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Reviews in this issue:
- Marco Ferrigno – Hanging Gardens
- Ultra Violet Uforia - Shadow Of The Sun
- The Gift - Awake & Dreaming
- Rick Miller – The End Of Days
- Jam Camp - Live
- Pravda - Walking Through Walls
- Henriëtte Kat - Violet Fire
Marco Ferrigno – Hanging Gardens
Tracklist: Temple Of Time (4:55), Night In Babylon (6:49), Tower Of Babel (4:13), Sacred City (5:34), Meditteraneo (4:04), Secret Garden (6:08), Varanus Komodensis (4:43), Closer To The Wind (5:50)
I suppose it’s a truism that guitar-instrumental albums are aimed at least partly (if not mainly) at an audience consisting of other musicians. Even more conventional bands containing virtuosic musicians have had their share of students. As an example, for every party-hearty frat boy who went to see Van Halen in that band’s early days, there were four or five aspiring guitarists who shoved their way to the edge of the stage to see just how the hell Eddie was getting those sounds out of his guitar – and Van Halen was a band whose songs were meant to appeal to a wide audience, whereas today’s shredders who put out instrumental albums seem as concerned with demonstrating their virtuosity as with making, you know, good music that folks will enjoy. What I listen for in an instrumental album is an artist who cares about both these things – who, quite understandably, wants to show off the chops he’s developed sitting in his bedroom and practicing ten hours a day for six years but who also understands that music, like all art, is meant to be shared, is meant to communicate with other people. I’m happy to say that Marco Ferrigno seems to me to be that kind of artist.
I will admit, though, that the paragraph-long quotation from Ferrigno on the Lion Music website and in the promo materials almost had me skimming the disc out my window without even listening to it. Here’s an excerpt:
“[My] solos are based on a lot of the melodic minor modes like Mixolydian b6 and Lydian b7 along with the usual major scale modes but with less of the modal soloing and more chord modulations. . . .”
Okay, I’m a musician myself, but when I see that kind of thing in the blurb for an album, I want to grab the guy, shake him, and say “Look, man, is this rock and roll or is it a music-theory class?” Fortunately, whatever Ferrigno wants to tell us on paper about his Lydian modes and his chord modulations, what emerges on the album is a set of eight ear-pleasing, if challenging, instrumental tracks, full of guitar solos but also featuring excellent, supremely musical performances by the backing band – and in those tracks, the instrumental virtuosity is, if not always, at least usually, to my ears, sublimated to the service of each song.
So, although I’m going on the titles of the songs more than on the sound of the music (because, after all, how is a guitar solo going to communicate the concept of “the tower of Babel” without a little help from words?), this seems to be a concept album about strange and exotic places. To my mind, what this concept permits Ferrigno is an indulgence in exotic sounds. Underneath his omnipresent stratospheric soloing are occasional nice Middle Eastern melodies and rhythms, some Spanish flourishes, just a general sense of other-ness – a nice break from the typical Western okay-shred-THIS! feel of most guitar-instrumental albums. What’s best is that the compositions all sound notably different from each other – we don’t get a sense of one album-length guitar solo arbitrarily broken up into too-similar “songs.” Ferrigno has a way not only with a melody but with a composition, so that the CD (which is the perfect length, in my opinion, for an instrumental album – LP-record length, forty-two minutes) holds one’s interest from beginning to end.
I don’t have any real favourites among the tracks, but I might single out a couple that stand apart from the others in one way or another. Meditteraneo has a very cool mid-song break featuring what sounds like synthesized pizzicato violins followed by a tasty repetition of the break by bassist Tony Franklin – an odd effect but very beguiling. And Varanus Komodensis blasts through its dynamic opening with a swirling lead-guitar figure (sorry, I don’t know what mode it’s in!) that will inspire wonder in both musicians and non-musicians at Ferrigno’s chops: this guy really has put in those long hours of practice that turn talent and skill into genuine musicianship.
