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Reviews in this issue:
- Phideaux - The Great Leap
- Gong - Acid Mothers Gong Live Tokyo
- Soft Machine Legacy - Soft Machine Legacy
- David Harrington - Procession
- Altera Enigma - Alterations
- TP3 - Still Not Making Love
Phideaux - The Great Leap
Tracklist: Wake Up (4:06), You And Me Against A World Of Pain (5:35), The Waiting (3:33), Abducted (6:10), Rainboy (6:15), I Was Thinking (4:24), Long And Lonely Way (4:18), They Hunt You Down (3:54), Tannis Root (4:52), One Star(5:14), Last (5:40)
After barely space to breath, Phideaux return with their fifth album The Great Leap, the first in a trilogy of albums about the "Big Brother" world we currently find ourselves inhabiting and the accelerating breakdown of the environment. Renown for an impressive work rate, the second part of the trilogy, Doomsday Afternoon is currently being recorded and promises "one long song in the tradition of Thick As A Brick and is set to feature some orchestration and a few kick ass solos". However, back to the matter in hand, current album The Great Leap.
As ever Phideaux Xavier has surrounded himself with an eclectic collection of friends and acquaintances who also happen to be top class musicians. The whole list of thirteen musicians is too long to include here, although each of their contributions is equally as important as the rest and help to define the sonic landscape of the album. Regular contributors Rich Hutchkins (drums), Gabriel Moffat (guitar) and Arlan Shierbourn (keys) join Xavier in this latest collection of tales from his fertile imagination. One notable contributor is Probyn Gregory, multi-instrumentalist from the fantastic Wondermints and member of Brian Wilson's brilliant touring band (they truly have to be seen to be believed). Anyone who is familiar with Phideaux's releases will know that each album is different from what has gone before yet somehow managing to maintain identifying signatures that characterise the group's sound. A lot of this has to do with Phideaux's (the man) vocals. Although not a classically 'pure' voice, he uses it to great, almost Hammillesque, effect to emphasise the passion, anger, angst and emotion of the songs.
Overall The Great Leap is a slightly heavier, rockier album containing more psychedelic elements than what has gone before but still maintaining the diversity of a true progressive release. A wider orchestration packs the (metaphorical) grooves with arrangements that reveal their subtleties and depth with each listen. The Great Leap is one of those albums that takes time to appreciate, that matures with age like fine wine, gradually revealing all its textures and hues. It also sounds different depending on the listener's environment and mood, the aural receptors being stimulated by different elements depending on background stimuli.
The breadth of music ranges from the slightly sinister riff based rock of opener Wake Up with its eastern flourishes and psychedelic keyboards to the gentle acoustic guitar of closing track Last, a delicate love song of loss and regret. In-between such delights as You And Me Against A World Of Pain and the amazing Rainboy make great use of strings and wind instruments, the latter song even featuring a rare solo (from the guitar of Moffat). More darker and ethereal is Abducted with its ominous opening bass riff and the eerie Tannis Root with its growling, menacing Hammond organ. Elsewhere we find the more optimistic and wistful I Was Thinking with its Floydian overtones, the joyous melody of Long and Lonely Way, the rock and roll self destructiveness of One Star, the rolling and jaunty storytelling of The Waiting and the restrained yet ominous They Hunt You Down which builds with aggression and anger yet culminates with trumpet, trombone, female vocal refrain and a peaceful concluding verse.
