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Reviews in this issue:
- The Tea Party - Seven Circles
- Agent Cooper – Beginner's Mind
- Thirteen Of Everything - Welcome, Humans
- Zone Six - Live Wired
- Kineto – Transform
- Phaesis – Puzzle
- Classical M - Bad Guys ~ The Complete Collection
The Tea Party - Seven Circles
Tracklist: Writings On The Wall (2:40), Stargazer (4:11), One Step Closer Away (3:47), Oceans (4:35), Luxuria (4:25), Overload (3:53), Coming Back Again (4:43), The Watcher (4:16), Empty Glass (3:15), Wishing You Would Stay (4:11), Seven Circles (5:04)
The Tea Party: A three piece rock band from Canada, just to ring a bell… The band has been around from 1993 and what actually made them special is the “spice”, the world music element present in most compositions. Oriental instruments – all played by the band, the deep gothic-like voice of guitarist/vocalist Jeff Martin, electronics and all sorts of keyboards and Zeppelin influenced guitar riffs became their trademark. Sounding like a hard rock mix of The Mission and Led Zeppelin, they managed to appeal to almost all rock audiences, being at the same time very original and innovative, creating a style that one could immediately identify. Their previous album The Interzone Mantras in 2001 brought the band to a unique state of maturity, since it contains 12 tracks which can easily cover the range between acoustic Zeppelin-like tunes and heavy riff-based ones, all adorned with wonderful ideas, lyrics and instrumentation. This time the band took the straight-forward approach even further: they gave an album with very short tracks, almost radio-oriented in-your-face hard rock tunes. You get a hint just looking at the artwork, which is very nice but not so “ambitious” as the one of Interzone.
The message is clear from the first track, Writings On The Wall… A very smart way to get you into the album’s ambience. A heavy, less than three minutes track with no intentions to give a message, play sophisticated, or make you think of anything… First album single. Second album track, second album single and an excellent happy song with a great catchy refrain, combining perfectly power and melody - Stargazer. A melodic interlude is very cleverly introduced towards the end of the track, based on some ambient electronic sounds and a distorted singing by Jeff. The album contains a couple of tracks more or less in the same direction, as the almost “wrathful” Overload. Electronics and digital effects make the result even better and although I’m in general more attracted to Jeff’s darker singing in slower and more ambient tunes, he sounds very convincing and “decided”.
More atmosphere is there in the more mid-tempo tracks like Luxuria and there one can see some classic Tea Party song-writing, especially the oriental percussion in the track intro. Oceans and The Watcher are the ballads of the album, a bit (too?) mellow but very nice tunes. Wishing You Would Stay is in a way reminiscent of bands like Evanescence, due to the female vocals and the duet, but still great.
Now what remains? My favourites. Two tracks: One is the title track and last song of the album, with an amazing refrain, good lyrics, Zeppelin-like intro, a statement that the boys have not forgotten to play what made them distinctive, which keeps the best for last, as the song has an a-m-a-z-i-n-g closing… maybe Jeff Martin’s best solo ever, and fading lyrics. The other is the surprise of the album: Empty Glass. This track is in the “new direction”, with a quite heavy catchy riff, but full of energy and passion.
“A starman will come where diamond dogs run, we need ground control we’re losing our souls.” - An ode to David Bowie, a humble tribute to Major Tom…
It might be true that the idea of an album aiming at the charts is not very inviting. But when the album is so well polished, the tunes are all so good, with very few weak points, then you can disregard this. It is definitely the heaviest release of the band, owing also to producer Bob Rock (Metallica), and definitely less dark, conceptual, mystical or intellectual than the rest of the albums, which might disappoint some of the old fans. Nevertheless, it still is Tea Party and one can find all the elements that make them special and an excellent combination of melody and power that does not get tiring. I am not going to claim that it is their best release, but this album is one of the very few in the last years that made me sing all the tunes and want to listen to it even just for the fun and the kicks, notice! - without being a shallow album. Furthermore, it does not fall in the trap of getting boring after two weeks, ending up rusting in your CD collection.