I’m happy to recommend this album specifically to lovers of virtuosic yet tasteful guitar-shred instrumentals. Look, if you buy this album, expect lots of solos – don’t say I didn’t warn you! – but expect, too, genuinely interesting, tuneful, joyous-sounding compositions. Ferrigno is fortunately a good songwriter as well as an excellent guitarist, and this is a fine album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Ultra Violet Uforia - Shadow Of The Sun
Tracklist: Genesis Theory (1:02), Head Out (4:50), Saving The Light (5:44), Out Goes The Light (5:54), High Roller (4:26), Charity (7:56), Splinters (0:20), Restless and lonely (5:34), Down The Drain..? (6:09), Dog House Days (6:15), Distant Star (6:43), Uforia (9:48)
Ultra Violet Uforia – nice name by the way – is a band from the Seattle area celebrating ten years of bringing psychedelic space rock to the world. The music of this ultimate jam band carries influences from notorious bands like The Grateful Dead, Pink Floyd, Eloy, The Doors and even Dire Straits... So you get a blend of rock, blues, folk, jazz, reggae and psychedelia melted into twelve songs full of melody, virtuoso improvisation, great rhythms and lots of catchy hooks. The best track is without any doubt the song called Charity as it features a Floyd-like spacy guitar intro/solo, which is later on followed by the best melodic guitar solos of the entire album, The song is more or less like a Procol Harum ballad with lots of dramatic and emotional vocals.
The second track you do not want to miss is the last one, also the longest one, as it lasts more than nine minutes. It is a rather rocky song with a marvellous organ intro and two great up-tempo guitar solos. Out Goes The Light is mix of music of The Doors and the German band Eloy as it is filled with droning vocals, great sounding guitar chords and riffs and rally Seventies-like sounding keyboard passages.
The only two disappointments on this great album are the two short tracks Genesis Theory and Splinters as both songs only consist out of keys and a bit of whining vocals. The rest of the album is all around listening fun and it should appeal to all lovers of psychedelic, adventurous rock music. Listening tip: Charity.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Rick Miller – The End Of Days
Tracklist: The End Of Days (7:27), The Knives Of Indifference (6:03), The Prisoner (5:04), Soma For Your Soul (5:55), The Prisoner’s Escape (4:31), Echoes Of You (4:03), Eating Goya (4:31), I Can Hear The Sunrise (5:32), Face Into The Wind (0:28)
Rick Miller takes us on a journey to the end of days. The gloomy title neatly covers the overall atmosphere of this album. This is not the kind of music to play quietly in the background while doing your things because it won’t exactly lift your spirits. It kind of loses impact in this way. But if you listen to it carefully with the headphones the album shows an undeniable splendour. Even though in the beginning the songs might sound monotone and sometimes even dull they start growing on you after a while and expose their strengths.
A looming atmosphere is found in the lyrics as well as in the way Rick Miller’s vocals delivers them. Sometimes his singing reminds me of the Ayreon song My House On Mars from the album Universal Migrator: The Dream Sequencer. I hear a dark undertone in a couple of tunes on this disc that is somewhat similar to Tiamat’s Johan Edlund in above mentioned song.
I think the dull side of this album lies in the way the songs have a slow pace with an often stringent rhythm. Like for example in both The End Of Days and The Prisoner this tempo is almost identical and a bit annoying even. The beauty of the album though is found in the way the songs are thoughtfully constructed with a keen eye for detail and smart use of diverse instruments.
Perfect example of this is the beginning of The Knives Of Indifference where an acoustic intro is followed by a neat bass groove accompanied by an angelic female voice. When the flute enters together with the acoustic guitar an idyllic atmosphere is created. And this great track has the electric guitar crying out a delicious melody. The female voice with the bass line returns again just before the guitar wraps up the song playing the same theme all over again. It gives this song a smart variety.
Soma Of Your Soul has the same atmosphere with acoustic guitar and flute. The saxophone parts are splendid. Especially when the saxophone solo is followed up by an electric guitar solo Rick Miller is showing his talent for creating captivating music.
But The Prisoner is boring with an annoying melody that pretty much makes up the whole song even though there is some nice piano here. Then I rather hear The Prisoner’s Escape. This track has an enthralling Eastern melody throughout the song that will have a dancing snake out of the basket in no time! The most progressive piece of the album is surely instrumental Eating Goya with some admirable electric guitar again and modern sounding keyboards. The lyrically more optimistic I Can Hear The Sunrise has me enthusiastic as well with the flute and first-rate acoustic string work competing for the emotive impact of the song.
