Reviews in this issue:
- Leger De Main - A Lasting Impression
- Tésis Ársis – Estado de Alerta Máximo
- The Aurora Project - ... Unspoken Words (Duo Review)
- Cage - 87/94
- Psymbience - IS
- Onsegen Ensemble - Hiukkavaara Session
Leger De Main - A Lasting Impression
Tracklist: The Concept Of Our Reality - To Live The Truth (8:38), Crystal Fortune (5:41), Immobile Time (4:05), Enter Quietly (20:00), Distorted Pictures (5:38), Crystal Fortune [acoustic] (4:11), Immobile Time [acoustic] (4:23)
Tracklist: Second First Impression - Some Shall Search (11:53), Changes With The Day (11:05), Silent Monster (6:26), Do Whispers Die (8:14), The Story (9:11)
A quick clear up of the album titles is probably in order. A Lasting Impression features two CDs, the first is Leger De Main's 1995 release The Concept Of Our Reality and Second First Impression from 1997. A nice touch that the band have decided to package the two releases together, rather than capitalising on two separate re-releases.
Those unfamiliar with LDM might wonder what the band has been up to in the interim years, however the names of Chris and Brett Rodler should be familiar to regular readers of the reviews pages. My first encounter with the Rodlers came with the excellent Mythologic release from 2003, which included Melissa Rodler, who also adds her superb voice to the two LDM releases here. Chris and Brett have also been covered with the eponymous R H Factor (1998) and the twisty and intricate instrumental, Going Deaf For A Living (2004) courtesy of Razor Wire Shrine.
Guest musicians include long time collaborators, Mike Ohm (guitar & guitar synths) and Kevin Hultberg (fretless bass). Dean Meyer (bass), Paul Bryson (guitar), Dave Rasicci (bass) and George Jordan (guitar) also appear throughout the albums.
To my shame I have been listening to these albums for several months now and the words to describe the music have just not come. Not that this is intended as any criticism on the music, far from it, as this is again a strong release from the PMM camp. The music contains all those elements that I have come to love from Chris & Brett, but with LDM they have expanded their palette making this probably their most "progressive" effort so far. The inclusion of "keyboard" sounds and textures has opened up the music - nicely contrasting against the superbly tight rhythm section. So what we have is an intricate and aggressive foundation with deft touches, and with the icing on the cake being Melissa's rich and distinctive vocals. Melissa has a pleasant folk-like timbre to her voice, which sits snuggly within the arrangements, but don't be fooled by the "folk" reference, as when gusto is required Melissa is well up to the task.
And all of this can be clearly heard from the very outset with the gradually building To Live The Truth. Gently picked electric guitar and Melissa's melodies floating over the top. Nice touches via the guitar synths, adding some gentle keyboard sounds, and then the band leap in with their beefy, Rush influenced arrangements. Wonderful stuff and the stage is set for over a hour and half of great music. Crystal Fortune and Immobile Time follow in a similar fashion, adding some nice jazzy phrasings and fine melodic soloing from Mike Ohm.
In fact Mike Ohm provides some tasty guitar work throughout the album, which I have to say is used sparingly and therefore neither album becomes some sort of tiresome guitarfest. Musically we are in familiar Rodler territory, although personally I would have liked to hear more harmonies within the vocals as Meliss'a voice is little stark and exposed in parts.
The centrepiece of The Concept Of Our Reality is the aptly titled sprawling twenty minute epic, Enter Quietly which shows a more acoustic side to the band. Initially the thunderous drums and intricate riffs are replaced with intricate, weaving acoustic guitars and percussion, with much of the melody produced with a flute sound. I'm assuming these melody lines are played on a guitar synth as no flautist is credited on the album, and the phrasing tends to suggest this. Almost seven minutes of music elapses before the vocals are introduced and the momentum picks up. As with all of the Rodler material the track takes us through a complex musical journey, and here with Enter Quietly the full twenty minutes are used to explore these avenues. The excellent Distorted Pictures concludes the original album.
