Reviews in this issue:
- Steve Hackett – Wild Orchids
- Omni – Mermaids
- Imagin’aria – Progetto T.I.’A.
- T - Voices
- Dexter Ward - Dexter Ward
Steve Hackett – Wild Orchids
Tracklist: A Dark Night In Toytown (3:42), Waters Of The Wild (5:35), Set Your Compass (3:38), Down Street (7:33), A Girl Called Linda (4:44), To A Close (4:49), Ego And Id (4:08), Man In The Long Black Coat (5:07), Wolfwork (4:49), Why (0:47), She Moves In Memories (5:00), The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing (3:01), Howl (4:30)
It was my honest intention to open this review by avoiding the cliché “here is a man that needs no introduction” but in the end I just couldn’t help myself. An honorary “progfather”, Steve Hackett is easily one of most influential musicians around, certainly as far as the neo-prog scene is concerned. His distinctive style has been adopted by a plethora of guitarists including Steve Rothery, Roine Stolt and Nick Barrett amongst others. Ironically, the trademark lilting guitar sound for which he is best known is less obvious in his own work these days. The electric guitar has a much grittier edge, although his acoustic work has not lost that lyrical tone. Vocals have always played a significant part in his solo work and these days they are almost exclusively performed by the man himself. Drummer Gary O’Toole assists with backing vocals.
The opening song A Dark Night In Toytown came as a surprise, prompting me to check that I hadn’t pressed the radio button by mistake. It’s certainly an ear friendly opener with a catchy melody, urgent staccato strings and a speeding train like rhythm. The familiar ticking sounds in the bridge section are a striking reminder of Clocks from Spectral Mornings. Steve’s preoccupation with rail travel explored in The Golden Age Of Steam from Darktown continues here. A Dark Night In Toytown, along with Down Street and A Girl Called Linda all contain lyrical references to trains and railways. To emphasise the point, the special edition CD (not reviewed here) includes the bonus track Transylvanian Express. The album almost feels like a travelogue with diverse ethnic and cultural musical references. In Waters Of The Wild for example, Hackett and his band journeys to India by way of Morocco. Steve shines on electric sitar with Roger King and Rob Townsend creating authentic sounds from keys and reeds respectively. Gary O’Toole’s weighted drums add presence, leaving me with a burning desire for a curry!
Set Your Compass is probably the best of several slow songs on the album, although it does sound a little too close to Simon and Garfunkel’s Scarborough Fair for comfort. The intricate harmonies are a highlight as is the sublime 12-string guitar, harking back to Steve’s first solo album and his work with Genesis. The dark Down Street is the album's longest track, thanks to a lengthy instrumental second half. The first half finds Hackett repeating the slowed down narrated vocal style he used in Darktown (the song) and The Devil Is An Englishman from To Watch The Storms. He effectively creates a sinister atmosphere although personally I’m tiring of this sub gothic style. The song does have its many compensations however. These include an infectious riff with unusual percussive effects and a blistering harmonica break from Steve. The rhythm really swings in the second half aided by brass effects and searing guitar.
Steve almost seems to sleep walk his way through A Girl Called Linda with its simple refrain and sparse arrangement. It’s enlivened however by the instrumental breaks which add a light jazz groove with lyrical flute and agile acoustic guitar. The elegant To A Close is typical of Steve’s recent work with layered vocals, acoustic guitar, flute and strings. I particularly liked the celestial hymn like bridge section. It’s a beautifully constructed song, but for me personally the slight melody and absence of a memorable hook makes it sound somehow flat and un-involving. In contrast, Ego And Id is the heaviest and possibly best song on the album with a monumental weighty drum pattern from O’Toole and screaming metallic guitar from Hackett. Written by Steve’s brother John, it originally featured on his Checking Out Of London album from last year. Steve’s old keyboard partner Nick Magnus adds some deft organ flourishes that could have been a tad higher in the mix in my opinion.
