Reviews in this issue:
- Ryan Parmenter - The Noble Knave
- Closer - Tokpela [EP]
- The Unseen Guest - Checkpoint
- Sarcasme - Mirage
- East Wind Pot - East Wind Pot
- Panzerballett - Panzerballett
- Mike Visaggio - Starship Universe
- Eye To Eye – One In Every Crowd
- Thessera - Fooled Eyes
- Cooper Tisdale & Friends - Live In Atlanta
Ryan Parmenter - The Noble Knave
Tracklist: Züccer (3:32), Keep Crying (4:30), Dating My Frankenstein (3:12), Starving (4:12), Diamond Eggshell (4:09), I Dig Your Head (5:36), All Ways (4:48), Sterilized (4:32), Dream (4:13), No Matter How You Spend Your Day (5:12), I'm Just A Guy (5:19), The Noble Knave (5:36), Come Along (4:28)
Ryan Parmenter kicks off the New Year with a solo album that might well come as something of a surprise to anyone familiar with the progressive epics found on both of the excellent Eyestrings albums, the band he has been fronting for the past six years. For The Noble Knave is a collection of shorter pieces that "fall outside of the realm of Eyestrings", a group not particularly known for light-hearted ditties. The 13 tracks on the album represent a lighter side to Parmenter, being his favourite poppy, and often zany, songs that he has composed over the past 10 years. Yes, I did refer to the album as poppy, in as much as the songs of the Beatles, the Kinks and even XTC are great pop songs. Judging from the Eyestrings albums one would be forgiven for thinking that Parmenter was rather a disturbed individual, however he is a tremendously funny guy, take a look at his website and in particular the FAQ page to see what I mean. He is also a very accomplished musician and arranger and a fine artist to boot, as is evidenced from The Noble Knave with everything on the CD self written, performed and produced and the accompanying artwork (available on-line on The Noble Knave section of Parmenter's website) containing amusing drawings to illustrate the lyrics.
But what of the Music? Well rich melodies permeate throughout and each song possesses a magnificent hook line that will leave the songs whizzing through your head. Although the songs are keyboard-based, Parmenter utilises Midi systems to trigger samples of other instruments to produce the effect of a full band, and it is his sensitive touch that actually makes it sound like a group effort. Opening track Züccer is a joyous song driven along by repeated piano chords and even if the lyrics are a bit strange (its about a man grown into a boy who can plug a toaster into his navel...mmmm!) there is an innate jollity. Several of the songs are based on real life, particularly relationships. Keep Crying and Dating My Frankenstein, featuring a banjo which is perfectly right in the context of the song, are humorous vignettes of certain aspects of, in the case of the former, dysfunctional affairs, whilst Starving is a lovely ballad about an unwanted break-up and Diamond Eggshell is about being out of one's depth. The lyrics are bitingly forthright and honest but Parmenter has attached them to music that is so accessible that one can easily sing along without even considering the meaning.
I Dig Your Head reminds me very much of XTC, a kind of off-the-wall song with the fantastic lines Girl I don't want your body but I dig your head. All Ways is a more straight forward love song played on the piano and although nice enough is rather forgettable. Sterilized, was a possible contender for the second Eyestrings album but ultimately rejected by the band. As such it is the most progressive on the album and a fine song to boot, perhaps the band were somewhat hasty in rejecting it, maybe they'll reconsider and perform it one day. Dream is largely instrumental and is more acoustic with a nice guitar part while No Matter How You Spend Your Day draws heavily on The Beatles for the accompanying background arrangement, although the melodies are all original. A great song indeed. I'm Just A Guy is a "categorical apology to the ladies", and although a serious love song contains my favourite lyric on the album: "I require lots of leeway, in that stand-up-when-I-pee way". The title track is also mostly instrumental, comprised of layers of keyboards it is the most obvious 'one-man band' composition in that it is clear that everything is keyboard generated. To my ears, even though it is a perfectly acceptable number, it does seem rather out of place on the album. Last track Come Along is the most anthemic on the album, and also the newest composition. With some great piano playing the piece is a great way to end the album although I think that Parmenter has been a bit restrained, in my opinion the song deserves a much bigger arrangement, really going over the top, excesses flying!
The Noble Knave can best be described as a pop-prog hybrid but one that never fails to entice, amuse and entertain. There are very few albums that I want to, or can, listen to over and over again but The Noble Knave is one of them. As soon as the last note fades I hit the repeat button and listen all over again. If you have even the slightest fondness for a good melody then I seriously recommend this album as in my opinion, come sun, rain, snow or gales, there is no finer way to spend an hour while the world marches on.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Closer - Tokpela [EP]
Tracklist: Open Casket (5:43), Summon Their Cries (6:18), The Talker (5:52), Emergence (5:55)
This is the fastest review I've done up to now. I received Closer's album six days ago, and listened to it all week long. Apart from the obvious (from the grading I gave it) reason that I liked it a lot, I was repeatedly listening to try to dig in my head and finally realise what it reminds me of. The very obvious influences are Opeth (2001 and on), Anathema (of the earlier days, mainly in the atmosphere), Tool and Oceansize, and some stoner rock (Queens of the Stone Age mainly). But there was something else spinning in my mind. Something less related to prog, technical metal or melodic death-influenced metal. And it dawned to me yesterday. The voice and sometimes the type of aggression do bring to mind a bit of System of a Down.
