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Reviews in this issue:
- Spock's Beard - Gluttons For Punishment
- Pendragon - Believe (Duo Review)
- Gazpacho - Firebird
- Vladimir Badirov - Greeting From Nostradamus
- QuarterStorm - Presentation 2004 [EP]
Spock's Beard - Gluttons For Punishment
Disc 1 [54.01]: Intro (1.20), A Flash Before My Eyes [31.26] [The Ballet Of The Impact (5.50), I Wouldn't Let It Go (4.47), Surfing Down The Avalanche (3.53), She Is Everything (7.06), Climbing Up That Hill (3.34), Letting Go (1.20), Of The Beauty Of It All (4.56)], Harm's Way (11.17), NWC (9.58)
Disc 2 [64.32]: At The End Of The Day (16.33), The Bottom Line (7.40), Ryo's Solo (5.57), Ghosts Of Autumn (6.49), As Long As We Ride (8.26), The Light (19.07)
In case you hadn't noticed, over the last ten years or so, a new prog phenomenon emerged from the USA. Spock's Beard's mix of seventies Gentle Giant and Yes inspired prog, with a surprising American rawness to the approach. The band followed the prog concept to the letter: a couple of studio albums, a few live albums, a concept album and subsequently the lead singer left the band.
As has been the case with Genesis, Floyd, Marillion, Pallas and quite a few other prog bands before them Spock's Beard eventually recovered from the set back, and reinvented themselves with drummer Nick D'Virgilio taking over vocal duties.
After the somewhat ill-received Feel Euphoria and its subsequent tour, I feared the end of this great band had come. The gig I saw at Tivoli in Utrecht (the first of the tour) was a particular let-down, as can be read in Derk's review of that particular gig. As he summed it up: the magic had gone.
Then came Octane, at the beginning of 2005, which proved for me that the band was capable of crawling out of the depths after all, as the album showed a huge step forward both from the Feel Euphoria and the previous Spock's Beard work. Despite the disappointment of two years earlier, I went to see the Beard live again and was in for a treat. The live magic that had so disappeared from the band during their 2003 tour, was back again. The band played a fine gig, with a top setlist and loads of fun was had both on and off stage.
The new live album Gluttons for Punishment is the proof of that and shows that this band is still a force to be reckoned with. It was recorded over two gigs in Germany and the set contains a good mix of old and new, starting with their latest 30-minute epic A Flash Before My Eyes and finishing with their very first epic from their first album The Light.
The seven part A Flash Before My Eyes is delivered particularly strong. I prefer the live version over the studio version, as the band plays much stronger (and heavier). Only Nick D'Virgilio seems to have some problems coping with the different vocal styles he used on the studio version. While it seems that Al Morse is always tripping on something other than his guitar playing when he plays on a Dutch stage, it is nice to hear on this album what his contribution to the music is supposed to sound like. He is on great form, and fills the music with loads of little riffs and licks not heard on the studio version.
Of the other tracks from their latest album the instrumental NWC is particularly fun. It includes both Ryo's portable keyboard solo, and a drum duet between D'Virgilio and tour-drummer Jimmy Keegan, which inevitably reminds of the similar stuff Phil Collins and Chester Thompson used to do at Genesis gigs.
Their previous album Feel Euphoria is only represented with two tracks on this live album: The quirky The Bottom Line, which works excellently in a live setting with all the different bits and pieces this miniature epic contains, and the post-Neal Morse song Spock's Beard has written, Ghosts of Autumn. Like the rest of the tracks it is delivered with much more power than the studio version. As for the oldies in the set, there were a lot more of them than on their previous tour. First up is an epic from The Kindness Of Strangers album: Harm's Way. Neal who?? While Nick's voice may seem a bit odd the moment he starts singing, you will forget all about the other guy before the sentence is finished. Talking about making a song your own.
At The End Of The Day, was never one of my favourites (V simply isn't their best album), but it is a nice inclusion on the album anyway. Once again, Neal Morse's vocals aren't missed the slightest bit.
The Light is probably the hardest Neal Morse-era song to tackle, as this was pretty much a Neal Morse solo track conceived back in 1995, for which the rest of the band were called in to play their instruments. This is the only time on the album where you do miss Morse's vocals. I would say D'Virgilio is a stronger live singer than Morse, whose voice often wears out throughout the course of a gig, but D'Virgilio's voice does miss the aggression and venom needed for The Light.