In my review of Fiendish two years ago, I wrote "the album is very eclectic with a seemingly bizarre mixture of psychedelic, folk, space rock and prog". Four albums on I could write something very similar about The Great Leap and yet there is a world of difference between these albums. I also wrote that the album was "a very fine effort by a very talented individual". That statement stands true as well but at the time I could not have imagined the breadth of Phideaux's (the man and the group) musical ambition. That they can have produced five albums all of which are different from each other and all of which have gained a DPRP recommendation says something about the consistency, the quality and the sheer enjoyment that each Phideaux album possesses. Unashamedly a fan, I look forward with eager anticipation to the next release with confidence that no matter the direction it will be an enjoyable and exciting exploration into modern progressive rock.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Gong - Acid Mothers Gong Live Tokyo
Tracklist: Gnome 11:11 (1:04), Ooom Ba Wah! (1:50), Crazy Invisible She (4:18), The Unkilling Of Octave Docteur Da 4J (8:48), Avahoot Klaxon Diamond Language Ritual (4:42), Rituel: Umbrage Demon Stirfry & Its Upcum (3:29), Jesu Ali Om Cruici-Fiction (1:36), Ze Teapot Zat Exploded (8:19), Eating Colonel Saunders Upside Down (6:34), Vital Info That Should Never Be Spoken (2:03), Parallel Tales Of Fred Circumspex (5:41), The Isle Of Underwear (12:33), Ohm Riff Voltage 245 (7:43), Totalatonal Farewell To The Innocents (6:22)
Gong, the legendary multi-national space freaks, took a further eclectic twist when they combined with "Japanese Acid Heads Acid Mothers Temple" for the Acidmotherhood album, which I reviewed.
This lengthy live set finds the schizophrenic combo in Tokyo in 2004, and as the proposed world tour fell apart, this is for all the fans that never got to see this particular incarnation of Gong (yes, I know a version of this band recently played at the Gong Family Unconvention in Amsterdam, but there must still be plenty of fans who missed out). And what a crazy, flipped out, Freakstorm it is too!
Though nominally divided into tracks, the set largely plays as a long, freakish cosmic jam, utilising riffs and motifs that should be familiar to most Gongsters (You Can’t Kill Me, Octave Doctors, Om Riff) and at least one for the Acid Mothers Fraternity (Pink Lady Lemonade), but all submerged in a psychedelic soup of mind-frazzling intensity. After the typically odd introduction section comprising familiar Pothead Pixie voices, a cappella tribal chanting and a relatively sedate Gili Smyth poem with Glissando backing, it’s off into freak-out mode with the furious riffing of Unkilling Of Octave Docteur Da 4J. From then on, things get pretty intense in a deeply cosmic fashion, with lots of instrumental fire and that pre-punk energy which typified the early Gong sound of the Camembert Electrique Era. Absent is all trace of the jazzy fusion of later Gong incarnations, this is free form space rock with a heavy emphasis on guitars and synths.
Things do get a bit too crazy at times, and all but the most hardened Gong freaks may find it a bit heavy going. Thankfully, the lengthy Isle Of Underwear is (slightly) calmer, and coupled with a mutated version of the ever – popular Om Riff, it makes the closing section of the disc the most enjoyable part.
With one or two reservations, I found this live set to be an enjoyable affair, as vital and explosive as anything in the band’s large catalogue. Die hard fans will lap it up, for the rest of you, approach with caution, this beast bites!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Soft Machine Legacy - Soft Machine Legacy
Tracklist: Kite Runner (6:57), Ratlift (7:55), Twelve Twelve (10:20), F&I (2:08), Fresh Brew 6:24), New Day (3:47), Fur Edge (2:49), Theta Meter (3:44), Grape Hound (6:56), Strange Comforts (6:26)
Soft Machine is a well known pioneer in the jam/fusion genre. They began as contemporaries of Pink Floyd in the late 60's, and have had a long career punctuated by many personnel changes. But they have retained the spirit of experimental psychedelic instrumental music and eschewed commercialization. Because of that dedication they also retained a small but rabidly loyal fan base... I must disclose here that I am not among the loyal fans. In fact Soft Machine Legacy constitutes my entire exposure to this band, so consider this review untainted by prior experiences with them, except for a few related projects such as Gong and Allan Holdsworth.