Closer is a band made of five guys from Sweden, two guitarists, a bassist, a drummer and a vocalist. They've been around since 2004 but only last year they completed the Tokpela EP, which I believe grants them access to a progressive oriented metal audience. This is also when their line-up was finalised. Immediately when you give the record a spin you feel Opeth haunting the album. Solid rhythm section, dark moods, lots of technical changes and heavy riffs. Even the lyrics are in the same vein. However, these guys differ in quite some aspects. First of all, there are no keyboards here, so there is no 70's feel here. Secondly, the vocals are quite different from Akerfeld's. No growls, and the feel is more alternative and there are also hints of "chanting" and whining, that is the main reason why I mentioned above System of a Down. Thirdly, the music is much more straight-forward and, let me add, easy or dry, compared to Opeth. There are no acoustic passages and the tracks are short and straight to the point. This is what makes the listener's impression change after some time. In the beginning you say Opeth, later on you say stoner-technical metal.
This EP is very strong. All compositions are solid and catchy, and personally I cannot choose a favourite track, since the first 3 are all of equally great quality. The production (by themselves) is very good and the mastering of Thomas Eberger (Opeth among others) makes this debut sound as if we are talking of an already established band. Technically speaking these guys are great and all counterparts seem to fit together in perfect harmony. I also find the idea of diverging from Opeth following a more in-your-face approach interesting. My only concern is that this relative lack of variety might end up to be a slight defect when they come to produce an album. Even with this short EP, I started to get tired at the last track (Emergence). Still I have to admit that its ending was "emergent", unexpected and very very pleasant, featuring a witty up-tempo catchy riff and vocal melody. I will recommend this EP without any hesitation to all fans of technical (darker) metal. Closer has the potential to become big and the Tokpela EP was a very pleasant surprise. So far so good, but I still would like to see a full length effort. Pity I heard this in the new year. Otherwise I would have chosen this band for most promising newcomer in 2006.
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10
The Unseen Guest - Checkpoint
Tracklist: Miracle Mile (4:50), Place Your Bets (4:19), Don’t Let It Show (4:15), Ancient Greek (4:15), Love Song # 10 (3:14), Reduce It to a Kiss (2:14), Black Hole (4:33), Snowstorm (5:49), The Whitest Lie (4:52), Conga Line (3:08), Everybody Knows (5:55)
Kids are loosening their ties and casting off their bags and it feels like the end of the world.
—from “Love Song # 10”
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The world is ruined; it is (perhaps always has been on the way to being) Desolation Row, as an American bard once put it. The world is ruined: Are there any left to dispute it?
Nuclear proliferation; jihadist extremism; American fascism; global warming; depletion of resources; AIDS; endangered species; cancer, obesity, Alzheimer’s, and impotence; mercury in the seas, mercury in the lakes, mercury in the fish; participation via Prozac; caffeinated world-pace; toxins in the rain; smog; children picking meals from garbage dumps; children shooting other children; wolves in sheep’s wool telling us nightly that all will be well...with our cash in their coffers. The world is ruined: Are there any left to dispute it?
And yet live we must: “Rejoice, rejoice/we have no choice but to carry on.” If water is tainted and air is noxious and arable land disappears beneath the bullying weight of concrete and blacktop slag, live we must. And live we do. Strange, but though the world is ruined, we live, we love, and we find much to enjoy. The Vedantists call this saccidananda, the underlying bliss of sheer Being that humanity and all sentient life have as and at their essential core. The world is ruined and still we laugh, find beauty, regale one another, and slowly create the world that might replace this ruined world. Underneath the poisons and the soot, underneath the commerce, the lies, and the depravity, still we find things to enjoy within this ruined world that is our only home. That enjoyment is probably the one true miracle of Homo sapiens’ evolution…
Once we give up our clinging ways and free ourselves to ride the horse of life bareback, with deftness and adaptabilty, we realize that the point of life is to enjoy life. There is no other purpose to the divine comedy; and the comedy is our resistance to “having fun” as the telos of human toil: that somehow seems an affront to the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant work ethic that currently drives and wrecks humankind. But we ever fail when we strive.
