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Reviews in this issue:
- Cryptic Vision - In A World (Duo Review)
- Little Tragedies – New Faust
- US - The Young And The Restless
- Ashada - Circulation (Duo Review)
- Tony Harn - Revealed In Black & White
Cryptic Vision - In A World
Tracklist: In A World (16:22), This Dream Part I (1:06), Common Ground (4:37), Merkaba (3:14), All Along (5:09), The Space In Between (4:58), I Am The Energy (4:10), Point Of View (4:49), Power To Mend (10:03), Find (4:09), The Balance (8:42), This Dream Part II / In A World (Reprise) (5:03)
Geoff Feakes' Review
I’ve been eagerly awaiting this release ever since I reviewed the bands Live at ROSFest 2005 back in April. I was impressed by the bands performance and the quality of their material, highlighted by the sets center-piece In A World. The band line-up remains virtually unchanged here with Rick Duncan on drums, guitar and keys, Todd Plant lead vocals and guitar, Sam Conable bass and vocals, Timothy Keese lead guitar and vocals, and Howard Helm providing keyboards and vocals. Helm replaces live keyboardist John Zahner who crops up as a guest along with David Ragsdale of Kansas fame on violin and Alan Morse from Spock’s Beard on guitar amongst others. This is Cryptic Vision’s second only studio recording and they make good use of the environment with the vocals in particular benefiting from Rick Duncan’s rich production. Duncan is also responsible for writing all the music with lyrical contributions from Plant and Conable. The band produces a bold and confident American prog sound with bombastic keys, sharp rhythms, heavy weight lead guitar and massed AOR style vocals.
If I had to be a tad critical then I would say that the vocal/instrumental balance the band maintained so well on ROSFest is occasionally lost here. This is most obvious on All Along where the wall-to-wall vocals almost take the song into power ballad territory. No such problems however with the expansive title track that opens the album. When I first heard the live version of In A World I was completely won over. The studio makeover enhances its epic qualities, from the powerful Yes like staccato rhythm opening to the majestic vocal ending. In between, the stately piano melody is stunning and the soaring chorus is complimented by waves of orchestral keys and stirring guitar. The reflective This Dream Part I is a brief but memorable acoustic song that comes and goes all too quickly. Common Ground has a strong choral melody underpinned by a pounding riff and prominent and precise bass line. The striking instrumental Merkaba features tricky time signatures that has a touch of the Trevor Rabin’s about it with lightning fast guitar and synth interplay, and classical style violin. In contrast, the aforementioned All Along allows Plant to give full reign to his vocal emotions and despite my earlier reservations he does a fine job aided by some superb harmonies and a simple piano chord intro.
Following an urgent guitar and organ introduction, The Space In Between settles into a bright acoustic guitar driven sound offset by a solid riff with strident guitar and synth soloing. The aptly titled I Am The Energy opens with menacing bass setting the scene for the hard rock style vocals, power metal guitar chops and a gutsy organ sound. The tempo relaxes for Point Of View with its memorable light rock (almost pop) chorus and soaring violin. Power To Mend is divided into three short movements and contains some of the albums best and most varied moments. Powerful riffing sets the tone for the dramatic vocals and strong chorus, which gives way to a meditative instrumental section, distinguished by a lyrical synth solo and blues style guitar. Piano leads to a mid tempo song bridge before more synth and phased vocals signal the return of the opening melody this time with excellent counterpoint harmonies. Powerhouse bass and drums introduce Find, dominated by an inspired repeated keys pattern with another fine chorus, a crisp guitar solo and Wakeman style synth noodlings.
In an album chock full of strong hooks and melodies The Balance contains some of the finest. An atmospheric synth soundscape lays the foundation for the main theme with reflective vocals and a standout choral section. The instrumental moments come thick and fast with dynamic bass doubling the Emerson inspired organ playing, which is joined by spirited guitar, synth soloing and rapid-fire drum punctuations. A synth fanfare heralds the vocal conclusion delivered with gusto and energy by Plant. This song would have made a fitting ending to the album but the band has one more card up its sleeve. This Dream Part II / In A World (Reprise) opens with strident synth and percussion building to a grandiose climax which fades to make way for an acoustic version of the title song. A surge of drums, guitar and organ ushers a sweeping and majestic reprise of the songs vocal coda providing an exhilarating finale.
