Reviews in this issue:
- OSI - Free (Duo Review)
- Saga - Trust (Duo Review)
- The Spacious Mind - Rotvälta
- Poor Genetic Material - Free To Random
- Zenit - Surrender
- Wasserman, Erickson, Lavitz & Sipe – Cosmic Farm
- Taylor’s Universe with Karsten Vogel - Oyster’s Apprentice
OSI - Free
Tracklist: Sure You Will (3:46), Free (3:20), Go (4:16), All Gone Now (5:13), Home Was Good (5:03), Bigger Wave (4:30), Kicking (3:52), Better (4:06), Simple Life (4:00), Once (6:34), Our Town (3:20)
Three years after their debut album Office of Strategic Influence Jim Matheos of Fates Warning and Kevin Moore, ex-Dream Theater & Chroma Key, return with their second OSI album. While Jim handles guitars and keyboards for this new album and Kevin sings and plays keys the drum stool is once again taken by Mike 'have a drum kit, will session' Portnoy while the bass duties on five of the heavier tracks are taken care of by Joey Vera of Fates Warning.
This new album is both different and comparable to their debut album. Once again we are treated to the authentic OSI style in which a mixture of spooky ambient and powerful in-your-face compositions are offered to the listener. Each specific style is presented in particular songs with Sure You Will and Free presenting the heavier side of the band while Go and Home Was Good represent the more electronic ambient side. These styles are also combined in some songs, like All Gone Now, Better and Bigger Wave, where one minute you are enjoying a peaceful almost lounge-like bit of music before suddenly being attacked by marvellous guitar riffs. As such there's a lot of comparison to be made with the last two Porcupine Tree albums. And of course the OSI boys have never made it a big secret that Steve Wilson, who also performed guest vocals on their debut album, is a big source of inspiration.
What's also present on this album are Kevin Moore's monotonous, weary, more spoken than sung vocals. His voice is nothing to write home about but when you get used to it it seems to fit the sometimes weird music quite well. Unfortunately though, unlike the previous album, there's no instrumental tracks present on Free and therefore the welcome rest from the vocals is very much absent and it can be a bit of a strain having to listen to the whole album in one go. Also, some of the instrumentals were real highlights on OSI so I had hoped for some more.
Another difference with the debut album lies in the fact that this new album is slightly less experimental and more accessible. Where on OSI there seemed to be a lot of weirdness for the sake of being weird, resulting in all kinds of strange keyboard blips and bleeps and sampled and reversed drum loops, there's less of that going on now. This is a good thing because the debut album really felt uneasy in some places.
The album opens with the two aforementioned powerful songs after which one of my favourites, Go, takes us in a whole different direction. This atmospheric tune combines acoustic guitars with keyboards that remind me of Gary Numan. There's also a synth solo that could have come straight of Genesis' Abacab album. Great stuff !
The albums' most ambient and spooky track is Home Was Good, which is completely drum-less and almost fully build on quiet guitar, keys and vocals. The album gets slightly less interesting with the repetitive Kicking but with Simple Life and Once we're back in the experimental domain of electronics. Especially the latter which shows traces of Ozric Tentacles in the long instrumental intro, is one of the albums' best tracks.
The semi-acoustic closing track Our Town feels rather out of place with it's acoustic and slide guitars and banjo. Nevertheless, once you get used to it it's a wonderful peaceful way to close the exhausting roller coaster that you've been on in the previous 45 minutes. The tracks also has a certain Floydian feel to it.
All in all an album that maintains the quality of the debut album while being both better but slightly less diverse than its' predecessor. The vocals is most certainly the biggest thing that will put people off. Still, I urge you to give the album a fair chance because there's so much to enjoy on this excellent CD. Especially for fans of the current day Porcupine Tree and people to whom the thought of the combination of electronics and prog rock/metal appeals this new OSI effort comes highly recommended.
Dave B's Review
The first, eponymous release from The Office Of Strategic Influence was a pretty decent effort, with a mix of hard, riff driven rock, accoustc songs, a touch of prog and atmospheric keyboards plus sound-samples on top of everything it sounded fresh and interesting. On the face of it, the second release from Jim Matheos and Kevon Moore's side project promised to deliver a simillar quality and on a casual listen would appear to do just that but a closer inspection finds it coming up short.
