Issue 2006-015: Flower Kings, The - Paradox Hotel - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Disc One: Room 111 Check In (1:37), Monsters & Men (21:21), Jealousy (3:22), Hit Me With A Hit (5:32), Pioneers Of Aviation (7:49), Lucy Had A Dream (5:28), Bavarian Skies (6:34), Selfconsuming Fire (5:49), Mommy Leave The Light On (4:38), End On A High Note (10:43)
Disc Two: Room 222 Minor Giant Steps (12:12), Touch My Heaven (6:08), The Unorthodox Dancing Lesson (5:24), Man Of The World (5:55), Life Will Kill You (7:03), The Way The Waters Are Moving (3:12), What If God Is Alone (6:58), Paradox Hotel, (6:29), Blue Planet (9:42)
Geoff Feakes' Review
I must confess that The Flower Kings have had me worried of late. The Rainmaker lacked the band' normal sparkle and Unfold The Future saw moments of self-indulgence creeping in. Adam And Eve had some fine songs for sure but paled in comparison with their best work of the 90’s. I’m pleased to say that with this latest release Roine and the guys are firmly back on top. Returning to their favoured two-disc format they have produced a skilful blend of blues, hard rock, jazz, pop and most significantly progressive rock. Melody and strong hooks are at the top of the agenda whilst still retaining the solid musicianship we’ve come to expect from the band. There has been a change in line-up but you would be hard pressed to spot the difference. Marcus Liliequist replaces that outgoing Zoltan Csörsz who relinquishes his five-year tenure behind the drums. Daniel Gildenlöw is also absent this time round, otherwise its business as usual. The albums concept, if there is one, is a simple one. Checking in and out of a hotel is seen as a metaphor for birth and death. The suggestion being that we are only guests here on earth with God as a kind of divine hotel manager. The songs succeed however very much on their own terms.
The aptly titled Room 111 opens with Check In, a recording of a NASA rocket launch serving as a short entrée, followed by the album's main course, Monsters & Men. TFK’s are certainly no strangers to epic length pieces, and this in my humble opinion is their best effort since 1999’s Garden Of Dreams. It opens and closes with beautiful, understated piano from Tomas Bodin, and in between weaves a rich musical tapestry. It builds with a slow burning martial like rhythm into a strong melody with Hans Fröberg and Roine Stolt sharing vocal duties and fine ensemble playing from all concerned. Around the halfway mark, there’s some particularly impressive guitar and keys interplay that borders on the classically baroque, which flows into a stunning Jon Anderson inspired vocal arrangement. The closing section is heralded by a triumphant display of Steve Howe style guitar dynamics from Stolt. Jealousy is graced with one of Stolt’s sweetest melodies and vocals to date, but lyrically there’s a sting in the tail with lines like “Your pain brings me joy”. It’s accompanied by Bodin’s atmospheric orchestral backdrop.
Hit Me With A Hit has a familiar ring to it, not surprising, as it could have been lifted straight out of the middle of The Truth Will Set You Free. A King Crimson influenced instrumental section provides an interesting diversion, with Stolt doing his best Fripp impression supported by impressive drumming from Liliequist. The instrumental Pioneers Of Aviation opens dramatically with majestic organ and synth that evokes Rick Wakeman’s fanfare from the middle of Close To The Edge. Excellent drum work precedes the main theme, which is first heard from the nimble bass playing of Jonas Reingold. Picked up by Stolt’s guitar, it develops into a melody to die for which is without doubt one of the strongest ever from TFK’s. Following a stately guitar intro, Lucy Had A Dream has a sugar sweet nursery rhyme sound with tinkling bells and Tony Banks style Mellotron swells. This surrenders to a bizarre instrumental waltz from Bodin dominated by the sound of the Wurlitzer keyboard.
