Reviews in this issue:
- Hal & Ring - Alchemy
- Kramer - Mini CD
- Also Eden - About Time
- Forgotten Silence – Kro Ni Ka
- Guillaume Cazenave
- The Mediation Project Two ~
Second System Syndrome
Hal & Ring - Alchemy
Tracklist: Sir Bordenhausen (6:06), Triplet Colors II (9:33), The Flower Ladies (5:34), Open Before Knock (4:12), Altered States II (5:27), The Star Of Sorrow (4:11), In Memory Of Charnades The Pan (9:47)
I was not previously aware of either of the two bands represented here but based on the evidence of this disc I’ll certainly be on the look out for more of their work. Hal and Ring were two Japanese bands active during the mid 1970’s playing a mix of classic prog rock and jazz-fusion. From the press release included with the CD it seems that members of Ring later played in Shingetsu, Asturias and East Wind Pot and this CD features a line-up of members from both Hal and Ring playing newly recorded material from 30 years ago. And what great material it is too. The band features Haruhiko Tsuda (guitar), Yoshiyuki Sakurai (bass), Naoya Takahashi (drums), Kayo Matsumoto (keyboards) and Takashi Kokubo (synths) with the bulk of the music written by Yoichi Kamata, ex-leader of Hal who does not appear on this CD. First off it must be said that these guys can play and they have a sophisticated and stylish sound. The fact that this CD sounds so good is a testament to the quality of the recording. The two keyboardist set-up does not overpower the band’s sound and the whole is very balanced and interesting. The seven instrumental pieces cover a lot of ground with lots of influences and references but still manage to keep a sound that is definitely their own.
The first track, Sir Bordenhausen, sets their stall out nicely with a Hammond intro and a loping rhythm that could have come from ELP’s debut album. The ELP reference is enhanced when a brief snippet from Karn Evil 9 appears in the middle of the track and after the menacing intro the tempo increases with a militaristic drum beat and good lead guitar, the result sounding like something from Tarkus. There is plenty of melody in the playing and the pieces never outstay their welcome or get repetitive. Next up is Triplet Colors II, a classic slice of ‘70’s fusion reminiscent of the likes of John McLaughlin and Billy Cobham. It starts with a rolling bass and sweeping guitar and synth, very textural, before lead guitar takes over. Plenty of variation in the lead over a solid bass, with Rhodes piano adding to the ‘70’s feel. The band has plenty of space to stretch out here. The following track, The Flower Ladies, is a synth led prog/fusion amalgam with slight Floydy references in the middle. There’s also a nice breakdown with piano added, a Gentle Giant style busy section, some good high end bass over staccato piano and a guitar section that’s a bit Robert Fripp only less intense. Open Before Knock brings back the Rhodes and the sound is akin to Bruford, with by a Flower Kings section and Roine Stolt-like guitar rounded off with a Keith Emerson style Hammond solo.
Altered States II is effects laden and understated, the guitar calling to mind Bill Frisell with its otherworldly feel. The bass and use of effects give it a hint of King Crimson’s Industry but the piece opens up into a lush mid-section. The Star Of Sorrow is next, very atmospheric use of keyboards and guitar like Camel’s Nude before the guitar takes on a melancholy tone like some of the downbeat sections of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds. Final track, the oddly named In Memory Of Charnades The Pan, is the proggiest track here and skips through many different sections and changes with plenty of melody. Elements of ELP, Gentle Giant, Camel, Flower Kings, Steve Hackett era Genesis and mellow Rick Wakeman come and go in a long and very well structured piece.
Overall then, a well written and played set of tunes that has atmosphere and interest with melody never far away, nice variety of material and well recorded. Heartily recommended to all lovers of instrumental rock and certainly an album I’ll return to with fondness. Very few of the references given above are meant as direct comparisons but certainly give a hint towards the sound of this very talented band (or bands!).
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Kramer - Mini CD
Tracklist: We Mortals (11:28), Man In The Park [Part II] (5:42), The Final Chord (8:40)
In 2001 the Dutch group Lorian was founded, they played live regularly, for instance as the support act for some Manfred Mann's Earth Band gigs and in 2003 they independently released a mini CD called Life Cycle which included three live audio tracks of what had to become a full album one day. Actually Life Cycle could even be called a project as the aspirations of this band were pretty high telling the full story about a diary a father leaves behind for his children to learn about life and making the right decisions.