Rick Miller is pretty much responsible for everything on this independent release but his website mentioned Sara Young on flute and Kristina Vowels for the female vocals. The album comes with a neat cover with a tranquil image painted by… Rick Miller!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Gift - Awake & Dreaming
Tracklist: Awake And Dreaming (41:57) [1. Little Red Rooftops (3:49), 2. Dark Clouds Gathering (2:49), 3. The Carpeted Corridors (1:40), 4. Rooftops Re-visited (3:33), 5. Doubt (2:53), 6. The Dance Of Denial (3:19), 7. Nocturne (5:04), 8. Word Of Mouth And Heart (4:33), 9. Escalation (6:20), 10. No One Came (2:54), 11. The Turning Of The Tide (0:42), 12. Awake And Dreaming (4:14)] Fountains Of Ash (28:57) [1. Noverture (4:13), 2. Adoration (4:48), 3. La Lune de Miel (4:47), 4. The Worm Turns (3:41), 5. Quickening Pulse (2:12), 6. Broken (3:48), 7. Close To Angels (5:28)]
If one looks over some of the debut releases by bands on the Cyclops label, one can see that there is a definite pattern. Groups such as Spock's Beard, Vulgar Unicorn, Tri3nity and even Parallel Or 90 Degrees all released debut albums comprised of epic tracks. Fortunately, Malcolm at Cyclops has impeccable taste and none of these releases was overtly self-indulgent (well, within limits!) or contained tracks that were ridiculously extended for the sole reason of trying to prove some kind of progressive status. Latest signing to the premier UK Prog Label is the home-grown talent of London's The Gift. Centred around composers Mike Morton (vocals, acoustic guitar and piano) and Leroy James (guitars, programming and production), the remainder of the band comprises Jim Thomas (keyboards), Rod Haverhill (bass and backing vocals) and David Storey (drums and percussion). Unfortunately, I have been unable to uncover anything else about the band as, unusually for these times, the band neither have a website or a presence on MySpace!
So, isn't a debut album of 70 minutes duration being a trifle ambitious, particularly when ostensibly there are just two 'suites' of music? Well, yes, and no. Sitting for over an hour listening to a previously unheard of band is asking a lot particularly when one is unable to listen to individual songs but has to concentrate over extended musical stretches. Consequently it has taken a fair amount of time to be able to gain a full opinion of this album. Repeated listening have made the various aspects of the album more familiar and engendered a better appreciation of what the group as set out to achieve.
Title track Awake And Dreaming is spread out of 42 minutes and 12 individual sections which all run together. It has to be said, the piece holds together admirably and has a natural and easy flow across the whole song. The band are not out to impress with their virtuosity or how well and/or fast they can play their instruments, the focus is definitely on the song. Rather mellow for the most part, there are some lovely acoustic moments such as on Nocturne which reminds me of eighties duo Twice Bitten (whatever happened to Rog Patterson, anyone know?) Spice is added to the proceedings when necessary, particularly towards the end of Word Of Mouth And Heart where organ and guitar combine effectively including a decent solo from James, and the very impressive prog out of Escalation which really gets the toes tapping! Closing part of the piece, the track Awake and Dreaming itself is also worthy of attention.
Second track, the 30-minute Fountains of Ash is not quite so successful. Initially it has a slightly more modern feel on Noverture where newer synth sounds are mixed with Mellotrons and a more gritty vibe, but Adoration could have relatively easily been slotted into Awake and Dreaming at some point. Where things are a bit different, they are sometimes too different: the opening to La Lune de Miel doesn't do it for me with the more prominent drumbeat and interspersed guitar flourishes and yet ends very strongly with a great driving rock beat and layers of synths, echoed in the excellent Quickening Pulse, almost guaranteed to do exactly that! The reggaeish chorus of Broken is pleasant enough but doesn't seem to gel with what has gone before. Still, Close To Angels is a lovely acoustic number enhanced by the double-tracked violin of guest Neil Catchpole bringing the album to a fine conclusion.
