Reviews in this issue:
- Glass Hammer - The Inconsolable Secret
- Steve Unruh - Two Little Awakenings
- Freak Kitchen - Organic
- Pocketful - Sparkling
- Orpheo - Echoes
- Towersound - Towersound
Glass Hammer - The Inconsolable Secret
Disc 1: The Knights: A Maker Of Crowns (15:21) The Knight Of The North (24:39)
Disc 2: The Lady: Long And Long Ago (10:23), The Morning She Woke (5:36), Lirazel (4:30), The High Place (3:33), Morrigan’s Song (2:23), Walking Toward Doom (2:06), Mog Ruith (2:03), Through A Glass Darkly (6:55), The Lady Waits (5:46), The Mirror Cracks (2:12), Having Caught A Glimpse (13:23)
I’m almost afraid to begin this review, as more than one recent thread on various Prog forums (not our own I might add, with relief) have rapidly developed into flame wars, with rabidly outspoken protagonists on both the “for” and “against” sides. Why this should be I’m not really sure, as there is surely nothing controversial about the music of Glass Hammer. They take a great deal of time and effort to create music in the manner of their favourite bands, blending elements together to produce a loving homage to the symphonic rock of the 70’s Of course, not all fans of progressive music are going to like them, but their skilful blend of symphonic rock moves (largely- but not exclusively – modelled on Yes and ELP) is clearly lovingly crafted, and if it never quite manages to scale the peaks of the very best classic Prog albums (surely not in itself a crime) it at least serves to keep the style alive, long after the original bands have moved on, or given up. I personally prefer Glass Hammer’s recent albums to any that Yes or ELP (collectively or individually) have produced for a long while.
Glass Hammer has made no secret of their Christianity, often adapting themes from C S Lewis, and, in Lex Rex, openly conveying a Christian message. Here though, the fantasy story woven by Steve Babb, whilst containing strong parallels to various biblical stories, holds back from overt preaching, allowing the Atheists amongst us to ignore any allegorical meanings and indulge in a fantasy tale, which makes full use of genre staples to tell an enjoyable tale of knights, maidens, betrayals and loss. I’m sure that there is plenty of subtext for the religiously minded to ponder, should you wish to.
Clearly, a lot of effort (and a lot of love) has gone into the creation of this mammoth 2 CD concept album, with lyrics distilled from an epic poem by Steve Babb (which can be read in its entirety in a computer file on Disc 1), orchestral sections, choir and, for the first time, their very own Roger Dean Logo and cover art. The band can be justly proud of the end product; I’m not about to say that it’s their “Close To The Edge” or “Tales From Topographic Oceans”, but it is a disc that you’ll want to play again and again, one that should remain satisfying for years to come.
The first disc, my favourite of the two, consists of just two long tracks. They are both smoothly flowing symphonic pieces, with lush atmospheres, acoustic passages, soaring guitar breaks and masses and masses of keyboards. Fred Schendel really has room to flex his chops on this disc, sounding like Keith Emerson after a holiday in Italy. There are some vocal sections, with Walter Moore contributing his usual Kansas style singing (very nice, if lacking the power of the really top vocalists), but these are relatively short interludes, with many extended instrumental flights occupying the major part of the disc. Impressively, these two tracks sound as though they are this length because they need to be, not because the band wanted an epic track and decided to string together several shorter pieces, as is often the case with some recent prog bands (Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard). At forty minutes long, this would make a satisfying album on its own, and in fact I probably will play this one more often than its companion.
Not that the second disc is inferior, but it is a more disjointed work, lacking the flowing nature of the first disc, and is taking me a little longer to warm to. It opens strongly, with Long And Long Ago, having an epic feel, with several instrumental nods to the sound of Going For The One era Yes. Strong harmony vocals and some excellent Steve Howe style steel guitar help make this one fly. Lovely!
