Reviews in this issue:
- Level π - Entrance
- The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
- High Wheel - Live Before The Storm
- For Absent Friends - Square One
- Little Tragedies - The Sixth Sense
- Deformica - H
- Deluge Grander - August In The Urals
- Ivoryboat – Unnatural Gift
- The Sonic Revolution - Power Failure
- King Of Agogik - Membranophonic Experience
Level π - Entrance
Tracklist: No Cello (12:00), King Arthur's Mantra (7:33), Hubble's Dream - The Beginning (9:24), Hubble's Dream - Dream Without End (9:07), Bad Weather (6:33), Level π - Part 3.1 (4:34), Level π - Part 3.14 (10:43), Level π - Part 3.1415 (5:11)
Level π is the brainchild of German musician Uwe Cremer who composed, arranged and produced everything on this debut CD and, for all I know, probably designed the cover as well! Inspired by listening to the seminal Krautrock bands of the seventies, Cremer decided he would try his hand at producing the kind of music that he wanted to listen to - long, mostly instrumental tracks with an almost improvisational feel. Listening to Entrance it is immediately obvious that Cremer is a Krautrock expert par excellence as he has managed to capture the essence of a certain part of the genre superbly. Focusing more towards the ambient (term used loosely!) side of things, the music is primarily keyboard based, capturing the synth sounds of the era perfectly, interspersed with free-flowing improvised guitar. Percussion and even some taped effects to add atmosphere.
Prime example is opener No Cello, rather a misleading title as the opening section is dominated by a military snare beat (the title originates from an aborted session with a cello player). Once the introduction is over a distorted guitar solos over a backing of heavily phased guitar, bass and drums to give an almost ethereal effect. Imagine a heavier Steve Hillage without the whimsiness and you'll be getting there. King Arthur's Mantra takes its name from the drum track, which I found to be rather incongruous at first. However, it fitted in well when the psychedelicised guitar effects reminiscent of very early Pink Floyd freak-outs are introduced. This track is brimming with all sorts of guitar sounds and anyone who digs spacey jams will find a home in this track.
Hubble's Dream is essentially an 18 minute history of the universe, kicked off by an effect-ladened monologue recited over a low drone. This persists for the entire first part providing a hypnotic backdrop. The second part draws once again from early Floyd in texture and introduces the guitar, at first playing chords but then building up speed and momentum to produce a somewhat sparse Mike Oldfield-type landscape. After approximately 12 minutes of build-up the guitar finally breaks free in a fitting climax. Bad Weather is the only real vocal track on the album and unfortunately the singing is not that convincing. The music is just as good as on other tracks with some great organ sounds and a scorching guitar providing the heaviest piece on the album, the wah-wah invoking the spirit of Hendrix. The title track opens with the sound of a storm. A metronymic beat pulsates in the background while a languid synth line adds an air of melancholy which leads directly into Part 3.14 (if you are confused by the numbering, think about the name of the band!). A sequencer line takes over and is added to again and again layering different pieces one on top of the other, while all the time maintaining a common theme to the piece. The final part brings things down with string synths and a more mellow guitar rounding things off in a more peaceful atmosphere.
Entrance is a fine instrumental album that will touch a chord with fans of instrumental progressive music. With its roots in classic Krautrock, although somewhat less chaotic than many of the original seventies releases, Level π are maintaining a fine tradition of German music. One minus point, the 32 page booklet only has one internal page dedicated to the band, and that is half a page of text reproduced in German and English! The other 29 pages is one long advert for other releases on the Garden Of Delights label. Although the list includes some classic and classically obscure albums, it is maybe a bit too much. But then again, given the state of the music industry perhaps this is the only way record labels can survive. Let's hope not.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
The Decemberists - The Crane Wife
Tracklist: The Crane Wife 3 (4:18), The Island: Come And See, The Landlord’s Daughter, You’ll Not Feel the Drowning (12:26), Yankee Bayonet [I Will Be Home Then] (4:18), O Valencia! (3:47), The Perfect Crime No.2 (5:33), When the War Came” (5:06), Shankill Butchers (4:39), Summersong (3:31), The Crane Wife 1 & 2 (11:19), Sons & Daughters” (5:13)
I guess it’s time to confess: I’m tired of prog. Or maybe only burned out. And anyway, I’m not entirely tired of prog.