The inspiration for this project came in fact from the album Brave by Marillion. But Lorian never came to that, broke up in 2004 after which some of its members continued with some new members under a new name: Kramer. This band evolved in the same progressive direction as its predecessor and took up the plan to finish the Life Cycle project. However that proved not to be easy, not having the funds and time to make a proper recording in a professional studio. Now the band, consisting of Rob de Jong (guitars & vocals), Jeroen Vriend (bass & vocals), Harald Veenker (drums & vocals) and Marc Besselink (vocals & piano) who also wrote the music, have finally recorded three songs with the aid of Aart Harder as their sound engineering and independently released it on mini CD.
The title-less mini CD contains three songs, two from the Life Cycle project, of which one was already released before by Lorian and a track from their new project "Lost And Found". It seems strange to learn about a new project since the previous one is still not properly finished, but surely there's a reasonable explanation for that like they perhaps abandoned the idea of ever releasing the full Life Cycle album after all these years. Whatever might be the case, at least we have the chance here to listen to three of their songs. After seeing (part of) their pretty good performance in Zoetermeer in November 2006 (click here for a review) I was curious to hear more of their material and I was not disappointed. Although just containing three tracks, this mini CD still provides almost half an hour of fine music that tastes for more.
We Mortals was also released by Lorian and comes from the Life Cycle project. Unfortunately I can't compare the Lorian version with the Kramer version since for some unknown reason my copy of the Lorian mini CD doesn't play properly anymore. But since the Lorian version was a live one, the comparison would go astray partly anyway. This studio version by Kramer also starts with a great powerful up-tempo intro that directly makes clear you should prepare yourself for some solid neo-prog in the best tradition. It's a well-crafted song, with some tempo changes, fast and slower passages and plenty of variation and a catchy returning tune played by a howling guitar. The composition of the song is varied but not really complicated and won't bore easily because of the many melody and tempo changes.
Man In The Park (Part II) comes from the new Kramer project "Lost And Found" and tells the tale of an old man that mourns over the loss of his son, so many years ago... It's a moving slow ballad with a powerful outburst, sung with plenty of emotion; a simple but fine song carried by the vocals and mainly supported by the keys and guitars. The Final Chord is again a part from the project Life Cycle and deals with the memories of an old man when the last breath leaves his body. It's a magnificent powerful song that builds up to the spectacular climax ending when the whaling guitar cries out all the sorrows that plagued the old man.
To be honest there aren't that many points of criticism I can point out considering this mini album. The vocals for instance that are usually a weak point are quite acceptable here. Even though I'm not that keen on the nasally voice singer Marc Besselink has, which by the way seems to be a typical Dutch thing as I have come across this kind of voice usage and singing mainly with Dutch prog groups (for instance For Absent Friends). But Marc sings with passion and delivers his vocals in harmony with the music; I just think he should try to sing with some more intonation and variation in melody.
The overall production and recording quality is the one point that should really be improved somewhat since the whole excellence of the music doesn't come over so spectacular and fine; it is as if the sharp and fine edges of the music were filtered out by using outdated microphones or so, it just doesn't sound so clear as it should. On few occasions, especially in We Mortals, the transition from one to the next sequence sounds a bit unnatural and forced as if separate songs were glued together, but not in a disturbing way. For the rest I can only compliment Kramer with their music as it is just great stuff for anyone interested in high quality power and emotion driven neo-prog. So if Kramer could get access to some better recording facilities, iron out the last few flaws and compose and play a complete album on this level I predict they could surprise us with an outstanding album some day if at least they will finally manage to produce one; I for one are already looking forward to that.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Also Eden - About Time
Tracklist: Between The Lines (8:47), For Bumble (13:21), Pandora (6:09), The Enemy Within (12:13), Children Of The Night (8:33)
About Time is an apt name for the first album by Cheltenham band Also Eden whose roots span a full dozen years. From a "bloody awful blues-based metal [band] with endless guitar solos and soul-less vocals about partying all night long", vocalist Huw-Lloyd Jones and keyboardist Ian Hodson took a sensible change of direction and formed a progressive rock band. Eventually, a stable line-up was completed by the addition of Simon Rogers (guitar), Ralvin Thomas (bass) and, the recently departed, Mark Hall (drums), with the group's first live performance in July 2005. The album was recorded off-and-on between late 2005 and throughout 2006, finally being released at the Summer's End Festival in October last year.
