Reviews in this issue:
- Echolyn - As The World
- Sombre Reptile - Le Repli Des Ombres
- Chiave Di Volta – Ritratto Libero
- Phi Yaan Zek - Solar Flare
- Brad Love - Colours
- Van - I Fly (Single)
Echolyn - As The World
CD: Always The Same (0:36), As The World (4:50), Uncle (6:54), How Long Have I Waited (4:43), Best Regards (4:11), The Cheese Stands Alone (4:48), Prose (1:45), A Short Essay (4:34), My Dear Wormwood (3:34), Entry 11.19.93 (5:33), One For The Show (4:31), The Wiblet (0:47), Audio Verite (4:27), Settled Land (5:42), A Habit Worth Forming (4:29), Never The Same (7:54)
DVD: Intro (0:40), Uncle (7:22), A Short Essay (4:58), My Dear Wormwood (3:42), Here I Am (5:05), 21 (5:38), The Cheese Stands Alone (4:52), As The World (5:38), Interview with Brett Kull and Ray Weston (5:09)
Back in 1994 things looked very healthy for Echolyn, an American band who were considered by many to be the group with the potential to spread progressive rock to a wider audience. With two highly regarded full-length albums and an acoustic four-track EP under their belt, the band had been plucked from their independent existence and signed to a worldwide deal with Epic Records, backed by the international might of Sony. The group was largely based around the guitar of Brett Kull and keyboards of Christopher Buzby, both highly competent musicians and masters of their instruments. The rhythm section of bassist Tom Hyatt and drummer Paul Ramsey was nothing short of inspired, their contributions being so much more than the stout backbone that anchored each song providing the soloists room to weave their magic. And in Ray Weston, Echolyn possessed a lead vocalist that was able to take the music his band mates produced and raise things to another plane. If one thing defined the sound of the band it was their signature vocal arrangements. Although Weston took the lead on most songs, he was often accompanied, and sometimes replaced, by Kull whose own vocal talents occasionally took the prominent role with the three other members chipping in harmonies as and when required. And what harmonies! Taking inspiration from Gentle Giant, the group blended their voices in tight-knit layers of complexity but, whereas the Giant sound often displayed baroque and classical overtones, Echolyn managed to maintain a contemporary edge to their vocals.
Although recording of As The World had been completed by June 1994, the album wasn't released until March of the following year. Unfortunately, Epic/Sony had no idea how to market the band and seemed to be at a loss with what to do with a 70-minute (uncharacteristically long for an album of all new material at that time) album of sometimes challenging but always dynamic music. They seemed to consider Echolyn as an album band, above the frivolity of the singles market occupied by pop acts. After all, it had worked for some of the world's largest bands who often treated singles with disdain. However, what the label failed to consider was that the great and good bands of the 1970s had built up large followings and significant reputations through constant touring, something that in the late 1990s the label were not willing to finance, even if it had been possible in the environment of the day. So, instead, the band was kept in limbo. Unable to go out and spread the word to a larger, international audience with an album that was not being effectively, if at all, marketed and a back catalogue that the band could no longer sell (the rights to the recordings having been bought by Epic/Sony as part of the deal) the impetus the group had gained over recent years came to a sudden and ultimately fatal halt. Legally constrained by a label that wouldn't even give them permission to contribute to tribute albums of their favourite bands, the group had no real option but to break up.
A sad, but all too familiar tale, particularly because As The World should be considered as one of the few really essential progressive albums to be released in the 1990s. At least the deal with Epic/Sony had given the band the finances to really go all out and record an album with the scope that they had always envisioned but never had the money to achieve. The multi-track recordings, residential recording studio and a seasoned producer (Glenn Rosenstein) meant that the band's vision for the album could be achieved in full. After many years of being unavailable, the band has obtained the rights back from Sony and have re-released the album on their own label, apt as 2005 is the tenth anniversary of this remarkable album.