I’m still pretty hot for “old school” prog: Jethro Tull, Gentle Giant, The Moody Blues, Yes, early King Crimson, Gabriel-era Genesis, and VdGG, although that’s about it. I never cared much for neo, and fusion, though I admire the dexterous playing and free-wheeling adventurousness tremendously, I can take or leave. I was pretty excited in the mid-90s when prog was making its “comeback,” and I certainly jumped onto the Anglagard/Spock’s Beard/Djam Karet/Ozric Tentacles, etc., bandwagon. Much of that material still holds up nicely, and I can still listen to it with appreciation. But…if there ever was a genre (or sub-genre) of rock music that is glutted and rife with too many mediocre, uninventive, non-progressive entries, it is the Progressive Rock of the Aughts.
I remember well which album initiated my disillusionment with contemporary prog rock: IQ’s Dark Matter. This album received enormous adulation, and for the life of me I could never understand why. I found Dark Matter to be a lyrically trite, repetitive soporific of the first order and yet, somehow, amongst the legions of prog aficionados, it was hailed as a masterpiece. I didn’t get it. And I really don’t understand the affection (unless it’s unrequited nostalgia for the truly impressive, truly staggering first wave of Progressive Rock initiated by The Beatles and ended by Asia’s debut and 90125), for contemporary prog efforts, which to my ears sound hackneyed and forced, excepting a good majority of the recordings coming out of Japan and some few arriving out of Scandinavia. And so, generally speaking, and above and beyond the material I pan or praise for DPRP, I avoid modern prog like the Avian Flu. Instead, for the past couple of years, I have preferred what is labelled as “Indie Rock.”
Now, I will be the first to say that the genre “Indie Rock” is as much a faddish categorization as were “grunge” (much of which I enjoyed), “heavy metal” (great in the 70s and early 80s; lame beyond belief once MTV got a hold on it), “New Wave,” (much of which was simply classic rock with punk-lite accoutrements), and even “The British Invasion,” the genre which of course made possible all things prog, including this very review. But hey, we arbiters of musical value need some kind of lexicon to mete out our decrees, and thus genres exist, often in response to the conditions of the zeitgeist. (If art historians have their “periods” and geologists have their “epochs,” then certainly we can retain our genres, all equally arbitrary and insufficient).
My attraction to “Indie Rock” (and here I am referencing such artists as The Flaming Lips, Muse, The Shins, Yo La Tengo, Dredg, Sufjan Stevens, PJ Harvey, Modest Mouse, The Arcade Fire, Built Too Spill, etc.) is three-fold:
- These artists all remember the importance of song as a vehicle for expressing emotion and philosophical observation. This is of course one hallmark of The Beatles’ legacy, which really has never wavered (excepting the years of punk rock’s dominance) and definitely informed the earliest albums by such bands as Yes, Genesis, and King Crimson.
- These artists have not in any sense forgotten the power and allure of a compelling melody; again, another hallmark of The Beatles’ (and actually, not forgetting Mssrs. Townshend and Davies, the British Invasion’s) influence upon popular music. And
- These artists all pay hard attention to arrangement and sonic palette, which the DPRP audience will correctly understand as one of the prominent tenets of the more excellent albums in the Progressive Rock annals.
It is my opinion that contemporary prog tends to either abandon song and melody altogether or employs both in such a way as to be cloying, overly saccharine, tepid, redundant, or simply weak. “Old school” prog had its “Living in the Past,” “Yours Is No Disgrace,” “Epitaph,” and “Tuesday Afternoon,” all of which incorporate memorable melodies into strongly rendered songs, while also utilizing some suitably complex and inviting audio textures. Modern Indie Rock still performs that feat; I find that modern Progressive Rock does not.
And so, with the aforesaid in mind, I bring you…The Decemberists, and their 2006 release, The Crane Wife.
The Decemberists are a five-piece combo out of Portland, Oregon, and The Crane Wife (a title derived from Asian, perhaps Chinese mythology, if I’m not mistaken) is the band’s fourth full-length album. Colin Meloy spearheads the band as principle songwriter, lyricist, guitarist and vocalist. The remaining members of the band are Chris Funk (multi-instrumentalist), Nate Query (bass), Jenny Conlee (keyboards and vocals), and John Moon (drums). The bands first album, Castaways & Cutouts, was issued in 2002, followed by subsequent releases on the Kill Rock Stars label: Her Majesty… The Decemberists (2003), the EP The Tain in 2004, Picaresque (2005), and then, along with a jump to Capitol Records, The Crane Wife. Although the band’s signing to a major label was accompanied by the fans’ trepidation, I find that The Decemberists have only improved on The Crane Wife and now play with an energy and verve that the earlier releases didn’t fully reveal.