The Light is extended nicely with a long piano solo, and a full band jam at the end, keeping the Beard tradition of concerts becoming real parties onstage.
Ironically, Spock's Beard never released a particularly good live album when Morse was still in the band. All of the live albums the band released previously (and that's quite a lot of them) failed to capture the live spirit of the band. Fanclub bonus outtake album Don't Try This @ Home Either being the only exception, but that wasn't a proper album.
Now, with Gluttons For Punishment Spock's Beard finally managed to release a live album which truly captures the spirit of the live Beard. Highly recommended!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Pendragon - Believe
Tracklist: Believe (2.57), No Place For The Innocent (5.36), The Wisdom Of Solomon (7.07), The Wishing Well (21.07) [For Your Journey (4.31), So By Sowest (6.48), We Talked (5.29), Two Roads (4.19)], Learning Curve (6.38), The Edge Of The World (8.20)
Pendragon was one of the first bands I discovered when I started listening to prog. After discovering Alan Parsons and Fish-era Marillion a friend of mine lent me a tape copy of The Window Of Life.
I was instantly hooked on Nick Barrett's many long-drawn guitar solos and Clive Nolan's intricate keyboard work. I bought a copy of The World the very next day and The Window Of Life followed not much later. Two years later The Masquerade Overture was my favourite album of the year (no DPRPolls back then) and while a little voice deep inside me kept pointing me to the similarities between the three albums, I would hear none of it.
Then five years later Not Of This World more or less ended my love affair with the band, largely because I didn't feel the quality of the album justified the long wait, but mainly because it was essentially The World pt 4, continuing the tried and tested sound of all the Pendragon albums since 1989.
Preceding the new album, Believe, was yet another long hiatus. However unlike the previous gap, this time Pendragon seemed to have disappeared completely. In a way, this was somewhat true, I guess. So it was great news that Nick Barrett & Co began to show signs of life again earlier this year, though I somewhat feared another let-down.
My lowered expectations of the album certainly contributed to the pleasant surprise I had when I played the album for the first time. Gone was the tried and tested Pendragon formula of a two minute guitar intro, followed by three minutes singing, a five minute guitar solo and a final vocal reprise. The new Pendragon sounds more fresh, more raw and definitely more progressive than before. Yet repeated listening reveals that in fact the band has still managed retain their identifiable unique sound, but without giving the feeling that they are repeating earlier work. So it is more like an upgrade to the old Pendragon than a complete re-invention.
The prolonged instrumental intro that is the title track starts the album in a very mysterious way. Native American rattle instruments combined with Celtic vocals, followed by the weird, organic guitar sound of a Banshee Talkbox (the guitar effect made famous by Bon Jovi's Richie Sambora, but also used by Dave Gilmour in Keep Talking for example).
It sets the tone for the album immediately: a mix of a bit of everything!
The first real song No Place For The Innocent sounds more like REM than a prog band, which makes the tune sound remarkably refreshing. Nick Barrett also sings a lot better than on previous albums. Most people will know that Barrett's voice falls in that typical category of love-or-hate prog singer category (see also Roger Waters, Pete Nicholls, Geddy Lee, Geoff Mann, Roine Stolt and many others) but on the new album Barrett stays well within the limits of his vocal range.
The Wisdom Of Solomon is a bit of a downer. It starts as vintage Pendragon (keyboards and electric guitar solo) but doesn't really go anywhere. There are some DJ-style keyboard effects here and there, as if trying to update Pendragon into the 21st century, and then there's quite a bit of good guitar soloing towards the end, but it is as if the song never really takes off in those seven minutes.
Centrepiece of the album is the 21-minute The Wishing Well, which is divided into four parts. The first part For Your Journey is largely a spoken piece, accompanied by atmospheric vocal effects. It drags on a bit too long, partially because in my opinion Barrett's voice just isn't suitable for this type of storytelling. Best leave that to a Roger Waters or Fish.