The Morning She Woke is another solid effort, continuing the sympho prog feel, but then Glass Hammer take a left turn, in a suite of shorter pieces that explore a variety of different genres, with Folk Rock, Medieval and purely Orchestral sections amongst the styles tried on for size. This part of the album is a bit less fluid than the preceding parts, but though a tad unexpected, it is not without its charms, and may well prove to be a bit of a grower. Each section stands up well on its own, but lacks the organic, naturally evolving feel which is so appealing on the first disc. Susie Bogdanowicz gives a bewitching performance on the symphonic folk ballad Lirazel, which steadily grows from humble beginnings into a powerful and haunting piece, and The High Place is a magical melody for delicate strings, orchestra and choir, very otherworldly!
The disc concludes with the epic Having Caught A Glimpse, which returns to the fully blown symphonic style of the first disc, and makes a fitting conclusion to a truly ambitious work. I can’t quite bring myself to say that this is a masterpiece, but in the first disc and the opening and closing numbers on disc two, Glass Hammer have achieved their strongest work to date, and the rest of the album shows they are not afraid to move out of the comfort zone, though on this occasion I feel that the work may have been engaging and entertaining enough without this stylistic shift.
With Roger Dean desktop art, full lyrics, brief “Making of...” style videos and the full text of the poem all included as computer extras, this is a stylish and attractive package, which must surely be The symphonic album of the year. A must purchase for all Yes, ELP and, of course, Glass Hammer fans. Listening again and again to the album as I wrote and rewrote this review has seen the rating increase from an initial 8, to an 8 .5, before arriving at my final decision. I don’t think I will regret it either, the work just keeps growing on me!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Steve Unruh - Two Little Awakenings
Tracklist: Scenes From The Mirror (17:11), World Awake (7:00), Two Little Awakenings (17:53), From The Flowered Chair (4:43), Cricket Interlude (0:17), Resolution (31:13) [Part 1 (12:01), Part 2 (9:13), Part 3 (9:59)]
Normally, when an album is remastered and reissued it comes complete with various bonus tracks, sometimes of rather dubious quality. Not so multi-instrumentalist and DPRP favourite Steve Unruh who has edited and reissued his ambitious and somewhat experimental 2001 double CD album Two Little Awakenings as a more immediately digestible single CD. This is good news for people who have only recently discovered Steve's music, not only because the original double CD has been long out of print but also because it means that some exceptionally fine songs are available to the general public once again.
As Steve admits in the sleeve notes to the 'Official' edition (so dubbed as it is the first time it has been available as a factory pressed CD as opposed to hand-made copies) the new version is "presented as it probably should have been in the first place"...(the original had) lots of miscellaneous bits (assorted short songs, a couple of lengthy improvisations...) included for good measure and variety. However, in retrospect, I came to view TLA as requiring a bit too much of the listener. The styles shifted to sometimes unconnected extremes, and it was a big time commitment to listen to the whole thing". Not that the listener is short-changed on the single CD version jam-packed as it is with over 78 minutes of music.
A solo acoustic guitar kicks off Scenes From The Mirror before first the vocals and then bass and drums join in. The piece is a series of vignettes from the life of a central character who reflects on events from his past whilst standing in front of a mirror. Masterfully arranged, the song has a "mirror-like form... it progresses chronologically to the half-way point then retrogrades in reverse order". The arrangement even extends to "correlating the time signatures throughout the piece to the age of the character at the time of each remembered scene". Lyrically, the remembrances are told in terms of "determination and survival" on the one side, mirrored by "failure and limitations" on the other. However, one is never told which side of the mirror the character is standing on: is the character a failure reflecting on how different things could have been if he had made slightly different decisions at key points in his life, or vice versa? An engaging 17 minutes of anyone's time.
World Awake and Two Little Awakenings continue the theme of presenting opposite points of view. The former makes societal comments on the nature of individuals and how it is not too much of jump from contributing to the negative aspects of humanity to becoming more of a positive force, while the latter is more of a romantic discourse on how a seemingly trivial action is interpreted by each of the protagonists and is the interpretation is dependent, or a reflection if you wish to continue with the mirror image, on their individual emotional state at that time. Both songs are, like a lot of Unruh's material, acoustic based which is not to say they are ballads. The music contains a level of dynamism that often surpasses bands with rack loads of instruments thrown into the mix. The blend of simpler acoustic guitar and vocals with a fuller sound works well, particularly on Two Little Awakenings, where everything seems to fall in exactly the right place. From The Flowered Chair follows a more standard song structure and could almost be considered a pop song, of sorts. It does show that Unruh is impossible to categorise, he incorporates his influences and musical preferences with ease.