Overall highly recommended for people new to the band, people that seek a high quality easy listen but also for reluctant old fans of the band. So far so good for the Tea Party who show they can play excellent mainstream hard-rock, wrapped in a special box with hidden scents and aromas. I trust they are going to be smart enough to move into more experimental areas with their next release.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Agent Cooper – Beginner's Mind
Tracklist: East Indian Sun (5:34), Shallow Disease (3:58), In The Bottle (3:53), Taipei (3:51), Timing Crucial (4:57), I Never Remember (3:47), The Heat (4:45), She Screams (4:08), Struggle Like I Do (6:24), You Know (4:50)
The American prog rock band Agent Cooper was/is a complete mystery to me. So I was really surprised when I listened to their second album for the first time. Like a flash before my eyes the CD was over and I thought I had heard musical influences of magnificent rock bands like Rush, Saga and Kansas. After listening to the album several times I can truly say that AC has done a great job. This is progressive, modern prog rock, like it should be. It really is infectious stuff, it is creative and the music really has depth. Nigel Camilleri's review of their 1999 eponymous debut release would also confirm this.
The opening track East Indian Sun is a perfect example how AC mixes the best elements of pop, rock and prog, as this mid tempo song features a heavy guitar riff, Oriental influences, a melodic, relaxed guitar solo and brilliant arrangements. Shallow Disease even reminds me of bands like King’s X and Primus, mainly due to the tempo changes and the sometimes funky rhythms in this song. In The Bottle has jazzy influences and sounds like modern jam rock, showing musical elements of Umphrey’s McGee.
Musical elements and passages of bands like Tiles and Enchant can be found in a song like Taipei, while the influences of Rush appear in amazing songs like I Never Remember and Struggle Like I Do. The latter is the longest song and it is also the “weirdest” one on this CD, as it is filled with lots of rhythm changes, bluesy, reggae and even folk-like influences, a rather long melodic guitar solo and a strange bombastic end. The last song on this amazing album is rather redundant, as it is a dull ballad with only vocals and piano passages.
However I can truly recommend this album to all lovers of intelligent mainstream rock. Buy it, listen to it and be surprised, like I was! I truly hope that this band will survive, as the music market is very difficult at this moment, especially if you are a unknown band, making progressive music. Give these guys a chance, they are worth it!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Thirteen Of Everything - Welcome, Humans
Tracklist: Flying East (9:22), Let It Go (6:35), Sleepdance (11:08), Replay (5:42), Semprini (4:15), Bird In Hand (10:11), Late For Dinner (i. Xenophile, ii. Soul On A Stick, iii. Doom, iv. Gloom, v. Real Estate, vi. Three-Hundred Years Asleep, vii. Xenophobe ) (26:14).
The roots of Thirteen Of Everything extend back to early 2000 when the Texas-based trio of Ted Thomas (drums and vocals), Mick Peters (Chapman stick, bass, guitar and vocals) and Patrick McFarland (keyboards and vocals) got together to jam over pizza and beer once or twice a month. While working on song ideas they realised that they needed a guitarist to round out their sound although finding an axe man interested in progressive rock was not going to be easy in a town dominated by rhythm and blues bands. Fortunately they stumbled across Joe Funk (guitar and vocals) just as his band, Two Sheds, was falling apart. Writing new material, and rearranging older compositions to accommodate guitar, the group recorded a well-received five-track demo released independently in May 2002 only to lose McFarland to a dose of apathy three months later. A couple of months went by before the band were back to a quartet when Thad Miller, lured by the promise of pizza and beer, decided to throw his lot in with the Texan proggers. A year of weekly rehearsals and writing ensued before work started on recording their first album proper, the curiously titled Welcome, Humans.
Judging from the writing credits, five tracks on the album stem from the earlier days of the band, possibly being the same numbers as appeared on the original demo (can't be sure, I've never heard it!), with the epic Late for Dinner being assembled from pieces mostly written during the year after Miller's recruitment and the final piece, a solo instrumental by Joe Funk, being the newest composition. Despite the four-year period over which the material was written - not a long time for established bands but a lifetime for one just starting out - there is an admirable consistency within the music and the album flows well with sufficient variety to maintain the interest throughout. Different textures are provided by having three singers although bassist Peters takes the majority of the lead vocals; surprising as to my mind drummer Thomas has a much smoother voice.
Admittedly Thirteen of Everything won't be winning any musical innovation awards, but one imagines that was never the intention of getting the band together in the first place and, besides, innovation is somewhat irrelevant when the music is as enjoyable as that presented on Welcome, Humans. Yes there are some obvious influences present but they are subtly merged and integrated into each track and you are just as likely to come across a thrash metal lick as you are a smidgeon of Genesis. Flying East starts the album almost trying too hard to define the band's sound but soon settles into a very impressive piece with strong melodies and each member making significant contributions. Let It Go is my favourite, the rousing chorus in particular being a joy to listen to with all three vocalists harmonising beautifully. This song does emphasise what I mentioned earlier when the lead vocals of Thomas are compared with those of Peters' on the previous track and Funk on the next piece - ToE are another band with a great singing drummer! Sleepdance begins with some sinister low-key vocals, almost like demonic Gregorian chanting. The rather darker mood is maintained throughout the vocal sections until an alarm clock at about the 7 minute 30 second mark literally and figuratively wakes the band up, with Funk's guitar soloing right to the end of the track.