Why this is the case is not immediately obvious, the opening two songs, Sure You Will and Free aren't bad at all. Both are heavy, pacy, have a distinctly grungy feel and sound very mich like OSI, on top of that there's some nice bass also from fellow Fates Warning member Joey Vera as well as the usual excellence from drummer Mike Portnoy. Go slows things down a bit - broadly speaking an accoustic track with a lot of trademark Moore effects and what sounds like a drum machine rather than Mike. All Gone Now returns to the heavier format again before the more atmospheric Home Was Good which is again mostly accoustic with more of those trademark keyboards from Moore.
So far, five tracks, five songs and Kevin Moore's voice is beginning to get on my nerves, for the want of a better word, it's whiney. OK, on the first CD it was the same but, and here's a crucial difference, three out of the ten tracks were instrumental and one of the remaining songs was sung by Steve Wilson from Porcupine Tree. Kevin's voice is dull building to annoying when you're confronted with it time after time, what's more, there are no instrumentals on this release, every track is a song, every one sung by Kevin; in the back of my mind, I can hear Marvin The Paranoid Android saying "I think you ought to know I'm feeling very depressed"...
Unfortunately, the second half of the album is weaker than the first - there's nothing even closely resembling the magnificent Shutdown from the first CD, rather we have four more very whiney tracks with Bigger Wave, Kicking, Simple Life and Our Town which as songs they're not too bad but nothing out of the ordinary either and the singing just makes me cringe. Pain Of Salvation's Daniel Gildenlöw was originally pencilled in for the first OSI CD but Matheos said his voice "wasn't right" - well I'd like to know just how is Kevin's voice "right" on this occassion. There's a slight improvement for Once which for some reason isn't the album closer although it really sounds like it and there's once more grungy piece, Better which is again full of the unpleasant singing.
And that's about it really. Could have been a great album, not a progressive one really, more grunge and rock but that's OK, I like that too. However, one can't escape from the fact that every track is a song and I really don't like the voice at all. Added to that, the variation and texture that we had on the first album is missing here, it's either heavy and riffy, accoustic and depressing or both in the same track, no instrumentals, no respite from the whine.
Very dissappointing follow-up but I daresay Dream Theater fan-boys will disagree and send me loads of hate mail. Well, guess what, I'm a Dream Theater fan-boy too so, blah! Did I mention I didn't like the singing very much??
Saga - Trust
Tracklist: That’s As Far As I’ll Go (4:36), Back To The Shadows (5:16), I’m OK (5:36), Time To Play (3:31), My Friend (3:19), Trust (5:44), It’s Your Life (4:10), Footsteps In The Hall (3:25), Ice In The Rain (5:01), You Were Right (4:05), On The Other Side (4::56)
The album will be released as a special edition (first edition comes as a digipack) with a bonus DVD featuring the making of the album.
Back in the good old days of 1978 I bought my first Saga album (I was 19 then) and ever since I have followed the musical career of these melodic rock Canadians. It really is a long musical career and it has had its ups and downs, but Crichton, Crichton, Sadler and Gilmour have always stood the test of time. Newer albums like House Of Cards (2000) and Marathon (2003) still belong to my personal Saga favourites and last year’s live-release of the Chapters was also a real musical treat.
Trust is their 16th studio album and it is definitely not their worst, although there are two songs on the album which do not really fit in with the rest of the excellent song material. So, let’s start with those two mediocre songs. Especially My Friend is almost an absolute horror to my ears as it is a rather lame folk rock ballad with high-pitched vocals by Jim Gilmour (I think), and a couple of woodwind players do even more damage to this song. The second mishap is called Footsteps In The Hall which is a rather dull song with no special features whatsoever.
Fortunately I can tell you that the other nine songs are sheer Saga brilliance. The new songs feature that typical old Saga sound with lots of progressive elements. So, you get well played symphonic rock filled with loads of keyboard and guitar melodies, creative rhythms and as always, driven vocals. The highlight of this album is Back To The Shadows, which starts with howling guitars and keyboards and then later the catchy melody, the keys and guitar solos grab you by the throat during the entire 5 minutes of this amazing song.
