Reviews in this issue:
- David Gilmour - On An Island (Duo Review)
- Umphrey's McGee - Safety In Numbers
- Linear Sphere – Reality Dysfunction
- Degree Absolute - Degree Absolute
- Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites -
Regelmässige Zestörungen ~ Friessengiest Part 2
- The Box – Black Dog There
- Theo Travis - Earth To Ether
- Pierre Moerlen's Gong – Pentanine
- Band Of Rain - Deep Space
- Band Of Rain - Garlands
David Gilmour - On An Island
Tracklist: Castellorizon (3:54), On An Island (6:47), The Blue (5:26), Take a Breath (5:45), Red Sky at Night (2:51), This Heaven (4:24), Then I Close My Eyes (5:27), Smile (4:03), A Pocketful of Stones (6:17), Where We Start (6:45)
Mark Hughes' Review
David Gilmour really needs no introduction: the mainstay and driving force behind Pink Floyd since the acrimonious rift that fractured the band following 1983's The Final Cut, he is one of only a handful of guitarists with a uniquely identifiable style and sound that forms a benchmark by which others are compared with. On An Island, released on his 60th birthday, is his first solo album since About Face, released some 22 years ago, and the first collection of new compositions since Floyd's last (as in most recent and, as is increasingly likely, final) album The Division Bell, which itself is a startlingly 12 years old this year. So what has the man been up to in the intervening years? Basically it seems that he has been enjoying the fruits of his labours and being a contented father watching his children grow up and putting the madness of the huge global enterprise that the Floyd had become behind him. Yes he was still writing and has apparently amassed a large quantity of songs, ideas and musical fragments from which the ten tracks that make up On An Island have been culled.
First up, the new CD should not be compared against Pink Floyd albums, of whatever era - Gilmour's solo material is a totally different beast to that band's output, as was evident when About Face was released and received a less than ecstatic reception. Having said that, opening track Castellorizo does come closest to replicating the sound and spirit of the Floyd. An instrumental that, with the exception of the orchestral backing, is comprised purely of various guitars, it acts as an overture to the album with its oceanic undercurrents leading neatly into the atmospheric title track. And what a corker of a track it is too. The superb harmonies of David Crosby and Graham Nash providing vocal support, the always glorious sound of the Hammond organ (provided by none other than Richard Wright) and original Pink Floyd member Rado Klose (he joined and left in 1965, preferring jazz to psychedelia), adding additional guitar all add up to one of the strongest opening songs in recent memory. The languid The Blue offers up a dreamy atmosphere, mellow and drifting. Overall, the album is rather laid back, one for late nights of reflection rather than early evening partying. But that has always been the case with Gilmour's solo efforts, right back to the eponymous debut back in 1978, the shorter more relaxed nature of a lot of the songs on that album contrasting with the more intense epics released on Floyd's Animals later that year.
Take A Breath would have fitted comfortably on previous solo album About Face, the staccato rhythm and rather harsher vocals (comparatively speaking!) recite an intriguing lyric (by wife Polly Samson) that maintains the watery imagery, albeit cloaked in somewhat nihilistic overtones (although there is a twisted logic and optimism to "If I'm the one to throw you overboard, at least I showed you how to swim to shore"!). Red Sky At Night features Gilmour on saxophone (he's not bad!) and is another of those atmospheric instrumentals (cf Signs of Life and Cluster One) that individually are nothing outstanding but their presence adds such a lot to the overall feel and flow of the album. The next two songs are about as far away from Floyd as you can get. This Heaven is a slow shuffle based around an acoustic guitar riff and some more Hammond organ work, this time by the legendary Georgie Fame. Then I Close My Eyes features more high profile guests with B.J. Cole adding Weissenborn guitar (the forerunner of the dobro and the pedal steel guitar) and Robert Wyatt contributing cornet to this reflective and languorous instrumental.
Anyone who bought the DVD of Gilmour's Meltdown performance will be familiar with Smile. A simple love song with sparse instrumentation, the studio cut is not radically different from that on the live DVD. Probably my least favourite track on the album as, despite the crystal production, nice orchestration and fine vocal and instrumental performances, it doesn't really go anywhere. Much better is A Pocketful Of Stones where the orchestral arrangement of Zbigniew Preisner add some darker tones and display the arranger's cinematic heritage. Final track, Where We Start is a lovely, tranquil and optimistic song that displays an inherent contentedness in the composer's life. Like Near The End, the track that closed About Face, the gently acoustic number brings the album to a peaceful conclusion leaving a sense of fulfilment and desire to revisit the whole album again. Like the aquatic themes so prevalent throughout, the album flows gently along like a meandering river as it slowly winds its way out to the sea.