Replay has a rather weak acoustic beginning but livens up with some sprightly guitar and keyboard work in the instrumental section and final couple of verses. Semprini, an acoustic guitar and synthesiser piece (all played by Funk), is a soothing interlude with a pleasing guitar tone and just sufficient keyboards to take away the starkness of a lone instrument. Bird In Hand takes things up a notch with Thomas again putting in a fine vocal performance, this time providing his own harmonies. An altogether more rounded track, the song is well structured with features prominent keyboards (unsurprising as the music was written by the departed McFarland) and an uplifting ending. Final track, Late For Dinner is a seven-part 'epic' seemingly pieced together from individual contributions from various members of the band. As a consequence there is a degree of discordance within the overall piece, although having said that the opening and closing Xenophile/Xenophobe are an interesting pair of sections book ending the lyrically rather lose tale of humanity being served up as a culinary delight to an alien race (sounds rather like English comedian Bill Bailey's rock opera concept, Insect Nation!). The two shorter instrumental pieces, Doom and Gloom allow the band to experiment a bit, particularly on the latter track which is dominated by synths, the only other instruments being bass pedals (a form of synth!) and low-key guitar, a style which continues on Real Estate which tends to meander and overstay its welcome. Three Hundred Years Asleep, a hang over from the early days of the band is a better piece, even though it contains similar themes to Real Estate the more expansive instrumentation takes it to a different level.
Overall, Welcome, Humans is a very decent first album. There are moments of exceptional quality, notably on Let It Go, and throughout the duration of the album the individual and ensemble playing is thoughtful and supportive. However, it is obvious that several of the pieces would have benefited from more extensive road testing, honing the tracks into more succinct artistic expressions. But, in the prevailing musical climate where musicianship counts for nothing, small to medium sized live venues are rapidly becoming extinct and support from major labels is non-existent, it is appreciated that concerted live work is not possible, particularly when bands have to make their living outside of music. I am sure that in the future ToE will be able to expand and deliver on the promises offered by Welcome, Humans and I look forward to hearing their next offering.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Zone Six - Live Wired 2005
Tracklist: Hopscotch (13:10), Spheroidise (5:39), Collaptus (11:30), Sod Waterways (14:48), Beach Comber (22:52), Susurrus (10:00)
Germany's Zone Six have finally got round to releasing an official live album! After four studio efforts and a handful of live CDR releases, the space rock / Krautrock / psychedelic band have decided that it is time for their live sound to be spread to a wider audience. Recorded in October 2004, the six-track CD features long soundscapes capturing the band in full flight. (And if the 78-minute CD is not enough for you then a limited double vinyl version is available featuring an extra 19 minutes of material!). The four musicians, Julius-K on guitar, Martin Schorn on synthesiser, Dave Schmidt on bass and Walt Jahn on drums, create a surprisingly full sound with floating keyboards, fuzzed-up guitars and, a rhythm section that, at times, get into quite a funky groove.
Opener Hopscotch sets the tone with a seemingly relentless guitar solo hammering through the speakers. Spheroidise is rather quieter with a classic space rock sound which, of course, brings up the inevitable comparison with Hawkwind. Schmidt provides some excellent bass, or spacebass as he calls it, on the beginning of this track which gently meanders to a close without ever really picking up pace. The compositions are largely unstructured: forget any notions of defined musical sections or playing around a central themes. Unlike the (mainly) US jambands who write songs and then, in live performance expand around the compositional structure, Zone Six take the purely improvisational path. This can lead to moments of intense excitement but also of periods when things don't quite gel leaving the listener a bit lost. Point in case is the 23-minute Beach Comber which has some trouble taking off, Julius-K seemingly hesitant to expand on his initial couple of chords until over three minutes of the song has elapsed. Elsewhere this track displays a lack of cohesiveness tempered by sections that lift the band to new heights. Fortunately the more exciting sections are in the majority.
