Issue 2005-060: Sieges Even - Round Table Review
Tracklist: Intro: Navigating By The Stars (0:29), Sequence 1: The Weight (10:13), Sequence 2: The Lonely Views Of Condors (6:14), Sequence 3: Unbreakable (8:59), Sequence 4: Stigmata (8:22), Sequence 5: Blue Wide Open (5:13), Sequence 6: To The Ones Who Have Failed (7:26), Sequence 7: Lighthouse (7:41), Sequence 8: Styx (8:55)
Eight years after retiring from the music scene, cult Prog band Sieges Even, make a comeback. And boy, is this the surprise album of the year! For those of you who haven’t come across this German band before, then they released five albums between 1988 and 1997. Certainly, from the two that I’ve heard (Steps and Life Cycle), they were originally very much from the Technical Prog Metal stable of bands, such as Spiral Architect and Watchtower – i.e. lets see how many notes we can fit into an album. I say ‘were’, as from the evidence here, this is a totally different band.
‘Today we are much more song-orientated,’ is how guitarist Markus Steffen explains the difference to the band’s earlier albums. "Now, good melodies and logical arrangements are the important criteria. We want to write expressive music, which grips the listener on an emotional level, rather than a rational one."
The other change, sees the arrival of Dutch vocalist Arno Menses, who has really stamped his mark on the band’s sound and is an absolute revelation throughout. In terms of the other musicians, the band is also faultless. The best thing I can say to highlight their achievement, is that although there is an abundance of tricky time signatures and complex rhythms, it never comes across as overly progressive - just giving the album an amazing sense of openness and variety. Also worth noting, is that the huge variety of textures created by Steffen’s guitar, easily hides the fact that, unusually, the band has no keyboard player.
The Art of Navigating By The Stars is really one huge 64-minute song, divided into eight parts, or ‘sequences’ as they are listed on the cover. A bit like Fates Warning's A Pleasant Shade Of Grey, the songs use common themes – the most notable of which is the haunting line "The view from here is frightening", which is repeated in each song together with a classy bass and guitar riff. This simple device, has the effect of tying, what are quite varied melodies and song structures together, and lending the album a real sense of unity.
Influences are many, but Hemispheres-era Rush is one that repeatedly springs to mind – Kansas, Shadow Gallery and Fates Warning would be other frequent reference points. There isn’t really a weak moment to my ears. The melodies, although subtle, are absolutely addictive – especially on the delicate Unbreakable, the brooding opener The Weight and the mesmerising The Lonely View Of Condors. Exactly the same can be said of the instrumental themes and rhythms. The more occasional heavier sections are especially great, and even more effective when they are used to contrast with the lighter progressive (and even AOR) style that tends to dominate.
As you can probably tell, I’m absolutely addicted to this album. All I want to do when I get home at the moment, is put The Art of Navigating By The Stars into my hi-fi, turn up the speakers and close my eyes. It’s really great to know, that there are still bands that can make rock music as beautiful as this. But if you need another recommendation, then my girlfriend, who has never ever really liked one of my rock albums, discovered this album playing on auto when she used my car the other night. In an unprecedented move, she actually brought the damn thing into the house so that she could keep listening to it. ‘This guitar is really beautiful,’ she said, of To The Ones Who Have Failed. She is, of course, always right!
In short, this may certainly surprise/disappoint some of their older fans, but this is an album that will appeal to a huge cross-section of rock and prog lovers. The move to Inside Out, will hopefully bring the exposure that they so deserve. So take this set of full marks, as a ringing endorsement, that this album is destined to become a classic.
There are some albums which, despite on the face of it containing all the elements you’d usually enjoy – well constructed, often complex but approachable songs with good melodies in one of your preferred styles of music, performed by musicians who are second to none in their chosen instruments – you just don’t fully ‘connect’ with for one reason or another. I’ve found The Art Of Navigating By The Stars to be one such album.
Although a new name to me, Sieges Even apparently have a long history, releasing their debut back in 1988. From this time up until their last release, back in 1997, the band were apparently playing extremely technical, progressive metal. However, there has clearly been something of a musical rethink during their long absence from the scene, and anyone expecting an album in this style is likely to be disappointed. That’s not to say there aren’t heavy sections – guitarist Markus Steffen usually weighs in with a meaty riff or two per song - but these don’t really set the tone of the album, and the overall feel is no more heavy than, say, Rush’s Vapor Trails (an album I found a few points of comparison with, not least the absence of keyboards in the band’s sound). Equally, there is enough complicated instrumental trickery to leave you in no doubt that the individual band members of Sieges Even could easily make it as virtuoso’s in their own field (not least Steffen), but in the main this doesn’t detract from the principal business in hand, the songs (although I do feel that the bridges between sections, where these excursions normally take place, sometimes serve to disrupt the flow of the material a little). Instead, what we have here is a solid progressive rock album, somewhat in the vein of the aforementioned Rush, Kansas or (for a more modern comparison) Enchant.
The Art… is a concept album, broken into 8 ‘sequences’, and it certainly retains a feeling of continuity throughout its length, helped by the fact that a number of lyrical and musical refrains reappear at different intervals. The songs are often based on simple guitar figures and build impressively, and the way the band add layer upon layer of instrumentation to create feelings of depth and power, especially without the aid of synthesisers, is impressive.
For their reformation, the band are joined by a new vocalist, Dutchman Arno Menses. He has a clear, powerful delivery, and a description of his voice as ‘soulful’ would not be too far from the mark - Kansas’ Steve Walsh is perhaps the nearest point of reference I would make, although it’s a fairly arbitrary one. Menses’ voice is multi-tracked to create walls of harmony on many of the choruses, and this certainly adds some atmosphere to the songs.