At first glance Legacy looks like the title of a Soft Machine album, however the group is listed as "Soft Machine Legacy" so presumably there is some copyright issue lurking in the background, despite the fact that this group is comprised of four solid ex-Soft Machine members: Elton Dean (saxophones, since deceased), Hugh Hopper (bass), John Marshall (drums) and John Etheridge (guitar). One or two tracks also sport an uncredited electric piano. For more information on Soft Machine's labyrinthine history see this Wikipedia link.
Listening to this CD transported me back to the early 70's, when fusion was ruled by the likes of Mahavishnu Orchestra, Miles Davis, and Herbie Hancock. The jammy-spacey vibe of that era is alive and well here, and reinforced by simple, classic production values. This is a no-frills recording, "just the basics if you please" micing & post production, that is totally suited to the music. The music itself ranges from choppy fusion-rock riffs to lilting space-scapes. Interesting chord progressions and time changes frame vamps that feature extended sax and guitar solos. The group has moments of both chops & clams (very few of these) - no punches here, just the band, the board, and some beer (alright that last part's my imagination). This group also has a live recording reviewed here on DPRP, which may help you evaluate this CD.
My rating of this release reflects a some biases that I must explain: First, I have always been more attracted to jazz-rock fusion that exhibits more energy and structure, such as Chick Corea, Auracle, and even Jean-Luc Ponty, than free form improvisation. Additionally, it was hard for me to settle in and pay attention to the retro style presented here. If you don't have these biases you may enjoy Soft Machine Legacy immensely.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Dave Harrington - Procession
Tracklist: Serenity (6:40), Twilight’s Edge (4:51), Moon Over Brown Street (2:33), Attack Of The Twelve-Tone Rows (5:55), Shapeshifter (2:20), The Fire Within (5:14), In Excelsis (4:07)
David Harrington is a composer from Chicago, Illinois (not to be confused with the founder member of the Kronos Quartet of the same name). His previous works include 2003’s Rule 29 and Nothing Doesn’t Matter from 2000, both independently released, as is this CD. The accompanying notes describe the CD as "a dynamic fusion of classical and progressive rock" and put it in the “Instrumental Chamber/Art Rock” genre, which I suspect is as good a definition as any. All produced on acoustic instruments – piano, cello, flute, clarinet, trumpet and drums - and, I suspect, entirely played by David himself, this album aims to be a more rock-based album than Rule 29 which was a dissonant and challenging work of modern classical music. Procession features strong melodies and despite being acoustic does at times attain an unexpected heaviness.
The seven instrumental tracks cover a lot of ground and many of the melodies are very engaging. Instrumentally there is always a lot of interest going on, and the playing is universally excellent. Sometimes it sounds a little too much like it has been put together piece by piece in the studio and lacks the organic quality of a band recording, however David is trying to move this project into the live arena, and this should be a benefit to the material here and a very interesting listen. What is lacking in running time is certainly made up for in the variety, but possibly over an hour it would start to sound samey. It often has the vista of good soundtrack music but keeps the edginess of modern classical and jazz while lighting the lamps on the prog board too.
Piano is usually used as the lead focal point with the strings and wind adding depth and colour and counter-melodies. My only gripe is that the drums often sound far too much like a drum machine for my liking. There is also a synthetic quality to what appears to be the trumpet. Whether this is the case or not or whether it is just a by-product of the studio process I don’t know, but it could, and will, be improved upon with live performance.
Serenity features a rolling piano and drum intro before settling into a waltz time section with strings and flute leading. Fiery piano breaks add variety but sometimes the performance is a little staid despite the quality of the playing. When the tempo moves into a more rock beat it loses some of the interest, but there’s always a change just around the corner and nothing here outstays it’s welcome. The material throughout the album often seems to loop round twice with little variation but, generally, good stuff. Twilight’s Edge starts as a much more brooding piece with piano leading into a flute lead before picking up the pace over quite a jazzy rhythm. Again the trumpet sounds very synthetic which is a shame, but the cello makes up for it adding a great deal of emotion. Mid way through we get a crescendo and a busy piano figure, and the drumming is much more acceptable here. The brisk Moon Over Brown Street is next with a bubbling piano and playful flute and clarinet.