A Bob Dylan cover from Hackett would have seemed like an unlikely event once upon a time, but following the Steve Howe and Jon Anderson version of Sad Eyed Lady Of the Lowlands it isn’t so surprising. In fact Steve takes Man In The Long Black Coat, a dark American folk tale, by the scruff of the neck and makes it his own. An undercurrent of ringing mandolin style acoustic guitar is offset with volleys of muscular electric guitar that adds an air of tension. His vocals are at their most effective here sounding uncannily like Mark Knopfler at times. Following a symphonic introduction to Wolfwork, heavy ELO style strings and phased vocal effects finds Hackett taking a rare excursion into I Am The Walrus territory. Macabre orchestral interludes and soaring melodic electric guitar add to a compelling listening experience and another album highlight. The brief Why is one of those humorous musical pastiches that Hackett likes to indulge in from time to time. It’s cleverly done, but ultimately dispensable.
She Moves In Memories is a classical piece in the romantic modern style. It features The Underworld Orchestra who also played on Steve’s Metamorpheus album from last year. It is the same theme as To A Close but improves given the full orchestral treatment, and would sound at home on the soundtrack to a filmed costume drama. Given that it’s one of only two instrumentals on the album it’s a shame that it doesn’t include Steve’s nylon guitar. The Fundamentals Of Brainwashing is a short and reflective piano driven song that put me in mind of In Memoriam from Darktown. Hackett adds delicate guitar colourings that hover unobtrusively around the border. The instrumental Howl is a curious, and in my opinion lacklustre closer. The aggressive electric guitar and heavy drum opening have promise before a meandering piano section dominates. The special edition CD has a different running order in addition to four bonus tracks providing I feel sure a more satisfying ending.
Probably because I have such a high regard for Steve’s work, I can’t help feeling that I should like this album more than I actually do. In a world of short-sighted musical conformity he is certainly out there ploughing his own furrow, which is no bad thing. Unfortunately, I find his style just a little too off the wall these days. The musicianship is as good as you would expect but for me the execution is better than the end result. His songs often sound bizarre to the point of self-indulgence. Steve has always had that side to his albums, but it has been tempered with richly melodic accessible songs and sweeping guitar instrumentals. In my opinion he has not maintained that same cohesive balance on this release. True, there are many memorable moments, but they do not sustain an album of thirteen songs and a running time of nearly sixty minutes. As a side issue, as good as Steve’s vocals sound here, obviously benefiting from studio enhancement, they have tendency to swamp the music.
To be fair to this release, I was also dispassionate towards To Watch The Storms. That received a DPRP recommendation and I believe it was a better album than Wild Orchids. If you held that earlier album in high regard then you may well feel the same about this release, the style is not too dissimilar. For me however, it’s back to Spectral Mornings, Genesis Revisited and Darktown.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Omni – Mermaids
Tracklist: Aglaophone (3:43), Anai (5:12), Molpe (8:10), Parthenope (23:15)
Formed in 1983 and reformed after a long absence in 2002, Omni released its latest album, Mermaids, only this summer. This Polish group consists of two main composers and performers, Marceli Latoszek and Rafał Błażejewski, both of whom play keyboards; the latter contributes some extremely effective cello parts, too. Their partner, Gerard Sawicki, is credited with “noises,” but don’t let that noun put you off – they’re pretty pleasant noises, if I’m correctly isolating just what it is that Sawicki contributes. Finally, two guest musicians contribute vocals and guitars only to the first track, Aglaophone, which is [therefore?] in some ways the album’s most interesting. But the album as a whole is good – almost a compendium of several kinds of Seventies-style progressive rock. And, since there are only four tracks, I can explain most precisely what I mean by tackling each track separately.
That first track, Aglaophone, reminds me of nothing so much as mid-late-period work by The Gathering and the work of some of that band’s clear descendants, notably Trance Of Mine and Dream Aria, two Canadian bands I had the pleasure of reviewing last year. You’ve got your cool keyboards and electronic percussion but also chunky power chords and ethereal guitar fills courtesy of guest guitarist Piotr Chancewicz; and taking the song over the top are the wordless, gorgeous vocals of Aneta Lukaszewicz. This song is an excellent choice to lead off the album, though it’s only fair to admit that it raises expectations for the rest of the album that aren’t really fulfilled, mostly because of the absence on the other songs of the guest musicians who elevate this one to excellence.