Ok, so maybe On An Island won't offer what hard core Floyd fans would want from Gilmour, particularly as the release of this album and the subsequent tour are possibly the reason for the further delays in the release of the Pulse DVD, but all that should be pushed aside. Often solo albums are the opportunity for artists to get away from their bands and present a different side to their musical vision. Gilmour has done just that with a lovely album of great songs that despite being firmly rooted amongst the slower tempos contain enough of the famed guitarist's characteristic playing to satisfy even the most curmudgeon Floyd fan.
Ed Sander's Review
It has been twelve years since Floyd frontman David Gilmour released any substantial new material. If it had to take this long, this just had to be good ! Maybe that thought set my expectations a bit too high. After listening to the album for the first time I remember thinking 'So ... that's it?' and being rather disappointed. Maybe the time and place - on the way to work in the car - were not the best moment to listen to the album. Certainly, this was no car music or music to prepare for a enthusiastic day at the office. No sir. This was more the music to play over a glass of wine and candlelight or on your MP3 player while enjoying a stroll through the park.
Earlier this month (March 2006) David celebrated his 60th birthday. On one hand it's good to see the guitar legend still releasing a new album. I mean, financially he's probably one of the musicians who least needs it. On the other hand, it clearly shows in the music of On An Island that Dave is well into his 'golden years'. The music is mostly peaceful and laid back. The only exception to this rule is Take A Breath, which was clearly meant to be a more rocking tune but (in my opinion, and unlike the live version) falls flat because of a lack of power in the production rhythm section (a real shame for the duo Guy Pratt and Ged Lynch). Besides that, the lyrics are rather dodgy and there's one line that doesn't rime and stands out like sore thumb between those who do.
Talking about the lyrics, Gilmour gladly admits that it's not one of his talents and therefore has asked his life-companion, Polly Samson, to help him write some of the stuff, as she also did on Pink Floyd's The Division Bell. Some of the lyrics came out quite well, while others make you cringe at times. Above all, don't expect any complicated concepts or issues on a grander scale here. As David explained in an interview on the BBC the album is mostly about the happiness in his current life. As with the music, the lyrics clearly show how Samson and Gilmour seemingly spend their days; drinking wine, feeding bread to the swans, talking a walk in the woods, skimming stones on the water, the works ...
By now you will probably have a clear picture of the atmosphere of this album. If not, let me just compare it to Floyd tracks like Fat Old Sun, Pillow of Winds, Fearless and the quieter stuff on Obscured By Clouds. It's less groovy than Gilmour's first solo album and less pop-rock than About Face.
The album features three instrumental tracks. The first of these, album opener Castellorizon, consists of two parts. The first part is a collage of sound effects and samples from the album. The second, more interesting part is one of those roaring guitar solos for which Gilmour is known and loved. Its power sets high expectations for the rest of the album, but the dark atmosphere of the track unfortunately never returns.
Red Sky at Night finds David playing saxophone. Not bad, but don't expect any Dick Parry here. What's more, the melody he's playing sounds eerily much like an attempt to make a saxophone arrangement of the opening solo of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. Or maybe it's the long sustained strings that remind me of that classic Floyd tune.
The third instrumental, Then I Close My Eyes, is a rather weird track. It starts with half a minute of mid-eastern flavoured music on a cümbüs (just think Greek Banjo) before moving into a very ambient track with guitar playing that brings back memories of Floyd in the Meddle era. Robert Wyatt adds some tasteful cornet playing.
Other tracks on the album are the extremely laid-back The Blue (featuring Gilmour's trademark soaring notes - think Marooned), the bluesy toetapper This Heaven (probably my one but favourite track on the album), Smile (previously released on the David Gilmour in Concert DVD). By the time you have reached track nine you are treated to two more peaceful songs (A Pocketful of Stones and Where We Start) and if you get through these and are still awake you've probably had too much coffee !
For me the highlight of the album is the title track, which has a wonderful dreamy atmosphere and with almost 7 minutes is the longest track on the album and features two fine guitar solos. The song finds David Crosby and Graham Nash (of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young fame) adding backing some marvellous vocal harmonies. Talking about guest appearances, other well-known people beside the aforementioned Crosby, Nash and Wyatt are Richard Wright (Pink Floyd), Jools Holland (Squeeze), Ged Lynch (Peter Gabriel), Phil Manzanera (Roxy Music) and session musicians with a Floydian track record Andy Newmark and Guy Pratt. These people appear on one or more tracks on the album. Oh, and let's not forget the big string orchestra that adds some fine layers of atmosphere to the tracks.
All in all the above might seem to be rather negative and in a way it is. I've been a Floyd fan for more than twenty years and I was really expecting something more diverse from uncle Dave. The individual tracks in themselves are all little gems and the guitar work is impeccable, but these tracks should have been spread over two or three albums and combined with something more adventurous. Or at least something more powerful. As it is this new Gilmour CD is a beautiful but effective medicine against insomnia.