The unsettling Bavarian Skies is a chilling account of The Final Solution, delivered in a macabre half-spoken narration (Stolt’s voice slowed down). The overblown orchestral backdrop adds a touch of irony. Selfconsuming Fire opens with beautiful classical guitar floating on a sea of haunting Mellotron style strings. Urged on by Reingold’s warm bass lines, it builds into a rousing guitar solo with some stirring blues licks. The gentle Mommy Leave The Light On has a tone that duplicates the 12-string sound that Ant Phillips brought to Genesis, but Stolt favours the electric guitar on this occasion. The song and vocal captures the angst of Roger Waters, with a melody that is almost identical to Floyd’s Brain Damage. Disc one concludes with End On A High Note, a song that certainly lives up to its name. The sunny acoustic guitar and synth melody brings Yes’ And You And I instantly to mind. The compelling chorus, Wakeman style synth noodlings, wordless choir, and melodic guitar provide a memorable and uplifting finale.
The second disc, Room 222, is book ended by two of the finest songs yet from the band. The monumental opener Minor Giant Steps crams so many Yes references (Topographic Oceans, Turn Of The Century, etc.) into twelve minutes it’s hard to keep count. Led by Bodin’s brooding electric piano, Touch My Heaven finds the band in a blues mood. An explosive burst of drums launches a devastating Gilmour style guitar solo complete with female choir backing. The Unorthodox Dancing Lesson harks back to the jazz excesses of Unfold The Future. With the percussion of Hasse Bruniusson strongly featured, this is a freewheeling instrumental in the irreverent style of Frank Zappa. The mid tempo Man Of The World took a while to grow on me, but when it did the memorable chorus and striking synth solo had me hooked. I can’t help thinking however that the melody is just a little too close to the opening theme from Yes’ The Revealing Science Of God for comfort. The Fröberg penned Life Will Kill You is a mid paced rocker dominated by strident guitar and organ that brings Uriah Heep in full stride to mind.
The brief but beautiful The Way The Waters Are Moving finds Stolt in melancholic mood, underscored by classical guitar and Bodin’s poignant piano and strings. What If God Is Alone is a departure in style for the band, but none the worse for that. The ringing guitar and insistent drums are a nod in the direction of U2. It develops effortlessly into an exhilarating vocal excursion with a stirring anthemic chorus. Following a deceptively regal introduction, Paradox Hotel launches into a pulsating and compelling guitar driven riff, recalling Robert Palmer’s Addicted To Love. The band is on more familiar territory in the mid section with an infectious double tracked guitar melody that recalls not only the twin lead work of Wishbone Ash but also Steve Hackett’s Every Day. The song features a stunning vocal performance with a touch of the Ian Gillan’s from Fröberg to close. Blue Planet brings the album full circle by weaving the themes and melodies from Monsters & Men into a majestic symphonic soundscape. Bodin provides sweeping strings, celestial organ tones, and Rachmaninoff piano flourishes in response to Stolt’s memorable guitar melody reminiscent of Andy Latimer’s work on Camel’s Harbour Of Tears.
As you may have guessed I like this album a lot. In fact it’s fair to say I love it! The band has always set high standards and on this occasion they have excelled themselves. This is a remarkable collection of songs and the sheer scale of the musicianship is staggering. It’s not difficult to see why Roine Stolt was unable to commit to the most recent Tangent release. His inspirational guitar work here is truly phenomenal. Tomas Bodin turns in a virtuoso performance with his lyrical piano playing in particular standing out. The vocals of Hans Fröberg have never sounded better and his guitar contributions should never be under estimated. Jonas Reingold never fails to impress, and for my money is possibly the best bassist around today. New boy Marcus Liliequist makes an outstanding debut on drums, and it just wouldn’t be a FK’s album without the percussive talents of Hasse Bruniusson. This is a band at the top of their game and they sweep all before them. Avoid at your cost!