The tone of the CD is set by the gentle string and layered vocal harmonies of Always The Same, a brief introductory piece that leads directly into the album's title track. A song delivered with intent, it sets out a manifesto for the rest of the album - keyboard and guitar mastery with a funky bass and rhythmic syncopation and those glorious vocals. The five minute song flies inviting the listener to come on in and sample more. If anyone unfamiliar with progressive rock wants to know what it is all about, just play them this song. On Uncle Weston lets rips with passion and the group, led by Buzby's keyboards, display a slightly jazzier edge while on How Long Have I Waited Weston again shines with possibly his best performance on the album. The more acoustic based Best Regards is driven by Ramsey's drums and Buzby's piano with a central vocal interplay section that comes closest to emulating Gentle Giant. The strangely titled The Cheese Stands Alone is one of those songs with so much packed into it it is as if the best bits of a dozen different songs have been merged together. But it works marvellously and the end result is simply wonderful. The next five tracks comprise a suite of individual pieces grouped together as a collection of Letters. One wonders if the label were wary of including a 20 minute track on the album, as that is really what Letters is. Prose starts as a lovely piano and acoustic guitar duet which serves as an introduction to A Short Essay which continues the piano melody but with added strings. The quieter tone allows the group's vocal abilities to really come to the fore and the added violin adds a nice counterpoint. My Dear Wormwood ups the tempo but despite containing some moments of great beauty is a bit fragmented. Entry 11.19.93 has an almost lounge bar feel to it in places; Buzby's masterful orchestration backing Weston's voice perfectly and the ever present harmonies lifting the whole song. Kull's concluding guitar solo is mirrored by the keyboards before the orchestra takes thinks down providing a link into One For The Show which draws things to a neat finish.
The Wiblet is a brief instrumental based around a jazzy piano riff and then we are off into the final third of the album. Audio Verite, another great song featuring more vocal interplays, is followed by Settled Land, an excitingly crafted piece that exudes energy. A Habit Worth Forming, a number whose opening gentleness gives way to one of Kull's best solos on the album, has a long fade-out before the orchestral introduction to Never The Same heralds the beginning of the end with an achingly beautiful ballad that is worth the price of the CD alone, with lyrics adapted from the poem by Mary Frye - "Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there I did not die, I say to you I will see you again, on the other side some day" - the song is definitely one of Echolyn's best.
As a bonus, the CD is accompanied by a DVD of a concert the band played in Detroit two days before the release of As The World. Sharing a bill with Discipline and two forgotten thrash bands, Cymonic Drive and Unreasonable Story, Echolyn's set was restricted to 40 minutes. Recorded by the local cable company for broadcast on public access television, the band is captured in an intimate club setting. Obviously not headliners, the group are squeezed to the front of the stage and as a support act they lacked the benefit of a full light show. In addition, the audience were, as Ray Weston states in the excerpt from his tour diary, "classic, typical metal crowd" with the response being summed up by "three quotes - 'Go Away', 'Stop' and 'Slayer'". Whatever is lacking in terms of audience response (although there are obviously a fair number of fans in the crowd), and rather basic visual quality, is more than made up by the band's performance. With a choice selection of new material, this is a rare chance to glimpse the band in full flight. Impressively, the band easily replicate their complex harmonies live, particularly on A Short Essay, while older numbers Here I Am, where Hyatt's bass playing impresses immensely, and 21, a Kull tour de force, show the reason why Sony were interested in the first place. However, it is Weston that steals the show: his energy, on-stage prowling and first-rate singing provide the animation and excitement that makes the DVD. Echolyn songs are too complex to allow much scope for improvisation and so the arrangements are very similar to the album versions, although Uncle in particular takes on a whole new persona when played life, delivered with much more aggression. On the whole, it is quite inspiring to see these songs performed live.