Interestingly for an album with 73 minutes playing time each track flows directly into the next making for one continuous listen. I wouldn’t be surprised if the next release is a concept album, as that seems to be the feel they’re aiming for here. As I commented in my previous review, it would be fair to say that Cryptic Vision are not a band that are treading new ground. It’s just that what they do, they do so very well. I would have preferred fewer vocals, giving the instruments more space to breathe, but that’s a personal preference. In the bands favour, the vocal style and strong melodies should appeal to American mainstream rock fans in much the way as Asia did. Rick Duncan certainly knows how to write a good tune, and there’s no denying the excellent musicianship. The bands sound is assured and impressively executed, aided by the high-powered production. If Yes, ELP, Kansas, Rush, Dream Theater, Spock’s Beard and Transatlantic have a place in your heart and your CD rack then you should make room for Cryptic Vision.
John Morley's Review
I have been impressed with these guys ever since I saw them give an incredible, show-stopping performance back at Rosfest 2005, and their debut album Moments Of Clarity is a superb album that still gets regular play by me. So naturally the follow up album has been long-awaited.
Since the last album, due to various musical commitments original keyboard player John Zahner has left the band to be replaced by the very capable Howard Helm.
Opener and title track In A World is of course familiar from the earlier version on the Live At Rosfest CD, and is still just as impressive; an epic track with many interesting twists and turns along the way, with jazz -flavoured section featuring trumpet/synth and an acoustic, Spanish/Mexican style section, but with those exquisite harmonies that the band do so well, led as always by the incredible vocal talents of Todd Plant, especially during the majestic climax - that mans got a helluva set of lungs!
This Dream Pt I - A very short acoustic track.
Common Ground is a good solid rocker, but a little ordinary. Not a bad song, well performed and with a great synth solo from Howard Helm, but after a few listens now it does not really stand out for me, the only track on the album I cannot really get to grips with.
Merkaba is a jaunty, appealing little instrumental that does not outstay it's welcome and has some great guitar/keyboard interplay between Howard and guitarist Tim Keese.
Next up is All Along - now this is where the band really play to their strengths, a very appealing melodic ballad with an incredible vocal from Todd . And it's not only Todd that shines on vocals here, the harmony work from the rest of the band at the climax is quite incredible. It has that strong 80's AOR feel to it that I often hear in the bands music, and that's meant as a compliment.
The Space In Between is an impressive track with a very strong chorus, melodic acoustic guitar passages mixed with rockier moments, and a mental guitar solo from Spock's Beard's Al Morse that he really lets rip on.
As for I Am The Energy, this is something of a revelation. It kicks off atmospherically with electonica and what sounds like sampled helicopter sounds, similar to the opening of Floyd's Another Brick In The Wall, but then Sam Conable thunders in with some room-shaking bass notes and were off into a fast, furious, metal-flavoured and somewhat uncharacteristic Cryptic Vision track, but a more than welcome one. With wild guitar solo's, chunky Hammond organ and Rick Duncan's pounding drums, this is certainly the heaviest I have ever heard the band get, and should be heard by those who constantly criticise the band for being a derivative 70's/80's prog throwback. Personally, I think they should mix tracks like this in with the melodic numbers more often - it's a great contrast to their normal style.
But then just when I was starting to think they were turning into a metal band, back they come with Point Of View, one of those patented melodic, upbeat and infuriatingly catchy numbers that they do so well. And I just can't seem to get that damn chorus out of my mind. One of my faves, a song that just seems to put you in a good mood and makes me remember why I started listening to prog in the first place. And with a David Ragsdale violin solo as well - what's not to like?
Power To Mend has a quiet, low key but atmospheric opening with synth washes and gentle guitar gives way to some incredibly tight bass and drum work before were off into one of those great, sing-along choruses. Damn...hooked again. And another great solo keyboard solo yet again from Howard, one of those, expressive, guitar-style solo's that I happen to be particularly fond of. Todd vocal is particularly impressive here, very intense and sung in a slightly lower register than usual, showing the incredible scope of his vocal range. The whole thing is rounded off nicely with a reprise of the main chorus, sung a capella style by all the band.