Martien Koolen's Review
Just after the release of his double solo album Wallstreet Voodoo, Roine Stolt and his Flower Kings surprise us with a new FloKis album. It is a double album packed with progressive music for more than two hours. Paradox Hotel is also a concept album and it deals with the curiosity of existence, as the Paradox hotel is a reference to people’s life on our blue planet. Stolt says:
“We are only guests here; we cannot take much with us. We check in, use the hotel bar, pay the bill and then leave again sometime. We live for a while without having any real idea of our purpose. Nobody has ever seen God, the manager, but most people suppose he is doing his job all the time, everywhere”.
Since the mid nineties The Flower Kings have maintained a prolific output on a regular basis, packing as much music as possible onto each album and sometimes expanding into a double album. After Stardust We Are (1997), Flower Power (1998) and Unfold The Future (2002), Paradox Hotel is their fourth double album.
The previous CD Adam & Eve (2004) saw the FloKis return to their “older” sound, meaning: sheer progressive rock music very much influenced by Transatlantic and Yes. The new album tends to be more spacey, psychedelic and sometimes even less accessible than its predecessor. Especially in rather mediocre tracks like Jealousy, Lucy Had A Dream or the complete miss Bavarian Skies (what a drag!). To my surprise there are a lot of songs that do not really meet the average high Flower Kings musical standard, as too many songs are acoustic, too folky and rather uninspired at certain times. Especially the first CD has at least 6 songs that I consider to belong to the most tiresome FloKis song material ever! Compositions like Check In (not really a song), Mommy Leave The Light On (flute and dreary acoustic guitar picking) and the three earlier mentioned songs are truly humdrum!
The epic Monsters And Men (clocking over the 21 minute mark) however is an extraordinary song with lots of twists and turns, unequalled guitar solos and lots of heavenly melodies and rhythm changes. This is Roine and Co. at their best. But the definite highlight of this first CD is the instrumental Pioneers of Aviation. It is jazzy, it is proggy, it is sheer fantastic, especially Roine’s guitar picking is out of this world, making this a second to none track on this album.
The second CD is much better with only one real dreary song namely the piano ballad The Way The Waters Are Moving. This CD also features another brilliant song called Life Will Kill You, filled with tuneful funky rhythms, astonishing guitar solos (check out the wah-wah solo!!) and a rather addictive chorus. The epic on this CD Minor Giant Steps reminds me of Yes during their Relayer period; symphonic rock at its best with lots of melody, guitar passages and keyboard solos. The album ends with another FloKis milestone called Blue Planet; again featuring a remarkable guitar solo of more than 4 minutes, showing and proving that Roine is an outstandingly skilled guitar player. All in all I must say that I prefer the second CD of this double album. But also I have to conclude that Roine and Co. did not reach the high musical level of magical albums like Stardust or Flower Power…… again……
Dave Baird's Review
The Flower Kings appear to have the power to divide. Firstly people either tend to love or hate them with very few falling in between and furthermore, the arrival of each new album always seems to draw mixed reviews, again falling at opposite ends of the spectrum. I suppose this is hardly surprising because within the very recognisable Flower Kings sound they do have the habit to push the envelope in experimentation and diversification, the excellent Unfold The Future double CD from 2002 being a great example with its lush blend of symphonic prog interspersed with jazzy weirdness proving to be too much for some. Their last release, Adam & Eve displayed a more coherent and cut-down approach with less of the strangeness and a more symphonic, theatrical feel and was overall better received.
This latest offering returns to the double-CD format so one would expect perhaps a more eclectic content and with the much loved and respected Reingold/Csörsz rhythm section broken up with Zoltan's departure it was perhaps an opportunity to change direction. Roine Stolt has again written the bulk of the material as one would expect although the rest of the band have had more song writing input than previously may have been the case. In the release notes, it is stated that they recorded the CD live in one week in a Danish studio followed by two months of editing with production credit taken by Stolt himself rather than his long-running pseudonym Don Azzaro. It is also stated that a deliberately less-polished approach was taken to the whole album leaving some rough edges and more simplified arrangements than we are accustomed to.