I will remark that I judged The Crane Wife (along with Muse’s Black Holes And Revelations) to be the most impressive album of 2006. It’s not bona fide Progressive Rock, but it’s Art Rock, at least. To my ears, it sounds like what you might end up with if you blended folk-prog a la Tull, Renaissance, or Fairport Convention, R.E.M.’s earliest jangly period, and the lyrical whimsy and high verbal articulation of an Andy Partridge. In some ways, we might call The Crane Wife Americana prog, as Mr. Meloy has a fondness for Civil War motifs—wayward soldiers, besotted pirates, midnight brigands and the bandits of the pre-Industrial Revolution ages, and accents those motifs with the bouzouki, the banjo, pedal steel, hammer dulcimer, upright bass, accordion, pump organ, etc. In agreement with much of Indie Rock, The Decemberists mix pseudo-Beatley chord patterns with heavy doses of mountain sounds; in a sense, the band is not too far (by Mr. Meloy’s admission, in fact) from the British “back to the folk roots” movement of late 70s prog, the difference being that instead of Victoria’s and Elizabeth’s England we land ourselves in Lee’s Confederate States.
There’s much on the album that I would classify as simply well wrought pop-rock music. Yankee Bayonet includes the absolutely sweetest sing-songy chorus I’ve ever heard, and features the vocals of Laura Veirs, who answers Mr. Meloy’s portions of the verses very nimbly indeed. O Valencia! is sheer pop in the vein of early R.E.M., with a masterful tale of angry contention between families and true love lost. [It is often observed that Mr. Meloy’s characters are either 1) quite despicable; or 2) certain to meet a bad end. The Crane Wife only confirms that observation.] The Perfect Crime #2 gallops along with a Talking Heads-style buoyancy and When the War Came concludes with a bit of near-Frippian guitar discord. And like other songs by the band on previous albums, Shankill Butchers is a meditation on the fundamental creepiness and deviancy of the human psyche, all set to an eerie, shadowy acoustic beat. And the title track is a slight oddity in that it is broken throughout the album and begins with the third part first, and only near album finale to we hear the first and second parts. However, it remains still a song suite, pleasant enough if not thematically rewarding (a la the “concept” we all know and love).
But it is songs like The Island and the three-song suite The Crane Wife which are most likely to win over a prog audience. The first part of The Island, Come And See, sounds notably like Pink Floyd circa Animals or The Wall, with its grinding, near machine-like beat, but soon resolves into the bombastic, haunting tune proper which showcases perhaps the band’s best ensemble playing on The Crane Wife. (Mr. Moon is excellent on this track and I was very impressed throughout the disc by his and Mr. Query’s catchy but unobtrusive rhythm section work.) The song-cycle ends with The Landlord’s Daughter which you’d likely swear is an outtake from Thick As A Brick. (Catch the guitar-organ tandem on this track: fantastic stuff!) All-in-all, The Island leans very close indeed into the blissful days of marijuana headphone prog: come and see…
Ultimately, what I love about so-called “Indie Rock” is how, in the same way that the alternative rock of the nineties borrowed heavily from punk, metal, and thrash, it borrows very heavily from psychedelic and progressive rock. The Shins at times sound scarily like late 60s Beach Boys; The Flaming Lips don’t hesitate to create ambience and effect in the very best vein of Pink Floyd or Tangerine Dream; Yo La Tengo exercises a flair for genre shifts rivalling The Beatles on, say, The White Album. And The Decemberists, with literary, keen lyrics, unorthodox instrumentation, strong composition, and ensemble prowess, harken back to the days of folk prog, albeit with enough of a contemporary twist to be fresh and viable.
The Crane Wife is great. I recommend it highly. It may have put the final nail into the coffin of my interest in Twenty-First Century Progressive Rock, but I’ll manage to find interesting music, I suspect.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
High Wheel - Live Before The Storm
Tracklist: Open Lines (14:52), Void (5:51), The Screamer (12;35), Gear Wheels (4:24), Gnithon’s Promise (4:09), There (26:40), Outside The Circles (18:57), Try An Error (5:17), High Wheel In The Sky Part 1 (11:22), The Four Seasons (13:43), Into Voyage (11:56), Hate Hounds (6:16)
After four studio albums the German symphonic rock band High Wheel finally releases a double live album. Their music live is much more interesting, heavier and proggier than in the studio. This album was recorded in the notorious Kant’n Club in March 2005! Most of the songs are long epic masterpieces – seven songs exceed the ten minute mark – and are filled with musical influences from famous bands like Deep Purple, Dream Theater, Uriah Heep, RPWL and Gentle Giant creating a rather unique sound.
There are no weak songs on this album, but I mostly listen to The Four Seasons (with amazing guitar work, fantastic vocal harmonies and sensitive Genesis like flute parts), Outside The Circles (a true prog rock opus), Open Lines (lots of musical twists and turns and a grand guitar solo), There (the epic master piece with lots of IQ influences and outstanding guitar solos) and the very melodic The Screamer.