The more you struggle
the faster you sink
—from “Place Your Bets”
and are at our shining best when we relax, breathe deeply, and enjoy whatever it is we encounter. It is no sin to enjoy the trivialities of your daily life. In fact, we might suspect that whatever God or Power made us enjoys those same small things through us, through our pleasured attention. The priests, pharisees, scribes, and clerics have always been wrong: we are meant to enjoy every blessed bit of our spacetime existence, within a ruined world or not, rather than deny ourselves. It is telling that when God took a Nazarene’s form, the Jewish authorities detested his eagerness for fun and revel, for winebibbing and feasting. Our world is an abattoir, make no mistake, and help out where you can, but enjoy.
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The Unseen Guest has, for a second time, given us something to enjoy. And if it is only music, and can save no lives nor abate strife and tribulation, still…isn’t that which renders even a slight smile worthy of some adulation?
As our world shrinks, all the talking heads of academia and the press, the savants and critics and pundits, foist their catch phrases and sound bites onto us. No doubt, in the meeting of Amith Narayan, an Indian lawyer, and Declan Murray, an Irish itinerant (but probably no Tinker), these talking heads would wax profane about the conjecture of East and West, the merger of the Occidental with the Oriental, the inevitable conflation of disparate mores and cultures, etc. Blah, blah, and blah. You know, I’ve got copies of Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper’s not to mention Be Here Now and some dog-eared Alan Watts: East meets West ain’t no big deal these days. What the meeting of Mssrs. Narayan and Murray in 2002, and their subsequent decision to conspire and create The Unseen Guest, really portends is another in the ages-old artistic union of musician with musician. It is nothing more than that union, but certainly nothing less, and those of us who prefer music to any other expressive medium simply remark that it was a fortuitous pairing.
Now, I have in fact heard The Unseen’s Guest first effort, Out There - I reviewed it for The Dutch Progressive Rock Page Web site. I found Out There to be exquisite: it was pretty well the best thing I heard in 2005. It would be accurate to say that the blend of Declan Murray’s bluesy leanings with Amith Narayan’s more subtle sensibility, combined with some infectious hooks, some idiosyncratic but flavourful lyrics, and a vast plethora of instrumentation out of both the world of rock ‘n’ roll and indigenous India, really sat nicely with me, like a hearty meal you had never before eaten but somehow had always craved. And, I have to be honest: I can be a terrible bitch about music. I’m an out-and-out Beatles fan; I find no one has done it better, and that’s a high bar by which to assess the Fab’s followers. But Out There was simply a pleasant joy, and as you age, you are thankful for such pleasantries. (I understand that Out There garnered some critical acclaim. Take that for what it’s worth: critics lauded The Beatles [good keenness there], hated progressive rock [snobbery?], and saluted punk rock [What?]. In this case, I second the acclaim.)
At last, there is a second album, Checkpoint. My goodness, did I fear the release of this CD! Why? Well, the “sophomore slump” is a notorious killer of artists’ careers: just ask Hootie and the Blowfish, Alanis Morrisette, Boston, Tracy Chapman, and Bruce Hornsby and the Range. I was worried that The Unseen Guest had perhaps exhausted its verve on the debut: You never know how much thrust any creative engine will have nor how far the vehicle can travel. I confess: I dismissed the album after the first two listens, not outright, but with some mild disappointment. “OK, but hardly revelatory,” I may have remarked. “Thin enjoyment, at best,” I may have opined. But I am a man who loves to give a CD multiple plays to fish out the subtleties and nuances. And I did, and didn’t need any sort of strong bait to land a keeper. Today, some seven or so plays into Checkpoint, and it is quite obviously masterful, impassioned but humble. Let me quote Declan’s synopsis, contained in an interview by Richard Rowe:
It’s darker and more groovy in some places, more upbeat and swinging in others, than the first… There’s a bit more swagger to it and a lot more grit.
Amen. But…I will only add: The darkness isn’t pathological but philosophical; the grooviness isn’t bubblegum but full-blown soulfulness; the swagger is confident but unswollen; and the grit is chthonic and seductive. My ears hear touches of free jazz, British Invasion-style hooks, Steely Dan impressionism, some R&B bite, folk earnestness, and small, well-placed bombs of sonic accent, punctuated with very smart, very impactful arrangements which feature a variety of solo instruments but never seem stereotypical, imitative, or self-parodying.
The menu? Taught blues harp; smokiness and ennui; Zen reflectiveness; barely controlled guitar growl; flute, sax, violin, and nameless Indian percussion; Socratic satire, Kierkegaardian irony, and Irish eyes wide open—observing, measuring, assessing this ruined world; the “Shadow” and the “Anima”; jazz swing; angst, wit, regret, and singalong choruses in the utmost. Hungry?
Now, I will be honest enough to say that I preferred the debut: but you may prefer Checkpoint. The band has opted for a harder, more rocking, darker flavoured mood on its sophomore offering, and you might like that increased intensity. I liked the open, honest charm of Out There and feel (perhaps wrongly) that the band has jettisoned charm for bite, not wholly but obviously, and I find the absence of naiveté and boyishness hurts the music’s appeal. But, that said, Checkpoint is still fine, maybe just the yin to Out There’s yang.