So, how does it all sound? Well yes, it is overall less complex, less symphonic and lighter. It still sounds of course very, very much like The Flower Kings, how could it not? But surprisingly there a real feel of the older Flower Kings here specifically reminding very much of the Stardust We Are period. The jazz aspect is pretty much absent, except perhaps in the 13/8 track The Unorthodox Dancing Lesson and there are a lot of stripped-down and gentle tracks. Tomas Bodin's delicious keyboards are ever present but he has chosen to use less unusual sounds this time out - piano and Mellotron are dominant with the occasional Moog/synth but there is a definite absence of the usual baboon whoops, fairy bells and baby gurgles that usually pop-up in the mix.
Jonas' bass work is as incredible as ever but new drummer Marcus Liliequist doesn't grab the attention - not that his playing is bad or anything, perhaps it is mixed a little low or maybe he needs to find his place in the band a little more; I must say though that I personally miss Zoltan's trade-mark groove. Hasse Fröberg's voice is in fine fettle throughout although Roine again is singing at least half of the tracks. Roine himself puts in a strong guitar performance and on a few occasions is absolutely sublime. The Fripp-esque lead line in the funky Hit Me With A Hit and the acoustic on Self Consuming Fire in particular spring to mind, the latter also with a King Crimson feel (think The Nightwatch from Starless And Bible Black). Of course Roine's voice doesn't have the dynamics of Hasse's but he makes up for it in character. I know a lot of people like to hear his singing and they'll be happy with this release from that respect.
There's just the one long track on the whole album being the first piece proper after the throw-away intro track. Monsters & Men will please 99% of the existing fan-base being an atypical Flower Kings epic and as mentioned has somewhat of a 1997 feel about it. The rest of the album contains a surprisingly large proportion of gentle pieces, Jealousy, Lucy Had A Dream, Self Consuming Fire, Mommy Leave The Light On, Touch My Heaven, The Way The Waters Are Moving, What If God Is Alone? and Bavarian Skies all fall into this category, sometimes often somewhat whimsical even, the latter track in particular with its delicate piano, dreamy Mellotron and vocal from Hitler's perspective! Lucy Had A Dream almost sounds like a follow-up to My New World from SMPTe and has a great repetitive sequence towards the end with a circus/merry-go-round feel about it. I personally love all of the above pieces but I daresay many will not...
The rest of the CD is more traditional, the aforementioned funky Hit Me With A Hit with a chorus in pure Flower Kings style. Pioneers Of Aviation, again very typical Flower Kings with a dense keyboard introduction and monster bass line once more reminds of the Stardust period as does Man Of The World. The Hasse Fröberg written Life Will Kill You and The Unorthodox Dancing Lesson are perhaps the least Flower Kingy pieces present, the former being rather good, upbeat and quite commercial, the latter could have been placed on side two of Unfold The Future without raising any eyebrows. Perhaps the disappointing tracks for me are End On A High Note and Minor Giant Steps as neither really have anything going for them in terms of melody or structure.
That leaves the final two tracks on the album, Paradox Hotel itself is overall disappointing but does have a very nice instrumental section which is unfortunately not expanded upon. Things are however redeemed by Blue Planet which is a very nice song, symphonic and with great guitar work. The piece (and CD) close with a soundbyte of an astronaut talking about the view of planet Earth from space - it's a surprisingly effective way to end the CD, quite relaxing and gives a feeling that we're all on this planet together so let's make the most of it!
As with previous Flower Kings releases this is a mixed bag, perhaps calling it "patchy" would be an injustice but certainly some reviewers will come to that conclusion. Despite having a simpler approach it is not an easy album to get into and needs repeated listening with full attention - this is the opposite to Adam & Eve which hit the spot after second or third playing. However there are rewards to be had, particularly for those, like me, that like the delicate aspect of their work more than the upbeat, funkier side. I had a lot of difficulty in rating this CD and in the end I scored each track individually to get to the average below.
Not really a disc for Flower King virgins and for established fans I'd say to be patient and give it time...