Of course, Zone Six are on to a bit of a loser trying to present a fundamentally live experience out of the context of the concert hall. This type of music is best experienced in the flesh with pulsating lightshows (provided, so the sleeve informs us, by Kosmik Klaus and his Solar Sea Slideslow), the companionship of fellow travellers and whatever one cares to imbibe, not sitting at a desk on a Sunday morning! As an individual entity, Live Wired 2004 does stand up as a fine example of the genre and although it may be an album best reserved for select timed and not for general everyday consumption, any aficionados of the scene or fans of the band will not be disappointed.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Kineto – Transform
Tracklist: Viaduct (2:57), Solution Perfect (3:00), World Under Pressure (3:10), Transit (4:54), Theorem (3:27), Subject To Change (3:32), Caveat Emptor (3:45), Togremalas (3:44), Human Upgrade (2:58), Pepper Spray (5:11), Bruja (3:36), Persistence of Vision (3:22), The Sludge Chronicles (7:35)
Okay, who wants to talk again about what does and does not constitute “progressive rock”? No, I don’t either. We fans of the genre are pretty catholic – willing to accept all kinds of different bands as progressive so long as they’re not playing three-chord punk or three-chord arena rock or three-chord kiddie pop. So let’s embrace Kineto’s heavy, sludgy, funky, moderately inventive album Transform as an example of one kind of progressive rock and talk about what it has to offer.
Kineto is a four-man San Francisco band that relies on traditional guitar-bass-drums instrumentation, along with occasional samples, to get its ideas across. Some songs sound more or less like those of the now mostly defunct “nü-metal” bands of recent years past – Staind comes to mind most strongly – while other songs, notably Human Upgrade, are downright funky, relying on Dan Menapace’s fluid bass lines; Forest Huggins’s expressive, if not especially melodic, singing; and Rick Audet’s crisscross-buzzsaw guitar to provide the foundation and the heaviness. The band’s promo note, in fact, singles out Menapace’s “trippy, intense bass lines,” and I guess that’s as good a description as any of what we hear on Human Upgrade and such other songs as Theorem and Subject To Change. In fact, one of the album’s flaws – not a major one, I guess – is a certain sameness to the songs, that sameness largely created by those “trippy, intense bass lines.”
Other songs are a little more conventional – World Under Pressure, for example, with a nice chunky rhythm guitar and heavy riffing alternating through the body of the song. That song, like the odd (and oddly named) Togremalas, also features processed vocals that, at least to my ear, grate after a while. As I’ve said, Huggins isn’t a great singer, and his range is further limited by the processing on these songs and some others.
Having mentioned three of the members’ contributions, I want to focus for a minute on drummer Noa Appleton, whose work here is in some ways the best thing about the album. Sure, he’s a solid drummer – we can take that as read in any professional band – but what’s most impressive is his incidental percussion, his embellishments, his tasteful accenting and highlighting of the songs’ rhythms. The crucial role of a drummer in any kind of band can’t be overemphasized – imagine Led Zeppelin with, say, Keith Moon rather than John Bonham, or perhaps Pink Floyd minus Nick Mason but plus Alan White. Right – can’t be imagined. A great drummer, or, even more importantly, just the right drummer, can make all the difference to a band’s sound, and Appleton gets my vote for doing more than any of the other members individually to create interest in Kineto’s sound. In fact, one appreciates his work most of all in the final long track, The Sludge Chronicles, which features regular, even monotonous electronic percussion – and, whether he programmed it or not, it’s boring in comparison to his inventive work in the other songs. He’s appreciated in retrospect in his absence, is what I’m saying.
I ought to add a few words about that last song. As is the case on too, too many albums these days, this one’s last track – though listed as being almost eight minutes long – is really shorter than that, in this case barely five minutes; then we’re treated (or something) to a couple minutes of silence before being treated (or something – again) to a minute or so of annoying noise. Thanks, guys. The song itself (quotidian percussion aside) is quite neat, almost ambient – a nice variation on what we hear on the rest of the album – and is also, I guess, probably the nearest thing to traditional progressive rock on Transform.
Well, what’s to say about the album as a whole? I’ll begin with the subjective and honest: I can’t see myself listening to it very often. Although the careful examination required when one’s writing a review reveals many interesting touches, many good ideas, even some good, solid songs, the album’s not terribly rewarding. The band has a sound of its own, that’s true – that’s the flipside to the “sameness” I’ve mentioned: it’s good, of course, when an album is unified by a band’s identifiable sound; but that sound isn’t particularly interesting, at least to my ears. What will it offer the typical fan of progressive rock? Well, of course, there is no such “typical fan,” and that’s a wholly good thing. If you’re fond in general of the “nü-metal” sound but appreciate greater inventiveness than is usually found in that genre; if you like your progressive rock a bit funkier than, say, Genesis’s take on it; and if you like to hear a tight, appealing group of talented musicians, well, you could do much worse than Transform.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Phaesis – Puzzle
Tracklist: Ouverture (0:40), Liberté (4:08), Animalité (4:14), Rubens Regina (5:35), Aura (4:06); Speedoux (5:09), Raysody (5:19), Notre-Monde (5:23), Communication (6:36), Passage (1:53), Oriens Exalto (6:18)
Phaesis are a French outfit who released their debut album back in 1989. They’ve hardly been workaholics since, however, as Puzzle is just their fourth release, and their first since 1996. The last couple of years have seen a plethora of comebacks from bands in a variety of genres, and for a variety of reasons, but in this case you have to wonder – why bother? Phaesis are hardly a household name even in the prog world, and frankly the quality of Puzzle is not in my opinion strong enough to make much of an impact.