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Ultimately, aesthetics are subjective. Unlike, say, temperature measurement, for which a scale can be devised and employed and about which most people will then agree, the valuation of art has no official barometer. Tell me: How do I quantify my appreciation of chocolate against your fondness for hashish? Is the quanta of “goodness” in my assessment of any given thing determinable? Hardly. Therefore, I have no way to tell you whether the music of The Unseen Guest merits anyone’s interest. I really couldn’t say. Personally, I have found both Out There and Checkpoint to be more-than-fine releases including much that I enjoy, not the least of which I will defend as a firm creative integrity. All artists who strive to make a living at their art are whores—let’s be that frank—but there is always less and then more. I sense that Mssrs. Narayan and Murray are dedicated to the music above and beyond the financial proceeds and critical consideration, and if they turn a buck on their artistry, well, at least collectively they induce smiles and provide enjoyable moments.
And everybody knows that the war is over
And everybody knows that the good guys lost.
—from “Everybody Knows” (courtesy Leonard Cohen)
George W. Bush gives his State of the Union address this evening, 9:00 PM E.S.T., sharp. Gentleman, I give you a room (nation?) full of clapping baboons and polarized buffoons. There is no better example in the post-Postmodern world that the good guys have indeed lost, and really, were they ever in the game? But ultimately, who cares? The “haves” will employ certain distractions; the “have nots” will envy those distractions and give chase to them, and the wisest of us truly will not be troubled by that perennial tension. Rather, we might instead give Checkpoint a spin, and be relieved that in this ruined world—and it’s not just me and my particular paranoia, for the Doomsday Clock moved from seven - to five - before - midnight last week—there are still musicians to make catchy, ironic, well crafted songs, listeners to hear the fruit of their good efforts, and plenty still to enjoy within the confines of this sad but often exquisite mortal reality.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Sarcasme – Mirage
Tracklist: Tempete (5:33), Serenite (7:35), Reviens-tu Vers Moi? (3:49), Mirage (3:12), Un Instant De Pose (5:50), La Douce Chaleur Du Soleil (5:22), L’Infinie (5:09), Renaissance (3:33), Clair-Obscur (3:49)
Sarcasme are a French group, from Lyon, formed in 1996 but only now making their recording debut with Mirage.
Surprisingly, there are no keyboards here, but the strong presence of flute, and plenty of dynamic shifts between soft and hard textures definitely make this something Prog fans may enjoy.
Musea’s promo info throws in Ange (as they seem to for every French band) but Sarcasme have none of Ange’s exaggerated theatricality, and the vocals are much less intense. With three instrumental tunes as well, this music is much less lyrically focussed. Somewhat bizarrely, they also suggest Deep Purple, but I really don’t see what they are getting at here. Really, no easy comparisons can be drawn, but the bluesy tinge to much of the guitar, and the languid, slightly spacey atmosphere suggest Pink Floyd, and the predominance of flute definitely calls to mind French legends Pulsar.
This is quite a nice little debut disc, with a mixture of songs (French vocals – well delivered by David Thomas) and instrumentals. The stars of the show are guitarist Guillaume Thomas and flautist Marlene Boucchisse. The former displays an impressively fluid, somewhat Gilmour-esque, blues based style and the latter’s often muscular playing is the most striking feature of the group’s sound. I would recommend this disc to anyone who enjoys flute as a lead instrument, there’s lots of it here.
The proggiest moments can be found on Serenite (an eccentric song with flute to the fore and an oddly catchy sing along chorus), Mirage (an hectic instrumental with some stinging, metallic guitar and powerful flute) and La Douce Chaleur Du Soleil which is a nice, tranquil track, like a less spacey Pulsar number.
Watch out also for some wild Wah-Wah effects on Un Instant De Pose (which mutates from a bluesy beginning, into something much more unusual) and the frenetic closing rocker Clair-Obscur (O.K Musea,. there might be some Deep Purple influences poking through here).
There is much promise on show here, and some fresh ideas. I will be interested to see how they follow this one up...
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
East Wind Pot - East Wind Pot
Tracklist: Dr. Bloodmoney (7:00), Whom I Loved In My Childhood (12:06), Minotaurus (6:48), Blue Monday (5:05), L'Aiquile Creuce (9:09), April Dancer (8:34)
A fusion band from Japan? Since I’m not all too familiar with the Japanese music scene, it isn’t strange that this surprises me. The real surprise for me was that this band clearly crushed one my prejudices in music (There aren’t many, thankfully). As someone who prefers guitar driven music, East Wind Pot wasn’t an attractive choice for me at first, since the band doesn’t use guitars. But after a few listens, I realized the potential of this wonderful quartet from The Far East.