Stabbing bass synth notes open Find, which has a nice funky feel to it but again is one of those tracks that just does not seem to stand out, despite many listens. I can appreciate it musically and it has another great solo from Al Morse, but somehow does not have an appealing enough melody for me.
Things improve greatly with The Balance. After a very film-theme style keyboard opening melody, typically strong melodies and chorus give way to a very Spock's Beard inspired instrumental mid section that is just pure prog heaven - Hammond organ and synths dancing around fiery guitar passages, all powered along by the powerful rhythm section.
This Dream Pt II kicks off in epic, orchestral style, before segueing into a quiet, acoustic reprise from opening track In A World... but it doesn't remain quiet for long, building to an incredible, soaring, sustained note from Todd before treating us to that wonderful, majestic end section from the title track, finishing the album in fine style.
Overall it's a very good album, but for me does not quite have the coherence of the bands debut album, which I can happily listen to all the way through without skipping any of the tracks. A couple of aforementioned songs on this one, though well performed, are just a little undistinguished and don't stand up quite as well as the rest of the album. But this is still an album I would recommend nevertheless - it's good to see the band stretching out on tracks such as I Am The Energy, and that they still know how to craft fine melodies and catchy choruses. Considering the band have not been together very long are only just starting to gig regularly (and they are a superb live act despite this, make no mistake), I still think they have great things ahead of them and have it within them to produce an absolutely killer album.
Little Tragedies – New Faust
Disc One: Epigraph (4:06), Prologue (2:42), The Prophets (12:20), I Am Tired To Be Around People (5:40), Two Demons (28:02)
Disc Two: Sabbath (3:49), Margarita (2:42), Confutatis (3:31), The Passing (13:11), Cup Of Life (6:42), Anticipating Christmas (4:50), Arabesque (1:56), Eternal (15:31), Some Day You Will Remember Me (6:04)
I was looking forward to hearing this new offering from Russia’s Little Tragedies as I was quite taken with their previous CD, Return. The enticing packaging (a facsimile of a leather-bound book – very nicely done) served to get my juices flowing even more, so I was surprised, and disappointed to learn that, on first listen at least, I did not like it.
Sure, the key elements of their previous work were still present and correct; superb musicianship; tons and tons of wailing keyboards; elaborate and dynamic arrangements; symphonic and Neo-classical stylistic flourishes aplenty and a hard edged modern slant. Something, though, just wasn’t quite right. Perhaps it was the overlong spoken Russian Epigraph that opens the disc, which put me off, but I found most of the rest of the first disc quite hard to digest as well. The modern production utilised somehow renders the bombastic walls of keyboards and crunching metal riffs rather unapproachable and the overall sound is clinical and cold in the manner of many over-brash Japanese Prog outfits.
Thankfully, I found Disc Two to be much more approachable, and this gave me the impetus to persevere with Disc One as well. I’m glad that I did, as I have found that I have warmed up to the disc considerably over time. I skip the opening track now and plunge straight in with the brief Prologue which serves as a more fitting introduction to the symphonic excesses which follow. The Prophets, at 12 + minutes contains the first real meat of the album, and is a real stormer, rattling along at break neck speed (Emerson goes metal - anyone?). When the pace slows a bit a few minutes in, I am reminded strongly of the Czech greats Collegium Musicum (incidentally, any ELP fans who haven’t heard them should not hesitate to check them out). The next track, I Am Tired… combines harpsichord style keys and synth burbles for a haunting, melodic backing to the Russian poetry of N. Gumilev, and is a step back to the style of the last album.
What should be the centrepiece of the album, the sprawling Two Demons, although containing some grandiose and extravagant musical themes, executed to perfection, and plenty of impressive tempo shifts and contrasting hard and soft textures, unfortunately fails to hang together for the duration and feels at the end like it is in need of a good trim.
Things pick up considerably on Disc Two, which is much more consistent throughout. From the Baroque stylings of chirpy, quirky opener Sabbath to the sombre romanticism of closer Someday You Will Remember Me with its soaring guitar melody, Little Tragedies rein in their excesses a little, and the production seems to open up, allowing the listener a much easier ride into the sumptuous, elegant symphonic soundscapes they so effortlessly create.