Umphrey's McGee - Safety In Numbers
Tracklist: Believe The Lie (6:56), Rocker (5:29), Liquid (3:32), Words (7:08), Nemo (4:25), Women, Wine And Song (3:53), Intentions Clear (5:50), End Of The Road (3:16), Passing (4:15), Ocean Billy (6:37), The Weight Around (3:33)
If you are a regular visitor to this site then you will be aware that Umphrey’s McGee have received a fair amount of exposure in recent weeks. Not surprising I guess considering their appearance on all three days of the ‘Jam In The Dam’ festival in Amsterdam earlier this month to support the release of their third studio album. It follows the highly acclaimed Anchor Drops album released on the InsideOut label just over a year ago. The band has been around since 1997 when they first got together in their hometown of Chicago. They took their name curiously enough from a cousin of guitarist and vocalist Brendan Bayliss. In addition to the studio work, they have four live albums and two live DVD’s under their belt. They are regarded as a major force in the so-called ‘jamband’ scene in recognition of their extensive live work in the States. They often play very long sets incorporating improvisation to appreciative and devoted fans who follow the band from one venue to the next where they very rarely play the same set twice. In spite of the extensive live work however; it was the studio grounded Anchor Drops that brought the band to the attention of a much wider audience.
The band cites Yes and Genesis amongst their influences, together with the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. It would be fair to say though that prog is only one small part of their makeup. Folk, R & B, mainstream rock, jazz, pop and even country are all part of the eclectic mix. In addition to Brendan Bayliss, the six strong lineup includes Jake Cinninger on guitar, synths and vocals, Joel Cummings keyboards and vocals, Andy Farag percussion, Kris Myers drums and vocals, and Ryan Stasik on bass. Bayliss and Cinninger are the principle songwriters, with the rest of the band lending a hand in the compositions and arrangements. The workmanlike production is by their regular soundman Kevin Browning who keeps the bands sound firmly in touch with their live roots. The band are hardly in need of additional instrumentation, but none the less they are joined on this outing by guests Joshua Redman on saxophone and the veteran performer Huey Lewis supplying harmonica and backing vocals.
Believe The Lie provides a suitably up-tempo start, with a basic but solid rhythm driving the guitar dominated sound along. A lengthy instrumental section in the middle gets lost in a rhythmic maze before jazzy organ and incisive guitar brings things back on track. Myers throws in some agreeable drum rolls to end. An OK start to the album, but there’s better to come. The deceptively titled Rocker is anything but. Acoustic guitar led, this mid tempo song has string backing, and a C & W feel courtesy of the laidback sound of slide guitar. The song is dedicated to their friend Brian Schultz who was tragically killed by a drunk driver following a New Year’s Eve gig in 2004. In contrast, Liquid has a breezy percussive sound reminiscent of Genesis’ The Brazilian, with ringing electric guitar giving an almost reggae feel. A touch of harmonica and a strong chorus give way to a cacophonic ending that harks back to The Beatles’ A Day In The Life, which feels slightly at odds with the rest of the song.
Words is the longest, and for me most successful track on the album. Three different melodies are interlinked by some inventive and atmospheric instrumental work. The lead vocal sounds remarkably like Joe Walsh to begin with, and the busy drum work and cascading prog like guitar runs are all strong elements. The final chorus features beautiful harmonies and a ringing, lyrical guitar solo. My only quibble is that the guitar should have been more upfront in the mix at this point, sounding just a little fuzzy around the edges. Nemo has a stop/start rhythm pattern dominated by heavy guitar riffs. It isn’t all one-way traffic however with melodic guitar and piano interplay and easy on the ear harmony vocals to close. Women, Wine And Song finds the band in relaxed mood, with a smoky bar room atmosphere conjured up by honky tonk piano and bluesy harmonica from Huey Lewis. The distinctive vocals of Lewis can also be heard supporting the rousing chorus. Intentions Clear features the saxophone of Joshua Redman who doubles the guitar line in fine jazz-fusion style supported by an instant bass line. The song becomes increasingly complex with a Steely Dan vocal style and crisp drumming adding to the busy sound. Another curious ending this time provided by a moody synth drone.
A complete change of pace for End Of The Road, a beautiful and understated folk tinged acoustic guitar duet. Superb bass work underpins this atmospheric instrumental, with a hint of sublime harmonica to close. The tumbling harmonies used in the infectious chorus of Passing give the song a commercial twist. A proggy lyrical guitar line is a brief but welcome inclusion. Ocean Billy adopts the same production trick first used by The Raspberries’ Overnight Sensation back in 1974. Starting with a thin transistor radio like tone, it builds to a fuller and richer sound with a dynamic Rutherford/Collins Watcher Of The Skies style rhythm pattern. The crisp percussion, edgy guitar riffs, and synth runs provide solid support to the soaring echo enhanced vocal. Another strong highlight. To close, The Weight Around is a brooding, melancholic song in the same vein as Oasis’ Half The World Away. Acoustic steel guitar is used to good effect with effective harmonies in the chorus. The anticipated build never arrives, and unexpectedly it’s all over.