The title track is typical classic Saga stuff, sing along progressive rock, bringing back memories of songs like Don’t Be Late or Scratching The Surface. Ice In The Rain also has a rather addictive chorus that wanders through my mind for days now already….. The album ends with the marvellous On The Other Side which kicks off like an Irish folk rock tune with accordion and then features a funky bass riff, lots of nice melodies and a rather sparkling guitar solo.
This is Saga at its best and on the whole this album is much better than their rather disappointing previous album Network. The songs, except for the two mishaps, are more mature and more varied. I never thought that I would say this, but Saga are back and they are back with a vengeance!!
Dave B's Review
As often seems to be the case I'm doing another CD review of a band I've never heard of before and on this occassion I deliberately kept myself ignorant of Saga's history and listened to the CD free of any pre-formed opinions. The CD hit the spot almost from the off - my initial thought was that here we had a new softer edged, prog-metal band with a well-developed sound, strong melodies, great musicianship and some interesting influences from the 70's and 80's. Now, imagine my shock when I discovered that they've been going for 30 years and this is their 17th studio release! Thirty years? Which stone have I been under all of that time?
Obviously then I took the time to catch up a bit on what has gone before and gleaned the key information that with this release the band have explicitly tried to recapture the sound and feel from their earlier recordings. Whether this is the case I couldn't personally say but comments I've read from others appears to indicate that they have been successful. I can't imagine that the original albums back in 1978 sound quite like this, obviously the recordning, production and keyboard technology has moved on a lot since those days. There's no doubt that Saga have a trademark style and sound but this CD has a distinctly modern feel and doesn't seem out of place alongside the more gentle tracks by bands like Threshold whilst at the same time evoking memories of great bands from the past - I was distincly reminded of Utopia in several songs.
It was Ian Crichton's guitar that really made me think this was a CD by a new band, it sounds so fresh and modern throughout - no signs of a world-weary group going through the motions here, this is excellent playing! Following that, the keyboards dominate - there are three credits for this on the CD: Ian's brother Jim, who's also playing the bass, Jim Gilmour (when did you last see a band with two Jims?) and singer Michael Sadler (also playing some bass). I couldn't say who's the main player but they keyboards are good, very good in fact, working very well with the other instruments, utilising some nice patches and taking the lead when necessary. Apparently drummer Brian Doerner is new to the band but he's combining well with Jim C's busy bass. Finally we have the vocals of Michael - he has a great voice, quite a lot of character and with the ability to belt it out on the louder tracks or keep it soulfull when necessary.
Generally speaking you could classify the music as melodic, power prog - the pacy opener That's As Far As I'll Go with it's strong riffs, sing-along chorus, layered keyboards and a cracking guitar solo (very technical but very short also and never self-indulgent) sets the overall feel for most of the CD although It's Your Life is perhaps the most indicative track of the CD as a whole. There is variation though, Back To The Shadows is a little slower paced with more memorable molodies and a great little guitar hook through the main verses. I'm OK and On The Other Side are the two tracks that make me think of Utopia, circa Oops, Wrong Planet era. I also get a very faint sniff of the late commercial work of Gentle Giant although it's only a lingering scent - like when a beperfumed woman passes you in the street.
Time To Play is my least favourite track on the CD, it has a slight funky, rappy feel and I don't really like it at all. My Friend is a pleasant prog balad with some great singing and nice piano work and You Were Right has a piano line that's highly evocative of Clocks by Coldplay although the comparison ends there! The title track delivers more pacy power prog and Ice In The Rain again gives a hint of funkiness in it's verse but has a more convetional chorus. The absolute stand-out track on the CD is Footsteps In The Hall, from the delightful keyboard and guitar opening through the superbly catchy verse, the heavily riff-laden chorus and the guitar/keyboard unison solo it's a real treat!
As a first exposure to this Canadian band it has been a pleasure. I'm not feeling the urge to rush out and buy their whole back-catalogue but I'm certainly enjoying listening to this CD and am pleased to have it in my collection. Surely serves as a great introduction to anyone out there who's Saga-curious.