Between The Lines sets out the prog stall with riffing guitar and layers of synths. Some fine melodies, interesting drum beats and intelligent lyrics combine to give a very interesting induction to the album. The sound is akin to some of the 1980s period prog bands and Abel Ganz, in particular, come to mind, while there are traces of early Marillion towards the end. For Bumble is a sensitive song dealing with suicide. Again, the intelligent lyrics are sympathetic to the topic and, despite the subject matter, there are some very uplifting moments, particularly the keyboard solo and the ending. A well arranged song that nicely flips between acoustic and electric moments, the best song covering this subject matter since the single Just Another Case Of Suicide by 1980s band Money.
Pandora starts with a metronomic beat resembling the grandfather clock mentioned in the opening lyrics. A tale of the internet (the titular Pandora's box) and it's opportunities for disseminating information against it's rather more nefarious uses, the piece is more centred on the lyric (there are a lot packed into the six minutes of the song!). As a consequence the song seems somewhat flat although Hodson contributes a reasonable guitar solo. The Enemy Within is an oblique love song, which is performed at a steady pace. Perhaps too long an 'introduction' for the tempo, things get more interesting at about the seven and a half minute mark with a nice change of pace, added backing vocals and a rather dirty guitar solo followed, inevitably, by a keyboard solo. Some shades of early IQ but a good way to wind up the track. Final song, Children Of The Night, tackles another 'controversial' subject in child prostitution - a far cry from wizards and goblins that a lot of (uninitiated) people seem to think that is all prog rock bands sing about! Musically more up-beat and rhythmically quite involved, the band really gel on this song. Well arranged, the song is a rousing end to the CD.
Over all, About Time is a promising debut album. The CD is well packaged and looks better than a lot of major label releases. If you remember the so-called prog-rock revival of the 1980s with fondness, then Also Eden have done a decent job of updating that sound and may well be worth checking out. Go on, take a listen to the samples on their website, you know you want to!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Forgotten Silence – Kro Ni Ka
Tracklist: Brighton/The Streets And The Pier (25:02), Declaration/The Marble Halls V (18:20), Mezzocaine (17:58)
Forgotten Silence are a quartet from the Czech Republic who have been in existence for a while, having released their debut album back in 1994. Since then there has been plenty of activity on the releases front; whilst Kro Ni Ka is only their fourth full-length effort, their discography shows that there’s also been a number of EP’s and split 7” releases too.
A predominantly instrumental outfit, the band reconvened after a lengthy layoff to prepare the groundwork for Kro Ni Ka, initially working with the aim to produce shorter works – or in their words ‘stuff ideas into six instead of ten minutes’. As they admit in the sleeve notes, they patently failed – ‘we were not able to suppress our nature’ indeed! – as a cursory look at the times of the three pieces included in Kro Ni Ka shows.
The band describe Kro Ni Ka’s theme as ‘a melancholy about the night in the city, an echo of waste morning parking lots, blinking of traffic lights’ amber eyes deep into midnight, red back-up lights of buses in rain or clinking of trams in the middle of winter’. The descriptions certainly paint an evocative picture, and the music in combination with the evocative photography that adorns the CD cover and booklet does a fair job of bringing this picture to life.
The album opens with tingling keyboard playing a melody half-way between the introductory themes to King Crimson’s Lark’s Tongues In Aspic and Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. The busy bass-lines and thick, angular riffs which follow show that the band are clearly more advocates of the former rather than a latter, although fast forward a year or so to Red and its incendiary title track for a fuller flavour of where the band are coming from. Add in a hefty dose of modern ‘technical metal’ a’la Tool, a smidgeon of the highly emotional prog-metal of the likes of Pain Of Salvation and Riverside, and a session studying at the ‘build and release’ school of composition led by Isis, and you have an idea of where this band are coming from.