All in all this is an important re-release of a an album that is a classic of its genre and should be regarded as one of the pivotal releases of the late 20th century. The bonus DVD is a worthwhile enticement for fans who have original copies of the album while the uninitiated now have the chance to discover what all the fuss was about. Thankfully the group didn't stay disbanded for long and, after a handful of spin-off releases (Buzby's two jazz fusion albums with Finneus Gauge and the two rather more more progressive releases by Still/Always Almost that featured Weston, Bull and Ramsey), the group reformed, and have so far released three DPRP recommended CDs (check out the newly released The End Is Beautiful!). To sum things up, no progressive music collection is totally complete without a copy of As The World!
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Sombre Reptile - Le Repli Des Ombres
Tracklist: Autres Jungles (11:27), Escales (4:37), Quartiers Perdus (8:25), Exorex [Extreme Orient Express] (4:39), Le Reve D'Omer Spliter ~ Part 1: Hypnosis, Part 2: Ombres Et Replis, Part 3: Another Quiet Place (12:23), Le Repli Ombres ~ Part 4 (12:14)
I was particularly pleased when we received this latest offering from French trio Sombre Reptile, as I had particularly enjoyed their previous release In Strum Mental from 2001. I was intrigued to hear what changes may have occurred during this time and how the music had developed. Well the good news was that the band line-up had remained in tact from their last recording, so I was assured of the quality of the musicianship.
First listen through also confirmed that the somewhat unique style of the band was still present, although four years later they had pushed the boat out somewhat further, with the new pieces been given greater scope to be developed and expanded upon. So whereas In Strum Mental contained relatively short tracks, Le Repli Des Ombres moves more into mini epic territory. And with these longer structures the music has taken on a somewhat deeper and slightly darker nature than its predecessor.
Again the Reptiles have utilised strong, hypnotic rhythms within the drumming and percussion parts - embellished by melodic and infectious synthesized bass lines. Layered on to these undulating foundations are often simple, but very effective keyboard and guitar themes which are gradually introduced and then allowed to drift in and out of the music. In fact the opening three tracks are prime examples of this in action and these pieces have a splendid ebb and flow, both in music and the rhythm section. The final ingredients come in the form of the solo passages. Now at this point it would be all to easy to allow things to drift with endless twaddley solos, however Jean Paul Dedieu's keyboard passages are handled tastefully and Michel Dedieu tends to remain structured within his soloing and free from over indulgent displays of fret board gymnastics.
After listening to the new album a few times I returned to their debut to get a feel for the changes, and at this point I remembered just what an enjoyable album it was. I also looked at the review I'd written about In Strum Mental and I have to say much applies here, barring those brief comments made above. So a darker album with extended areas for thematic soloing. Perhaps here as a minor criticism that some of these sections were a little protracted - but hey, this is prog.
All of which pointed me to offering the following amalgam - 80s era Robert Fripp, early 70s era Dave Gilmour and the legato styling of Joe Satriani as a basis for possible comparators in the guitar departments. Throw into this melting pot a healthy dose of ambient electronica via Brian Eno accompanied by a multitude of interesting keyboard sounds, textures and with some deft soloing from Jean-Paul. Finally spice it all up with an extremely infectious percussion section and then we have something that goes towards being a Sombre Reptile.
Once again a consistent album and one difficult to pick out any particular pieces of greater note, although I particularly enjoyed the jazzy rock styling in Exorex [Extreme Orient Express] and the serene calmness of Another Quiet Place.
And so to conclude, Sombre Reptile have come up with strong and interesting album of instrumental tracks and one certainly worth checking out - along with In Strum Mental.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Chiave Di Volta – Ritratto Libero
Tracklist: Il Viaggio (4:56) Onirica Mente (10:52) Dietro Le Mura (7:19) Ritratto Libero (15:23) Involuzioni Rapide (8:32)Ballo Al Molino (8:19)
This debut CD was released at the tail-end of last year, and showcases yet another very promising Italian band, who manages to create their own distinctive sound, whilst displaying an assured command of complex, evolving structures, multifarious textures and jazz inflections which evoke memories of PFM and Le Orme without actually sounding much like them.