The grandiloquent flash and fury has not been left behind, as Confutatis, and Eternal amply demonstrate, being great examples of the powerful effect of combining classical themes and melodies with rock instrumentation and attitude. Little Tragedies certainly deserve the crown so casually tossed aside by ELP when they moved into commercial mediocrity on their reunion albums.
So, in conclusion, I have begun to appreciate this album more and more with each listen. It is obviously a grower, but I still have some reservations: - the Russian vocals are still a bit of a culture shock, and the arrangements are at times unforgiving and in-your-face, and at around two hours in length, it’s a bit too much for this intense style of music. With some judicious pruning (particularly on the first disc) the album could have been much more rewarding
With this in mind, I’d recommend you start with their previous album first before trying this one, but there is plenty of great music and superb playing here and you may get more out of it than I did, so if you fancy it, give it a try.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
US - The Young And The Restless
Tracklist: Mind Over Matter (6:12), The Rainbow’s End (6:03), The Struggle (2:48), A Cry In The Dark (0:53), In The Eye Of The Beholder (6:00), The Young And Restless  (3:02), The Mothman (3:25), The Bridge (4:11), The Space In Between (1:46), A Bat In The Night (4:44), Waiting For Christmas (2:14), The Ordeal (3:51), After The Ordeal (3:30), The Young And Restles  (6:46)
DPRP has favourably covered two of US' previous releases - their debut, A Sorrow In Our Hearts, back in 2002 and the follow-up album, Eamon's Day the following year. We didn't manage to cover their third album, the 2004 release The Ghost Of Human Kindness, as fate would have it several copies just disappeared on the way to us. And a big thank you and apology needs to go here to Yoshiko, who made every attempt to make sure we received (and reviewed) these CDs. Perhaps one day soon.
Now as I've not heard any of the band's material prior to The Young And The Restless, it will have to stand on it's own two feet. I suppose the first thing that struck me was the sound US produced - musically it had its' feet firmly entrenched in the early prog of the 70s, whilst vocally, the late 60s. Certainly the influence of early Genesis was ever present and perhaps The Moody Blues. Second was the maturity of ideas - the concept and lyrics were well thought through and the songs structured.
Further investigation was necessary as to the history of the band.
Sadly there is little to be gleaned from the web about the band... and the band's website offers little information, although their history is nicely covered. So what I have found is that US can trace their origins back to the mid Seventies, existing until the early Eighties, and releasing one album (albeit under the name of Saga). Skipping three decades, I am able to tell you that Jos and Ernest Wernars are still to be found in the band. They are joined for this album by Marijke Wernars (wife of Jos I believe) on vocals and guest drummer Joris ten Eussens.
Instrumentally Jos and Ernest have given much thought to their sound and each track is replete with Mellotron and Hammond organ sounds, jangling electric/acoustic six & twelve string guitars, busy Rickenbacker sounding bass; bass pedals; Ebows; Yes-like multi-layered vocal arrangements. The full armoury is here... and best captured in the brief instrumental The Mothman and the Yes/Genesis inspired The Bridge.
US seem to have abandoned the "epic" track(s) for this release and the lengthier pieces here clock in around the six minute mark. This certainly helps the material as the tracks are very full, busy and often in odd meters. There is a tendency to get carried away, but certainly the tracks never outstay their welcome. Another plus factor are the vocal melodies, which after a couple of listenings lodge firmly in the grey matter. However almost all the vocals are sung in harmony, and I guess to mask the short comings of the individual voices. Now in general this works well, although I did miss the fact that the voices never really broke out of the mould. As another side issue it did tend to date the vocals in 60s fashion... this may well appeal to many.
In theory this album shouldn't have been that difficult to get into, as it draws from heavily from the earliest heyday's of progressive rock and probably even further back than that to the mid/late 60s. But it did, and I can't quite put my finger on why. Probably that it sound dated and that it could well have been written and conceived in the 70s... but one man's poison is another's meat. I can well imagine that for all those reasons that the album didn't quite gel for me is exactly why The Young And The Restless will appeal to many a prog fan.