With this album Umphrey’s McGee prove once again that they are more than just a live entity. I’m not entirely sure if it is advancement on its predecessor, but it’s certainly a worthy follow up. To go back to my earlier point, whilst they tip their hats to the prog genre, they are certainly not slaves to it. To this extent, they parallel post Neal Morse Spock’s Beard in many ways. They are certainly a band with quite a few tricks up their sleeve and there’s no telling in which direction the next release will take them. It’s this unpredictability, together with their collective drive and determination that gives their sound a refreshing edge. If quality songs combined with solid musicianship and one or two surprises along the way sounds appealing, then this comes highly recommended.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Linear Sphere – Reality Dysfunction
Tracklist: Reversal (10:38), Father Pyramid (4:49), Ceremony Master (6:23), Division Man (4:21), Life of Gear (7:41), Marketing (6:32), From Space To Time (25:10)
I love, love, love the guitar playing on this album. So will you. In fact, all the playing is simply stellar. But I can’t say that I really like the album as a whole – and the apparent contradiction in those two claims will obviously take some explaining.
First, though, about those guitars. Martin Goulding and Charlie Griffiths are both astounding. And it’s not just their playing (which is excellent not only in its execution but in its variety) that will amaze you – it’s the range of sounds they wring from their guitars. From extreme-metal shredding to fluid Satriani-like lead lines to jouncy, jazzy breaks, these guys are the real thing. In fact, I might almost wish that this were an instrumental album so that the guitars would be the focal point.
And that’s not to denigrate the contributions of bassist Dave Marks (who was replaced after the recording of this album) and drummer Nick Lowczowski. Both are excellent. Lowczowski has a difficult job just keeping up with the weird and constantly changing time signatures, but he manages that job and does more – I especially like his tasty use of the ride cymbal, notably on Ceremony Master. And obviously I don’t know why Marks left the band, but it wasn’t for lack of talent: his bass is a constant presence, both supporting and providing counterpoint to the guitars. The whole ensemble hangs together tightly but also swings.
I said earlier that I might almost wish that this were an instrumental album, but I’m going to amend that sentence by removing “almost.” The weak element here is the singing. It’s not that vocalist Joe Geron is incapable or unenthusiastic – far from either. And (as I said about the guitarists) one of the things that impresses about him is the variety of his vocals. But that’s also the biggest problem. Geron uses six or seven styles of vocals on this long album, and, while a couple are successful, a few are grating – especially his sort-of-half-death-metal growls, which are tempered by a few too many histrionics. There’s also a lot of whispered/processed background talking in the songs – a voice under the guitars intoning solemn-sounding imprecations – and that, too, becomes annoying after a while (because, as I said, this is a long album). The one thing he almost never does is just plain old sing – he’s mostly “using vocals,” I guess I’d say – and that’s a real flaw here.
However, it’s likely the case that Geron wanted to vary his vocal styles to match the wild variations in the songs themselves – and that brings me to my second major objection to the album. Though the band, as I’ve said, very much hangs together, the songs themselves don’t. Many begin slowly and build to a dramatic loud section – then they do that for a while, meander, sometimes slow down, eventually speed up, get louder, get quieter: it’s almost as if the band couldn’t get interested in one main idea for each song and kept adding riffs, bridges, lengthy instrumental sections (think earlier Metallica, which is not to say that Linear Sphere sounds like Metallica – but they’re similar in that, like the ones on this album, an early Metallica song never had quite enough riffs!). If you’re looking for verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus, don’t look to this album; unfortunately, don’t look for really coherent song structures, either, or – except locally – for melody.
So that’s what I meant when I said that, though the playing on this album is excellent, I don’t really like the album as a whole. Will you? Let me give you some ideas (in the plural – because of the wild variety I’ve mentioned!) about what the songs – “compositions,” rather – sound like. I can’t really compare them to those of any other band; I suppose the band’s own description of its sound is accurate enough: a “diverse blend of progressive rock, jazz-fusion and a subtle dose of technical death metal.” Don’t be scared off by that last – the dose of death metal is subtle indeed and heard mainly in the occasional shredding and growling, but Cannibal Corpse these guys ain’t. In the main, this is – shall I coin one of those phrases I usually hate? – something like a combination of The Mahavishnu Orchestra and early Brand X on steroids. There – I can’t get much closer to their sound than that. But remember, there’s the singing to contend with – and many people may very well like it. I don’t, but the album is well worth listening to for the musicianship alone.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Degree Absolute - Degree Absolute
Tracklist: Exist (7.40), Laughing Alone (5:59), Questions (4:01), Confession (6:19), Distance (4:09), HalfManHalfBiscuit (3:14), Pi (3:09), Ask Nothing Of Me (5:00), Ergo Sum (11:10) Bonus Track: Unnamed (6:31)
The latest release from the ever-interesting Sensory label, has certainly been a long time fermenting in its musical vat. Degree Absolute is an American 'project' founded in 1999 by multi-instrumentalist Aaron Bell. A former musical instructor, he has apparently been involved in numerous bands over the past couple of decades, as guitarist, vocalist and bassist.