The musicians are certainly a proficient bunch, with keyboard player Gabriele Pasquali and singer/flautist Vieri Villi being especially impressive. Villi’s vocals (in Italian by the way), in the quieter sections, remind me of the romantic melancholy of Montefeltro (whose Il Tempo Di Far La Fantasia has long been a personal favourite of mine). Aside from the relatively short opener (at just under five minutes) the compositions are all rather lengthy (between 7 and 15 minutes) but there is plenty of variety in each piece to ensure that one’s interest is held. The shifts between fast and slow, delicate and rockier sections are skilfully done. Whilst nodding to the 70’s Italian classic groups, there is a distinctly modern edge on show and in places (e.g Ballo Al Molino – which has a strong Camel feel) the instrumental coloration takes on a definite jazz fusion slant, with dancing bass-lines and busy, rhythmically complex percussion.
Guitarist Nicola Torpei adds some Frippian dissonances and fluid, jazzy runs – he’s on top form on the noteworthy title track.
The whole work is skilfully crafted, intelligent and absorbing, though I found that I took quite a while to really warm to the disc. On paper, it’s the sort of thing I really love, but though I appreciated the craftsmanship on display, I didn’t immediately make an emotional connection. I am glad to say that, over time, this has really grown on me and I think I shall be coming back to it quite often.
In summation, a well-crafted, well-played slice of progressive rock, sitting neatly on the boundary between the symphonic and jazzy styles, well worthy of investigation by lovers of complex yet melodic material, and with it’s own unique character. I shall watch their future progress with interest.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Phi Yaan Zek - Solar Flare
Tracklist: Solar Flare (5:37), Hyperspatial (5:00), High (5:07), Out In The Boonies (5:35), So Far Away (5:46), I Phi (7:24), Psychometamorph (7:00), Little Space Creatures (5:09), Grasshopper Medicine (6:28), Passion Reborn (5:20), Solar Reprise (8:21)
I remember during the mid to late ‘80s that one of the decent musical alternatives to the girly-girl pouting and posing of the “big-hair bands” (Poison, Cinderella, Warrant, etc.) and also to the monstrous, punk-infected thrash of Slayer, Metallica, and Megadeath, was a nice little blast of guitar virtuosity. It arrived (ostensibly, and all apologies to Allan Holdsworth) in the person of Eddie Van Halen, with his hammer-on trilling and jack-knife runs, progressed into the slightly more sinister and perhaps better-finessed playing of Randy Rhoades, and then flowered with the likes of Yngwie Malmsteen, Steve Vai, and Joe Satriani. I enjoyed that tiny blip on the rock ‘n’ roll radar screen, and I always thought that the music (even with its excess) was at least just that, music, and not pre-fab tripe for the “Headbanger’s Ball” minions. And although now I know that music still exists, in a niche, I had thought it gone, consigned to the fan boys’ closets and attic banana boxes. But, as Phi Yaan-Zek duly informs me with his 2005 release, Solar Flare, if the guitar-slinging ways of the cocaine era ever died out, he’s bringing some of it back, with a few neat improvements.
Yaan-Zek, a U.K. recording artist, had released two CDs prior to the appearance of Solar Flare: Worlds Beyond Cause and Anomalies, both released on Cydonia Records in 1997. Additionally, his music has appeared on several compilation discs. As Geomagnetic’s press release emphasizes, and as Solar Flare proves well, Yaan-Zek possesses not only a healthy set of six-string chops but a dexterous ability with composition and arrangement. It’s good to be a gunslinger, and a quick draw can triumph, but random firing never wins the day, so it’s impressive to hear Yaan-Zek’s considered efforts at producing thought-out music rather than mere trickery.