Matters get off to a reasonable start with the typical symphonic flourishes of Ouverture, but nosedives somewhat when we hit the first few tracks, which are vocal led. The voice of Eric Herbillot is not the strongest, and sound slightly off-key to me, and to compound matters they are right at the forefront of the mix, drowning out the other instruments. Liberte, Animalite and Rubens Regina all sound, to me, like something you’d hear blaring out of a French café in the 1980’s – i.e. French pop rock, albeit with a neo-prog feel to the keyboard work. Matters aren’t helped by a rather poor production which sees the instruments all over the place in the mix, and by somewhat clumsily executed rhythms and time-changes. There’s also some strange stylistic choices – why insert death grunts into the relatively mellow Rubens Regina?! I have to admit the urge to eject the CD at the end of this track was strong…
Things do however improve when we come to the next few tracks, which are instrumental. Aura is a breezy, upbeat jazz-fusion influenced number with a catchy central melody, and good use of xylophone, although it would have been better if the band had used a real horn section instead of synthesised ones. Speedoux is an uptempo neo-prog-ish track, with nods to IQ, with a guitar sound not unlike Rush’s Alex Lifeson (although not as accomplished). Raysody slows things down, with some guitar work out of the Dave Gilmour school.
From here-on in the quality is again variable, with Notre Monde employing vocals again to a somewhat negative effect, but Communication is atmospheric enough, albeit rather soporific in places.
All in all, several weak tracks are balanced out by some reasonable ones, but the quality of both production and playing are both well below what I would expect from a band with this amount of experience behind them, and ultimately Puzzle is, in my opinion, a below par genre release.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
Classical M - Bad Guys ~ The Complete Collection
Tracklist: Love, Love Is There (2:42), Gog Demagog (2:53), Bad Guy (4:02), The Way I Do Love You (2:50), Such A Lovely Voice (5:49), Once In A While (2:35), Music Of The Rain a.k.a. Melodie De La Pluie (3:08), Decomplexion (9:03), Ugly Room (1:51), Ever Be My Friend? (2:29), Paris Est Une Ville D'Alcoholiques (4:39), J'ai Decide (3:02), Le Romancier Tcheque (3:10), J'Entends Les Etoiles (4:06), Sisyphe (2:06), C'Est La Guerre (2:16), Pauvre Cobaye a.k.a. Cow-Boy (1:40), Une Riviere Qui S'Egare (2:43), Un Jour De Chance (2:29), Love You One Another (3:11), Marouanabab (3:15), Love, Love Is There (3:34), Le Metro (2:17), Pop Club Session (3:17)
Classical M have been dubbed as the 'Gallic Fab Three' even though, until now, their entire output consisted of two 7" singles released by EMI-Odeon in 1969. The combined sales of these singles was barely over a couple of thousand copies so no surprise that they remain unheard of, unmissed and unlamented. This 24-track collection gathers together all four single sides, seventeen previously unreleased compositions and three tracks from their French TV 'Pop Club' performance from 1970. Unfortunately it does nothing to suggest that the world has been missing out on a treasure trove of audiodelic delights.
The two singles, Love, Love Is There b/w Such A Lovely Voice and Bad Guy b/w The Way I Do Love You are symptomatic of their time, blending light psychedelia with Eastern influences and are the stand out tracks on this compilation, particularly the string-laden Such A Lovely Voice. The remainder are pretty standard and inoffensive songs that fail to differentiate the band from any of the other numerous bands that were doing the rounds at the time. (Tellingly the tapes were passed over by the excellent US psychedelic reissue label Arf! Arf!). One for collectors only and not for general consumption by progressive music fans (in fact the only real connection to prog rock is that the group once sent the lyrics to Gog Demagog to King Crimson whose first album the band greatly admired). If nothing else, the songs sung in the groups native language prove that although French may be the language of love, it is certainly not the language of rock and roll.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10