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Reviews in this issue:
- Lizard - Spam
- Bolt - Movement And Detail
- Darwin's Radio - Eyes Of The World
- Charles Brown – Atmospheric Journey
- Sergey Dudin - Guitar Ballads
Lizard - Spam
Tracklist: Spam#1 (9:13), Spam#2 (8:42), Spam#3 (5:59), Spam#4 (7:30), Spam#5 (9:09), Spam#6 (12:27),
Until Riverside appeared on the scene I was completely unaware of the Polish prog scene and now I'm reading that this is the 7th Lizard release, I realise that my ignorance is even deeper than I would have previously imagined. Formed in 1990, Lizard cite Emerson, Lake & Palmer, UK and unsurprisingly, King Crimson as their main influences. For sure there's a strong Crimson feel throughout the disc and some hints of the second UK release, Danger Money, particularly in the violin style from time to time. This being said though, there's no obvious plagiarism and Lizard have created their own style with a pleasant recipe: 500 grams of late 70's prog, 200 grams of metal, 100 grams modern jazz, 200ml of melody - mix well together, place in a medium tin and bake on 160 degrees for 53 minutes or until cooked through.
The album and track titles would suggest that there's some kind of concept behind the music but as the lyrics, CD liner notes and everything I could find on the web are in Polish I couldn't tell you, either that or there was a sudden dearth of creativity when they assigned the track names (that being said I wouldn't know what the titles meant anyway). On the subject of lyrics, the singing of Damian Bydlinski is pretty decent - he has a strong but gentle voice with some character which fits well with the musical style. For a non-speaker the Polish isn't painful listening but I can't help feeling that if they want to get some international recognition they'll have to switch to English.
With the exception of Spam#3 the music is fairly heavy and intense, certainly not for background music at a dinner-party anyway. The violin of Krzysztof Maciejowski takes on most of the solos throughout in a style very reminiscent of Eddie Jobson (similar digital delay production, think Caesar's Palace Blues) taking turns with the guitar from singer Damian. The guitar isn't overly technical but is certainly effective, distorted crunchy chords and heavy riffing in the fine Fripp tradition alternating with clean picking - nice stuff. Underpinning this is the very competent rhythm section of Januscz Tanistra on bass and the excellent Mariusz Szulakowski on drums sounding a bit like a manic Guy Evans, managing to be laid-back and all-over-the-place at the same time. Krzysztof also chips in with some understated keyboards, mainly piano, when he's not sawing away on the fiddle.
Overall, the standard of the CD is very strong - I wouldn't say there's any filler on it at all. Spam#2 is most notable as being the heaviest track with lots of distorted guitar, chugging fat chords, the occasional false harmonic and a driving riff. At the same time the boys manage a decent vocal melody over the top and intersperse it all with some interesting clean guitar. There's really nice touch where the music stops, there a 'pop', some spoken words and then, BANG into the fat riff again - very effective and pleasing, one has to resist the urge to start playing air-guitar whilst head-banging it rocks so hard!
The standout closing track, cunningly entitled Spam#6, starts with clean guitar and piano picked chords mirrored by a gentle melody before switching into a very melodic, radio-friendly song for the next six minutes or so before a sudden change of mood kicks it straight into pure prog territory. The guitar starts a repeating, climbing arpeggio with a very sombre tone, all the other instruments coming in one by one and rising to a cacophony before a reprise of the opening minute and main tune to end. The guitar sequence starting in the middle really reminds of something I've heard before but for the life of me I can't recall it, such are the ravages of age, if anyone out there ever heard the CD and knows what - drop a note in the forum to put me out of my misery please!