Both albums have been re-mastered by John Trevethan (who has worked with Echolyn, Queensrÿche and Grey Eye Glances) bringing the sonic quality more in line with today's more crystalline approach. I have not heard the original albums to compare, but certainly the separation on the instruments is clear and impressive. The vocals are also distinct and well mixed. Disc one includes two acoustic versions and nicely rounds of this disc. The new album also has new art-work courtesy of Brenda Trevethan, making this an attractive package.
Two years further on down the line and once again LDM reaffirm their love for complex, intricate and engrossing music, this time in the shape of Second First Impression. If anything the arrangements have become more complex, but still remain listenable, and the opener bears testament to this. The themes are slightly straining on the ears, however the rhythm section is punchy and tight, but with the varied textures offered in the lead lines things get off to a rollicking start. Again the track ebbs and flows and is marked by a the subtle middle solo section.
Now not wanting to endlessly repeat myself, but suffice to say that Second First Impression is a worthy companion to The Concept Of Our Reality and follows in similar footsteps. If anything the sonic palette is broadened with more keyboard sounds used to give the music a fuller sound (Silent Monster) and even the inclusion of more harmonies in the vocals.
As ever Brett's drumming is impressive throughout and although Chris' contributions are perhaps a little less evident on the surface, his playing is superbly executed and integral. The Rush influences still remain evident to me (not a bad thing really) as well as elements drawn from the ProgMetal theatre. I'm still unsure that the words written fully capture the quality of this release, but if, like me, you have a penchant for complex, ever changing, ballsy progressive rock music that doesn't necessarily lose its melodic way, then I suggest this could well be a release worth checking out. Heartily recommended !
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Tésis Ársis – Estado de Alerta Máximo
Tracklist: Hiroshima (12:38), Ecos Vibrantes (10:10), Fuga (12:06), Um Azul Celeste (14:41), Estado de Alerta Máximo (22:20)
I’ve gone on record more than once complaining about too-long albums. So I’m going to begin by paying a high compliment to Tésis Ársis, whose second album, Estado de Alerta Máximo, though it’s almost an hour and a quarter long, is not, to my taste at least, at all too long. More amazingly, though it’s an instrumental album, it easily sustains the listener’s interest for that entire stretch. This is fine, inventive instrumental progressive rock that pleases the first time through and also rewards repeated listenings.
I knew nothing about the group before receiving this CD and its pleasantly brief and descriptive (rather than, as is the case with too many albums, lengthy and persuasive) promotional materials. From the latter, I see that the album is essentially the project of Anderson Rodriguez, who also seems, according to the CD booklet, to have performed all the music on the CD -- although (confusingly) the “group” is said in the promo materials to feature Rodriguez’s brother Gelson on drums and friends Cláudio and Mauricio Fonseca on keyboards and bass. I’m going to trust the liner notes rather than the promotional materials, then, and refer to this as the work of Rodriguez alone, with apologies to the others if I’m wrong to do so.
Well – whoever played on the album, it’s good stuff. The CD is said to consist of five “suites” and that word isn’t Rodriguez’s attempt at unsupported grandiosity. The long compositions really do contain several movements each, all unified by sound and theme. If I had to try to describe what the suites sound like, I’d invoke a comparison with some of those venerable Seventies bands we all love – Yes, Genesis (especially in the delightfully retro keyboards and the electric-guitar sound), Rush, and Camel – that last largely for the overall “feel” of many of the compositions but also in the use of long, slow, emotive guitar lines. Remember, though, that there’s no singing, so everything has to be done with the instruments, and it’s done well.