The good news is that The Young And The Restless has grown on me over many listenings and now feel that I can recommend you check out this latest offering from the band.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Ashada - Circulation
Tracklist: Kagi (5:08), Snowflake (5:58), Departure (6:26), Sacred Visions (3:29), A Girl's Wish (4:09), Neji (6:49), Birth (4:22)
John J Shannon's Review
I wish that some visitor to the DPRP website with a decent knowledge of the Japanese music scene would contact me and describe it. I suspect that it’s especially vibrant and electric right now, but I can’t find out, as I don’t read or speak Japanese and thus have no chance to follow the music press in Japan. I can say that almost every CD I receive for review from a Japanese artist or band is more impressive than the vast majority of music I’m hearing from other nations (with the possible exception of the Scandinavian countries). I wonder how to attribute the high quality of contemporary Japanese pop, rock, and progressive music, and I’m not sure that I will ever find out how. I will mention, yet again, that there seems to be a powerful renaissance in Japanese music these days and everything I hear is interesting, lively, smart, well performed, and subtle, Ashada’s Circulation being absolutely no exception.
Circulation is Ashada’s debut release. The band was formed by 27-year-old Tae (vocals; piano; violin) and 28-year-old Midori (piano; accordion; vocals) in 2000 and has apparently been honing its craft playing in the Tokyo area. Circulation also includes supporting members Akihisa Tsuboy (violin); Yoneda (guitar); Ah (bass); Dani (bass); and Yo (drums and percussion). (Dani, Yo, and Yutaka [guitar] form the support for Ashada’s live performances.)
The band’s website describes the music (if I’m interpreting the text correctly) as an attempt to manifest (via sonic textures) concepts and notions about the fundamental nothingness of reality, the illusory and transient nature of the physical world, and the dark undercurrent below human endeavour. (I took liberties here; I apologize to the band members if I’ve misconstrued their collective musical vision: it all sound very Zen to me.)
The best, briefest description I can give of the music on Circulation is this: it is a blend of pop and progressive rock elements with both occidental and oriental flavourings.
Kagi is in some measure reminiscent of early Kansas with its driving violin lines but it also includes some sharp accordion playing, fluid bass runs, and a haunting use of background choruses in spots. The keyboards place the song very much within the symphonic prog tradition, I think, and also echo the prog-influenced arena rock of the later 70s. The ensemble work on this instrumental track is exquisite and tight.
I found Departure to be sad but beautiful and airy, very much in the vein of King Crimson’s Islands. It features a chillingly lovely vocal performance by Tae: even to the degree that the Japanese language can be a bit stiff when sung, still, this tune is masterfully delivered. As do many of the tracks on the album, Departure showcases precise tandem playing by the bassist and the violinist. It’s melancholy and moving.
Neji is the guitar track on Circulation. It’s a moody piece: stark, anxious, and forceful. (The drumming is especially aggressive here.) Yoneda sounds nothing like David Gilmour in his tone or note selection, but he has that same sensibility for inserting emotion into the tune. And like Mr. Gilmour, Yoneda smokes when it’s time: the ripping he offers at the close of Neji is impactful.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Would I feel cheated had I bought this CD? Not at all; it’s another melodic, progressive offering from the Land of the Rising Sun. Would I recommend that you buy this CD? Yes, if you have ever enjoyed Japanese prog rock in the past or are willing to give it a try. The vocals may not win you over but pay attention to the musicianship: you’ll be swayed. Would I recommend that you hear this CD via begging, borrowing, or stealing? Yes, if that’s the only way you will come to hear Circulation. It’s a job well done by Tae and Midori, and let’s have more soon.
Bob Mulvey's Review
One of the great joys of writing for DPRP has been the discovery of those artists that I would never have come across in my normal walk of life. And many of those gems have stemmed from the far East and specifically Japan. The work of Hiroshi Masuda and his Poseidon record label have to be applauded here - well certainly by me.
This latest discovery features two young Japanese ladies who are simply referred to on the sleeve notes as Tae and Midori. Tae supplies the majority of the vocals along with mandolin and piano. Whilst Midori (who is credited with most of the musical writing), plays piano, accordion, vocals and programming. Ably supporting them are two members of KBB, the wonderful Akihisa Tsuboy on violin and Dani on bass. Guitars are capably handled by Yoneda and "Yo"... takes up the drums.