This was quite a difficult album to break into to be honest but it was worth the effort. It is well written, played and produced and contains memorable and agreeable melodies. This is an CD which will be very appreciated particularly by lovers of prog from the classic Crimson and Van der Graaf Generator school and is recommended for all.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Bolt - Movement And Detail
Tracklist: The Devil's Paintbrush (4:35), Stryker (4:44), Anaphase (3:54), Variables (3:56), Invasion (4:12), Skydiving With A Life Preserver (4:53), Vendetta (6:58), Knocking On 9 (2:21), Vanilla (2:37), Solar (5:26), Kick (3:48)
This is the second release from Bolt and their first for recently founded Georgia based 10t Records. Consisting of W. Heyard Sims (guitars, synth, loops and vox), Bill Elliot (drums, percussion, vox) and Geoff Maxey (bass, synth, vox).
Imagine if you will a musical stew with its two main ingredients being 80s era King Crimson and Andy Summers / Police. Spice it up with some rawer edged metallic guitar riffs, mix in some electronica for good measure and finally serve it on a tight and interesting bed of bass and drums. You may well have something that is as tasty and refreshing as Bolt. Quickly moving forward on this analogy - and a quick note to tell that our stew rarely sounds like anything released by either of the main ingredients I have offered. So what makes me offer these comparators? Firstly we'll take King Crimson - here we are looking at those repetitive but highly infectious guitar lines of Robert Fripp, although Bolt seem content to leave these in 4/4. Andy Summers enters the fray with the catchy hook laden chordal structures and The Police notion is from the delightful and crisp drumming of Bill Elliot.
To complete the recipe we need to add a few more spices and ingredients. We have the precision of MathRock, although melody always prevails over sheer technicality. To be honest the rhythmic patterns could almost be danceable, in some twisted and perverted fashion. Spicing matters up is a Post-punk bite. And finally we might sprinkle lightly with a pinch of humour. Sounds odd - surprisingly it isn't.
The tracks are brief, nearly all clocking in somewhere between the 3 & 5 minute mark, which goes a long way to keeping the interest from start to finish. Musically these instrumentals are snappy, infectious and steer away from any guitar shredding or noodling. All the parts are played with a purpose and held nicely in balance by bassist Geoff Maxey. The album is consistent throughout, although I personally wasn't overly struck on Skydiving With A Life Preserver - but this minor flaw along with a bit of unnecessary dialogue in the middle of the album is more than acceptable. If I was to pick a track that captures the band it would probably be Anaphase (the whole track can be found at the 10t Records website).
Due to personal time constraints this review has taken a fairly long time to complete and therefore I have returned to this album on a number of occasions, with fairly long gaps in between. The good news though is that each time has confirmed what a little gem this CD really is. This band have proved to be one of the highlights of 2006 for me, so if the thought of tight, intricate and melodic instrumentals is your bag - or perhaps if you fancy something slightly different to your normal digest then the band's Myspace website offers four appetizers. Do yourself a favour and have a taster.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Darwin's Radio - Eyes Of The World
Tracklist: Erase...Rewind (9:41), Stronger (5:43), Windows Of Your Soul (7:26), Glass Tiger's Eye (4:07), Lapse Of Sensation (8:21), Eccentric Orbits (5:22), Amber Skies (4:39), The Vast Within (1:49)
A new band has arrived on the scene following the break-up of two well-known progressive rock outfits who had built a solid reputation on the UK live circuit. Mark Westworth and Sean Spear, from Grey Lady Down, and Declan Burke and drummer Dave Pankhurst from The Spirit of Rush, formed Darwin's Radio in 2002. Although Tim Churchman later replaced Dave Pankhurst in February this year - subsequent to the recording of Eyes Of The World.
Drawing inspiration from Prog Rock acts such as Yes and Genesis, while blending in more modern influences such as Porcupine Tree, REM and Muse, Eyes Of the World is an album that will certainly bring a lot of fresh interest in the band.
It really is a Radio show split into two pretty distinctive parts. The first four tracks are more modern rock, while the second four follow a more traditional progressive mould. Erase...Rewind is a strong opener, reminding me a lot of Enchant and benefiting from a very effective change of gear at around the five minute mark. Stronger is just that, and probably the strongest track to be found here. Built on a jumpy bass line, the melody and dynamics are to the fore. There's a definite Led Zep or Dead Soul Tribe vibe here - albeit in a happier frame of mind.