But the other songs are no slouches, either, especially the next two. Anai will remind any reader of DPRP of his or her favourite Alan Parsons Project instrumental of that band’s great mid-to-late-Seventies period – think of, say, Lucifer or In the Lap of the Gods and you won’t be too far off the essential feel of this piece if not the exact sound. However, adding colour to this song is Rafał Błażejewski’s mournful, expressive cello – really, the contrast between the synths and the cello is truly effective and demonstrates that, even in the twentieth century, there are some sounds that a synthesizer can never successfully duplicate – wood, catgut, and horsehair still have their place!
Third track Molpe slows things down a bit (even from the pace of the mid-tempo Anai) and sounds very much to me like some of Patrick O’Hearn’s post-Zappa, post-Missing Persons new-age music. And that’s entirely a compliment, whatever I (or you!) might think of new-age music in general. This song has a quirky electronic-percussion background and a beguiling synthesizer melody, and again there’s that beautiful cello to class up the proceedings. The song is slow but repays the listener’s patience, again mostly because of the loveliness of the contrast between cello and synths.
The album ends with the frankly too-long Parthenope – which clocks in at an LP-side-length of twenty-three minutes. Latoszek and Błażejewski allow themselves to stretch out here, but perhaps they stretch too far; and it’s here too that we hear what I assume are Sawicki’s “noises.” The track doesn’t really get moving, aside from those not-unpleasant but rather unproductive noises, for almost five minutes, at which point a simple series of dual piano notes, all based on a minor scale, is introduced. The piano carries on, against muted synthesizer backing (and occasionally accompanied by the sound of seagulls!) for most of the rest of the song, though things are livened up by a slight complication of the piano part and, finally, some neat electronic drums at about the sixteen-minute mark. I guess a touchstone for this song would be Ummagumma- or Echoes-era Pink Floyd – think especially Meddle, and not just because of the seagulls. But Floyd always manages to sustain my interest even in the longest, most meandering pieces, and, for my taste, Parthenope is too musically simple to maintain the listener’s attention fully for all twenty-three minutes. Judicious cutting (maybe to half its length?) would I think have improved the song. As it is, however, it’s by no means bad – in fact, it’s very enjoyable – but Latoszek and Błażejewski are demanding a bit too much of their listeners in this final track.
As a whole, though, this is a most enjoyable excursion through the four very different styles I’ve noted. I’ve no idea what the earlier work of the band sounded like, but I like this album very much and foresee it getting a lot of play when I’m in the mood for mostly contemplative progressive instrumental electronic music – and we all have those moods, don’t we?
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Imagin’aria – Progetto T.I.’A.
Tracklist: S.O.Seji (7:45), Pensiero Simbiotico (6:39), Tela Bianca (3:54), Condivisione Emotiva Un Boato Di Silenzio (3:07), Il Nostro Dolore (3:36), Il Volo Di Ledeo (4:27), Fusione (8:19), Il Grande Piano (5:57), Il Peso Della Materia (4:08), Nel Nero (3:54), Il Popolo Dell Acqua (6:04), Anno Zero (4:05)
A certain amount of guess work was necessary for this review, as most (if not all) the available info is in Italian. It doesn’t take a genius, however, to work out that what we have here is the fourth album by Imagin’aria, or indeed, that it is a concept album, divided into twelve tracks, themselves often divided into even smaller segments. I haven’t got a clue what it’s all about though, so you’ll have to work that out for yourselves.
One thing that is readily apparent is that these five Italian guys (covering voice, two guitars, bass and drums) are a talented bunch, as this CD is a solid listen from start to finish. I couldn’t find any credit for keyboards though, but they are definitely present, in fact, there are one or two moments where the sound takes on a distinctly electronic feel. The web site seems to cite PFM and Banco as influences, and I won’t argue with that, but we would be talking the recent PFM of Dracula rather than the 70’s classics, as Imagin’aria have a very modern approach to progressive rock, incorporating metallic elements, electronica, folk, symphonic and pop into a captivating blend which could hardly be called Neo, but is certainly not just Retro.
There are surprises a-plenty, including the scathing guitar attack and menacing theme of Il Grande Piano, the futuristic pulse of Il Peso Della Materia married as it is with a haunting symphonic melody (almost chamber-ish), and the unexpectedly commercial pop slant of single Tela Bianca which features twanging guitar lines which wouldn’t be out of place on a Chris Isaak record. Don’t let that discourage you, it’s a great little track and very catchy with it.