Although a relatively short album, the first eleven minutes or so are excellent and get the album off to a great start - sadly the rest of the tracks don't live up to the early high standards. Those familiar with the work of KBB will find these two opening instrumentals a joy to hear. Reminiscent of the opening track on the superb Four Corner's Sky. The arrangement is a little lighter with Midori's accordion working really well, but it is that distinctive rhythm and Tsuboy's violin that are so captivating.
After the opening salvo Circulation takes on a U turn and the remainder of the tracks are gently sung ballads. Departure is acceptable as a resting point after the first two tracks, but the remaining tracks follow a much to similar path for my tastes. Only Neji raises it's head above the waters, and this is mainly down to melancholic guitar solos of Yoneda. Andy Latimer's Ice briefly springing to mind.
The instrumental playing of Tae and Midori is excellent and certainly I was taken by Midori's touch on the piano. Each track also contains something that brings a smile to the face, whether it be Tsuboy's violin, a fretless solo from Danni or a romantic mandolin. Texturally the music has much to offer. Vocally the story is somewhat different and although Tae has a gentle voice that sits snugly within the music, I found it a tad exposed and a little grating on the ears.
A pleasant if not essential album.
Tony Harn - Revealed In Black & White
Tracklist: Talk At The Café Upstairs (5:24), Beatrice Dalle Take Me To The Moon (10:49), With Open Arms (10:24), Revealed In Black & White (15:14), Hurdles (15:32), Extravagance In Blue (6:40), The Talking Is Over (2:51)
Unfortunately, I don’t know very much about Tony Harn. I’ll assume that there’s plenty to learn about him at the MySpace URL listed above (which I have yet to visit). I do know that Revealed In Black & White is a follow-up release (five years in the making) to Mr. Harn’s debut Moving Moons. As I haven’t listened to that debut, I don’t know to what degree Mr. Harn's music has advanced or remained within a niche. I do know that Mr. Harn composed and performed all of the music on Revealed In Black & White and I do know that, if it isn’t the proverbial mind-blower, still, the CD is decent enough.
It is it progressive rock? Absolutely not. Is it “progressive”? Perhaps, if by “progressive” we denote a willingness to blend a variety of styles and motifs to create something, not wholly original, but still unique. I’m actually hard pressed to categorize Mr. Harn’s effort. At times I hear Andy Summers (a la his instrumental solo work), Philip Glass, Wish You Were Here and Animals-era Pink Floyd, U2 (in some of the guitar strum patterns), Steely Dan, swanky jazz-lite, electronica, Windham Hill ambience, and 1970s movie soundtrack arrangements. That’s quite a musical shepherd’s pie, and it tastes good although it’s not entirely filling.
In general, I liked this CD, even though I initially didn’t. It “grew on me,” as they say. It’s what I’d call a “background” recording in that it works well to dispel silence when you’re not energetic enough for full focus upon music. If you listen too closely, you hear some of the limitations: the musical movement and chord progression in the tracks is minimal and there is a feeling of repetitiousness throughout the CD that wears thin toward the final track. But, that said, some of the more ambient passages are excellent, whether dominated by keyboards or guitar, and more often than not the tracks suggest a particular mood that keeps them interesting. There isn’t much virtuoso playing on Revealed In Black & White but that is hardly a detraction, as I gather Mr. Harn is satisfied with these contemporary tone poems. Revealed In Black & White has a tendency toward major keys and thus remains relatively bright and hopeful sounding, which I found pleasant. I was especially fond of Beatrice Dalle Take Me To The Moon, which features a trim, tight guitar solo, Andy Summers-style flanged chords, and a funky bass groove. The title track is also a well-constructed, gentle tune that moves sweetly and definitely echoes Mr. Glass’ utilization of looping techniques. There are probably some features of Mr. Harn’s artistry that I might like to alter but I have to admit that he seems to have an aesthetic vision that suits him well and I’m not inclined to critique with that vision.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Would I feel cheated had I bought this CD? No; it’s one of those recordings that doesn’t knock you out but does offer something new to consider upon repeat listens. Would I recommend that you buy this CD? Probably not, as I can’t honestly describe it as a bona fide standout. Would I recommend that you hear this CD via begging, borrowing, or stealing? Yes, especially if you sometimes want a higher quality, ambient recording to help you relax. Revealed In Black & White isn’t any kind of masterpiece, but it’s got quite a few keen moments and it works nicely within its composer’s intention.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10