The band’s mastermind is Yuko Tsuchiya who plays the keyboards and she mainly sticks to the sounds of piano and Hammond organ throughout this instrumental album. She sometimes also uses distortion and makes you think that an electric guitar is thundering in the background. Another appealing aspect of the album unfolds with Daisuke Yamasaki on woodwinds. The use of flute and clarinet is one of the key elements of this album and add multiple layers of diversity to the sound. The rhythm section is also quite potent and is one of the driving elements of this record. Yoshiyuki Sakura’a basses are solid and he weaves wonderful and groovy textures underneath the melodic works of Yamasaki and Tsuchiya. Eiichi Tsuchiya’s gentle and versatile drumming is another prominent feature on this album.
The album in general has a feeling of Weather Report, Chick Corea and a little Brand X style fusion meets Keith Emersonian keyboards and King Crimsonesque chord progressions at times, the latter ones being not so obvious. The album is mainly fusion, but it has way too many moments which might appeal to the prog audience. There’s a certain sense of melody throughout the album and the cleverly written compositions are interspersed with delicious solos and improvisations. One thing I hate about reviewing fusion albums is that you don’t have too much to say about them. You comment on the proficiency of the musicians on their instruments and that’s about it. Since there aren’t proper songs and the music heavily relies on improvisations, you either love it or hate it. Thankfully this isn’t the case with EWP, since the band has the ability to create memorable moments all the way through. I found myself many times whistling passages from this album.
While the sound quality is average at best and the artwork is nothing short of ugly, the music makes up for it. As a person who deeply enjoys fusion, I loved East Wind Pot’s self titled album and recommend it to every prog fan who has some tendency towards fusion. The others may take 1 or 2 points away depending on their distance from fusion.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Panzerballett - Panzerballett
Tracklist: Zehrfunk (5:16), Reload (5:00), Aspirin Smoke (6:51), Schmitz Kadse (6:16), Iron Maiden Voyage (7:22), Abkrassen (7:41), Meschugge (6:36), Zickenterror (4:23)
The interestingly-named Panzerballett are a German quartet operating very much in instrumental prog-fusion territory. The band describe their sound as ‘an innovative fusion of jazz, funk and metal’. I must admit that often I find that when a band describe themselves as ‘innovative’ its either not at all the case or ‘innovative’ only in the way that they’ve produced something so completely unlistenable that no-one else would want to make anything with a similar sound! Neither however is the case with Panzerballett – whilst the main influences on this debut album can be fairly easily deduced, they have succeeded in blending them together to produce a sound that is both original and challenging, whilst the record remains coherent and listenable throughout its length.
Opening track Zehrfunk is a relatively easy-going introductory piece, an up-tempo number with good grooves that brings to mind the likes of the Average White Band, Brand X and (mid to late 70’s era) Weather Report. Guitarist and main songwriter Jan Zehrfeld takes something of a backseat on this one to saxophonist Gregor Bürger, who dominates with his stylish playing which alternates between lengthy improvised solo’s and short sharp bursts of sound which give the track some added punch.
Reload is perhaps more indicative of the dark, somewhat obtuse sound to be found on the rest of the album, bringing to mind early 70’s Van der Graaf Generator (in particular, Burger’s playing often has similarities to that of VdGG’s David Jackson) and the edgy output from ‘noise jazz’ musician John Zorn. Zehrfeld contributes some grinding riffs which illustrate why the band make frequent reference to heavy metal when describing their sound.
Elsewhere, the wonderfully-named Aspirin Smoke combines some propulsive sections which lean towards the ‘chorus’ section of VdGG’s Man-Erg, and more mellow lounge-jazz segments which wouldn’t sound out of place in a smoky wine bar or cocktail lounge; the equally wonderfully-named Iron Maiden Voyage has some interesting trade-off sections between sax and guitar and some particularly strong improvisational sections, whilst Abkrassen features a lengthy, languorous guitar solo from Zehrfeld which could have come straight off Steely Dan’s Aja album.
My main criticism would be that, once you become familiar with what is undeniably a unique sound, it does tend to get a bit samey, with the band applying similar compositional techniques and rhythms to each piece, to the effect that towards the end diminishing returns start to set in. That said, the exemplary playing and skilful, twisting rhythms employed mean that the album remains listenable and, for the most part, pretty enjoyable throughout its length.
Overall, whilst not for all, Panzerballett’s debut album should find favour amongst those fusion fans who like music in that style that challenges them rather than simply playing in the background, and will hopefully be a platform upon which the band can build on in the future.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Mike Visaggio - Starship Universe
Tracklist: In The Nazarene Church (6:38), Prelude No. 2 for Piano (0:54), My Elders' Son (6:42), Blues Variation (8:02), 2001: Also Rocked Zarathustra (9:50), Starship Universe (2:39), The Sychronized Life (6:52), On The Ship of Emotion (8:37), Music's Coming To Us (4:27)
Reading the biography of Mike Visaggio one comparison directly comes to mind: Neal Morse. Both American, both keen keyboard players and both heavily religious and trying to spread the Christian message through their music. So all you Neal Morse fans out there that are into his music, for the underlying message, keep reading here, this might interest you (to a certain extent). But I should point out right away Mike Visaggio is not trying to be a copy of Neal, nor does he even mention him as one of his influences; for the latter I should beg the Keith Emerson and Rick Wakeman fans for their attention too. Finally anyone interested in lush keyboard works should also jump on the bandwagon as there's plenty of these to discover on this album.