Wolfgang Hierl (guitar, vocals and flute) is the “dominant” musician in this band with his addictive riffs and extraordinary solos and this double live album is therefore an excellent starting point for those who have not yet found their way into the musical world of High Wheel. Maybe this is even one of the best live prog albums you have heard in a long time.
Check it out, you will not be disappointed!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
For Absent Friends - Square One
Tracklist: Hello World (5:03), Stick Around (4:53), Call It Chance (4:14), Square One (4:36), Wonder (8:37), Berlin Wall (5:30), Us (4:10), Falling Asleep (2:23), Billy (5:49)
For Absent Friends is already an established name in the symphonic music scene and certainly one of the leading symphonic bands from the Netherlands. Founded in 1988 they have released 7 studio albums so far including their latest outing Square One and they can regularly be seen on some of the smaller Dutch and Belgian stages. They obviously like playing live very much otherwise they wouldn't be on stage so often and because of that it's strange that they never released a live album (yet). Even stranger, or better said, more annoying is the fact that they still play on these small stages for small audiences and often only as the support act; in my opinion For Absent Friends certainly deserves better.
But we do still live in a world where prog and sympho is the most underrated kind of music and we have to live with that unfair lack of interest. Listening to albums of such bands definitely doesn't give you the impression you're dealing with a band operating in the kind of music where financial means are always minimal and where hardly any musician can make a living out of it. Many albums that had a much bigger budget produced a far lesser result in the end.
But enough said about my general complaint regarding prog appreciation in general; let's now focus on the quality of For Absent Friends' music in particular and especially their latest release Square One. Already early on For Absent Friends (FAF) has developed their own style which kind of floats between pop and prog and that might exactly be the reason for their underrated status. They are too poppy for real prog fans and too proggy for pop fans.
The new album doesn't change anything in that respect, although FAF have adapted a slightly heavier, darker style than on their previous albums. But still it isn't a real prog album, lush keyboard or guitar solo's are scarce and the songs are still short and basically built up as a pop song with a more or less catchy refrain. This very recognisable FAF style, sound and unique trademarks are still very present on this album and the best moments are those where modest drama and passion flourish since that is what FAF does best.
Like most previous albums this one also contains some emotional ballads, mostly due to the passionate, almost weeping, vocals of Hans van Lint, and some more powerful, catchy songs and some songs that just fail to grasp me in any mentionable way.
An elaborate description of all the songs would therefore be superfluous, so I'll just do a quick run through:
- Hello World is an opener just like We Can Not from their previous album, a melodic poppy song where a prog sauce is poured over and with a good full sound and good instrumentation.
- Stick Around is a very typical FAF song where the typical general and vocal sound and way of singing stands out clearly.
- Call It Chance starts with a light piano and vocal intro and quickly evolves into a melodramatic ballad with plenty of emotions.
- Square One has a sinister start, very unlike FAF, with some industrial sounds, but then slowly builds up to the common FAF sound evolving in a true rock ballad.
- Wonder runs over from the previous song and is with distance the most lengthy song on the album and also the one that comes nearest to a real prog song due to its long instrumental part and the larger role for the keyboards. This song is an instant classic and without doubt the best song on the album with its traditional prog slow start and the built up to a full powerful sound.
- Berlin Wall sounds like it has a strong message to spread; especially the line "We're building a new Berlin wall" instantly gets stuck into your brain. The whining vocals of Hans enhance the impression the song is some kind of accusation and the weeping guitar only emphasizes that; to my interpretation it's the widening gap between the Christians and Muslims in the world and the Middle-East crisis in particular that is suspected party. Anyway, the song is a very dramatic one with a powerful bombastic ending, another excellent song.
- Us on the other hand is not a very strong song as it lacks the hooks and sparks that intrigue the listener, just average traditional FAF stuff.
- Falling Asleep is another ballad with mainly just guitar and vocals, nice but not over exciting.
- Billy is a song FAF already plays live for many years and originally an Ange song. But FAF's version has 2 surprises to offer, first of all the guest vocals of old-time Ange member Christian Décamps (in French of course) and a saxophone solo, played by Ron Ottenhoff. Although it doesn't excite as much as live on stage where usually FAF tries to blow off the roof with this song in a thrilling finale, this studio version makes a good attempt in that direction especially in the second half where it almost sounds like a jam when the various instruments each take their own short solo. A good ending of this album.