Brighton/The Streets And The Pier sets the band’s stall out, with the band weaving together repetitious but hypnotic guitar riffs, looping rhythms and predominantly organ-based keyboard melodies. Instead of building linearly towards a crescendo, however, changes in dynamics are introduced both subtly (in terms of tweaking with the overlying melodies) and more brashly, as per the stop-start nature of the rhythm section. Whilst there’s no faulting the playing, I do feel that the band tend to drag some of their ideas out, which is the main downfall of both this piece and the album as a whole – there’s too much of a feeling of old riffs and rhythms getting recycled, rather than the band building from them to the next level, with the result that the listener’s attention does begin to waver after a while.
For me, Forgotten Silence fair better on the opener when they branch out into mellower, more atmospheric sections, which allow the band to escape from the strictures of the tight rhythms (and rather dry production) and stretch out, allowing each player to shine with some more improvisational work – keyboardist Marty (no surnames here!) impresses in particular with a lengthy no-hold-barred solo spot reminiscent of Keith Emerson in his pomp. One slight downside of these sections from my point of view is the spoken word narration (not singing), which is muttered and low in the mix, and I therefore found to be a slight irritant rather than adding anything to the music.
Declaration/The Marble Halls V features some bombastic pipe and Hammond organ playing and foreboding vocal intonations, as well as some particularly impressive grooves from bassist Krusty (a Simpson’s fan perchance?). Whilst again there are sections which outstay their welcome, the track does pick up considerably towards the end when it heads into a well-worked jazz-fusion inspired section. Its’ the finale, Mezzocaine, however, which is the strongest track on offer. Opening with soaring guitar work reminiscent of Riverside, placed over an up-tempo jazz-based groove, there are again some strong fusion sections, plus an excellent quieter section which features exemplary piano work.
I can’t complete the review without once again mentioning the highly impressive packaging; the album comes nicely packaged in a glossy cardboard sleeve, and the artwork and photography is first rate and works well in tandem with the music – a prime argument that having a physical produce complete with artwork and sleeve notes is better than simply an unadorned digital download.
Overall then, this won’t be for all, and perhaps doesn’t quite ‘connect’ with the listener’s emotions as much as it ought to, but its still a well played and constructed album that’s worthy of investigation, particularly if you are a King Crimson or Tool fan.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Guillaume Cazenave -
The Mediation Project Two ~ Second System Syndrome
Tracklist: Second (1:10), S (2:13), Y (2:45), S' (3:36), T (4:44), E (3:54), M (0:48), S" (4:54), Y' (5:22), N (2:51), D (1:34), R (2:35), O (3:30), M (5:07) E'(4:13)
Back in 2004 I wrote a review of the first album in the Mediation Project series by Guillaume Cazenave. Much of that review is applicable to this album, Part 2, Second System Syndrome, as it takes a very similar approach. However, one caveat, I found this album a considerably less enjoying an experience to listen to. The short tracks have no real discernable identity, largely consisting of grinding guitar riffs, unintelligible vocals and a general mayhem and cacophony of sound. Snatches of melody come through now and again but are ultimately obliterated by the incessant heavy metal riffing. Moments that stick out are not necessary highlights, including the hip hop vibe and rap on S', the reggae riff (and curious mention of Oscar Wilde) on T and the eerie soprano vocal effect on N. Indeed, probably the most enjoyable track for me was M because a) it is the shortest one and b) it is mostly a synthesiser drone.
Make no bones about it, I am not a metal fan, even when the term metal is preceded with the word prog. So this is not my cup of tea at all. I find it hard to think of anything positive to say about it as I have no real terms of reference. Perhaps it is enough to say that it is an idiosyncratic album that will appeal to a select market and leave it at that? However, a word of warning, by no means take any notice of the Musea summary of the album which includes such laughable comments as "more accessible and under control than the previous opus", "revealing clear influences, like... PINK FLOYD" (Eh? so, so wrong!) and "already a must-have".
Proceed with caution.
Conclusion: 3 out of 10