However, increasingly frustrated at being unable to bring his own musical ideas into the traditional band format, Aaron decided to strike out on his lonesome. A first demo was produced in 2000, with Aaron initially playing all the instruments himself, before bringing in hired guns, Dave Lindeman on bass, and Berklee College of Music graduate Doug Beary - who also plays in melodic metallers Defyance.
Besides handling the guitar duties, Bell also provides the vocals on six of the tracks, the other three (four if you include the bonus) being instrumentals. He has a pretty unique style. Far from the typical ProgMetal vocalist, his range sits at the lower end of the scale. But what it may lack in range, is ably compensated for by sincerity and emotion.
Musically speaking, the album is - to adapt one of the song titles - HalfMetalHalfAmbient. Unconventional? Certainly. Unlistenable? Certainly not.
The opening four tracks are some of the best, old-style, ProgMetal workouts that I've heard for many a year. Exist starts things off at a steady pace, before a crunchy guitar announces the arrival of Laughing Alone. Both have some very effective musical twists and turns, with Bell's guitar taking the central role.
The best song on the album comes in the shape of Questions. A mixture of early period Fates Warning (especially in the Jon Arch vocal phrasing) and the up-and-coming Australian band Without Ending. Like Laughing Alone, there's a great groove and melody to this track, with a frantic, technical instrumental section in the middle.
In gentle contrast, Confession starts of with snare, bass and a beautiful, plucked guitar run, before slowing growing into an epic-feel workout, that manages to capture all the necessary elements.
Then, without warning, it's suddenly time to chill! An instrumental trilogy follows, where the band delves deeply into ambient sounds. The laid-back Distance, incorporates hand drums and airy, plucked guitar, with a touch of fusion. HalfManHalfBiscuit favours distorted guitars, over gibbering synths, while Pi, allows slabs of technical metal guitar to cut into ambient jazzy breakdowns. It's all very adventurous and experimental - but holds absolutely no common ground with the music that has preceeded it.
Next, again without warning or logic, we return to the opening heavy style - although neither Ask Nothing Of Me or the minimalistic Ergo Sum, quite reach the heights of the opening quartet.
And finally, although it's mentioned nowhere in the CD booklet, there's an untitled bonus track, which is either pure atmosphere, pure crap, or both, depending on your tastes. Too much like listening to a dripping tap, for me, it merely exists as a waste of space and closes the album on a bit of a downer. And that really is the weakness of Degree Absolute's potential - this album really is a sum of two very different parts.
Surely, if somebody wants to listen to some ambient music, they will simply select an ambient album. At least, that's a far more likely approach than picking out this album, and skipping though four tracks of traditional ProgMetal to get to the ambient mood - and then getting up 10 minutes later to skip through to the final track!
As someone who likes to sit down and listen to some old school ProgMetal, I'm all for mixing styles and influences. But ideally they should be spread evenly over the course of an album. The opening four tracks here, offer a really unique and enjoyable listen - it's just that the whole flow, and point of the album, is destroyed for me, by having to get up and skip through three bits of noise in the middle. A real shame.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites -
Regelmässige Zestörungen ~ Friessengiest Part 2
Tracklist: Ballade D'Edgar Le Désorienté (6:08), L'Intrus En Ce Jardin (2:56), Le Poids Écrasant De Ces Instants De Grâce (8:00), Au Bal Du Palomer (9:16), Trockenspiel - Avant La Pluie (6:25), Une Simple Erreur D'Appeau (2:40), Dérives, Hasard, Effusions (15:34), Salt M. Valente (9:13), Eight And Half Tracks (2:31)
Formed in 1989 by Julien Ash and Angustére (sic), Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites (NLC hereafter) are from the Strasbourg region of France. Angustére left the project after the first couple of tapes but Monsieur Ash continued quite prolifically, with various guest musicians coming and going over the years under the NLC banner. The *band* is purely studio based, have never played live and don't even consider themselves as professional musicians - perhaps more a hobby project really...
I read on the web their music as being categorised as "ambient industrial" and NLC as "the most famous minimalist/avant garde French band", for whatever that's worth. The ambient description certainly fits but the industrial less so - the music is mainly piano driven with violin and acousticguitar accompanying and sometimes taking the melody. The scene is completed with occassional rhythm loops, atmospheric effects, sound snippets and samples. Most notable though is the wan, sad singing from what sounds like a very depressed young girl. It is all very melancholy and the music would fit perfectly to one of those weird, tragic French films where the lead actress goes mad and dies horribly leaving her lover wandering aimlessly on a deserted road. This film would certainly be black and white and would be up for the "Palm d'Or" at the Cannes film festival...