So, does the debut album by The Gift work as a complete entity? The title track is a very fine piece of music and worthy of attention. Fountains of Ash certainly has its moments but it would be nice to have heard some more discrete songs rather than a second suite of interconnected pieces. The resulting album is certainly a fine addition to the generally high standards of the Cyclops roster and will definitely appeal to fans of many of the artists who found a home on that label. One hope that the band can gather enough support and interest to expand on this debut on a second album, which I am certainly interested in hearing.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Jam Camp - Live
Tracklist: Echologic (7:19), Thrush (7:10), Westside Highway (6:48), Blue Is You (8:09), Trees (8:30), West 8 (4:31), Wormhole (4:08), The Reach (5:19), Paper Walls (4:52), Mr. Bliss (5:30), Groove Monkey (7:37)
America's Jam Camp return with a collection of live recordings taped over three shows between April and July 2006. Living up to their name, the 70-minute CD captures the group "road-testing brand new material as well as kicking the jam into some of the classic Jam Camp themes from earlier CDs." True to their name, the band love to jam! Although eight of the tracks are from the group's previous two albums (West 8, Blue Is You, The Reach and Paper Walls from the self titled debut and Westside Highway, Trees, Wormhole and Groove Monkey from Black Hill Jam Preserved Vol 2) there is no attempt to recreate the studio tracks (which in themselves were largely recorded jams) as they appeared on those albums. Rather it is an opportunity to improvise around the central elements of the music.
To this end, Jam Camp are rather more jazz orientated than most, citing, amongst others, Soft Machine, Brand X and Coltrane as inspirational comparators. However, before you wander off thinking that the group are some kind of experimental jazz fusion outfit, you should know that the primary sound of the band is one of psychedelic rock. True, the saxophone of Steven Munger does provide a the more jazzier elements (Wormhole being a good example), but he is also responsible for some fine melodic lines, such as on Paper Walls, The Reach and new number Thrush. However, it is the guitars of David Broyles and Michael Smith that go a long way to define the band. Not that they dominate proceedings, if anything Munger steals the show on these live outings, but the dual guitarists are always on hand to insert an insightful and considered solo. Generally soloing individually, it is relatively easy to distinguish each guitarist.
The three new tracks, Echologic, Thrush and Mr Bliss are already sounding like established on-stage numbers and if they are anything to go by, the third studio album (currently being recorded) should be a real treat for jam fans. The pieces continue the mix of jazz, jam, progressive and psychedelic rock with the first of the three pieces being rooted more in the rock vein and the other two having a slightly greater fusion aspect.
Jam Camp don't disappoint, either live or in the studio. Their brand of jamming is something a bit different to other groups in the genre: concise, melodic, jazzy and entertaining. Although not frivolous, the band certainly give the impression that they are having fun. Although the general progressive community seem to be somewhat divided in their appreciation of the so-called jam bands, anyone with even the slightest liking for the genre will find a lot to enjoy in the 70 minutes of this fine CD.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Pravda – Walking Through Walls
Tracklist: Edge Of Fire (4:43), After The Deluge (2:15), Giving Chase (3:07), Excursion (4:58), Lhasapsodic (5:21), Yatazza (1:52), Walking Through Walls (2:58), Sonia (2:36), At The Zoo (5:33), Ethereal (6:54)
Lhapsodic begins with the (synthesized) sound of barking dogs before it breaks into a mid-period-Rush progression that quickly gives way to an emphatic keyboard-heavy riff-fest. Sonia ends with the (again, synthesized) sound of chirping birds. At The Zoo comes to a conclusion with more animal sounds – you might think predictably so, given the song’s title, but when did you last see a cow “at the zoo”? Or sheep? I can’t even guess what the other simulated, synthesized animal sounds are supposed to be – lions? Gorillas? – though we have a return of those familiar goddamned chirping birds at the end. I’m open to almost anything in music, especially in progressive rock, but synthesized animal sounds put me off, unless they’re on Pink Floyd’s Animals, surely the sole album on which such sounds can be not only excused but even endorsed.
Have I similarly put you off Pravda’s album? I had to begin with my biggest complaint about Walking Through Walls, because those sounds sure put me off the first time I played the CD. And I’ll add to the catalogue of transgressions two further, though non-animal-related, faux pas: first, the title track Walking Through Walls blasts off with the kind of synthesizer sound that you’d probably thought was forever relegated to cheesy mid-1990s videogame soundtracks before it blasts into an infinitely-repeated power-chord progression that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a Europe album. Second, and to my mind more seriously, the track listings on the CD booklet tell us in specific (and, to my way of thinking, embarrassing) detail that four of the band members were individually responsible for ALL the instruments on four of the tracks – that is, the note for After The Deluge says that “all instruments [were] played by Thomas [Dave Thomas, the drummer]” – while Giving Chase, Yatazza, and Sonia [you know, the one with the chirpy birds] are credited individually to guitarist Chris Holman, keyboardist K.C. Thomsen, and bassist Tom Svanoe. I don’t know about you, but I believe that an album presented as having been created by a band should simply be credited to a band, no matter who did, wrote, or played what and where he did it. This kind of Yngvie-Malmsteen-reminiscent display of ego further prejudices me against the group.