The cast of Solar Flare includes Yaan-Zek on guitars, keyboards, percussion, mandolin, and with an occasional vocal offering; Fabio Trentini on bass guitar; Marco Minnemann on drums and percussion; Peter Stacey on flute and saxophone; Lale Larson on piano and keyboards; and a host of others utilizing the glockenspiel, the didgeridoo, a trumpet, an accordion, fretless electric guitar, “parlophone;” and “frame drum”. Yes, these tracks tend toward the eclectic, and I enjoyed the variety greatly: I always knew I was in for some guitar inventiveness but I didn’t expect such diversity in the presentation.
Even just the first three tracks are a prime example: if you make it through these three, and like what you hear, than Yaan-Zek is your cup o’ tea. Solar Flare offers a Medeski, Martin & Wood backbeat with acoustic guitar and a touch of the Ozric’s ambient keys. Then, the tune turns into a mild electric romp, foot-tapping and spacey. I like the buzzing, “Yer Blues”-style guitar solo. The second half of song is a sprightly, classical/jazz-inspired motif with flute, sax, some Zappa-esque electric guitar, and a plethora of sound effects. It definitely gets crazy at the end. Maybe Solar Flare is too busy overall, or maybe it shifts motifs too often, but it’s got power in places and reveals a very smart use of the instrumental palette.
Track number two, Hyperspatial, begins with a thick, heavy metal riff but moves into a bouncing, bright guitar piece that reminds me of ‘70s Zappa. Yaan-Zek treats us to some very fast, ingenious playing, to be honest. It’s all slightly a-melodic but it’s catchy, too, which is weirdly fascinating as you listen. There is a drum solo – yuck. I mean, it’s OK, if you like ‘em… It’s a nice, playful track and you get the feeling that Yaan-Zek has a great sense of humour and joie de vivre in the studio. (Let me mention that the bassist, Fabio Trentini, shines on Hyperspatial: How in the world he keeps pace with the guitar lines I’ll never know.)
And third, High which starts with light piano and some George Benson-style guitar lines. It’s definitely cool jazz featuring guest vocalist “Missy” with sweet scat singing. Normally, I’m not sure I’d go for this type of track, as it can tend to be saccharine. But, the blend of jazz sensibility, classical instrumentation in spots, and Missy’s sexy tones all make for some romantic funk, and it sits well on the disc juxtaposed with the more bombastic moments.
There are plenty of other standout tracks on the CD: Out In The Boonies is frenetic in a King Crimson/U.K. manner; So Far Away is a lovely, dreamy acoustic ballad sans vocals (and featuring a selection of sombre but haunting guitar tones); and Psychometamorph is a bizarre, up-tempo workout with some madman guitar gymnastics and a swinging horn chart. But really, the album is so various in style and format that it’s hard to break it down track-by-track. Maybe pointless, too. There’s a lot on Solar Flare and there’s a lot to like, too.
If you’re fond of any guitar gun-slinging at all, and especially if you like the tastefully confident and well rehearsed music of, say, Frank Zappa and Joe Satriani, then Solar Flare should work well for you. If you like Djam Karet or Ozric Tentacles, Solar Flare should be right up your alley. It’s an adventurous release, the playing is often flawless, and even if it suffers here-and-there from lunatic abandon, still, it’s so energetic and impassioned that it grooves you, and generally the thoughtfulness of the arrangements is impressive.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Brad Love - Colours
Tracklist: To Be In Love (3:12), Colour Me (3:19), Warrior (2:47), When I'm With You (2:47), Midnight By The Sea (4:27), Living Once Again (3:36), Let Go (2:27), My Boat (4:16), Hot Cinders (3:55), Turning Of The Earth (4:05)
Brad Love was the lead singer/songwriter and keyboard player with Aviary who released an eponymous debut album on Epic Records in the late 1970s and promptly disappeared, victims of the changing musical environment of the time. A few years ago the album was re-released on CD, followed shortly after by Ambition, a collection of demos and unreleased recordings. Love's first release after the demise of Aviary was the solo album, Colours, which surfaced on MCA Records in 1983. Although the album ostensibly received a worldwide release, lack of promotion, distribution and marketing meant that Colours has remained something of a secret. Until now.
