of Jam Band, they offer up something a bit different from the more country flavours of Ekoostik Hookah, the Indie rockisms of moe. and the more contemporary music dabblings of The Disco Biscuits, three of the hottest jam bands doing the rounds at the moment. That, and the fact that they are all competent musicians with a selection of high quality instrumentals, means that they should easily find a niche of their own. The music lends itself to improvisation meanderings and I can imagine them going down a storm at any of the jam band summer festivals.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Heartscore - Straight To The Brain
Tracklist: God Lay Dead (3:05), Long John Brown And Little Mary Bell (5:23), Anyone Lived In A Pretty How Town (4:22), Love Is Like Whiskey (3:28), A Dream Within A Dream (3:47), The Schoolboy (7:51), The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls (3:40), Ballad Of The Gypsy (4:31), The Arrow And The Song (4:41), Her Eyes (3:31), Good Bye (5:10), The Day Is Done (7:56)
This is the second release from Heartscore and follows up their debut, Sculptures from 2003. Although I did not personally review that particular album, it is one that has stuck in my mind. Why? Well the strange concept behind the lyrical writing, the quirkiness of the songs and the sheer audacity of the music.
Heartscore is the brainchild of Dirk Radloff who pretty much writes, performs and produces his own music, although I am glad to see that a real drummer has now been included, replacing the drum machine used on Sculptures. Musically we have a hard hitting mixture of hard rock, metal and at times almost punkish guitar riffs, strong drumming and all are interjected with Radloff's idiosyncratic vocals and "choirs". For good measure we might also throw in a dash of jazz and folk rock. I never mentioned the word progressive in the above musical styles, well they are there, although the music's somewhat brash delivery belies the complexity of many of the tracks. Now on the surface this could well be perceived as a superficial album, but the more you go into the music the more it reveals. As with the previous album the lyrics for the songs take their words from some of literature's notable poets - Blake, Poe, Longfellow, Crane, Emerson, Cummings, Hughes and Ransom. Strange - it certainly is!
The vocals are also a bit of a mixed bag, on the one hand we have Radloff's solo voice which isn't really that wonderful. A sort of "pushed to the boundaries" David Byrne at times, moving to a distinct Heavy Rock delivery at others, and then delving into New Wave/Punk territory. On the other hand we have the ensemble vocal arrangements which are excellent. Gentle Giant, Yes, Zappa and possibly even Queen springing to mind on many occasions - yes they really are that well thought out at times.
Standouts for me were the two slightly more restrained, less in your face tracks, The Day Is Done and The Schoolboy. Great arrangements, but totally insane. Wonderful stuff.
This is not an album that you are ever going to be able to play for relaxation or as a background, it is far too quirky and is always coming at you, demanding you either listen - or turn it off, which I had to do to write this review. But like it or hate it, music needs guys like Dirk Radloff. He certainly cannot be accused of picking a winning formula and exploiting it, on the contrary his music pretty much defies being categorised. I doubt Straight To The Brain will appeal across the board, but certainly an interesting excursion. File under "unclassified".
Conclusion: 6 out of 10