Now, I personally like weird French cinema so is perhaps no suprise that I have a lot of time for NLC also, well Friessengiest Part 2 at least as I haven't heard any of the rest of their work as of yet. The music is certainly minimalist, I was reminded on many occassions of Philip Glass' solo piano pieces and occassionally of Michael Nyman's soundtrack to The Piano - add the above mentioned instruments and the miserable girl, give it all a lost, slightly mad feel and you have the gist of the whole CD. In general the lyrics are in French so I have no idea what they're about, but this perhaps adds to the considerable atmosphere that the music generates. One track Au Bal Du Palomer does have an English lyric, a duet in fact between a man and the suicidal woman, she's saying she wants his baby and he's responding "You promised me". It's all very strange but it works really well.
I don't think I would classify this music as progressive, it's leaning more towards modern classical with a dose of the aforementioned avant garde/experimental with an overall soundtrack feel. I do believe though that many prog fans would enjoy it. Anyone who appreciates ambient or gentle music may well appreciate NLC, if you like your music depressing then you can't go wrong. It is also worth mentioning that although the music isn't very commercial it's not difficult to listen to neither and works well as either as foreground or background music - I've found myself listening to it a lot later in the evenings as it is rather low-key and doesn't upset my wife too much...
Finally, it's also interesting because I have very little like it in my collection and that counts for a lot. Well worth a listen.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Box – Black Dog There
Tracklist: Liftoff (3:20), Black Dog There (3:37), So Beautiful (6:12), Someday (2:07), Watching Over You (4:21), Round And Round (3:19), We Need Time (2:52), Hell On Earth (5:38), That’s The World (2:30), Run For It (4:17)
Admit it: you’re sick of listening to progressive-rock albums that don’t feature accordions. Well, look no further: Round And Round, the sixth song on The Box’s new album Black Dog There, uses an accordion as one of its main instruments. That’s right: an accordion on a progressive-rock concept album that’s (sort of, and among other things) about space flight. Want to know something else? It works, dammit!
This is not only an excellent but also a surprising, even shocking album – at least, for those of us who know what The Box used to sound like. Back in the early Eighties, this Quebec-based band had a few huge hits (well, here in Canada, anyway) with witty, catchy pop songs such as Ordinary People and Closer Together. Fine pop music it was; progressive it wasn’t, not by a long shot. Well, twenty years later, here’s a new album – though, I suppose predictably, with only one of the band’s original members, singer Jean Marc Pisapia, who also wrote the whole thing – that delightfully preserves the band’s original pop sensibilities but, quite deliberately, harks back to the music and the bands Jean Marc loved in the seventies: Genesis, Yes, and Pink Floyd. It’s quite a stretch, for sure, and The Box 2005 certainly doesn’t in significant ways “sound like” any of those three bands or their contemporaries, but Jean Marc’s obviously loving absorption of the progressive rock of the seventies is easily audible all over this nifty new album.
I was playing the CD quite loudly the other day, and my wife, walking into the room, said “That’s not Yes, is it? No” (she immediately corrected herself after hearing a few more bars) – “but it sure sounds like their harmonies.” And she nailed the truth with that comment. Jean Marc sings in a lower register than does Jon Anderson, but his harmonies (usually with himself) – especially because of his gorgeously clear enunciation – will remind you, through the album, of nothing so much as those of Anderson and Chris Squire back in Yes’s glory days. In fact, that’s the clearest link between this album and those of the bands that influenced Jean Marc.
Because, although I called the album “progressive rock,” it might more accurately be called “progressive pop.” Although it’s a concept album, Black Dog There works as a collection of ten distinct songs, each a coherent, melodic piece in its own right, each one meticulously crafted and completely enjoyable on its own or in its proper context. That, despite or because of Jean Marc’s declared intention to vary the songs’ styles depending on their subjects – from Liftoff, a very cool electronic/techno piece about the launch of a space shuttle; through Round And Round (the one with the accordion!), which is actually a waltz that describes, sure, the dance of the planets; to Hell On Earth, a sort-of Floydian workout whose lyrics lament the constant wars that plague us. It all works just so well, though: and, perhaps best of all, Jean Marc leaves us wanting more. The album’s not even forty minutes long – but, when it’s over, you’ll hit “Play” again (and then maybe “Repeat”).
The three songs I just mentioned are among the best, but perhaps my favourite (and the obvious choice for a single, if any ambitious radio programmers are reading), is So Beautiful. So Beautiful is essentially a mid-tempo piano ballad – but so to say is almost to insult the song, which features many small sonic touches that keep the ear attentive through its whole six minutes. Superb, tasteful percussion, a lovely melody and lovelier harmonies, and an excellent long ride-out solo elevate this song high above the simple pop that the term “piano ballad” suggests. Best of all, though, is Jean Marc’s voice.