The opening piano of Attack Of The Twelve-Tone Rows reminds me of part of Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition, then drums add a skittering rhythm. There are some thematic reappearances and some discord making this track one of the best here. Shapeshifter again starts with a sweeping solo piano before becoming more dramatic as the drum rhythm starts building to an abrupt climax before the solo piano reappears to close. The Fire Within again focuses on piano setting out the stall alone, then strings and wind give it a mournful tone before another flute led melody. Last up is In Excelsis, stately and sedate and a fitting conclusion to an intriguing listen.
Very melodic and dynamic, certainly not as challenging as Rule 29, and well worth the attention of prog fans, but of particular interest to those liking their classical references – chamber rather than symphony. Elements of the drumming are the main sticking point for me. A "real" drummer higher in the mix with a bit more power would be good. There is much to admire here and I think that, credit where it’s due, Dave has pulled off his intention of mixing prog and classical in a new and interesting way. Though very well played and put together, making this a band project and playing live could lead to many new avenues ripe for discovery
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Altera Enigma - Alterations
Tracklist: Enigma Variations (9:42), The infinite Horizon (5:21), Pasivitas Sudut Pandang (3:46), Fading (5:39), NGC 3370 (6:27), Skyward [Outer Atmosphere] (5:22), Relating The Transformation (7:37), Unlimited Reality (3:12), Through Glass, Darkly (5:41)
Altera Enigma are the latest in a long line of bands who, in our digital age, have formed and are able to record albums despite living many miles away, by dint of the wonders of modern technology. In this case, Altera Enigma represents the musical union of Australian guitarist Jason De Roy and Indonesian guitarist Jefray Arwadi. Both have apparently had lengthy careers in the heavy metal field (apparently racking up nearly 20 albums between them), yet have felt the need to form Altera Enigma as, in the words of their promo blurb:
‘an outlet … to work together on music that would push their boundaries, challenge them musically and allow them to broaden their horizons and explore progressive music in all its forms’.
If to you this suggests a progressive fusion style something along the lines of Liquid Tension Experiment – well, you’d be at least partly right. Opener Enigmatic Alteration certainly sets a suitably complex and metallic scene – the track opens with staccato Dream Theater-style guitar work, before settling into a heavy riff underpinned by ‘hi-tech’ digital sounding keyboard work. There’s some interesting intertwining guitar work which manages to be both complex yet melodic – a positive feature found throughout the album, as are the confident changes in tempo which are well executed throughout. Less good is the rather plodding drum machine and a tendency for the song to be dragged beyond its natural length, again traits that are common to the CD as a whole.
The Infinite Horizon continues in the same vein, although the pace is more mid-tempo here, and there’s a suitably spacey feel generated by the Hawkwind-like effects employed by De Roy in his role as the band’s keyboard player. Posivitas Sudut Pandang throws a curveball however; more of an indie/alternative rock track (albeit one with a suitably funky bass-line), its also one of the few tracks to feature vocals, here courtesy of Arwadi, who sings, adequately enough, in his native tongue. Its an OK track but it doesn’t really fit with the rest of the material. Fading gets things back on track, with De Roy creating a mellow, new-agey backdrop over which he and Arwadi reel off a series of lengthy, languorous solos which owe as much to the likes of Steve Hackett as they do to more obvious inspirations such as John Petrucci or Joe Satriani.
NGC 3370 sees the pace and heaviness pick up again, the combination of some serious widdling by the guitarists and a bravura, over the top keyboard solo bringing in clear comparisons to Planet X. Skyward [Outer Atmosphere] takes a while to lift off, seemingly getting stuck in rather tedious psychedelic territory before hitting a more pleasing groove in its latter stages. Relating The Transformation is similarly patchy, with a relatively enjoyable riff-heavy track rather ruined by unsuitable use of death metal vocals! Unlimited Reality is better, with some spare bluesy guitar licks layered over a dark, moody synthesised backdrop creating a suitably atmospheric piece. Unfortunately the segue between this and final track Through Glass, Darkly is (uncharacteristically) clumsily handled, with the mood abruptly changed by the introduction of a jarring industrial style central riff and some rather ropey sub-rap style vocals. Its unfortunate that the album ends with this rather confused track, but in its favour it does feature some quality melodic lead guitar work in its latter stages.