I like all five pieces, but I’ll single out a couple for special attention. Fuga seems to me especially effective in its movements, juxtaposing slower sections with faster, lighter with heavier. This, too, is the piece in which Tésis Ársis’s similarities to Genesis and Rush can most clearly be heard – those cool old keyboards, mostly used to provide a chorded counterpoint to the searching, melodic guitar soloing, and the interesting changes in tempo (as in the best progressive rock, though, not merely for its own sake but because each change suits the composition). Pleasingly, too, because it’s the longest and the final piece on the album, Estado de Alerta Máximo (“State of Maximum Alert,” right?) is the most interesting, the most varied, and the best of the five suites. It also, I think, and if I’m understanding the titles properly, best suits its name. It begins with heavy organ and power chords, segues into an urgent-sounding guitar workout, slows down for a more peaceful organ interlude, moves again into a fast (in fact, double-time) keyboard and guitar section – the composition is full of changes, as you can tell, all of them working beautifully together – and ends with a long, gorgeous fadeout guitar solo in which, as doesn’t happen often on this remarkably restrained album, Rodriguez is not just suiting his playing to the song but also showing off his considerable chops a bit. This twenty-two-minute track alone would make a respectable, worthwhile progressive-rock EP; as the final track of five, it’s an impressive summation and conclusion.
The CD isn’t without weaknesses – well, few CDs are. But its weaknesses are slight compared to its virtues. One minor failing is in the sound and production. I don’t want to give the impression that this isn’t a professional piece of work in every sense, because it certainly is. It might be a bit strong on the high end and a bit weak on the low end for me, though; and the percussion is slightly thunky and tinny on some of the tracks. The other small fault is one perhaps almost inevitable in such a long album that’s the work of one musician: although I’m in no way recanting my claim that Rodriguez sustains interest from beginning to end, there are occasional movements in some of the suites that are noticeably similar to occasional movements in others – a certain sameness that strikes one on repeated listenings. But the originality and excellent musicianship throughout more than compensates for this decidedly minor fault.
I’m a big fan of singing – I like the voice as an instrument, and I also like it when a band or artist has something to say with his or her lyrics. So an instrumental album has to be really good for me to enjoy it repeatedly and to find something new and interesting each time. This is such an album. No fan of melodic, well-composed and well-played instrumental progressive rock should be disappointed with Estado de Alerta Máximo.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
The Aurora Project - ... Unspoken Words
Tracklist: Unspoken Words I (2:25), The Betrayal (4:46), SD 9796 823 (1:00), Unspoken Words II (2:27), The Untold Prophecy (5:37), The Event Horizon (7:03), System Log [9608,10987] (5:55), The Gathering (7:15), SD 9843 123 (0:42), Unspoken Words III (2:42), SD 9862 000 (0:51), Nocturnal Lament (6:41), SD 9890 114 (0:53), The Resurrection (8:38), Prologue (5:51)
Geoff Feakes' Review
I must confess that prior to this review I knew nothing about this band, so some research was called for. Apparently, the future members first meet in 1999 whilst playing ‘Magic: The Gathering’, which, so I’m informed, is a popular fantasy-style trading card game. It’s certainly a departure from meeting at the bar in the Marquee club (or in their case, Amsterdam’s equivalent)! In 2001 the band recorded their first demos, and three years later, a concept album of music described as “atmospheric progressive rock”. After signing with their current record label in April of this year, the album makes its debut. The six man line-up comprises Dennis Binnekade on vocals, Remco van den Berg on lead guitar, Joris Bol on drums, Marcel Guyt on synths, Rob Krijgsman on bass, and Marc Vooijs on guitar.
The songs on the album are interspersed with several tracks of narration that tell the story of a “spiritual journey”. The narrative is delivered with a pronounced English accent (think Journey To The Centre Of The Earth or The War Of The Worlds). I personally found the profound sci-fi ramblings a little hard to swallow, and was soon reaching for the skip button on my player. The CD also comes with a multimedia extra, which covers the albums concept in detail, and is downloadable on Windows PC’s. The presentation and artwork here is excellent, and in my opinion works better than the story telling on the album. Should the band have similar concepts in the pipeline, my recommendation would be to leave the sci-fi philosophy in the capable hands of authors like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein, and concentrate on the music.