And, excellent as the playing (courtesy of a number of musicians that constitute the “new” Box band) is throughout, it’s that voice that really pushes this album over the top, in my opinion. Pure, clear, committed to every word, Jean Marc’s voice is a superb instrument in its own right. Best of all, though, you can hear, in every word he sings, his love of the music, his enthusiasm for this project. Will The Box become a new force in progressive rock? Impossible at this point to say. The talent is there, and, on the evidence of this single album, the new band has energy to spare. For now, though, we have this superb CD, which I recommend unreservedly to fans of hard-core progressive rock, to fans of pure pop music, and to everybody in between.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Theo Travis - Earth To Ether
Tracklist: The Mystic And The Emperor (8:57), 21st Century Schizoid Man (3:40), The Book (6:15), Marti (5:40), The Munich Train (7:53), This Frozen Time (4:35), Stewed Flute (2:26), Things Change (4:20), Full Moon Rising Part 2 (6:42)
Although this album fell into our hands pretty late - it's a 2004 release, it is well worth a review from a prog source, since almost all the attention it has received up to now, surprisingly, comes from jazz-related people. It is funny how everybody refers to Theo Travis. Other people know him as a jazz musician, others from collaborations with Gong, Soft Machine Legacy and other prog groups, and others, like me, from collaborations with avant-garde bands like No-Man, David Sylvian, Jansen-Barbieri-Karn and also Porcupine Tree (worth mentioning that the album is mixed by Steven Wilson). Theo also featured and contributed greatly to the recent Tangent album A Place In The Queue.
Apart from contributing to other groups, Theo has released eleven albums prior to this one, either as solo works or as part of jazz quartets, trios or even ambient/electronica duos (Cipher) creating scores for movie classics. We are obviously talking about a multi-talented artist crossing various musical frontiers. Unfortunately, this is the only work of Theo I have listened to, so I cannot compare it to past releases and therefore have a more complete idea about him. I should also add here that he is known for a technique of looping flute in real time called ambitronics. Earth To Ether is actually between two worlds: jazz and folky Canterbury prog scene. With one foot on each piece of land, it tries to bridge the two worlds, and it succeeds in doing so. Richard Sinclair (Hatfield And The North, Caravan, etc.) provides the vocals, co-writes three tracks and amplifies the prog part of the enterprise with a wonderful contribution.
My impression was that Theo was a saxophonist, but actually what he really goes into with this album is his flute work, and more precisely wonderful flute work sometimes reminiscent of the masters of the 70's folk-rock scene and sometimes of 60's jazz-related releases. Still there is sax here and there, cleverly inducing a mood swing. The music covers a diverse range of tunes - from pretty complex piano-driven stuff in the styles of Esbjorn Svensson Trio (only with lots of flute), like Things Change or the opener The Mystic And The Emperor which actually is the darkest track of the album, to cool jazz flirting with Jobim's bossa nova, even to funkier tunes like Full Moon Rising Part 2.
The Book is a very beautiful song more with really excellent lyrics, in the spirit of cool jazz of the 60's, followed up by a Mancini-like bossa nova (Marti), while in the lyrical, really wonderful The Munich Train and in This Frozen Time the acoustic guitar of Sinclair together with the appropriate flute-work of Theo, yields a more 70's prog feeling. Again the lyrics (this time by novelist Jonathan Coe) are very good and fit Sinclair's style. The glances to prog are complemented by the powerful and groovy cover of 21st Century Schizoid Man by King Crimson, and I would also add Stewed Flute, a rather folky flute solo.
This release is absolutely among the most enjoyable I have had the chance to fall upon lately, and this impression only gets better with every listen. What is rather surprising is the feeling of coherence, since the influences are very well combined and used, and the result avoids sounding just like a mix of everything. Definitely fit for a prog audience after all, this is highly recommended, especially to people who are also keen to have a bit of jazz. Elegant and magical, perfect for a pleasant Sunday afternoon, Earth To Ether is an excellent album.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Pierre Moerlen's Gong – Pentanine
Tracklist: Flying High (5:49), Airway to Seven (4:37), Pentanine part one (3:28), Au Chalet (4:04), Trip a la Mode (4:49), Reminiscence (6:46), Interlude (0:40), Classique (7:12), Lacheur (6:11), Blue Nuit (3:54), Pentanine part two (2:11), Montagnes Russes (7:04), Troyka (4:33)
As some of you might know Pierre Moerlen, the legendary drummer and percussionist of some of the finest units in music history such as Gong, Mike Oldfield, Brand X sadly passed away last year. There was some material which he had recorded with his Russian friends back in 2002 and Musea decided to release them, so Pentanine sadly will be the last studio effort of a legendary artist.
Pentanine is an instrumental album generally settled within the jazz-rock/fusion territory (along with some new age influences), but unlike the most bands in fusion, Pierre Moerlen’s Gong approaches fusion from a different perspective. This band isn’t about technical show-off, where one solo follows another in an improvisational frenzy. In fact it is mostly based on powerful grooves and beautiful melodies. There are also a few hypnotizing silent tracks diplaying Moerlen’s capabilities on xylophone and vibrophone. It might not be a dumb statement to say that this album is mostly based on keyboards and xylophone, so guitar freaks should approach with caution. The bass, the drums, and the guitars are mostly supplying the background but fortunately they are quite solid at that.