This is another of those albums which creeps up on you, becoming more and more enjoyable with each fresh listen. I usually find these kind of discs to have much longer staying power than the ones which are more immediate in effect.
The vocals are all Italian, but Daniele is a strong singer with plenty of range and control, and his emotional performance can be enjoyed whether or not you understand the language.
Although Proggetto T.I.’A. is a tougher, more modern sounding piece than Narrow Pass’s A Room Of Fairy Queen’s (which I raved about here recently), it is every bit as good and is recommended to all Italian prog fans. Oh, and it seems to have been nominated for this years Italian Prog Awards, whatever they are, so good luck to Imagin’aria for that.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
T - Voices
Tracklist: Voices (6:03), August In Me (4:49), Party Piece (5:33), Still (7:02), Septic (6:24), Faith (6:08), Second Thoughts (6:20), Victim (4:52), Curtain Call (8:12), Forget Me Now (9:02), Ghosts (8:28)
We had the classic T-Ford, the T-bone, a T-crossing and even Mr. T, but now there's also just T. T is actually very short for Thomas Thielen, a German multi-instrumentalist from Hannover where he works as a teacher and teaching trainer and who recently changed his hairstyle, became 30 and has a dog and a wife. So much for the interesting background information. It took T four years to create this album Voices that follows his debut album from 2001 called Naive.
Allow me to choose the easy road here and quote a bit from the press sheet:
"The album's structural complexity demanded extremely careful work on the composition and arrangements. As the music evolved, it became clear that Voices had to be a concept album: all the songs followed the same line of thought, albeit from totally different directions, like those voices you hear in the hour of the wolf as Hesse put it, when you're lying awake in your bed and chasing sleep. Voices is this concert of whispers, the deafening whirl of screams, the chaos of midnight lies".
Well, there you are; do you get the picture already? I myself actually haven't read Herman Hesse, nor do I ever lie awake and hear voices, so maybe I can't relate to the underlying message on this album, so let me just focus on the music itself.
The press sheet does however point out one significant point about this album, the fact that there's indeed a red line and thorough coherency and even similarity between the various tracks. Listening to this album excites the thought that it consists of one long track and not separate songs, so the concept idea is truly present here. I actually have a weak spot for concept albums where all tracks run over in each other, but a considerable amount of variation and innovating creativity is also indispensable in order to produce a truly masterpiece and in respect to these elements this album comes a bit short. More about that later.
The music of T comes most close to a mix of Marillion (Hogarth era) and Porcupine Tree with a sniff of Pink Floyd. But in all comparisons T comes off worse; considering these major references that's not a shame of course, but the difference in class is clearly noticeable. Voices lacks the true sensitivity and emotions of Marillion, the true passion and power of Porcupine Tree and the psychedelic genius of Pink Floyd. Nevertheless it presents you still with a very enjoyable album and an absolutely admirable result for a one man project (apart from mixing and some art work T did everything himself), certainly considering the fact T isn't even a fulltime professional musician! So perhaps it isn't even fair to compare this album with the ones by the established names, but the fact that I tended to do so anyway should be considered as a compliment!
The efforts and huge amount of time that went into producing this album is truly noticeable; all compositions are solid, well structured and arranged, truly complex without becoming chaotic and well executed. The album doesn't easily become boring because of its complex compositions and lack of melodies that directly stick into your memory. But in itself the album is a bit too tedious because it misses true and wide variation in style; it's all basically the same without a noticeable head and tale and only if you focus on the details you can grasp the real inventiveness; in general this album just does not leave behind a memorable impression.