Windows Of Your Soul is a slow ballad that again brings Enchant to mind. There's a nice atmospheric guitar solo but the song doesn't really hold enough variety.
Declan Burke's voice has really shone throughout the first half, but it's on Glass Tiger's Eye that it really glows. This is Don Henley-meets-Enchant, in the form of an up-tempo MOR rocker that doesn't stray too far from the point.
From now on, the band's progressive influences start to take hold. Lapse Of Sensation especially features the keyboard work of Mark Westwood interspersed with some crunchy guitar. The melody isn't great, although isn't missed too much as the last four minutes are instrumental. Yes and Genesis influences dominate the next instrumental track, but with some lively jazz/fusion thrown in.
Amber Skies is a classic singer/songwriter piano ballad, that sort of drifts by, and we close with the album's longest track, The Vast Within, which is a classic, traditional Prog workout stretched across 12 minutes.
The production is fine and the playing spot-on throughout. The only problem I can see for the band, is in shifting between two rather different forms of music, whether there is enough of either to please fans of either. Anyhow this should be enough to announce the arrival of Darwin's Radio and ensure that the eyes of the progressive world gaze favourably upon them.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Charles Brown – Atmospheric Journey
Tracklist: Atmospheric Journey: Prelude & Allegro: The Awakening Sky (3:52), Allegro Con Brio: The Gathering Storm (5:28), Courante: Journey to the Clouds (2:20), Moderato: Storm Passage (4:56), Andante: Atmospheric Change (3:28), Fantasia: Cloud Dance (0:57), Finale-Presto: On the Wings of the Sun (3:57), Encore: Maroon Sunrise (3:56), Emerald Wind (2:53), Slow Burn (3:08), Windsong (featuring ‘Allemande’ from BWV 996, J.S. Bach [1685-1750] (4:20)
I’m the kind of guy who will listen to a Van Halen album in a highly selective way – I’ll turn the volume way down for almost an entire song, crank it when Eddie’s solo begins, turn the volume down again, and repeat for every other song on the album. (I’m sure everybody understands my reasons for doing so, and I do not intend a dig at either Roth or Hagar.) That’s my way of saying that I’m a big, big fan of top-notch guitar playing and am willing to wade through a lot of lesser music to hear it. I therefore always approach instrumental guitar albums with pleasant anticipation. One of my favourite CDs of the last twelve months has been such an album, Marc Rizzo’s Colossal Myopia, and I’m afraid I inevitably compare albums in he same genre to that triumphant work. So how (by that admittedly weird standard) does Charles Brown’s latest album, Atmospheric Journey, stack up? Or, more generally, what can be said about yet another all-instrumental album by a guitar virtuoso?
First of all, Brown’s album stacks up pretty well by either the particular or general standard. Like Rizzo, Brown is a master of many instruments – sure, lots of guitars (acoustic, electric, classical) and styles of playing, but also of the Roland guitar synthesizer. And you can bet you’ll hear all of them here on this short but satisfyingly dense album. Moreover, Brown has carefully arranged his compositions to tell a story of sorts, if an associative one: the first seven songs constitute the "Atmospheric Journey" of the album’s title, and the subtitles of the songs will give you a good idea of what Brown means to convey in each. Having listened carefully, I’ll nonetheless have to admit that, had I not had the subtitles in front of me, I doubt I’d have been able to guess even roughly what the music of each song was meant to express; but my own imperceptions is likely to blame. That’s not to say, though, that the seven individual pieces aren’t pleasant and interesting on their own, of course.
The four pieces that constitute the Encore are a bit more varied still, showcasing Brown’s jazzy, Metheny-reminiscent electric playing (Maroon Sunrise), some fancy steel-string finger-picking (Emerald Wind), and skilled classical-guitar work (Windsong). And then – in Slow Burn as in many of the songs in the first part of the album – we hear the speedy electric-guitar workouts and the Roland guitar synth; and I need to talk about both those features.