Although the patterns of Moerlen are often complex and polyrhytmic, they also leave a large room for melodic hooks and memorizable moments, but unfortunately there isn’t much to talk about the album. The music for the most part isn’t quite unpredictable and this leads to some boring moments at times. It doesn’t contain many ups and downs, no highlight tracks, no adventurous improvisations, but it offers a solid acoustic experience from beginning until the end for the fans of the genre. Pierre Moerlen fans should get this effort no matter what, since besides its musical quality it is truly a special release in memory of a great artist, but proggers who aren’t into fusion very much may not find what they are looking for. People who have no idea about the band should better check out their live album Full Circle, which in my opinion represents Pierre Moerlen’s music in a far more exciting way.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Band Of Rain - Deep Space
Tracklist: Cloudburst (4:22), Gorgeous Daughters Of Mr. Himalaya (4:56), Search For My Forgiver (3:43), A Room Whereime Stands Still (4:37), War And Peace (5:07), Sic Itur Ad Astra (5:08), Cassanova Of The Cliff Dwellers (3:41), Criggion (5:30), Last Wave Goodbye (7:11), Deep Space (7:04), Haze (4:56), Castle Walls (5:11), Svengali (5:13)
Band Of Rain - Garlands
Tracklist: Ghost Town (4:17), Test Pilot (5:52), Voyager (7:33), All Moonlit Through The Trees (5:34), Magnetic South (6:30), The Flying Sorcerers (4:57), Lady Evening Star (5:37), Beneath My Tree (3:57), Moon On The Mountain (3:37), Garlands (4:39), Clouds (2:15)
Despite the name, Band Of Rain is really more of a solo project (at least on these two studio offerings) for one Chris Gill. Gill has by all accounts lived a pretty interesting and adventurous life, and was apparently inspired towards his latest venture after meeting two well known giants of the progressive rock world, Nick Mason and Adrian Belew.
The first of those names, and indeed the title of Band Of Rain’s debut, Deep Space, should give you some indication of where Gill is coming from musically, and a couple of minutes listening to the opening track, Cloudburst, confirms it. Yes, we’re deep into the territory commonly known as ‘space rock’ here, with a steady rhythm and spacey synths providing the backdrop for lots of Gill’s fine guitar playing; he tends to alternate between carving out some solid, fuzzed-up riffs, playing some more restrained melody lines and (most prevalent of all) some lively lead guitar playing, some of which seems improvised. Common reference points throughout the album are scene leaders such as Hawkwind and Ozric Tentacles, early Pink Floyd and even Porcupine Tree in their earlier incarnation (Sic Itur Ad Astra could almost be an outtake from PT’s epic Voyage 34 opus). Gill does at times incorporate a bluesy feel to his playing, which definitely adds something to the mix.
A few of the tracks contain vocals – the strongest probably being the rather dark and ominous A Room Where Time Stands Still, and Castle Walls, which incorporates hysterical laughter, tribal chanting and a chilled-out ambient section to create an unsettling atmosphere. To be honest though the best tracks are probably the instrumental ones, where Gill is free from the rigid verse-chorus-verse structure and lets his guitar do the talking – Last Wave Goodbye is a good example of this (even though three minutes of someone reading out the meteorological forecast tests the patience somewhat!).
Garlands is Band Of Rain’s second and latest effort, and appears to feature a few more outside musicians. The cover art (and indeed album name), to me, seems to suggest that a more folky album is in store (in the vein of, say, Mostly Autumn) but to be honest this isn’t really the case, although its fair to say that Gill has spread his net a little wider on this one. On the one hand, tracks like the opening Ghost Town, Voyager (something of a giveaway title) and the wittily-named Flying Sorcerers continue to plough the space-rock furrow, but elsewhere there’s some new ingredients added to the mix – All Moonlit Through The Trees has some female vocals (quite good, although I’m not sure they fit the song); Beneath The Tree is a mellow, psychedelic number with some extremely laid-back vocals (sounding like the singer’s had one too many!); Moon On The Mountain is a laid back pop-rock track with a bluesy flavour (including a touch of harmonica) that actually had me thinking of Chris Rea’s material as a point of comparison, whilst the title track is quite spare and stripped back with simple acoustic work and piano giving the piece a New Age-y feel.
Overall then, two pleasant and fairly enjoyable albums. I wouldn’t say that I’ll be playing them a great deal in the future, but for fans of the space rock genre they’re definitely worth checking out. Of the two, I personally found Deep Space a little stronger and more consistent, but Garlands does at least show that Gill is exploring some new musical horizons, and I have no doubt this will continue with the forthcoming album due later this year, set to feature a heavier female vocal presence.
Deep Space - 6.5 out of 10
Garlands - 6 out of 10