The epic Resolution takes a seemingly simple premise that an individual should try and be someone that they would truly respect and which often involves "rejecting both the ways of the world and often your own personal habits". The music is, as Steve himself states in the liner notes, "just insanity!...a strange and epic musical composition". As anything that clocks in at over 30 minutes has to be, Resolution is beyond ambitious, taking the listener through everything from manic mandolin solos, contemplative piano and acoustic guitar passages, finely orchestrated violin lines and bass/drum dominated sections. And that's just part 1 of the song! The remaining two section are just as engaging; a comparison with some of the Roy Harper epics of yore may be an apt starting place if comparisons are required.
Earlier this year, Steve was kind enough to send me a copy of the two-CD version of this album and I have to admit that it took a concerted effort to play through both CDs in one go. There was too much to take in and one became somewhat jaded, so much so that it was easy to overlook the strength of the compositions. This is particularly true for Resolution - Steve is very adept at placing musical cues and references to themes and melodies that have occurred earlier in the song, or indeed, the album. Thus being able to listen to the album in one sitting adds a whole new meaning to the pieces. Consequently, the new version of TLA comes as something of a revelation. Yes the remixing and remastering has increased the dynamic range and added emphasis to sections that have benefited from additional punch, but there is something more, a freshness, a new vitality, and, significantly, it all seems to make a lot more sense. All of Steve's albums come highly recommended, the man is quite simply a unique talent amongst a miasma of mediocrity. However, this new and genuinely improved version of Two Little Awakenings may just be his progressive rock masterpiece.
Conclusion: 9+ out of 10
Freak Kitchen - Organic
Tracklist: Speak When Spoken To (3.04),The Rights To You (3.58), Look Bored (3.40) , Chest Pain Waltz (4.18), Mussolini Mind (3.40), Guilt Trip (3.36), Becky (3.58), Independent Way Of Life (3.58), Heal Me (4.09), Infidelity Ghost (4.18), Sob Story (3.55), Breathe (3.10)
Bonus DVD: Speak When Spoken To [Studio Video], Blind [Live Montpelier], Nobody's Laughing [Studio Video], Hateful Little People [Live Paris], Print This [Tour Video], Taste My Chopstick [Live Paris]
Originating in nature rather than being made artificially. That’s one of many definitions for the word ‘organic’ and is certainly a collection of words that perfectly sums up the 12 tracks forming the most adventurous release yet from this sizzling Swedish threesome. Some of you may have seen recent reference to this band on the DPRP Forum and taken the advice to check out especially their last two albums (Move and Dead Soul Man). If so then you are already a converted Freak and this will be a no-brainer addition to your shopping list. If not, then read on to discover what you’ve been missing.
Freak Kitchen is primarily a musical vehicle to transfer the guitar adventures of the acclaimed Mattias IA Eklundh. Organic is the band’s sixth album and in many ways it departs from where its predecessor Move ended.
Musically, they don't easily fit into any one genre. However the more evident elements involve a Red Hot Chilli Peppers cum Faith No More funky metal vibe mixed with an addictive pop song writing mentality and an abundance of utterly incomparable guitar wizardry.
The key difference here compared to Move is that many of the songs are played with the guitar tuned to c, giving the album a far heavier feel, while at the same time the use of less distortion makes it a much warmer listen.
In terms of the songs, only the first three have that really addictive, powerful punch that we find on Dead Soul Man or Move. Not that the others are bad in any way, just that they find the Freak combo a little more progressive and, yes, organic than before. The songs are just that bit more complex, taking their inspiration from a slightly wider number of sources.
Those who know Freak Kitchen will already appreciate the eccentric guitar sounds that Mattias puts everywhere. The guitarist really does take a unique approach to the term 'guitar solo’. On Organic he is even more unpredictable than usual! Everywhere you’ll find a crazy solo or some weird sound.
The other big appeal of this band comes with the lyrics and especially the way that Mattias is able to convey serious issues in a light-hearted manner. Of course there are some straight funny songs like the crunchy, bouncy debut single Speak When Spoken To (with guest vocals from Bumblefoot) but the majority of the others go for good, dinner table topics like infidelity, the parent’s role and above all racism.