So By Sowest brings the album back on track and is in fact the first foray into more common Pendragon territory: Genesis style dual acoustic guitars during the verses, and some great electric guitar solos which are played through the choruses. Accessible, catchy melodies building to a big sounding climax, then doing a strange 180 towards the end when it turns into a folky acoustic guitar tune which actually serves as an intro to the third part We Talked. This part is filled with weird vocal effects and is delivered as an up-tempo Polka! Must have something to do with the band's frequent visits to Poland.
The final part Two Roads feels somewhat disconnected to the rest of the parts. It starts as an acoustic ballad which resembles the mid-section of The Last Man On Earth, but quickly turns into yet another progfest with an excellent (and all too short) slide-guitar solo at the end. For some reason as the closing part of a twenty-minute epic Two Roads just lacks the punch and the climax such an epic requires. It ends too quickly.
In all honesty, The Wishing Well is one of those rare occasions where the epic isn't the highlight of a prog album. In essence it's not even an epic, as the individual parts don't have anything in common musically (then again, neither did the three parts that make up Queen of Hearts).
Saving the proverbial best for last are the final tracks Learning Curve and The Edge Of The World. The first sounds like something which could come off an Enigma album, with organic wind instruments mixed in the very electric arrangement of keyboards and guitar. The instrumental second half is possibly the best of the band I ever heard.
With the last track The Edge Of The World, we have arrived back in familiar Pendragon territory. It follows the formula of the previous four albums, but without sounding like a copy of previous work. It is built up like a song from a musical, which is not surprising since Barrett's lyrics are in fact a personal letter to his fans. Again, there's a long instrumental section, with a guitar solo that can make you cry.
With Believe Pendragon proves the band is still very much a live and kicking. Sounding stronger and more powerful than before. Fans of Clive Nolan will be somewhat disappointed to learn that his trademark solos have all but disappeared on the album. Instead he takes a Richard Barbieri style back seat by providing an atmospheric backdrop to Barrett's acoustic and electric guitars.
Fudge Smith and Pete Gee, one of the stronger rhythm sections in prog, are as prominent as on any of the previous albums. Smiths powerful drumming and original rhythms and Gee's propelling bass lines are a delight for any prog fan.
Lastly Nick Barrett himself proves he can still deliver. His guitar play is as heavenly as before and also his vocals are much stronger than in the past. Also the subject matter of the lyrics has matured, tackling many of present day issues like the 'war' on terror and the state of the music industry.
Though I feel the album sags a little in the middle, with the first two and last two tracks being the strongest bits of the album, on the whole I think it is a strong album and definitely recommend it to our readers. Pendragon is back and let's hope this time they are here to stay!
It is four years ago that Not Of This World was released and it is five years before that The Masquerade Overture was released. In the year of their 20th anniversary Pendragon finally release a new album. There are a number of reasons for these long pauses but Nick Barrett is making it very clear: Pendragon is back! This album will most certainly be followed by a tour and during our interview Nick mentioned that he was already working on a track for the next album. So Pendragon is reborn and eager to go out again.
And what a pleasure it is that these guys are back! Of course Clive Nolan has done some other work in between (like releasing over five albums with Arena, Wakeman, etc.) and Fudge Smith and Peter Gee have also kept themselves busy. Unlike Nick Barrett: who has been on a four year surfing streak (it must be true: Clive Nolan says so on the Believe documentary which, by the way, you should really have a look at, informative and great fun!).
With Believe Pendragon did not choose a complete new direction. Pendragon as we know it from the previous three albums is oozing out of every second of this album. But added to that is a bit more power, a sample here and there and more guitars than keyboards. Of course Clive Nolan's keyboards are present and also the dreamy Pendragon atmosphere is still there. Nick Barrett's voice is a bit deeper (lower) on some of the tracks and that too is different. Because of this, but mostly because the balance is tipped more to guitars, it is like a new Pendragon wrapped in the old.
The opener Believe is dreamy and has a lot of keyboards and samples but tracks like No Place For The Innocent (Rock the Pendragon way), The Wisdom Of Solomon, So by Sowest, We Talked (all have weeping electric and sharp acoustic guitars). Learning Curve (guitar solo at the end), The Edge Of The World (again acoustic guitar) show how guitars have become more important. Because Nick Barrett hurt a finger he could only use three fingers to record the tracks of Believe. With that knowledge in mind this album is even more amazing.