In conclusion, Altera Enigma have produced a generally solid debut, which whilst being somewhat inconsistent in both style and quality nonetheless demonstrates considerable promise, not least in terms of the atmospheric backdrops created and the complex yet still melodic lead guitar work that is featured heavily throughout. Overall then, there’s still some work to do before Altera Enigma become a major player on the progressive fusion scene, but if you are a fan of the likes of Liquid Tension Experiment, Planet X and Spaced Out you could certainly do a lot worse than to check this out.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
TP3 - Still Not Making Love
Tracklist: Welcome (8:52), Revolution (5:43), An Idiot (8:18), Shadow Dance (9:22), Wounded Soldier (6:08), Old folks Home (2:51), Bright Future (13:12)
When reviewing albums I always try to go by the old adage ‘don’t judge a book by its cover’, but to be honest, TP3 really don’t make things easy for themselves. With a name more befitting of a boy band, an album title that sounds like a bad r’n’b song and a rather amateurish and clunkily designed cover booklet, this Swedish band hardly push themselves to the front of the queue for a busy reviewer… on top of this, the fact that they have virtually zero profile on the internet (bar a not-particularly-informative band site) doesn’t herald particularly well that this will be requisite listening…
…And its not, although to be fair the music is at least better than the image! The band describe themselves as ‘symphonic rock’ but to be honest this is only scratching the surface – the music on Still Not Making Love is, to say the least, somewhat eclectic. Things kick off promisingly (and relatively conventionally) with Welcome – the song moves from a Steve Hackett-esque opening solo to become an up tempo and upbeat song, motoring along on a bouncing bass line and augmented by some vintage keyboard sounds and a fairly heavy guitar sound. The song certainly has something of a Flower Kings / ACT feel to it, even harking back to the old guard such as Yes in places. Calle Lennartsson’s lead vocals are somewhat offbeat but fairly engaging, although the back-up vocals are rather weak and frequently seem out of sync. In addition, whilst there’s some fine instrumental sections the more balladic parts don’t really work that well. Overall though quite a strong start, and you certainly can’t fault the obvious enthusiasm and energy that’s on display.
Elsewhere however it’s something of a mixed bag. Shadowdance and the epic closer Bright Future both push the prog envelope, with the former employing some pleasing symphonic elements which have shades of the Italian masters PFM. But then the band also serve to confuse, by throwing a curveball such as the off-kilter Revolution, which kicks off with the sort of opening Wurlitzer-led intro you might find on an old fashioned fun-fair, but switches styles drastically to reach a lighters-in-the-air style anthemic MOR chorus! More bizarre still is An Idiot, which in its initial stages sounds for all the world like an out-take from an old Brit-pop album by the likes of The Bluetones or The Charlatans! This song gets seriously disjointed during its latter sections, with some vocoder-led tomfoolery seriously testing the patience.
In many ways my criticism of the band’s music mirrors that of their image – basically TP3 are a talented bunch of enthusiastic musicians who are perhaps trying to run before they can walk, and need to concentrate more on writing coherent, consistent songs. At the moment there are, as highlighted, some strong moments, but there’s too much inconsistency to make for a particularly enjoyable listen. In addition, more attention needs to be paid next time around to the production, as there are frequently occasions on which there is simply too much going on in the mix and everything becomes rather blurred and cluttered.
Overall, there is certainly promise here, and fans of ACT in particular might enjoy parts of this, but its just too inconsistent overall to particularly recommend, especially given the crowded marketplace that the band exist in. And I’m afraid I’ll have to finish as I started by saying that they really need a rethink about their name and image…
Conclusion: 5 out of 10