But let's first answer that very acute question: who on earth is this Mike Visaggio? Now in his mid-fifties he already began playing music at the age of nine and joined his first band at sixteen, Lights Of Darkness in Queen NY. After playing in several other bands he formed a progressive rock/jazz fusion group in 1970 called Randori. They failed to secure a record deal and despite they recorded some material they abandoned ship in 1975 at which time Mike had majored in music at Queen college in Flushing (NYC). His follow-up band was Billy Falcon's Burning Rose, consisting besides him of Billy Falcon and Ed Gagliardi (who later joined Foreigner), with whom he recorded three LP's and an EP.
Christianity hit him in full in 1978 after which he played in some Christian (rock) groups, but not long after he completely left the music scene and started driving 18-wheelers all over America. Almost 20 years later, after his first marriage ended in divorce, he resumed his passion for music in 2000. Some unsuccessful bands later and one recorded album with the Strokers he decided to record a solo CD which became Starship Universe. Now residing in Richmond, VA, Mike plays a five-keyboard setup and specializes in the Hammond B-3 sound and the Alesis synthesizer and also has a love for baroque pipe organ music. His self-confined influences are the great prog acts of the 70's like Yes and ELP, which really can't be overheard.
So that's the man, now his music: Mike played all instruments on this album himself, which is not such a surprise since most sounds, except the vocals of course, were derived from the keys, only drummer Michael Murray added some pure handcrafted noises. So anyone who's not into heavily keys dominated inorganic music should opt out here or at least consider restraining from listening too much to this album. But I personally like the sound of keys in all its shapes, forms and combinations and don't mind being overwhelmed by a complete ocean of electronic sounds. So I can tell you I was pleasantly surprised hearing this album for the first time. But as happens too often also this album has its Achilles heel that can be found in the quality of the vocals. God surely gave Mike a great talent to handle the keys, but clearly passed him by when giving out the singing capacities. Thus totally unwisely he choose to also deliver the vocals for this album himself, probably since he considers the Christian message as very personal that therefore have to be brought over by him too. Although understandable, it was musically seen a major error.
When the vocals are rather simple, in the lower range and flat without much key changes he manages to produce a just bearable vocal contribution, but when any more demanding, powerful, complicated or even higher pitched kind of vocals are requested he tragically fails and assaults the listener with tone-curling, almost false, attempts to sing. These moments would be hilarious on any Idol(s), Starsearch, X-factor audition, but are a true disappointment and even shame on such a further excellent prog album.
Well, I think I've made my point, so let's move on to the positive elements of this album that are also certainly present. The album starts with a very 70's Keith Emerson like organ sound; In The Nazarene Church is an up-tempo song with sparse vocals that come through a Vocoder, but with lush Hammond and synthesizer solo's, a truly keys dominated song. Prelude No. 2 For Piano is short piano piece followed by a mellow slow ballad-like vocal song, My Elders' Son, where the limited vocal capacities of Mike reveal themselves - clearly for the first time as he doesn't manage to properly reach some notes and tone purity and by overstretching his voice. The synths are a bit Vangelis like; a nice song, but not remarkable.
The ELP song Blues Variation, a true Keith Emerson show-case, is then covered by Mike and it proves to be right up his alley. He does throw in some own additions and interpretations and keeps his version less bombastic and energetic than the original giving it a more mellow bluesy feeling with a very Jon Lord like organ. The artificial drums are a bit too much to the foreground, but the finger snapping in the middle is a nice addition, but all in all it isn't a match to the original. 2001: Also Rocked Zarathustra is another instrumental cover, this time of the famous theme composed by Richard Strauss in 1896, later theme for the Stanley Kubrick film '2001 A Space Odyssey'. His version is a bit more bluesy and a bit less mysterious and powerful than the soundtrack version; the famous theme comes by a few times, but mainly there's a lot of bluesy keys variation around it. It's not so rocky actually, so the title is a bit misleading.
The title song Starship Universe is the third instrumental in a row and begins with a thin sound that seems to come from some cheap keyboard. The first half of the song is rather quiet and becomes more powerful in the second half with some good church organ sounds, almost like a hymn. It's not such a strong song and sounds more like an experiment, as if Mike was just jamming and trying out some things. The orchestral intro of The Synchronized Life sounds nice, but clearly lacks a real orchestra as it's played on the Alesis QS 7.1 synthesizer. This song is the best proof of Mike's poor singing talent, although the refrain is quite catchy you only get a tendency to sing along when you're in an obstinate mood or very drunk. The song itself is quite good with a powerful easy tune and melody, a bit bombastic poppy, but as it's mainly a vocal song with just a keys solo in the middle the focus on the bad vocals are too strong and bring the whole song down. With a different singer it could have been a quite enjoyable song, now you're just amazed and annoyed by the vocals.