Matthias clearly isn't a big fan of fascism (Mussolini Mind) or racism (Becky). And with lines like ‘Prejudice, ignorance, The whole nine yards, Surrounded by a swarm of wicked retards - he could certainly be called ‘oppugnant’ - if you want another word to define. Should you ever need to show your friends that Metal bands aren’t all about devils and dragons, then this band is one of the best examples going!
Organic is certainly not the band’s most immediate album and doesn’t have the same hooks as its two predecessors. But then again, more of the same just becomes a bit boring and personally I’m glad the band is trying to move its sound forward.
The cover shows an excellent drawing by the French expressionist Thierry Cardinet and there’s a mightily impressive production that really lets all the instruments burst through. And if that isn’t enough, then they’ve even thrown in a bonus DVD. This has three exclusive live clips; from Paris Hateful Little People and Taste My Chopstick and from Montpellier (Blind) plus the Nobody's Laughing, Speak When Spoken To and Print This! videos. VFM indeed!
Undoubtedly one of the most original bands in the Metal scene; with Organic, Freak Kitchen has produced an album that should expose them to a much-wider audience. But be warned: they can become very addictive!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Pocketful - Sparkling
Tracklist: Deep Down Inside (4:34), Sparkling (4:14), Behind Thoughts - Part 1 [2001 Remix] (5:21), I Like (4:16), Every Door (5:37), Where Is God? (4:53), Under Water (5:19), Before The Bullfight (6:09), It's Nice (4:14), Don't Know Much (4:57), Behind Thoughts - Part 2 (1:48)
Pocketful are not, as you may well think, the latest in an increasingly lengthening list of Swedish bands as their heritage extends right back to the early 1990s when, under the name of Masque, they released two albums (1992's Flesh That Understands and Ten Ways two years later). I'm not sure what caused the 11-year hiatus but the group are now back with a new name but an identical line-up to the one that produced the second Masque album - Johan Engström on guitars, Jerker Rellmark on vocals and flugelhorn, Anders Kwarnmark on keyboards, Magnus Berggren on bass and Lars Källfelt on drums and percussion.
Not having heard either of the Masque albums I can't comment on what changes, if any, the band has gone through since they last released an album together, although the promo spiel from Musea (not always the most accurate, but as they did release the Masque albums I suppose they should know!) does state that Pocketful "present a musical world near Masque, with more positive vibrations and a sort of lightness from time to time....a more modern sound." I tend to be wary of terms like 'modern sound', fearing unholy amalgams of progressive rock and hip hop beats, but in this case all it can be interpreted as meaning not bearing much relation to 'traditional' prog music of the seventies. The album is generally fairly laid back, with elements of a more pop influence, particularly on the excellent title track which has a great melody, uses a flugelhorn to great effect and incorporates the only use of a sequencer on the album. Rellmark's flugelhorn also makes an appearance on Every Door which has certain similarities to David Sylvian's output at around the time of Gone To Earth, obviously a favourite as the group also offer a cover of Before The Bullfight from that very album. Both tracks are accomplished pieces with the guitar work of Engström being particularly notable, managing to blend Robert Fripp-like atmospherics with his own style and soloing.
Resurrecting their own past, the album also features two tracks released on the Masque albums. Where Is God?, originally released on Ten Ways, is reasonable enough but doesn't particularly stand out. Better is Behind Thoughts - Part 1, which originally appeared on the debut album. The new version is actually a remix of that track assembled in 2001 with Engström and Rellmark being the only band members contributing along with guest vocalist Jenny Berggren. Intense and somewhat mystical, the male and female vocals combine well to provide a different yet interesting number. Its reprise (in name at least), Behind Thoughts - Part 2 is a short instrumental that does not bear much resemblance to the earlier track although Lotta Järnebratt does her best Claire Torry impression and the inclusion of piano (played by Rellmark) is a nice touch.