First off, Brown is an excellent electric soloist. Among his rock influences, he lists Howe, Blackmore, and, delightfully for a long-time Rush fan like me, Alex Lifeson. And all those influences can be clearly heard on this album. In abundance. Everywhere. His skill is in no question; but the listener’s tolerance for guitar workouts will determine what he or she thinks of the album as a whole. Second – that guitar synth. Now, this is a strictly personal thing, but I’d had pretty much enough of that sound by the time I’d become thoroughly acquainted with Pat Metheny’s breakthrough 1982 album Offramp. In fact, I’m a bit surprised to hear it used at all, let alone to the extent that Brown uses it, more than twenty years later. To be sure, Brown’s use of the instrument is tasteful and skilled, but to my ears the sound detracts from the effect of the album as a whole. I don’t hear what the synthesizer adds to the pieces that straight electric guitar, which Brown plays so well, couldn’t have done better. It even damages, in my opinion, that final piece, the lovely classical-guitar version of Bach’s Allemande: surely classical guitar played as well as Brown plays it doesn’t need to be overridden by an intrusive synthesizer solo?
So – as a fan in general of excellent guitar playing, as I said at the outset, I really wish I could be more enthusiastic about Charles Brown’s latest album. Make no mistake: this is a thoroughly professional, enjoyable, carefully crafted album. It simply doesn’t, to my ears, contribute much to the genre, doesn’t stand out from other guitar-instrumental albums in significant ways; and, with so many other fine albums out there, I think we have to ask that an album does so stand out.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Sergey Dudin - Guitar Ballads
Tracklist: Intro (0:36), Sunrise (1:45), Morning Day (3:12), Sunset (3:23), 100% Nylon (1:43), Cassiopea (5:39), Come Back (5:49), Blue Diamond (4:59), Nostalgia (4:11), Deep (5:45), Tears (2:11), Destiny (5:25), Come Back (Bonus Track), + bonus video-track "Cassiopea"
Guitar Ballads is a reissued 2002 release on the Russian label MALS, which was formed in 2003 with the "aim of releasing and reissuing music from some of Russia's most interesting well-known as well as budding musicians". Having said that and despite the fact that all the band members have Russian sounding names, are with a Russian label and their website is in Russian, Sergey Dudin actually hails from Philadelphia in the USA.
Back in 2004, Sergey Dudin featured in a one off DPRP guitar special - at that time I was unable to offer any insight as to the background of this six string wizard on his Mirage release. Even now I am still unable to offer any more than I did then, barring the fact that Dudin is resident in the USA. Once again joining Sergey Dudin (guitars, keyboards, drum programming), are Yuri Markosyan (bass) and Vladimir Kirushkin (organ). Drummer Slava Tenebaum has been replaced by some tasteful, if not awe inspiring drum programming. With guest musicians Philip Balzano (vocals - who appears on Destiny, the only non-instrumental piece on the album) and Alik Shabashev on trombone.
Musically Guitar Ballads is exactly what the title suggests, a collection of melodic tunes performed on guitar (as opposed to vocals). Dudin's electric guitar tone is sweet and glides effortlessly across the music, which is made up from a basic rhythm section and some lush keyboard washes. Cassiopea is probably the best example, sounding remarkably like a close relative of Parisienne Walkways, whilst his nylon playing offers contrast, nicely complements those tracks it features in. No better illustrated than in the lilting Latin feel of Come Back - the nylon string licks bouncing nicely off the mellow trombone sounds of Alik Shabashev.
Again this was much like the previous album I reviewed by Sergey Dudin - the more I listened - the more I liked it. Favourite tracks would be difficult to pick - but I've always been a sucker for the nylon strung guitar, so the all too brief 100% Nylon was a winner. As with Mirage the album benefits from two atmospheric opening pieces. The album then drifts effortlessly into Morning Day, and the tone of the album is set
To be honest there is little I can add about the music. So if you have a liking for guitar instrumentals, that concentrate more on melody than displays of technical prowess, then Guitar Ballads is one to check out. And one that well suits a quiet evening with a glass of your favourite tipple, lights dimmed - then just relax and chill out.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10