On The Ship Of Emotion is dedicated to Mike's wife and has a fast start in 7/8 time then slows down to a ballad with vocals that are a bit distorted again and suffer again from the aforementioned problems with the higher notes and keeping key. This song clearly has some real drums in them and also some nice keyboard bits, Jon Lord style and even some flute. The heavy drum beats on the rocky song Music's Coming To Us unfortunately comes from a box and the vocals are really awfully annoying here. It all sounds a bit cheap, chaotic and unfinished and although the keys solo's are alright again, the rest is too poor making this the worst song on the album.
This album truly has its highlights: the thorough use of synths and organ and also sincere low points: the vocals. The compositions are not exceptional or complicated, but good structured and they go well down the ears. The religious messages in the lyrics are not disturbing for non-Christians even though there's a biblical reference mentioned with most of the songs. Since Mike tries to walk in the footsteps of the keyboard players who influenced him it's obvious he lacks their originality. The picture of him performing on some sunny American beach strip gives the impression he's an amateuristic home-musician that is for hire for weddings and parties, but his music is too progressive for that and the level he reaches goes above that. The overall sound is still a bit too clinic, cold, the music just misses a true angle to really impress and overwhelm you, but for any lover of lush Hammond and synths sounds this album is quite enjoyable, especially the instrumental tracks. My advice to Mike would be, concentrate on improving your keys work and forget about singing; either make an all instrumental album or leave the singing to someone else and then the next album could be quite a treat. Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Eye To Eye – One In Every Crowd
Tracklist: Half Of Me (8:08), Dark Flower Perfume (1:14), Love And Pain (16:11), Waiting For… (2:09), You (5:32), Private Fears (8:08), Back On Planet Earth (5:54), Just Before (2:08), One Day 16:52)
A new arrival on the Neo-Prog scene, Eye To Eye is a French outfit – formed in 2003 - and they fit in quite nicely with Musea’s extensive roster of artists. The influence of various Neo stalwarts like Pendragon, Marillion and IQ is immediately obvious. They favour lush symphonic arrangements, delicate piano work and soaring lead guitar breaks. As might be expected from a debut album, the quality does not reach the heights of their mentors, but fans of those bands should enjoy what they hear on this disc.
Instrumentally, the band is good at what they are trying to do, if lacking in an original voice. Although there are some lengthy pieces here (two tracks are 8 minutes long and two more are 16 minutes long), the song structures are fairly conventional, with verses, choruses, and instrumental breaks. They also slot in a few smaller instrumental interludes between the lengthier tracks, and to be honest, this formulaic approach does become a bit predictable and boring. They also throw in a few Prog-Metal flourishes and riffs, but again, this is increasingly the norm for many of the recent Neo acts.
On the better tracks, like Love And Pain, a melancholic approach with acoustic sections and wistful vocals, is interwoven with more strident sections. The overall feel is reminiscent of American veterans Lands End, to my ears at least, even down to the shrill, noodley synthesiser solos.
You is good too, with passages approaching the grandeur of Pink Floyd via Pendragon, if you see what I mean.
The major drawback is in the vocal department. Benoit Derat tries very hard, and is not afraid to vary his style, from rough and raucous on opener Half Of Me to gentle and understated on Love And Pain, but he doesn’t always pull off the transitions, and there is plenty of room for improvement. I would also question the decision to cover Ayreon’s Back On Planet Earth, as the vocal shortcomings are highlighted here. To be fair to the guy, he is a Frenchman singing in English, so I don’t want to be too harsh on him. I can’t sing a note in my own language, never mind a second one, but then, I don’t make CD’s either.
On a more positive note, there is lots of good Hammond work throughout, and some good atmospheric work on synths. They also mix things up a little with guest violin on the epic One Day to close thing out nicely.
In conclusion, this is a promising enough debut, likely to appeal to keen fans of the Neo scene, especially Pendragon and Land’s End. There are plenty of bands around at the moment who are similar, but more accomplished than Eye To Eye, but they may be a group to watch out for in the future
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Thessera - Fooled Eyes
Tracklist: Le Chef D’ouevre (3:27), The Gallery (10:37), Broken Psyches (6:37), Candlefire (5:29), The Leading Roles (5:06), Party’s On (7:28), Inverse (9:14), Conflagration (7:42), Heaven’s Gate (9:07)
This debut album from Brazilian band Thessera has got me cornered. I have been listening to it for quite a while now, and even though all aspects are here to make this a great album, I still don’t like it much. I don’t know if it’s just me and that I’m tired of all this over the top concept-again progressive metal, or perhaps it’s just that the young musicians are overplaying their capabilities.
