Reviews in this issue:
- Mostly Autumn - Heart Full Of Sky
- Steve Thorne - Part Two: Emotional Creatures
- Blind Ego - Mirror
- Yole – Lead Us Away
- Lost World Band – Awakening Of The Elements
- Apple Pie - Crossroad
- Cyclops - Sampler 6
- Atoll – L'Océans
- Seid - Creatures Of The Underworld
- Picture Of The Moon - Ageless Day [EP]
Mostly Autumn - Heart Full Of Sky
Tracklist: Fading Colours (8:25), Half A World (4:50), Pocket Watch (4:20), Blue Light (4:58), Walk With A Storm (7:51), Find The Sun (5:32), Ghost (5:27), Broken (5:11), Silver Glass (7:12), Further From Home (6:27), Dreaming (8:36)
One glance at the artwork and this is unmistakably the latest CD from Mostly Autumn with obvious similarities to the covers of the last two studio albums Storms Over Still Water and Passengers. But how do they compare musically? For my money Heart Full Of Sky mirrors the shift in style of its predecessors and takes it one step further. The combination of Celtic and Floydian influences are less prevalent whilst incorporating a contemporary (albeit very polished) British pop/rock sound. In my opinion it’s a healthy move with a fresher sound that’s anything but predictable. The band have not completely abandoned their roots however demonstrated by a sprinkling of folk tinged ballads and proggy instrumental workouts. The music draws upon the talents of a variety of vocalists and musicians that gives it a certain edge over other current prog releases. My review copy is the commercially available single CD version although a limited edition double has been available on the bands website which I believe is now out of stock.
Bryan Josh remains the bands guiding light credited with writing six out of the eleven songs in addition to his guitar, keyboard, vocal and production duties. He co-wrote two further songs with joint lead singer Heather Findlay who contributes one song of her own. The most obvious change is the departure last year of Iain Jennings keyboard player since the bands inception. Replacement Chris Johnson composed two songs and provides the lead vocals on one of them sounding not unlike Heather. Otherwise it’s the usual MA suspects including Angela Gordon flute, clarinet and recorders, Andy Smith bass, Liam Davison slide guitars and Andrew Jennings drums. Since this recording both Davison and Jennings have subsequently left the band with ex-Karnataka drummer Gavin Griffiths replacing the latter. Vocalist Olivia Sparnenn who is no stranger to the band is also now credited as a full time member. They are joined by a host of guest musicians who I’ll endeavour to name check along the way.
They cut to the chase with the infectious Fading Colours providing an excellent opening statement that sums up where the band is at right now. Strident orchestral keys that include a touch of eerie Genesis style mellotron drive Heather’s sultry vocal joined by Bryan for the powerful chorus. A searing guitar break and strong bass lines add impact with an overuse of cymbal splashes in the drum work being the only complaint. In a shorter version this would make an excellent single. This time they break with tradition and do not include the closing moments from the last album to open, opting instead for a tranquil version of the chorus from Heather. Half A World is another strong track with Heather’s soulful vocal matched by a smooth organ sound and delicate classical guitar. The memorable chorus is followed by a dramatic finale with soaring guitar and organ.
Pocket Watch is a major departure for MA with an almost grungy but measured guitar riff supporting one of Josh’s best ever vocals that has more than a hint of Oasis about it. This song is likely to divide the opinion of most fans but the brilliantly timed final extended chorus should win everyone over as will the autobiographical style lyrics. The elegant Blue Light couldn’t be more of a contrast with Heather’s sensuous vocal and beautiful backing from Anne-Marie Helder. Angela Gordon’s sweet sounding flute stands out against the symphonic backdrop. It builds to a grandiose coda with soaring guitar and keys once again to the fore. The aptly titled Walk With A Storm is filled with moments of high drama not the least the spiky guitar and Hammond punctuations from guest David Moore. It really takes off when the violin of Peter Knight and uilleann pipes of Troy Donockley join to create an ethereal sound that develops into an orchestral climax. Knight is of course the legendary fiddler with Steeleye Span whilst Donockley’s long association with MA is eclipsed only by his work with Iona.