Once again FAF has delivered a very acceptable and solid album that again will have problems to find it's way to large amounts of listeners since it can't decide being more pop or prog. But this album definitely is one of their best and should not be ignored by anyone interested in pleasant and accessible poppy symphonic music. The overall quality of the music is high and if you're not in to complicated music and long instrumental experiments and extravaganza then this might be just your cup of tea!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Little Tragedies – The Sixth Sense
Tracklist: The Sixth Sense (8:27), Bird (9:23), On The Seashore (10:29), Prodigal Son (12:35), Consolation (4:24), Dream (3:17), Bonding (1:49), Turkey (4:25), I Am Polite With Modern Life.... (3:46), Pre-Memory (7:06), You And I (7:43), I Haven’t Lived, I’ve Suffered Through It.... (3:50)
This is one LONG album. And it’s sung in Russian. Those two facts alone might make it unlikely that Little Tragedies would find a large, willing audience outside their own country, but, really, neither of those facts constitutes the biggest problem. The album, though too long, is really pretty good; and, if many of us can’t understand the lyrics, still the singing (more “emotive speaking” than singing, really) is mostly pleasant to listen to. No, the biggest problem with this album is that too many of the songs sound very much alike and thus try the patience of a listener determined to hear the whole unnecessarily elongated album out.
The essential sound shared by most of the songs is a pleasant one, for sure. It’s almost like progressive-lounge-rock, if you can imagine such a thing. Or easy-listening progressive rock. On the good side, the songs are melodic and tuneful. On the bad side, they’re melodic and tuneful in much the same way. That’s not to say that there’s no variation: Bird, for example, partway through its nine-minute length, ventures a peppy instrumental break (featuring trumpet, of all instruments!), followed by an energetic breakdown with wacky synth solo. And there are similar moments elsewhere. For the most part, though, the tempo is mid-, the most noticeable instrument is piano or some kind of keyboard, and the singing is speaking. The tunes really do run together.
I’ve racked my brains to find another band to offer even as a rough comparison. It’s certainly not that Little Tragedies is stunningly original in any of the elements of their songs; it’s just that they don’t closely resemble any band with which I’m familiar (and that is of course a good thing). Try this: remember those long-ish story songs on the first few Marillion albums? Market Square Heroes, say, or Chelsea Monday? Well, in feel, in tone, in mood, and partly in instrumentation, many of the songs on The Sixth Sense are akin to those old favourites. Gennady Ilyin’s spoken singing is less histrionic than Fish’s was, to be sure, and the music here is lighter and less powerful, but that comparison will give you an idea at least of the music on this album. If only I could understand Russian, I could tell you whether or not this band’s lyrical ambitions matched those of that venerable British band.
Although I can’t whip up much enthusiasm in my descriptions, I must say that I’ve enjoyed listening to this album as many times as I’ve needed to for review purposes. And it’s hard for me to imagine that anybody interested in progressive rock (at least, very light progressive rock) would dislike the album. You may also care to check out previous DPRP reviews of their Return (2005) and New Faust (2006) albums. As for The Sixth Sense its' virtues are real if comparatively minor and its faults, aside from the sameness of the tracks, are few.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Deformica - H
Tracklist: Final (2:55), Nuevo V (8:35), Mecanofonico (7:04), Aranitas (7:02), Marionetas (5:03), Acalambrase (8:12), Hidralia (5:03), Sofisma (6:04)
Deformica are another Argentinean band worthy of investigation. Their debut album, H, is an instrumental with many interesting features and good interplay between the 5-piece line-up of Leonardo Gherneti and Nicolas Pedrero (both guitar), Lyon Iglesias (bass), Martin Benito (drums) and Alejandro Carrau (Rhodes Piano and synths). No one stands out as leader or hogs the sound, the whole being more important than the individual players. Overall the sound has a distinct ‘70’s feel to it with melodic fusion-style prog influences, the most interesting aspect being the use of Rhodes piano, which is nicely played and good to hear. King Crimson influences appear here and there, in Nuevo V and Mecanofonico particularly, because of the picking style and twin lead guitar, but this is fleeting, the whole being warmer and lighter than KC. The Rhodes also adds colour resulting in an album that isn’t as austere as you might think.
The music flows well and there is plenty of variety within each piece. There are no real standout tracks but also no duffers, the only flaw for me is in the fact that a little bit of judicious editing could have been employed to make the whole stronger. This doesn’t greatly detract but there are several moments that are a bit flabby, usually at the end of tracks where after the piece itself has all but concluded there is something quite unrelated tacked on for the next minute or two. A bit of pruning would improve things or leave room for another track within the same overall length. As a fan of all things prog I’m not averse to instrumental noodling or sound effects but here it just seems to slow the momentum and drag a bit.