In the past four years Nick Barrett has really done some 'soul' searching and developed stronger interests in many things like politics, economics, world history, religion and anything spiritual (it is what Learning Curve is about). It might be for that reason that the lyrics of Believe are some of the best Pendragon lyrics. No Place For The Innocence questions all beliefs and dogmas, it makes me wonder "what is it I believe?". The Wishing Well - a triptych made up of For Your Journey, So by Sowest and We Talked, - is about 'steering the great ship mankind'. The narration of For Your Journey is not really my cup of tea but it does have some very strong lines. So by Sowest references The Biggest Secret, a book by David Icke. It's also one of the books that triggered the questions of No Place For The Innocent. The book is suggesting that there is or has been serious alien intervention in Earth's affairs....
I very much like Clive Nolan's keys, they are an important factor in Pendragon's success but giving them a smaller part in this album is what makes this album different from the previous. So if, like me, you are a sucker for weeping guitars and almost classical acoustic guitars you should buy this album. Existing Pendragon fans will also very much like this album, but my guess is that they already own it and have only read this review to make sure we get it right.
The atmosphere of The Edge Of The World, an intimate and melancholic track, almost made me cry when I listened to it while lying in bed in the dark. It's a song for the fans and how they are very close to Pendragon - something Pendragon hopes will never go away. My advice to Pendragon would be to keep making albums like Believe and those fans will stay for another 20 years!
Gazpacho - Firebird
Tracklist: Vulture (5.45), Symbols (4.05), Swallow (5.40), Orion I (5.21), Orion II (3.04), Prisoner (4.15), Jezebel (4.19), Black Widow (4.28), Firebird (5.22), Do You Know What You Are Saying? (6.23), Once In A Lifetime (5.22)
After being criminally ignored for three years or so, Gazpacho finally managed to secure themselves a record deal. After supporting Marillion on the European leg of their 2004 Marbles tour, the band landed themselves a record deal at Marillion's "Intact" label, which also hosts John Wesley and Richard Barbieri, as well as most of Marillion's solo projects.
The core of the band remains the trio of Jan Henrik Ohme (vocals), Jon-Arne Vilbo (guitars) and Thomas Anderson (keyboards and production), expanded with drummer Robert Johanssen, who joined the band last year before the recording of When Earth Lets Go. Johanssen was also assistant engineer for this album. Bassist Roy Funner left the band shortly before recording of the album began, and he is replaced by Kristian Torp on this new album. (who is listed as "additional musician" though).
Another familiar face in the line-up is Mikael Krømer, who has played violin on all Gazpacho albums to date. This time Krømer really excelled himself by overdubbing his own playing to the extent of 60 times, thus creating the sound of a full orchestra. An interesting note to this is that though the music of Gazpacho is often very electronic, no synth were used for any string sections on the album.
The album is closer to its predecessor When Earth Lets Go, than to the band's debut album Bravo. Like When Earth Lets Go it is a much more consistent album than Bravo, but it beats the former in terms of experimentation and unconventionality.
Their music remains a cross between Radiohead, Muse and present day Marillion, but all mixed down to their own very unique Gazpachoid style.
Once again there are moments of beauty and serenity, and unexpected bursts of heavy rawness. Tracks like Symbols, Prisoner and Black Widow are powerful rockers, while Swallow and Once In A Lifetime are very slow melancholic tracks.
But the best tracks are those were melancholy and power are mixed in the course of one song. For example Jezebel, which starts as mellow ballad, much in the vein of 117 off When Earth Lets Go, but contains a roaring organ and heavy guitars in the choruses.
Another one of the more varied tracks is the standout track on the album: eight and a half minute Orion, which is split in two parts on the album. The transition between the first two parts may seem a bit odd at first (it is a cross-fade from a drum solo to sound-effects) but it works remarkably well in a Porcupine Tree sort of way. Part I is an up-tempo rock song with catchy melodies, while Part II contains mostly atmospheric sound effects which lead to an ethereal reprise of Part I, before the band launches in a powerful all-or-nothing finale.