The opener Unspoken Words I finds the band in restrained mood, with reverential church organ, fluid guitar, crisp drumming, and a warm bass sound. The relaxed but expressive vocals suit the tranquil setting perfectly. In contrast, The Betrayal explodes into life with sharp drumming, urgent bass, menacing keys and wall-to-wall guitar riffs. The vocals rise to the occasion, aided by thunderous power chords and metallic percussion, which add bombast and density to the chorus. A short interlude of prose is followed by the melancholic sounding Unspoken Words II. Subdued classical guitar and mournful bass clarinet provide backing to the plaintive vocal in this short, but atmospheric piece. The melody is repeated in The Untold Prophecy, a mid tempo song with harmonious acoustic guitar and synth driven orchestral moments. A spirited guitar solo and driving rhythm section accelerates the song forward to a fittingly dramatic end. One of the albums strongest tracks I feel.
Staccato guitar opens The Event Horizon, with martial-like drums and busy bass laying down a complex rhythm pattern. Fuzzed guitar is added, with keys providing dramatic symphonic choral punctuations. The song races along, pausing for a relaxed mid section, before ending in a similar fashion to the previous track. System Log [9608,10987] is the albums longest narrative track, and includes lines like “You have entered the inner core of my emotional sub system”. On the plus side, it plays out with some pleasant ambient sounds courtesy of synths. Sunny guitars provide an uncharacteristic start to The Gathering, before returning to familiar territory, becoming increasingly laboured and leaden as the song progresses. The assertive vocals do their best however, supported by weighty guitars and an inventive bass line at the end. More tedious speech precedes the almost psychedelic Unspoken Words III. Moody bass work, muted Fripp like guitar, a hint of drums, and keys providing flute, lend this instrumental an Eastern flavour.
Dynamic guitar, bass and drums provide Nocturnal Lament with a dramatic introduction. Unfortunately, it quickly adopts a more ponderous pace, with long instrumental sections that fail to hold the listeners attention. The Resurrection, starts in fine heavy prog fashion, with high-speed drums, bass and guitar powering the song forward. Following several changes in mood and tempo, heavy guitar riffs regroup for the final assault. This comes in the shape of a prominent guitar solo and incongruous choir vocalizing, which fails to deliver the intended climatic ending. The promotional copy of the CD contains an unexpected bonus track at the end. This is the same song that accompanies the multimedia software, and feels out of place here. It never rises above the pedestrian, with muted guitars and bleak keyboard atmospherics providing a sombre conclusion.
This release starts strongly enough, with superb music sounding rich and diverse for the most part. Unfortunately, the material lacks the really strong melodies and hooks necessary to sustain the album through its full length. The narrative is also an unwelcome distraction, giving the album a disjointed feel. The performances however are top notch. Vocals are confident and assured, and the guitars do everything you would expect, providing impressive solos and gutsy power chords. The bass work is inventive, and the drums have bite with a particularly sharp snare sound. The keyboards add substance to the sound with colourful orchestral embellishments. Excellent production by Arno Dreef and Sander van der Heide ensures the bands hard work doesn’t go unnoticed.
I can’t help thinking that the band has made things difficult for themselves with such an ambitious release. They have obviously put a lot of hard work into the project, but it doesn’t always show where it counts, which is in the music. The album does however showcase a band with energy, drive and ability, and I am certain that there will be better things to come in the future.
Tom De Val's Review
The Aurora Project is the perhaps misleading name of a new Dutch band – misleading as this doesn’t appear to be a ‘project’ in the usual sense that prog fans might think of (i.e. loads of guest musicians) but is instead a more conventional affair - the first outing of a new six-piece Dutch band. Less conventional is the way the band met – they are all fans of the fantasy card game ‘Magic’, and discovered a mutual love of music whilst playing. The band are clearly no strangers to the worlds of science fiction either, as they’ve elected to go for an ambitious concept affair first time out, describing a spiritual journey centred around the statement ‘I feel, so I exist’. To be honest, the feeling I had was that the band’s ambitions perhaps outstrip their abilities at present (certainly on the arrangement side of things) and as such this album falls into the ‘promising but flawed’ category.