The Spacious Mind - Rotvälta
Tracklist: Part 1 (7:40), Part 2 (17:18), Part 3 (6:01), Part 4 (6:15), Part 5 (9:36), Part 6 (9:08)
The Spacious Mind are a five piece instrumental band from the far north of Sweden. Since forming in 1991 they have release nine albums and a handful of live CDRs. Following a less that satisfactory relationship with Delerium Records (who were putting all their energies into Porcupine Tree at the time), the group founded their own label, Goddamn I'm A Countryman in 1992 and have ventured further a field for performances across Europe and the USA, with a trio of new US dates scheduled for this month. Surprisingly, in all that time the band line-up has remained pretty consistent with Jens Unosson (keyboards), Henrik Ola (bass), Thomas Brännström (guitars) and David Johansson (drums and percussion) all being original members, additional guitarist Niklas Viklund having joined a few years ago. Although the music of The Spacious Mind can be broadly categorised as psychedelic rock, that probably doesn't quite capture the whole essence of the group. The band themselves are happy to considered as a heady mixture of the early psychedelic sound of Pink Floyd, the Krautrock sympathies of Amon Düül II, the space rock of Hawkwind and the improvisational excellence of The Grateful Dead, I would add into that a dash of Sigur Ros as the group does have a fairly modern sound that perhaps would not be expected given the references cited.
Ninth album Rotvälta, which, according to an on-line Swedish-English dictionary, can be translated as meaning gibberish, or perhaps more appropriately, double-Dutch, is an hour's worth of music split into six parts, movements or themes, whatever you want to call them. Although each track does possess an independent identity, they mesh together to form a consolidated whole that has tremendous musical depth and displays a multitude of layers. Take Part 5 for example where the rhythm section lays down a solid and repetitive beat over which independently soloing guitars add tiers of almost dissonant playing fleshed out by the sonic soundscapes of the keyboards.
It all starts rather differently as Part 1 blends an organ drone with timpani that gradually intensifies and increases in tempo with crashing, distorted guitar chords and almost unrestrained jamming expertly held back from lapsing into feedback. With ideal symmetry, the instruments gradually die away until eventually only a prolonged keyboard chord and Ebow can be heard. This segues neatly into Part 2 which starts with bass and muted drums and percussion The build-up is slow but never boring as gradually Fender Rhodes piano and harmonious guitar are introduced into the mix. At about the six-minute mark, the restraints are removed and things really get moving. From then on in to the close some 11 minutes later we are treated to some of the finest psychedelic rock since Pink Floyd trod the boards of Mothers and The Roundhouse back in the late 60s. Comparisons with the extended Floyd instrumentals of that period are apt, although the percussion is more industrial and the keyboards are rather more freeform and chaotic. The ebb and flow nature of the album, with each track gradually building and fading away, works well and helps to differentiate the separate parts, Although having said that, Part 3 is more concerned with maintaining a soundscape through use of sustain and reverb which infuses into Part 4 which is very spacey and a lot more open. This only has the effect of lulling the listener into a false sense of relaxation before the onslaught of Part 5. Finally Part 6 rounds things off with an initial ambient, yet sinister, keyboards instilling the listener with a sense of wonder of what is to come - in fact a mellow, relaxing and satisfying conclusion to the album.
Having not heard any previous work by The Spacious Mind, I was suitable impressed by Rotvälta. If Mike Oldfield had headed out into a more psychedelic rock direction rather than being distracted by folk and dance music I can imagine that he might have eventually come up with something along these lines. On the whole, a splendid album and worthy of some attention from more than just the casual listener.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Poor Genetic Material - Free To Random
Tracklist: Open (3:49), One (6:47), Open (2:13), Two (7:23), Open (4:50), Three (4:31), Open (4:36), Four (10:43), Meanwhile (4:34), Shut (7:00)
For the last few years Philip Griffiths (Alias Eye) has been the vocalist for Poor Genetic Material, but actually they started out without a vocalist and their first two albums were completely instrumental. These two albums Free To Random and Summerland were released on CD-R only and that is why not too many people will be familiar with them.
Now because the recording of their latest studio album, Spring Tidings, lasted much longer than expected the band members of the "first hour": Philipp Jaehne and Stefan Glomb had time to re-discover their early material and found that it deserved a wider audience. And they were right, hence the re-release of Free To Random. It is not often that music with an atmosphere like this (slow and soothing) is interesting at the same time. It does help that, because the old tracks were re-recorded, and the sound is very open and clear. But it mostly is the fact that although the music is not up tempo in itself it still is very eventful with soundscapes and piano loops. There are funny sounds here and there but all in service of the original atmosphere and melody.