The sound can be delicate, light and airy at times, while dark and dense at others giving more variety than is often found in instrumental CD’s of this type. The album opens with the brief Final, gentle and hypnotic with good guitar. Longer tracks then take precedence. Nuevo V comes across like an out-take from Larks’ Tongues in Aspic, and Mecanofonico, as the title suggests, has an industrial and mechanical sound with sporadic effects and angular guitar bursts, the Rhodes bubbling underneath. The solo guitar ending to the track, however, is a little superfluous. Aranitas comes in with a skittering guitar, dense rhythm and soaring synth before a twinkling Rhodes takes over the melody. A nice track slightly spoiled towards the end by the pretty pointless grinding discord and effects culminating in computer effect keys as at the end of ELP’s Brain Salad Surgery. Marionetas is fast and furious with some great keys and guitar interplay before a mellower section, but also suffers from solo acoustic guitar lilting on for a bit after the track itself has finished. When an extended, echoey drum solo is tagged onto the end of Acalambrase it is just too much like coincidence and with Hidralia finishing with solo Rhodes a theme seems to be developing! Final track, Sofism, is low key with dreamy Rhodes and guitar but, inexplicably stops at 2:30 or so and after 30 seconds of silence re-emerges with quiet effects before drums return with an uneasy feel to the distorted guitar.
This is not a bad album at all, quite the reverse, but slightly frustrating given the good quality playing and material. It is no bad thing to call “cut” when it is necessary and I would hope that next time these guys will be able to do that and stick with the great ensemble playing that they possess in spades. With only a hint of disappointment, this is recommended to fans of instrumental prog fusion, the Rhodes coming particularly recommended, as you don’t hear one often enough these days.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Deluge Grander - August In The Urals
Tracklist: Inaugural Bash (26:57), August In The Urals (15:52), Abandoned Mansion Afternoon (12:14), A Squirrel (8:45), The Solitude Of Miranda (7:18)
This is the first release from this Baltimore band and a very grand release it is. They play a dark style of symphonic rock with touches of Canterbury and Space rock added to the mix. All the songs are very well constructed with lengths ranging from 7 mins to 26 mins.
The first song on the CD is also the longest song with a time of 26:57 and prepares the listener for the rest of the CD. This first track has the feel of early Pulsar compositions in that it is dark majestic. There is also some delicately played flute to add to the Pulsar feel. This piece is very well composed with many changes, but none of the changes are very drastic so it all flows together very well. The band changes tempo through out the song and uses a vast array of different keyboard and guitar sounds. The first melody comes about one minute into the song, played by the guitarist it is a simple and uplifting motif that contrasts the darker feel the keyboards set. Then the bass and guitar alternate playing variations on this melody, which is then revisited about twenty minutes later neatly bring a nice conclusion to the song. The midsection is an upbeat Canterbury sounding part. This part reminds me of Egg with the bass and keyboard playing, there is also some saxophone added. This section builds to a crescendo and then drops back to the darker Pulsar feel. The keyboards are the driving force though out, but each instrument plays a vital role in the overall construction of the song. There are some sparse chanting sections that again add to the dark feel. This first track is long but well thought out and never gets boring.
The second track is one of the two tracks with lead vocals. The singer has a baritone voice and sings in a monotone style. When I first listened to this track I did not like the vocals, but with subsequent listening I found that the vocal suited the song very well. The compositional style of this song reminds me of Foxtrot era Genesis. The song starts out with soft acoustic guitar giving this track a warm feeling. During the first half of the song the interplay between the keyboards and bass remind me of Banks and Rutherford. Overall the song has a very majestic feel with each musician playing a distinct and important part.
Abandoned Mansion Afternoon is the second track with lead vocals and probably the most sombre of all the songs. After listening to this song a couple times I realized that all musicians have solos during song. What is different about these solos is that you almost do not notice them because they fit so well with songs many changes.
A Squirrel starts out with a 70’s Italian sound with the keyboards and drums brought to fore front of the mix and the tempo is more upbeat. Again there are many changes in keyboard sounds from piano, electronic organ, synth, harpsichord etc. Five minutes into the song there is a nice change to Camel sounding section and they finish the song with a bit of jazzy Canterbury feel.
The last track on the CD is shortest of all the songs at just over seven minutes long, and it has the highest energy level, starting off with a Middle Eastern/Spanish sounding acoustic guitar part and this piece reminds me a little bit of the band Mezuita. There is even some country rock sounding guitar riffs added in few places for another dimension. There is short section of spaced out keyboards and then back to Middle Eastern/Spanish. Again there are many different sounds and tones used in this song.