The other track that immediately stands out is Do You Know What You Are Saying?. This ballad is enriched by a great guitar solo by one Steve Rothery and this song is the prime example of what good a guitar solo can do to a Gazpacho song. Unfortunately the band still doesn't agree with me on that part, as this one solo is the only guitar solo on the album.
Much of the album is darker than the two preceding albums. Aforementioned Orion Jezebel have a certain amount of darkness, but the darkest and gloomiest of them all is opener Vulture, which starts as one of the darkest and most haunting things they have ever done (what a way to start an album!). The first half features an accordion playing a melody which reminds me of the soundtrack to the movie "Twelve Monkeys". And then Anderson switches to some heavier artillery with great, raw, Deep Purple style organ - yeah!
As always electronics play a large role in Gazpacho's music. A track like Swallow is built around a drum computer rhythm, complete with vinyl record cracks and pops. Combined with the piano tones, this track immediately reminded me of some of the soundtrack style music of Moby. The violins in the song only added to that perception, though -as mentioned before- all violins on this Gazpacho album are the real thing, no synths used.
Other bands that would serve as an occasional point of reference are The Cure (mainly the opening of Black Widow) and U2. Especially the powerful and deliberately monotonous drumming in Symbols reminds of U2. Apparently the drum track on this song was recorded in one live take, without any overdubs or edits.
More U2 influence in the first part of the title track. The driving bass and subdued drumming echoes that of U2 on tracks like With Or Without You or Exit.
Like the previous album Firebird ends on a downbeat, with the gloomy Once In A Livetime. Once again the atmospheric work of Moby springs to mind because of the distorted sound of the string section, which sounds almost as if played by a Mellotron.
Ohme sings in the same falsetto voice he used in Sun God off Bravo, which may take a while to get used to.
The band has always been open for strange experiments, and Firebird sets a new standard for band/fan relations. A thread on the Gazpacho forum resulted in fans sending in recordings of themselves playing odd instruments for inclusion on the album. In the end four of these samples were used in various songs on the album and it is amazing how well they fit with the music. Possibly the weirdest of the samples is the sound the Dutch army firing shells with a Leopard 2 tank, which is used in Orion II.
Once again the album was recorded and produced in Thomas Anderson's Kryptonite studio in Oslo, and once again his production is impeccable. The album is best listened to through a set of headphones, as there are so many layers and nuances to the music.
Also worth mentioning is the artwork of the album. On previous albums guitarist Jon Vilbo was responsible for the artwork, but this time he only designed the cover, while the rest of the 12-page booklet was designed by Spanish artist Antonio Seijas Cruz. The drawings of the firebird were based on the gigantic line drawings found in Nazca Peru, and the eerie style only adds to the mysteriousness that surrounds the music of Gazpacho.
With Firebird the Norwegians deliver yet another strong album, and now it is time for the rest of the world to notice. Of course it is hard for me to stay objective, as I've been following this band since the beginning, but I assure you, I know good music when I hear it!
While music of Gazpacho is not progressive in the normal sense of the word, they certainly rank with the likes of Radiohead, Muse or even first album Coldplay. Fans of contemporary Marillion will certainly dig this, as will those who like the melancholic side of bands like Porcupine Tree. Why not check out the free MP3 download of Orion part I which is available through the Gazpacho website.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Vladimir Badirov - Greeting From Nostradamus
Tracklist: Nomad In Time (4:26), Dreamway To Scotland (3:46), Lay Backm Nasretdin! (2:04), Ultimately For Screwy D.J. (4:36), The Heart (4:11), Mechanical City (4:57), Caravan Enduro (1:51), Bottomless Abyss (2:52), Shaman (2:52), Vacuum Hush (1:54), Artificial Paradoxes (4:47), Greeting From Nostradamus [alternative edition] (3:50), The Heart [duduk version] (4:11), Cold Passion [Artificial Paradoxes] (8:23)
Vladimir Badirov has been around for quite some time and his track record is quite impressive. Working together with theatre companies and as a session musician, Vladimir has become a very experienced percussionist. For about eight years he worked together with Uzbekistan singer/actress Yulduz Usmanova, after which in 2002 he started working together with Uzbekistan national singer Nasiba Abdullaeva. His work with Sevara Nazarkhan, as a session musician, earned him a TV appearance on Russian TV and they became support act for Peter Gabriel's Growing Up tour.