Of the more up-tempo numbers, album opener Deep Down Inside is the strongest with its driving rhythm and mixture of guitar styles; I Like is pleasant enough but is rather too simple, relying too heavily on a vocal melody; and It's Nice features layered vocals and, once again, a strong tune that is very insistent and readily sticks in the mind. Under Water, an atmospheric piece that does impart the feeling of being submerged, is cleverly arranged and subtly different from the rest of the album while Don't Know Much also has overtones of David Sylvian but is not as distinctive as Every Door despite a great trumpet solo from Jan Rellmark.
Overall, Sparkling is not an album that I can imagine devout prog heads falling for but if you are in the mood for something lighter that has progressive, slight though they may be, progressive overtones then Pocketful may be worth a listen.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Orpheo - Echoes
Tracklist: Ease is Nowhere Near (8:22), Remorse (16:40), Phoenix Down (Release Me) (6:58), Night time (pt. 1 & 2) (8:11), Smoking with Sylvester (7:38), Shame Culture (7:57), Outside In (14:35)
Orpheo claims to be inspired by Yes and Pink Floyd, Nightwish and Dream Theater – and I guess I can hear little bits of some of those influences, if I listen very hard. (The title of the album, the same as that of one of my all-time favourite Floyd tracks, is a further hint of the band’s allegiance, I suppose.) But I can’t say that I can pin down anything really significant in Orpheo’s sound to anything much in the sound of those other bands. That’s both one of the good and one of the bad things about this ambitious, overlong, unfocussed, though in many ways respectable album.
Listening to this CD over and over, I’ve been trying to put my finger on what’s missing. Let me go over a few things that are not missing. Musical competence, even occasional virtuosity: Check. I’m especially impressed by guitarist David Marquart Scholtz’s lead playing, although I suppose the most immediately obvious element in the band’s sound is Rutger Viek’s keyboards – which offer a cornucopia of classic progressive-rock sounds (gotta love that organ!). Standard progressive-rock ambitions: Check. I mean, just look at the length of the songs – nothing’s under six minutes, and two of the tracks clock in at between fourteen and seventeen minutes. Melody: Check. Although the songs are (all of them, I’d say) too long, and they meander, none is just a collection of riffs or hooks. Instruments and vocals alike find something pleasing to do in most sections of most songs.
Well, what is it that this album lacks, then? I’ve identified three things. The first is an overall coherence. Each song is pretty good; one needs patience to sit repeatedly through the longer ones, but individually, they hang together pretty well. The album as a whole, though, really doesn’t. The songs are instantly identifiable as the work of the same band (more on why that mainly is in a minute), but there’s no sense that each is part of a coherent whole – and that’s the sense we get from any great album.
The second is a general lack of energy to the album. Taking again as a comparison any great album in any genre – from rhythm-and-blues to country-and-western to progressive – the one constant is energy, spark, fire. Even the glummest of modern popular progressive albums, Radiohead’s OK Computer, crackles with tension, energy both suppressed and released: listen to the way Fitter Happier segues into Electioneering and try to argue otherwise. But by contrast, the carefully crafted songs on this album seem, I don’t know, lacklustre; maybe overworked; – perhaps, in some cases, just dead. I get no charge from the album, and [and “because”] it doesn’t sound to me as though the band got such a charge.
The third problem, and this is one I’ve had to point out in other albums and always hate to point out, is the singing. It’s not that lead vocalist Wendelin Visser doesn’t have a strong, expressive voice: she does. It just seems to me emphatically not to work well with the kind of music the band is playing. Often, usually when she’s belting out this or that lyric, her voice sounds like a man’s falsetto or even countertenor, and on those occasions it’s more annoying than effective; and even (as at, for example, the beginning of Outside In) when she’s singing quietly, her voice somehow doesn’t suit the music. It is, however, the one element in the songs that makes them all (as I said earlier) instantly identifiable as the work of the same band.