This CD is a well thought out and constructed project, every piece of music was well crafted; therefore no filler was needed. The CD booklet also comes with corresponding artwork for each song and the artist is credited to that particular song, a nice touch. I even feel that the song order was well thought out with the longest song first and each song afterwards getting shorter. If the track list were different perhaps the listening experience would have been very daunting. The references to other bands above does not suggest a direct copy only a similarity in sound. The band still created there own sound even though there is nothing ground breaking here. The only things that I found that detracted from the CD were that some of the parts seemed to be recorded weakly and the vocals were not to my taste. This is a long CD and takes some effort to listen to, but the effort is worth it. I could only listen to this CD when I am in the mood for it, but every time I listen to it the more I like it. If I would have wrote a review after my first listen I would have given it a 6/10, but thankfully I listened to the CD a few more times, first impressions are not always correct. If you are willing to make the effort this CD will be rewarding. Note this is not background music.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Ivoryboat – Unnatural Gift
Tracklist: Unnatural Gift Part 1 (0:37), Four Dimensions Mandala (5:15), Ever (5:35), Reach For The Star (5:12), Phase Of Ghosts (5:00), The Beast Survived (3:48), Muddy’s Magic (5:17), Unnatural Gift Part 2 (0:27), Electric Guitar Concerto: Mvt 1 (6:37), Mvt 2 (3:29), Mvt 3 (5:27), Hills In Mu (2:53), Unnatural Gift Part 3 (0:26), Wings Of Fire (5:37), Blue Roses In The Red Sky (7:05), Little Prayer (6:27)
Appearances can be deceptive, and so it is with Unnatural Gift, sporting an unassuming cover showing a thoughtful Japanese man holding an acoustic guitar. You may be forgiven for expecting a New Age album, or perhaps Folk or light Jazz of some kind. But no, the music here is instrumental progressive rock, albeit with plenty of variety in its moods and tones.
Ivoryboat is the pseudonym of the talented Kenji Aramaki, and Unnatural Gift is his third album. This is very much a solo project, realised by Kenji on acoustic and electric guitars and programming. The sound is highly synthesised and with plenty of keyboard sounds, which I assume are MIDI controlled.
At 70 + minutes, this is a lengthy disc and features a wide variety of material. The title track, split into three small pieces consists of nothing more than brief atmospheric burbling interludes. An odd choice for the title track methinks.
The first real track, Four Dimensions Mandala, is a confident, striking slice of prog, where heavy riffs bring the tune close to the prog metal field. Kenji returns to this style later on for Wings Of Fire. Elsewhere, he flirts with funk on The Beast Survived, breezy jazz fusion on Reach For The Star – getting even more fusion inspired for the fiery romp Phase Of Ghosts. These are all pretty good tracks.
My favourite track, by a long chalk, is the three-part Electric Guitar Concerto. I’m a sucker for prog/classical crossover stuff (even if many attempts do fall flat on their faces) and this is a hugely enjoyable stab at the genre. With strong, winning melodies and superbly realised faux orchestral backing, Kenji’s guitar playing is proudly displayed at its best. This should appeal to all lovers of The Enid. The track is also improved by the absence of canned rhythms (a pet hate of mine), which are the weakest link on much of the other material on this disc.
The weakest tunes are Ever and Blue Roses In The Red Sky, which are nice enough (particularly the latter, which journeys through plenty of different moods) but where central, syrupy melodies are over-sweet and veer dangerously close to muzak for my liking.
An un-credited track of gentle, melodic acoustic guitar brings the disc to a close quite nicely.
All in all a mixed bag of instrumental prog, a nice showcase for an undoubtedly talented guy, and quite a satisfying listen for the most part. I’d love to hear him develop his classical and fusion influences further – he would be fantastic with a real orchestra or, indeed a smoking fusion outfit to back him.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
The Sonic Revolution - Power Failure
Tracklist: Power Failure (4:07), Follow The Money (3:55), A Day In The Life (3:25), Drama (4:12), Never Again (3:26), For The Hell Of It (4:27), Thread (3:22), To See The Invisible Man (4:15), Alone (3:24), End Of Days (3:45), In This Together (7:36)
The Sonic Revolution were formed in early 2004, and since then have independently released three albums. The band consists of four musicians, namely guitarist, vocalist, bassist and drummer, thus rather a standard "rock" line-up, without any use of keyboards. Their music can be roughly described as (sometimes aggressive) hard rock with a melodic component. I see elements of poser rock like Europe, of grunge pioneers like Alice In Chains, with a bit of Dream Theater at times. Would you call the hard rock side of Dream Theater, stripped of all adventure and 70's influences, prog? I probably would not. Anyway Power Failure fails to convince me that it has much to do with progressive. The music is very much riff-driven, and contains few solos or improvising moments. Sometimes the riffs remind of stuff as hard as Pantera but always the songs change into something more melodic and accessible. This observation can also extend to describe the whole atmosphere of the album. It seems harder than it actually is. Despite the aggression, the overall impression is quite pleasant. The vocals are at times very harsh and bring vaguely Layne Staley of Alice in Chains to mind (mainly due to the similar vocal lines here and there), at times of American hardcore, and fewer times seem a bit Tate or La Brie influenced. Technically speaking the band performs quite well actually, and this is not their weak point.