Not being pushed to a certain deadline and having all the time desired clearly paid off for T in a thorough result, but on the other hand the album sounds regularly as if the spark has gone out of it, it lacks some true excitement. Naturally the chosen musical style with its dragging dreamy atmosphere does not directly ask for screaming guitars and other extravaganza, but in general I do miss a true spark when listening to this album; it's fine music, but it does not really touch or move me. But that might of course be personal and is no indication of the quality of this album. All in all I can certainly advise this album to fans of the aforementioned groups and to any other person interested in this kind of mellow, melodic and intricate progressive music.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Dexter Ward - Dexter Ward
Tracklist: The Disillusionist (3:27), Brave New Ward (7:16), Pluton The Bringer Of Death (6:37), Threnody For The Lost Futures (6:24), The Great Deceiver (5:53), The Phantom's Dream (4:26), Disco Party In Orion (4:20), The Ghost Of The Shadow (2:50), Visions D'Un Enfer De Sons (4:07), God Worm (2:00)
Behind the name Dexter Ward hides the Spanish multi-instrumentalist Aitor Berraondo from Pampeluna. He wrote and played all songs on this instrumental album, except the guitar on track seven that was played by Monge. And to jump to a premature conclusion I must say that this clearly reflects in the quality of the provided music. I'm not saying here that a one-man project normally results in a poor result, on the contrary; sometimes they exactly produce the finest works as they don't have to compromise with others. But in this case the final result comes pretty near to some nice experimenting in the attic by some not over-talented hobby musician.
There is not a whole lot of information about Dexter Ward or Aitor Berraondo available, so on some topics we're kept guessing about the real background story. Maybe the name Dexter Ward was taken from the novella by H.P. Lovecraft "The Case of Charles Dexter Ward", written in 1927? Is this Dexter Ward's first album or has he already released more? Is he really a hobby musician or a professional one afterall? All questions I can't find the answer to. Aitor seems to regularly collaborate with local bands such as Horthy or Mezak 19 whose names don't ring any bell with me.
Reading the press lines always gives a bit more insight in what to expect, at least if you manage to filter out the promotional exaggerations. So this is what it says this time:
"Dexter Ward was created with the aim to play an open music, in which Progressive rock, electronic musics and all-round experimentation could meet. Comparing these ten songs with anything else would be difficult, as they really prove to be original and sound like no other. Vintage sounds are often favoured, and the rhythm machine shows a clever and varied programming. Intimist or romantic, frightening or industrial, these unique atmospheres have an enormous suggestive power, which will certainly bewitch the listeners."
So let me separate the truth from the wishes for you:
With progressive rock it has hardly anything to do, much more with electronic music and all-round experimentation. Some originality can indeed be found in here, but not of a very inspiring quality, which might explain why it sounds as no other. Reading "the rhythm machine shows a clever and varied programming". I just have to laugh since not only am I not a big fan of these machines, nor did I find the contribution of it to this album very clever or varied. In fact it's one of the elements of this album that disturb me! Romantic feelings I truly did not encounter here, but all the more frightening and industrial sounds. Without any doubt the artist will tell me I'm missing the point of his album, which surely might be the case, but considering the music provided here I just don't want to dig deeper in it.
So where my feelings stand regarding this album is already pretty clear, but now down to the facts, the actual music. I would classify this album as an experimental, minimalistic instrumental synths album, where unfortunately the synths don't produce lush and innovative sounds, but just boring experimental and psychedelic outings. Sometimes the song structures are very simple and since no instrumental extravaganza or any other sign of musical ingenuity is offered the songs just don't reach any considerable quality level; it's just slightly enhanced elevator music. And when the songs appear to have a more complicated structure it's only because the chaos level is increased; it's not more sophisticated, just more multi-layered with sounds that do not necessarily fit very well together.
Parts of the album actually sound like the soundtrack of some extremely scary horror B-movie, or even like a bad LSD-trip. Especially track 6 The Phantom's Dream is just a cacophony of operatic singing and terrifying sounds and is only useable for scaring the hell out of anyone you want to check his or her cardiac status. I couldn't bear to listen the whole track through and I think the title had better be The Phantom's Nightmare.
The other parts of the album sound like the first serious experiments of your 12-year old musical talented nephew on his first Casio keyboards. An impressive achievement for that kid, but not for a serious musician; listening to the album you're left with the thought "is this it?" and "I could have made that myself as well".
It might be clear that a favourable judgement of this album by yours truly is out of the question, but I still am not gonna grade it rock-bottom. Despite my personal dislike I can still value some aspects of this album; there is still a certain feint sort of originality in it, Aitor probably wisely chose not to sing on it, you can still listen to most of the album without being totally appalled and annoyed and as background music for a film it would even be very apt. Lovers of simple, experimental, chaotic synthesizer music and maybe even Klaus Schulze fans might be much more enlightened by Dexter Ward than me, but in the end the overall quality is just too poor.
Conclusion: 3 out of 10