And yet… despite all these positive points, this album just doesn’t do a great deal for me. Its hard to put my figure on exactly why. Perhaps it’s that the album possibly peaks too soon with the strong opening track The Weight, the ten-minutes plus piece possibly laying down expectations for the rest of the album that fail to be met during the rest of the playing time. Perhaps its’ down to the fact that, after a while, the material seems to meld into one, and the lack of stylistic variety and tempo changes means that the album becomes more something to appreciate in terms of the musicianship and the skill of the compositions, rather than the compositions. Perhaps its because Menses’ voice, as good as it is, somehow doesn’t seem to quite ‘fit’ with the material.
At the end of the day its’ difficult to pinpoint why this album didn’t make more of an impression on me, but the fact remains that, even after many repeated plays, it still doesn’t come across as an album I’d actually play much for enjoyment. Yes, I can admire The Art Of Navigating By The Stars, and appreciate why many others are raving over it, but this is one that I’m unlikely to give too many repeated spins in the future.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away there was a band called Sieges Even. The band was formed in 1986 by Markus Steffen, Alex and Oliver Holzwarth, during a period when prog metal was striving to shape itself. At that time they were considered as the European answer for USA’s Watchtower (another cult band), but their music was much more elegant then their American counterparts in my opinion. Being one of the pioneers of the European prog metal scene, the band successfully created a sound to call their own, unlike the pile of bands which were formed years later only to clone Dream Theater.
After the release of A Sense of Change, 1992 saw the departure of the guitarist Markus Steffen, but even at that point the band had already achieved cult status among the fans. The band could release two more albums without Markus, which were stylistically very different from their predecessors, and after deciding to quit they have entered a hiatus which was going to last almost 8 years long. Oliver Holzwarth, Alex Holzwarth and Markus Steffen met in 1999 for the first time after 6 years only to find out that they still had that feeling burning inside, but decided to go on under a new name (Looking-Glass-Self, later turned to Val’paraiso), which also was not going to work out because of numerous reasons, although they were able to record a promo with none other than the vocalist Andre Matos (ex-Angra). Finally in 2003 after the recruitment of the new vocalist Arno Menses, they decided to go into the studio and recorded two tracks. Realizing that the new material was carrying their old characteristics, they decided to change the name back to its origin and works for a new album started.
2005 finally saw this cult band release another studio effort which once again reflects their versatile and technically demanding style. But this time, their music is much more accessible than their previous efforts thanks to the melodic and emotional song writing.
The album consists of one intro and eight sequences, which create one epic song of 63 minutes length. These sequences are so well woven into a cohesive whole, it’s useless to do a track-by-track review, but if I should speak of the album in general I can say that there’s an undeniable Fates Warning feeling all around. No, this isn’t just another cloning event (well, actually there is a part in To The Ones Who Have Failed which sounds pretty much like the solo section in Monument of Fates Warning, but it’s the only point where I could feel a direct inspiration). In my opinion Sieges Even were able to bring back those elegant memories of Perfect Symmetry era of Fates Warning and blend it with a more modern approach.
It may be a strange comparison, but the album sounds like a synthesis of Fates Warning and RPWL, yet it somehow manages to create a unique sound in its own right. After this comparison you probably understood that The Art Of Navigating By The Stars is settled somewhere between prog metal and prog rock. While the previous albums were concentrating a lot more on the technical side of music, The Art Of Navigating By The Stars is all about cleverly written arrangements, not only for the sake of being complex, and beautiful melodies which contain amazing emotional atmospheres that will hook in the listener’s mind right after the very first listen without getting shallow. It’s quite obvious that the band’s intention was to create “songs” which carry a “real” emotional aspect within. I must admit they were quite successful at that. The dynamics within the album are simply breathtaking, especially the way the transitions between the dark and light moods are done. Definitely one of the stronger points of the album…
The band’s evolution from their first album up to this one was de-emphasizing “metal” side with each consecutive release, and now we have an album with mostly clean-tone guitars dominating the music, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing for metalheads. Of course, distorted guitars often come in and take the song to different levels. It is also a strange thing that they were able to create such a versatile album without keyboards, but the frequent use of chorus effects on clean tone guitars really helps the band to create a distinct sonic atmosphere which never gets boring. Guitarist Markus Steffen often uses these effects with his arpeggios to create wonderful soundscapes during the more “silent” parts of the songs. He sometimes also injects beautiful acoustic and classical guitars (especially in Blue Wide Open).
As of vocals, I’m sure that long time fans of the band were very curious about Arno Menses’ performance, but thankfully he is just amazing. His voice really suits the music very well. Originally a drummer, with some backing vocals experience, he is doing a stellar job on this album with the melody lines and vocal harmonies. Speaking of drums, Alex Holzwarth (also known from the power metal band Rhapsody) shows his unlimited capabilities all the way through. Well, maybe too much, but it isn’t disturbing except for a few spots; on the contrary, his Mark Zonder inspired style is one of the important aspects of the album. His brother Oliver Holzwarth also does a good job on bass and delivers fine textures underneath the music. Besides music, one must not forget to mention the beauty of the cover artwork and the fantastic production which is really crystal clear.
The Art Of Navigating By The Stars definitely is a winner and is worth the wait. Being one of the better releases of 2005, I’m sure it will end up on many listeners’ annual favourites lists. Devoid of useless shredding, it’s emotional, melodic, complex and well performed. What more can a music lover ask for? Highly recommended!