Anyone who has heard either of the Aviary albums will know of Love's characteristic vocals: soaring, almost operatic, high pitched and with a lightness that flows smoothly and with assurance. Love's solo material is not that far removed from that of Aviary, although there is a greater emphasis on the piano than on guitar and with less overtly progressive leanings. Stuck firmly in the AOR camp, there are similarities with the music of Styx, although it is probably fair to say the song writing on Colours is better and somewhat less bland than the music that the more famous band was producing at that time. Album opener To Be In Love is a light and breezy number with an innate jollity that reflects the title of the song, Colour Me showcases Love's vocals and piano playing abilities, both of which are pleasantly wrapped around the melody of this song, while Warrior is rather different featuring vocals that bear a certain resemblance to Lucky Number by Lene Lovich (anyone remember that one?!).
On When I'm With You, Love makes full use of his dextrous vocals while Midnight By The Sea's almost military snare drum drives along a number that draws on Love's progressive roots. Living Once Again, despite it's positive title and lyrics, is, musically, altogether more downbeat but the mood is lifted considerably with Let Go, one of the highlights of the album. My Boat relies on synthesiser rather than piano and as a consequence is the only track on the album that really sounds dated - amazing how certain synth sounds can be so characteristic of an era. The playing is quite simplistic and overall the song is rather out of character with the rest of the album, and was for me the least enjoyable. Hot Cinders adds a bit of variety, having a harder edge absorbing some New Wave influences, albeit presented in a more refined way typical of Love's oeuvre. Final track Turning Of The Earth is a somewhat disappointing end to the album, which is not to say it is not a good song. I think that if Love had kept the arrangement to mainly piano and vocals and left off the distracting synthesisers it would have been all the more dramatic and powerful.
So what is the final verdict on Colours? Despite Love's solo compositions not being as progressive as those he wrote for Aviary, fans of that band should find plenty in Colours to tickle their fancy. Yes the music is lighter and yes the songs are mostly ballads and love songs, but for those with a penchant for pure AOR, Brad Love's Colours has a lot to offer.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Van - I Fly [Single]
Tracklist: I Fly (5.12), Free Time (3.40), Grunge (3.35)
A Polish composer and synth specialist, Barbara Zielinska Van has appeared at rock festivals and a series of gigs in planetariums as one half of an electronic duo, Van and Borner (Sabina Borner is the other half!). Her debut solo album, Secret Garden, was released in 2002 - the same year that she took part in a music project called City Songs with Nemezis. Citing her influences as Vangelis, Tangerine Dream and Jean Michel Jarre, from the limited information on her website, it would appear that this is the first result from a new band project, that takes its name, from hers.
This is actually a three-track single, primarily aimed at promoting the band to labels and radio stations. It has two new compositions and one 'improved' song.
Easily the pick of the bunch, is the opening track. A simple, repetitive vocal melody, is built over plenty of electronica, some cool, looping guitar runs and a dance/rock rhythm. As the vocal hook sinks in with its repetition, the instrumentation builds steadily, adding that necessary variation to keep the listener interested. I really like this as a piece of music and if it came from a 'name' band, it would have the clear potential to fly up most pop charts.
Free Time is the 'improved' track, coming with new French lyrics, courtesy, I guess, of vocalist Alina Trefon. It takes a similar musical vein to the opening track, but with the synths taking on more of a J M Jarre sound and the beat, more of a dance vibe. As with the opener, the guitar licks from Marek Gorlitz, that jump in and out throughout, work really well.
As the title suggests, Grunge has a deeper tone, with the guitars more prominent and the synths possessing more of an organ sound. No real vocals this time, and of the three, it's the song that doesn't really stick in the mind.
All three tracks are freely downloadable from Barbara's website, and while more on the electronic, rather than the prog, side of things, the song, I Fly is well worth taking the trouble to listen too.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10