The first few notes of opener Unspoken Words I immediately indicates that The Aurora Project are one of an increasing number of bands taking their lead from the likes of Anathema and Porcupine Tree, with atmospheric keyboards, Floydian guitar and clear, if not overly powerful, vocals the order of the day. Second track The Betrayal introduces some heavy riffs to the mix, and together with Dennis Binnekade’s slightly strained, emotional vocals recalls A Perfect Circle, with the strong chorus heralding a post-grunge feel reminiscent of bands such as Live.
Other tracks particularly worthy of note are Event Horizon, which kicks off as a mellow, vaguely jazzy affair with a slight Eastern tinge to the rhythms before gradually building in terms of atmosphere and heaviness to become an impressive symphonic epic, and Nocturnal Lament, which survives an opening that seems to ape that of Comfortably Numb a little too closely and impresses with its controlled build-up and strong chorus. Throughout the album, lead guitarist Remco van den Berg impresses, with fine soloing; excellent acoustic work on the gentle Unspoken Words II illustrates his versatility.
Unfortunately I feel that the album’s flow is seriously stifled by the band’s decision to insert narrative passages in between many of the songs – this reaches a nadir on System Log, which seems to go on forever. The combination of a well-spoken English voice reciting what sounds suspiciously like gobbledegook and various ‘spacey’ ambient sounds recalled to me the 80’s BBC TV version of The Hitchhikers Guide To the Galaxy, and I found this equally difficult to take seriously. Apparently the band intend to utilise projections and the like at live shows and the narrative may well make more sense in this context, but on the album it just jars as far as I’m concerned.
In addition, the production leaves something to be desired – the instruments seem a little unbalanced in the mix, and I really don’t care for the over-loud drum sound – the snare drum in particular suffers, with the poor drummer sounding like he’s hitting a large biscuit tin. In addition, several of the songs seem to drift along rather uninterestingly – this is particularly the case on closing track The Resurrection, meaning that proceedings end with something of a whimper.
Overall then, The Aurora Project show plenty of potential on Unspoken Words…, and in time I can well see them producing material of the calibre of similar outfits such as Riverside and Sylvan. However I can’t help thinking that they would have been better off going for a less ambitious affair first time out, and feel that more consistency and a better production is required next time around.
Cage - 87/94
Tracklist: Again Autumn (5:19), If (5:00), The Feebleminded Man (20:57), The Chapter (7:33), Riding The Deep (5:26), Thinkin’ All (6:13)
Alessandro Bugliani is the star-turn at the heart of this appealing set from Italian unknowns Cage. His impressively fluid piano work (as well as other keyboards) adds a special touch to an already engaging group sound, ably constructed by Claudio Franciosi (also on keyboards); Andrea Griselli (Drums); Fulvio Mele (Bass, Vocals) and Andrea Mignani (guitar).
With five medium-length (between 5 and 7 minutes) tracks and one long suite, Cage find plenty of time for long instrumental sections, with occasional vocal passages. The vocals here are not bad. They provide a strong Genesis feel, often carried through to the music as well, which will please some and alienate others. I found the vocals quite likeable overall, with only occasional moments where the accent intrudes noticeably.
Musically, the emphasis is on symphonic rock with a strong 70’s influence (primarily from Genesis, but with traces of VDGG, ELP and others – for instance, there is a section on The Feebleminded Man which reminded me of a song by Finns Wigwam. I can’t remember which one though), but there are modern influences too, including some quite hard sounds. With duel keyboardists, including the striking piano of Bugliani, the sound is often dominated by multi-layered keys, but Andrea Mignani contributes some excellent melodic guitar too. The rhythm section are also damn good – no perfunctory, leaden beats here. The compositions are nicely varied, including sweeping symphonics, dynamic, almost aggressive passages and a touch or two of dissonance in amongst the striking melodies.