The included bio says that much of the early music was used as soundtrack for theatre and film, and this does not come as a surprise - it will not fit all scenes but I can imagine situations in which this music can be playing in the background. (One for instance could be used at the start of a movie, people commuting to work). Some of the music reminds me of Andreas Vollenweider mixed with Tangerine Dream but it is a not a big similarity - just a small pointer of what to expect. Free To Random is a sound in it's own.
In between the different tracks Open is used as both an introduction and a filler. Although these small pieces of music at start sound nice they do get a bit too much after a couple of spins. Basically because they are very much the same all the time and because of that they drain some of the interesting features out of the rest of the album. And if you don't want to make just "good background" music, then keeping the listener's attention is the key.
A PGM fan that likes them because of the specific sound of Philip Griffiths is in for a surprise, this will not really sound like his/her favourite band. PGM states that for this album a couple of tracks were recorded that would not suit the "large" version of the band. Therefore it was recorded with just three people, it is something they will probably do more often. But first we will see the release of a "real" Poor Genetic Material album: Spring Tidings, the fourth and final piece in their seasons quartet.
Free To Random is not very ground breaking and it will not be seen as the next thing in progressive rock (and also because it should probably be categorized as electronic music). But if you like decent, pleasant, well-crafted and soothing electronic music: make sure you stop by a record store and pick-up this album - it contains a couple of real gems!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Zenit – Surrender
Tracklist: Promenade [Part I - Om] (1:28), Yin And Yang (10:47), The City (4:25), Devil’ Siesta (3:59), The Cathedral (4:18), New1c (12:43), Promenade [Part II – On Stage] (4:30), I Ching (6:31), Promenade [Part III - Underground] (1:14), Surrender (14:08)
Switzerland is not a country that regularly throws up bands of any genre, let alone one that plays progressive rock. But seek and you shall surely find. In this case the band is called Zenit with their second album, Surrender, following half a decade on from the debut, Pravritti. Although five years has passed the band remains essentially the same as on the debut release, the only change being the replacement of Italian guitarist Frank Di Sessa with (the equally Italian sounding) Luigi Biamino. The rest of the group is: Lorenzo Sonognini (vocals and acoustic guitar), Ivo Bernasconi (keyboards), Andy Thommen (bass) and Gigio Pedruzzi (drums).
The album really starts with the second track Yin And Yang as Promenade is simply a recording of a storm. Bravely, or foolishly, Yin And Yang is one of the most dichotomous opening numbers I have ever heard on any album. A rather ballade-like start with the melody picked out on a rather plaintive piano, the song is promising enough until the three minute mark is reached where Zenit decide that what is needed is a new take on The Waiting Room. Quite bizarre. The band are dragged back into the song by some mellow bass work (synthesised and plucked) with the momentum lost by the diversion into soundscaping recaptured by the end of the song. This City is rather a poppy number, perfectly jolly in its own way with quite a catchy hook line. Guest cello player Mattia Santoro opens Devil' Siesta which features a fine vocal performance by Sonognini although how some reviewers can compare him to the mighty Derek Shulman (Gentle Giant) is beyond me. Still the song is the best yet and things are starting to look up. Then came The Cathedral. I just can't quite put my finger on what it was about this song that caused me to dislike it so much, perhaps the inappropriate vocal histrionics, the guitar work that reminded me of a dodgy metal band, the horrible treated drum solo and mundane beat throughout, or probably the combination of all of those elements - just didn't do it for me.
Second long-form composition New1c is a different kettle of fish, a decent acoustic guitar introduction accompanied by the guest saxophone of Stefano Zaccagni and some harmonised vocals get the piece off to a promising start, the sax duet is a nice flourish. Indeed, the rest of the song is a nice blend of instrumental sections that is replete with ideas and moods only marred by the appearance of a narrator who might be telling a tale but is it really worth it when the band are in full flight. Things calm down for the closing three minutes with variety added by the appearance of Ursula Maggini's flute playing. More sound effects introduce Promenade [Part II – On Stage] which develops into a fairly decent instrumental ditty. A heavier approach is taken on I Ching which has a strong basis in rhythm, indeed once could think that it was some Latin American samba piece after the opening bars! The vocals, more spoken than sung, are rather annoying and the whole piece is rather lightweight and inconsequential until, all of a sudden at the three minute mark, the band lapse into an almighty riff and things start sounding interesting. Unfortunately it doesn't last long and soon lapses back into the lightweight pap. The cycle is repeated once more but doesn't rescue the song.