Vladimir wanted very much to create his own project and this album, Greeting From Nostradamus, is the fulfilment of that wish. Although a lot of different (and to prog unusual) instruments are played it is very clear that Mr Badirov is a percussionist. Rhythms (some modern, some oriental) are in the heart of all the tracks on this album.
This clever cacophony of rhythms, electronic music and traditional Uzbek folk instruments (with names like nai, ud, tanbur, karnai and sato) form a kind of music that is highly infectious, soon you will be tapping to the beat. It might not be your standard progressive rock but it is clear that Vladimir Badirov has loads of experience and is a very capable musician.
To give a general idea as what kind of music to expect on this album, you should think of the soundtracks created by Peter Gabriel (especially Passion) combined with some Mike Oldfield goes world music, elements. But contrary to the Peter Gabriel soundtracks the tracks on this album do not really need the accompanying movie to make sense. Vladimir Badirov's music can stand it's ground on it's own. I am very curious how Vladimir comes up with names for his songs. On Dreamway To Scotland some bagpipes are used so I can understand that one but there are as there are no lyrics I would really like to know why Ultimately For Screwy D.J. is called just that.
Capable musicians, original music, everything on this album deserves our admiration. This however does not necessarily mean that everyone will like this music. It says that Unicorn Records was looking for unique sounding artists and they really managed to do that. This music will not be the first choice to most progressive rock fans, but people that do appreciate the music mentioned as references, might also like this album. At least it is original and certainly not your standard guitar based progrock.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
QuarterStorm - Presentation 2004 [EP]
Tracklist: Titanová myš (5:02), The Smile (5:15), Chorál zpívaný jediným hlasem (5:16), Cerná (5:14)
Another CD that has too long been in the wings awaiting attention. Initially I had reservations about a review as DPRP are unable to review demos, unless that is they are of an acceptable audio quality, have album artwork and are available to be purchased. Certainly the first two criteria were fulfilled and confirmation from drummer Radim Chrobok about the availability of the EP means we can now take a look at the music of QuarterStorm.
QuarterStorm are the amalgamation of several now defunct Czech bands, all unknown to me as presumably to the majority of our readers. However reading through the band names gives a little clue as to the sound of the band, albeit with the exception of the metal band Love History (very little sign of any metal influences here), which three of our new sextet emerge from. Other band names such as the Sting Revival, Janis Joplin Revival and The Wall Project give a broader picture of the band's musical output. So presumably QuarterStorm must fall into the huge cauldron known as ArtRock.
So the music on Presentation 2004 combines the broad spectrum of instrumentation and musical backgrounds of its members. A mixture of delicate folky and jazzy female vocals from Lada Soukupová, which are nicely complimented by the tasteful saxophone parts. In general Kuba Dolezal's sax is quite restrained although he is allowed to cut loose a little on the last track. Tomáš Nykl provides the guitar work which is effective, but mainly employed within the music, rather than as a lead instrument. Similarly the keyboards of Hana Vanková form an important and pivotal role, without ever gaining much of the limelight. Last but not least the rhythm section of Radim Chrobok (drums & percussion) and Viktor Cermák (bass), which gives the music both its drive and depth.
Now within our ArtRock, I think we might include some Canterbury influences - most pronounced during The Smile and to lesser extent the closing piece. Though the standout track for me has to be the opener. The bass and drums work really well here and groove the track along. The arrangement is also cut nicely by the synth keyboards which dissect the song forming sort of instrumental choruses. Each member gets to shine during the middle section instrumental without it disrupting the tracks flow. Great song.
All the tracks are well written with catchy melodies and hooklines - certainly Titanová myš has been rattling around in my head for days now. The bass and drums work really well and lay a good foundation for the somewhat laid-back approach of the band. This should not imply that the music is without drive, on the contrary the music grooves well. Possibly on the borders of prog, but interesting all the same.
This is an EP full of promise, certainly well worth checking out and as mentioned above available from the band's website - now on download. Why not check out Titanová myš. The literature that accompanied the EP suggests that the band are moving in a different direction musically, therefore I have not offered a numerical conclusion to this review - let's see what happens next.
Conclusion: Waiting for the album!