This is by no means a bad album; I just can’t find a lot to say about it that would encourage music fans – who have countless other demands on their time and cash – to seek it out. I have found that it demands the sort of concentration that it just doesn’t repay: that is, to reap the benefits (and there are several, as I’ve noted) of the songs, one has to force oneself to listen very carefully – but it’s that “force” that’s the problem. I can’t really recommend this album, then, although there are undoubtedly many who would enjoy it – specifically, I’d say, fans of mid-paced, technically competent progressive rock with a Seventies tinge.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Towersound - Towersound
Tracklist: Prelude to the Tale of ... (2:09), Towersound (6:21), Devils of the Night (4:24), Shine Over Me (5:59), Hell’s On the Speedway (4:14), Bring Your Life to Light (4:39), My Wild Rose (4:44), It’s a Good Day to Die (4:24), Final March, Last War (12:10), Enchanted Alloy (6:55), Doomed at Dawn [Bonus] (4:44)
The final note in the CD booklet for Towersound’s debut album proclaims – proudly, I assume – “(ALBUM RECORD – MASTERING – COVER DESIGN . . .): ALL WORKS BY TOWERSOUND, MADE AT HOME.” One of the wonders of twenty-first-century technology is, of course, that a band can actually do what this band has done – create an album (and the packaging and artwork and everything else) entirely at home, with the help of certain kinds of sophisticated technology. Of course, Tom Scholz famously did exactly that (okay, not the artwork, so far as I know) with the first Boston album, and that was more than a quarter-century ago; but there are two differences. One, Scholz was not only a fine musician but also a graduate of MIT and a technophile. Two, he created not only a great but (as it turned out) even an innovative and prescient sound out of what is by our modern standards unimaginably primitive equipment. So here’s Towersound, a new French band, presumably with much more sophisticated resources than Scholz could even have dreamed of in the seventies – and they’ve made an album that quite thoroughly bears out the booklet’s boast: it really does sound as though it were made at home – perhaps in a downstairs rec room padded with mattresses and old quilts.
That’s the very worst news about the album, but I thought it best to get it out of the way first. And I’ll qualify my criticism by saying that the one instrument whose sound really grates on one here is the drums. Yikes. Too loud, too sharp, that hi-hat crashing away as though it were right beside your ear, the bass drums sounding like big cardboard boxes – really, the drums (not so badly played – drummer Flo knows what he’s doing, although the beat sometimes slows down and speeds up perceptibly, especially during his fills) undermine the album’s entire sound, mostly by monopolizing the ear. For the rest, this is a very ambitious but overblown and under produced progressive/power-metal album in the medieval vein. That is, it begins with and features at occasional other points very Dark-Ages-sounding acoustic guitar, and – Well, a glance at the song titles will tell you pretty well everything you need to know about the story the lyrics tell.
But these guys ain’t no Rhapsody – or even Derdian, to name another young band, Italian rather than French, working in the same vein that’s recently released its own debut album, a much more successful one. This really does seem like a demo disc rather than a finished album, and not only because of its less-than-professional sound. Most (though not all) of the songs hold together all right, but I can’t say much more than that for them – the very best thing on the disc is the guitar-and-synthesizer intro, unfortunately, which had me expecting great things – and there isn’t much to make one want to revisit the songs after one hearing except for the guitar (about which more in a moment). The vocals, unfortunately, are fairly weak, too. They come courtesy of “Jon,” who is also credited as “Author-Songwriter,” and they’re far from incompetent, but Jon’s enunciation is a little too emphatic, and he doesn’t have much control of his tone, so that the singing sounds pretty much the same all the way through all the songs – many of them long ones – on this also overlong album.
So what about the guitar? The best part of Towersound’s sound is the more-than-competent shredding/lead-guitar work of a fellow named only Lonn. He’s got that sweet but piercing Stratocaster lead tone favoured by so many European power-metal guitarists, and his work is generally tasteful and appropriate. If the band matures, he might have a more satisfying context for his work; as it is, he’s not so much complementing the other instruments as providing the only thing much worth listening to, whether he’s playing acoustic or electric. It’s his work alone, in fact, that saves some truly amateurish moments, such as the painful synthesized choir vocals near the beginning of the “epic” track Final March, Last War – the acoustic guitar coming in to distract us from the attempt at “atmosphere.”
This isn’t a demo; if it were, I’d be kinder to it. The band should have hesitated to release this disc as it stands, because it’s unlikely to gain them many fans. For all I can tell, Towersound may amount to something in the future – even a competent producer and a decent studio would have improved this album quite a bit. But at this point, there are just too, too, too many fine and even great bands out there mining the same vein to make Towersound worth listening to in their own right.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10