Promenade III is basically a slide guitar solo which has its merits as an introduction to the title track. At fourteen minutes long it is the longest on the album and easily the best thing on the whole CD. Some lovely guitar and keyboard interplay around a catchy motif sets the scene for explorations around a theme. Nicely balanced between light and shade, heavy and soft, jazz and rock the song is a collection of discrete individual sections that mesh together very well. Even the introduction of a Children's choir, which could have been the kiss of death enhances the song.
So a bit of a mixed bag. It is obvious that Zenit have a great musical vision but the haven't yet mastered the fine art of releasing a varied album that maintains a high compositional quality throughout. Having said that, there are signs that the band are on the right lines and future releases will certainly be worth listening out for.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Wasserman, Erickson, Lavitz & Sipe – Cosmic Farm
Tracklist: Steel Rider (5:15), Attitude Cat (6:46), Heavenly Love (6:33), Space Rooster(5:20), The Fine Scenery (7:15), Interstellar Interlude (0:53), Strange Train (6:26), Jupiter East (1:39), Forecast (8:06), Jupiter West (1:43)
To quote the Promo sheet which accompanied my copy of this CD, “Cosmic Farm is the collaboration of four celebrated progressive musicians who join forces for a jam band tour de force brimming with musical virtuosity.”
Well, as far as I can tell, the only one of these musicians who has had much involvement in the progressive scene is T Lavitz, if you count Dixie Dregs as a prog band that is. Rob Wasserman I have heard of, though in connection with various members of the Grateful Dead, and also with Elvis Costello, rather than in a progressive context. The other two, Craig Erickson (guitar) and Jeff Sipe (drums) are new to me. The promo lists quite a few bands which Sipe has played for, but I don’t recognise any of them.
The jam band reference is much more pertinent, as this CD consists primarily of instrumental funk /rock with occasional (slight) prog references and some Jazz fusion leanings, and a dash of reggae on one track. The virtuosity of the players is not in question, as the playing is of a high standard, though I would doubt whether any of the musicians was particularly stretching themselves on these sessions.
None of the tunes are especially memorable- and the funky jamming, whilst fun, wears a little thin –for my money this is the sort of stuff which sounds like it was more fun to play than to listen to. It’s pleasant but not essential listening. I find the tunes are lacking in strong hooks, and if I wasn’t paying attention, the tracks began to merge one into another. The later tracks Strange Train and Forecast are a bit more to my liking, dropping the funk groove a little, and introducing some more Fusion elements.
As this kind of funk is not really my cup of tea, I’m struggling to come up with comparisons. The only things in my collection which are even close are Niacin and some of the tunes on the two Platypus (Dream Theater/ Kings X-offshoot) CD’s. Cosmic farm is considerably less powerful and engaging than the Niacin though. If you like jam bands like Phish and String Cheese Incident, this might appeal, though this is much less eclectic and wide ranging than either of those bands, and the pieces are all rather concise – no long rambling jams here!
I think this is unlikely to be of much appeal to Prog fans, but if you are looking for funky guitar/organ led instrumentals than be sure to visit the Cosmic Farm soon.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Taylor’s Universe with Karsten Vogel -
Tracklist: Ghost Reporters (5:33), That Strange Plaza (6:59), Joe Hill’s Recorder (1:24), Lost Title (4:41), Vue [Time Bolero] (6:25), Aiolos (5:03), Iron Wood (6:10), The Arrangement (5:21)
Robin Taylor certainly prays at the altar of sonic texture.