Whilst there are no turkeys here, the standout track has to be The Feebleminded Man, where it all comes together in an impressive suite which is probably their attempt at a Supper’s Ready type epic. It may fall a little short of this aim, but is very enjoyable nevertheless, and one or two of the separate sections are superb. There is a song section at around the ten minute mark which has an almost hymn like quality to it.
As the album title implies, the compositions span an eight year period, but as far as I can ascertain, they were all re-recorded in 2003 and there is a unified feel to the album – it doesn’t seem like a patchwork of leftovers.
My appreciation of the album fluctuated slightly, according to my mood and, perhaps more importantly, on the amount of attention I was able to afford the music on each particular listen. It is, therefore, an album which will reward close attention and repeated listens and it bodes well for future releases by the group. Now that they have a deal with Musea, perhaps we will see a new CD of entirely fresh material – I hope so.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Psymbience - IS
Tracklist: Aurora (9:38), Psymbiology (3:58), Genesis (6:17), Gihon (1:26), Medium (11:00), Atonement (7:30), Communion (2:11), Fifteen (11:31), Synchronic (9:32)
US five piece Psymbience have forged an intriguing sound on IS, a complex sci-fi-influenced concept affair, coming across as a mix of Tool in their more progressive moments and late Japan/ early solo career-era David Sylvian both vocally and musically. This combination of influences doesn’t produce as odd a sound as might be imagined, helped by the band’s keen sense of dynamics and ability to build complex yet approachable songs. Bassist Brian (no second names here) is the most prominent musician, due both to his intriguing, sinewy bass lines which frequently lead the songs, and the position of his instrument right at the forefront of the mix. As a consequence the guitars can come across as rather weedy, particularly in sections which are clearly intended to be heavy, and they work better during mellower moments, where the sinewy leads weave between the rhythm section in an often suspenseful way – Atonement contains particularly good illustrations of this.
Its in the purely instrumental sections where the band really branch out and head off in unexpected directions – Medium contains some psychedelic space-rock in the vein of Hawkwind and Ozric Tentacles, whilst the lengthy Fifteen roams through various musical territories, from improvisational jamming ala Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd to free jazz and through to harder beats in the vein of 90’s UK dance act The Prodigy. There’s even room on opening track Aurora for a harmonica solo, which fits the song better than you’d think.
The album does drift in places, and there’s a feeling that the bands ambitious song writing is perhaps a stage ahead of their playing and, crucially, the clearly limited recording budget; that said, there’s certainly enough here to indicate that with better production and more consistent material Psymbience could certainly make some headway, with open-minded prog fans with a liking for Tool clearly a key target market.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Onsegen Ensemble - Hiukkavaara Session
Tracklist: Vaïno (6:37), Kuuhanka (8:23)
Onsegen Ensemble are a trio of musicians hailing from Oulu in Finland. The group consists of Esa Juujärvi (bass and keyboards), Kimmo Nissinen (guitar) and Veijo Pulkkinen (drums) although they are looking to expand their line-up. Supporting the band on this limited edition CD single are Alisa Saila (vocals on Vaïno), Minna Karjalainen (clarinet on Vaïno) and Jukka Limingoja (vocals on Kuuhanka).
Although the short nature of this release doesn't give much of an idea of what the band are really capable of, the ideas present on the two tracks are rather interesting. Mixing prog, mild psychedelia and even a smidgeon of Goth rock the songs are engaging.
Best of the two is Vaïno with the lovely vocals of Saila blending well with the guitars/bass/drums. Kuuhanka is based on a repetitive bass line over which are layered the guitars and male vocals (such as they are, delivered in a rather unusual style, not so much singing as intonations).
Worth checking out (you can download the two tracks free of charge by visiting their website) as there are some interesting ideas. However, due to the nature of the release (recorded in rehearsal on low budget home studio equipment) this release is unrated, I'll wait for a full album!