Okay, I’ve gotten out of my system the crimes against music committed by Pravda on this otherwise kind of neat instrumental CD. And I think that you, like me, should get past those (I still think not inconsiderable) sins, because, you know, once you get past such (in my opinion, inexcusable) displays of musical and egotistical tactlessness, there’s a lot to enjoy on this album. These guys have chops to spare, and those chops are in evidence everywhere. Interestingly enough, they’ve abandoned the guest singer (Steve Brown) they used on their first album and even the backing vocals also featured on that album, figuring (I assume) that the music could do the talking. And it does (animals sounds excepted). Judging both from the photographs in the CD booklet and the sound of the album, these guys are in their late thirties or early forties and no doubt are influenced by the great Seventies progressive bands that most of us venerate. I can hear echoes (not allusions to or quotations from) late-Seventies Genesis and perhaps even earlier King Crimson in some of the songs here.
But what I hear most is lots of very, very hard work. This is a tight, serious instrumental progressive-rock band. I personally don’t think that this latest album is a complete success; there are excesses (of personal instrumental credits, of animal sounds) that need to be curbed, in my opinion. But in a year (who’d have thought the world would come to this?) when Nickelback seems set to win the Band-Of-The-Year Grammy award, an ambitious if perhaps slightly misguided group like Pravda is not only refreshing but also welcome.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Henriëtte Kat - Violet Fire
Tracklist: Mount Kailas (6:02), Dark Clouds & Rainbows (7:10), The Violet Flame” (6:19), I AM (10:04), Atlantis” (4:44), Inside (3:15), Fata Morgana (11:56), Mount Gausta (4:46), The Sea (10:00)
In spite of any negative expectations I might have brought to this review based upon Musea’s willingness to print lines like the following in its press release
"Just let you charm by the restful flames of Violet Fire." [sic]
...still, I found Violet Fire to burn with a modicum of brilliance, even if ultimately I don’t have too much to report about the CD.
I don’t know a whole lot about Henriëtte Kat. She is apparently a Dutch composer, although I have no information about her musical background, her previous work, or if this is (as I’m guessing) her debut release. Violet Fire seems to be Ms. Kat’s attempt to link the immateriality of both musical expression and dreams; in fact, it Ms. Kat views both musicality and the images out of the dreamworld as mouldings of more subtle energy. Perhaps she’s right…
The music on Violet Fire can be easily described as synthesizer compositions, pure and simple. To the best of my ability to discern otherwise, I heard nothing on the CD that was not generated through synthetic keyboard production. And that is dually the strength and the weakness of the effort.
To its credit, Violet Fire often reminds me of Ian Anderson’s 1995 release Divinities: Twelve Dances With God (released on EMI’s classical music imprint Angel), an under-looked but quite excellent album that featured a good deal of synth work by Tull’s Andrew Giddings. Both Divinities and Violet Fire offer a broad array of textures that will please any synthesizer devotee. Ms. Kat is nothing if not a skilled controller of mood and atmosphere, and if she is sometimes too abrupt in the transition from motif to motif, still, there is a density of emotion in her playing and tone that hold attention. And Ms. Kat’s arranging and compositional technique is first-rate. I wouldn’t call myself a synth man, really; I prefer the Mellotron, the B3, and the acoustic piano to synths more often than not, but I was impressed with Ms. Kat’s facility at employing dynamics and variation to evoke themes.
To its detriment, Violet Fire is nothing other than a synth album. If you enjoy synthesizers, than this album will sit well with you. If you do not, steer clear. Personally, while this is decent enough music (if a tad soporific), I kept wondering a) how Ms. Kat’s compositions would sound under symphonic treatment (very, very good, I’d hazard); and b) how nice an occasional addition of percussion, nylon guitar, or woodwind might sound on several of the tracks.
In the end, I’d say this is more in the New Age vein than a progressive rock vein, but it still might find an audience with those who’ve latched onto, say, the work of Vangelis. Ms. Kat could make supreme soundtracks, if she saw fit. Violet Fire is well made music and pleasant in its own right, but perhaps more of a novelty than anything else. When Ms. Kat has these same songs recorded by a full orchestra, I’ll be first in line at the auditorium.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10 (7.5 for hardcore synth fans)