Let us begin with the story line. It might be a very ambitious thing to turn a debut album into a concept. Unfortunately it’s not exactly original anymore to do a concept album in progressive metal and further more the story line doesn’t exactly score points in avoiding clichés. The concept deals with a young artist who faints at his engagement party. The listener is guided through his sub consciousness while the story of the artist’s life and his difficult childhood is told. Ah yes, we have heard (or must I say read) it all before. And in a much more intriguing shape with The Human Equation from Ayreon for example.
The story line is surely attributed with excellent artwork. The booklet is full of beautiful photography and paintings to accompany the lyrics. So a lot of effort has been made to make this release something special.
Then more importantly there is the music. Thessera makes progressive metal with Latin influences from their native country Brazil and even little jazzy elements. Comparison to fellow countrymen Angra is not too far off especially because of the slight influences of world-music. But I would name Dutch bands Sun Caged and Silent Edge as reference. I prefer the Dutch bands but Thessera has the same over the top complex instrumental structures. In case of this band I would say a juvenile hunger to impress.
The musicians show great capabilities but they just seem to fall short in creating really captivating songs. Sometimes I hear parts that are more accessible like for instance in Broken Psyches and Candlefire. But I just miss the hooks and melodies that have you caught up in the music and invite you to keep playing the music over and over again. The singer is not bad but I’m not impressed either with the same wearisome way of singing most of the album.
A lot of tempo changes, difficult rhythms and breaks don’t have to be a problem when it works in context of the compositions. But here it all sounds too messy. Complex music shouldn’t have to bite off accessibility. Bands like Symphony X or Shadow Gallery are perfect examples of this. For me Thessera is just too tiresome. Well perhaps it’s just me…
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Cooper Tisdale & Friends - Live In Atlanta
Tracklist: Lake Acid (4:35), Toe Truck (6:19), Fireman Bill (6:11), Doo Dad (5:27), E.J. (4:53), Bad Judge (4:01), Now Be Nice (3:41), Good Friend (7:39), Sue's Cue (3:42), You (4:11), Freedom (4:55), Keepin' On (6:16)
So who is Cooper Tisdale and just who are his friends? Well you'd be forgiven for having not heard of Mr Tisdale, as to date his activities have largely been restricted to the small areas of the US and he is primarily known as a jazz guitarist with a sideline as six-string bender in Brazilian/World Music combo Rua 6. His two previous albums, 1992's Face Up and 2000's Up From Down are, apparently, a "musical tapestry with threads of jazz, rock and balladry". The friends comprise people that Tisdale plays with "in various groups coming together for a night to record a live CD". Quite a bold move when one considers that the CD captures the first time the group had played together on stage. Aside from Tisdale, who sings as well as playing guitar, the musicians on the album are: David Savage (keyboards), Joe Reda (bass), Jason LaMarca (drums) and Juan Bonini (percussion and backing vocals).
The material on the album is mostly drawn from Tisdale's two previous releases and is largely instrumental. There is a certain resonance with Pat Metheny on some of the instrumental numbers, particularly those that are of a slower tempo such as E.J. and Good Friend. The jazz side of the spectrum is exemplified by Toe Truck which features some fine keyboard work by Savage, while Doo Dad lets Tisdale shine against a funky backing with Reda's bass playing coming to the fore in a fine solo. Opening track, Lake Acid, leans slightly more to the rockier side, heading into territory found on early Al Di Meola albums, and there is no harm in that, certainly gets the ball rolling with some gusto.
Fireman Bill and Bad Judge, two of Tisdale's vocal tracks, have affinities with some of the more modern jam bands; the electric/acoustic piano (respectively) and song structures bring to mind Tea Leaf Green. Although Tisdale's voice is not one that would win any awards, it does have a rather pleasing, roughish timbre that is somewhat endearing. His other vocal appearance is on Freedom, which seems rather more thrown together; the lyric is a rather awkward fit with the music, which in itself is of a pretty basic structure giving Tisdale the opportunity to play numerous solos. The other vocal track, You, features guests Michael Meredith on vocals and Rafael Pereira on pandeiro (similar to a tambourine, with apologies to Mr Pereira if that sounds like I am belittling his contribution!). Meredith's voice is a lot smoother but unfortunately he doesn't really get the opportunity to shine on this song which seems to finish before it really gets going. Now Be Nice is a mellow bluesy number that initially takes the tempo down while remaining very uplifting. Final track Keeping On wraps things up nicely with some all-round accomplished performances and a decent tune to boot.
A rather mixed bag of an album spanning a variety of genres held together by the talents of some class musicians. Regardless of your musical preferences, Cooper Tisdale is undoubtedly a guitarist to watch out for. Although Live In Atlanta could probably not be considered an essential purchase for the majority of progressive rock fans, this live album provides an hour of enjoyable listening.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10