I remember when Radiohead released Kid A. I was pretty well enamoured of OK Computer (and before that, The Bends) and I was hoping that the post-Computer offering would be, not “Volume II,” but a continuation of the evolution that had obviously transpired between the band’s second and third CDs. Now, some might contend that Kid A was in fact an evolution, but in my opinion, an evolution is a gradual metamorphosis, and on Kid A, Radiohead completely abandoned its well-established gift for melodies, infectious hooks, and songcraft for what I’ll politely call “sonic texture” but what I sometimes also call “damned noisiness”. I remember thinking that, yes, Radiohead had shown some innovation, some progressive spirit (until I found out that the band had lifted Sigur Ros’ shtick), but if the sound of and on Kid A was indicative of the future of contemporary rock music, then it was time for me to curmudgeonly bid adieu. You see, sonic texture is wonderful; I love it in the balanced arrangements of, e.g., King Crimson, Pink Floyd, and many others, where the yin of sonic texture is always complimented by the yang of compositional ingenuity. But, with Radiohead’s Kid A, I suspected that sonic texture, that is, sheer sound, was going to replace musicality (the conventions of chord progression, melody, and harmony). I think I was right in my prognostication, and Robin Taylor prays at the altar of sonic texture.
Now, I don’t know much about Mr. Taylor except a) he seems to be extraordinarily prolific (I have three of his CDs to review); b) he (or Marvel of Beauty Records) does a fine job packaging the product, as all of the CDs look swell; and c) he doesn’t seem to care much for songs. After hearing Oyster’s Universe (which is performed by one variation of Taylor’s oft-reworked ensemble, this time bearing the name “Taylor’s Universe with Karsten Vogel”), I realized that Mr. Taylor’s prolific tendencies remind me of Thackery’s: God, there is a lot of it, and someone must enjoy it all, but just where did I put my copy of Phillip K. Dick? Or, I guess musically speaking, Love’s Forever Changes. Or even Tormato…
Taylor’s Universe includes Robin Taylor on keyboards, guitars, percussion, and recorders; Jon Hemmersam on guitar and “Variax” (about which instrument I haven’t a clue); Kalle Mathiesen on drums (Ghost Reporters, Vue [Time Bolero], and The Arrangement only); Rasmus Grossell on drums otherwise; and Louise Nipper on voice (although, to be honest, I don’t know where she appears, since I don’t recall hearing any singing or speech). Additionally, the CD showcases the blowing of Karsten Vogel on saxophones and bass clarinet. Mr. Taylor and Mr. Vogel both shine throughout Oyster’s Apprentice, each obviously dexterous and nimble in his playing. Mr. Vogel is very good, I’ll admit, and tempers his free-jazz blasting with some measured, smooth but not sickly-sweet lines.
Oyster’s Apprentice isn’t all bad, not by a long shot. The engineering and mix are perfect and the CD, aurally, is a pleasure. There are a few tracks that tickled my fancy mildly. Joe Hill’s Recorder, despite its brevity, features an ominously inviting mood that is only slightly alleviated by, you guessed it, a recorder (courtesy Mr. Taylor, who is an impressive multi-instrumentalist). Áiolos is a strange offering in 7/4, but it includes some bright, warm clarinet fills as well as a sampling of Belew-era King Crimson guitar ferocity. It’s a dreamy track, and the modulation is comfortable despite the odd signature. This is probably the most “traditional” track on Oyster’s Apprentice, in that it centres upon a recognizable melody. Finally, Iron Wood had some flair, with its dual acoustic guitar intro (with an unexpected, almost annoying minor-key twinge here-and-there) and an Asiatic sax solo over forceful, nearly Middle Eastern, brooding percussion. Iron Wood has the most linear movement of any track on the CD, and if it stalls in the jammier sections, it still has good life.
That said, I didn’t care very much for the remainder of the disc. It is, for my taste, too noisy, too discordant, too helter-skelter, and too uneven. I did appreciate Mr. Vogel’s contribution but it couldn’t save the less successful tracks. Too often in my notes for this review I see “boring” or “dull” or “repetitive” or “noisy”. I think Mr. Taylor has an abundance of musical talent and strong creative sense but maybe not enough musical or compositional savvy. Could he need a producer?
In the end, I can’t give Oyster’s Apprentice glowing praise. I ask myself, “Who might like it?” and I don’t answer myself. It includes a smattering of free jazz and some electronica, plenty of keyboard-driven atmosphere, and some guitar shredding in a decidedly cacophonous mode. If any of that appeals to you, have at it. I can’t convince myself that most progressive rock fans will want to purchase this, but if you adore Kid A and think that collections of sound = music, then Oyster’s Apprentice is all yours, on a half shell or not.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10