The album is very uniform and lacks in general some exploration and adventure. Most tracks start with a heavy riff that then evolves in a more melodic way and there comes a refrain, not always satisfying. Half of the tracks are quite good, with 3-4 standing out from the rest. Basically I liked the way the album kicks off, with the dynamic and catchy Power Failure, From The Hell Of It which is very Dream Theater alike, and the exit song In This Together which shows that these guys have the capabilities to produce interesting music. Interestingly enough, this is the only track that features a switch in the music and gives the listener a surprise. A Day In Your Life is not bad either and features some softer vocals, reminding me a bit of Europe of the last album (Start From The Dark). The rest of the tracks look like fillers of limited interest, and a few even become a bit annoying with either a particularly heavy riff, which to me could become repulsive after some spins, or a rather boring refrain.
Basically this is not a bad album. If you look beyond the (obvious) lack of variety, the band seems to be capable of writing simple and quite catchy songs. But given the almost complete lack of progressive references, I doubt this will be interesting to prog fans. Maybe fans of bands like TNT or similar could give it a try... Still, to be fair, they don't get very near to the level of their influences. It seems to me they have to work more on their creative rather than their technical side in order to conquer a prog audience. Maybe they can exploit more the direction taken in the closing track of the album.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
King Of Agogik - Membranophonic Experience
Tracklist: Welcome (1:56), Mc Wok [Voyage To Innocence] (14:03), The King Of Agogik (1:09), Bishu (3:05), King's Dream (1:22), Yeti's Awaken (5:46), Bassomania (1:22), DDW (3:07), Go Where The Pepper Grow (3:59), King's Garden (3:24), The Sun Set (2:00), Scottish Maiden (2:03), Ora (3:19), Yeti Naked (1:39), The Lobero (7:31), Me And The Birch (10:14), Mc Wok [Return To The Whales] (5:45), On The Past (1:32)
King Of Agogik is drummer and multi-instrumentalist Hans Jörg Schmitz with a handful of other musicians chipping in from time to time. The CD is sub-titled as "a drummer's little ego trip" which of course should be warning enough but if you miss it, the CD itself is printed with the image of a cymbal. OK, so that doesn't mean by default it's going to be bad but in this case it is.
Membranophonic Experience consists mostly of busy drumming/soloing overlaid with samples and sound-bites. From time to time there's actually some music with bass, guitars and keyboards but there's not much and you have to wade through the rest to find it. In times gone by this CD would have been classified as "experimental" or "Avant-garde" - this was OK back then but these days its no longer innovative or even remotely interesting and should be filed under tedious (warning, the website is of the same ilk...)
The travesty is that on the occasions when there's something musical happening a lot of the time its not bad at all and although it lacks structure and direction the guys can play very well. Out of the 18 tracks the ones that catch the ear are Welcome, Mc Wok [Voyage To Innocence], Bishu, Go Where The Pepper Grow, The Sun Set and Ora. Each of these pieces has passages of decent jazzy, bluesy, proggy rock - sounding something like a cross between early Steve Vai and Joe Satriani. However, none of these tracks really develop and after a few bars we return to the drum soloing/sample mode. One piece that manages to break the mould is The Lobero which is surprisingly well constructed and builds up a bit like a bolero (imagine the way King Crimson's Dangerous Curves evolves), that being said it is a little repetitive and runs a couple of minutes too long.
As for the rest of the CD, Me And The Birch is a ten minute drum solo (with a lot of Neil Peart influence) and two listens is more than enough - perhaps there are some drummers out there that will get something from this as Hans clearly knows his way around the kit but for the rest of us it's a track to skip. The King Of Agogik, King's Dream, Yeti's Awaken, DDW, King's Garden, Scottish Maiden, Yeti Naked and On The Past are all basically drum solos with sampled noise in varying degrees. Mc Wok [Return To The Whales) reprises the earlier Mc Wok (with more drums) and, as you would imagine, Bassonmania is a bass solo - quite nice actually, a lot like Jeff Berlin but totally out of context.
Its rather difficult to imagine anyone outside Hans' family or circle of friends getting any pleasure from this release and I doubt very much I will ever listen to this CD again. I would though be very interested if Hans and the boys put some effort in writing some proper music because I think it would be damn good.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10