Find The Sun makes good use of Knight’s playing with his sumptuous double tracked violin work providing the focal point around which the rest of the song hangs. Heather’s fragile vocal and Bryan’s lyrical classical guitar provide sublime support. Ghost sees the two leads sharing vocal duties with standout performances from both. The songs stately pace is broken only by a powerful guitar break and atmospheric cascading keys. Broken has one of the albums simplest arrangements but is none the less effective. The song ebbs and flows with Heather’s sensitive vocal against a smooth backdrop of piano and symphonic keys. Silver Glass seems to pick up from where the previous song left off although this time with Chris Johnson supplying the vocals. This is a very mature piece with an excellent chorus and accomplished piano from Johnson. String drenched keys, relaxed drum fills, melodic guitar and heavenly backing vocals are all part of the beautifully crafted arrangement.
Opening with Donockley’s haunting low whistle and a pulsating piano rhythm from Josh Further From Home finds the band in Pink Floyd territory with sustained electric guitar breaks and choral female voices. Up to this point Josh has remained relatively restrained in the guitar department but here he indulges in some full blown soloing. Bombastic orchestral keys paves the way for a stirring variation of the albums opening song this time with all the pomp and majesty the band can muster. Powerful stuff! They go out in style with Dreaming with Heather’s reflective vocal contrasting nicely against Bryan’s powerful phrasing for the dramatic chorus. With epic guitar and keys leading the way the song takes several twists and turns before massed choral voices and stately guitar builds to an extravagant Mike Oldfield style finale. A sensational close to a brilliant album.
There very little I can add to the above except to say that this album is an absolute must for MA fans or indeed anybody else for that matter. This is a band at the top of their game with first class musicianship, singing, song writing and production. The music has depth and diversity and the delivery is assured and confident. Bryan Josh’s performance is excellent throughout. There are still traces of Gilmour and Rothery in the guitar work but his own style is now more clearly defined. Heather Findlay has never sounded better and Chris Johnson is certainly a major asset adding a new dimension to the bands sound. Everyone else involved can be justly proud of their contributions. Is this my album of the year? Unless something better comes along most definitely! You can be assured however that it will take some beating.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Steve Thorne - Part Two: Emotional Creatures
Tracklist: Toxicana Apocalypso (5:08), Wayward (5:50), Crossfire (4:43), Roundabout (4:24), Hounded (7:13), All The Wisemen (5:19), Great Ordeal (3:08), 6am (Your Time) (2:47), Solace (2:33), The White Dove Song (5:59), Sandheads (7:29)
In 2005 Steve Thorne released his first solo album Emotional Creatures Part One, a wonderful collection of singer-songwriter material played with an all-start cast of prog musicians. It's obvious that Steve had loads of written material and therefore it's no big surprise that the follow-up to the well-received album is now available. Strange enough it's called Part Two: Emotional Creatures and not 'Emotional Creatures Part Two', as you would expect.
It seems like the way to determine success in the world of prog today is a affirmative answer to the question 'Have you played with Steve Thorne?'. Steve's first album already featured an impressive list of names but with his new album he really surpasses all expectation. Drums are played by Nick D'Virgilio (Spock's Beard) and Gavin Harrison (Porcupine Tree), bass by Tony Levin (King Crimson, Peter Gabriel), Dave Meros (Spock's Beard) and Pete Trewavas (Marillion, Kino, Transatlantic), electric guitars by Gary Chandler (Jadis) and John Mitchell (Arena, Kino, Frost), keyboards by Geoff Downes (Asia, Yes) and Martin Orford (IQ). And of course multi-instrumentalist Steve plays everything but the kitchen sink himself and there's a small string orchestra on two of the songs. To top it off the CD was recorded and co-produced by Rob Aubrey of IQ fame.
As you can imagine this 'crème de la crème' line up of musicians and production crew results in a very impressive album. That's something that cannot be denied. Compared to the first album this second part is also darker and more adventurous and therefore more 'proggy'. The absolute highlight of the first album was the instrumental Every Second Counts. On this new album the instrumental Toxicana Apocalypse and the instrumental second part of Hounded are again highlights on the album. This made me wonder what the real strength of the record is ...
As I mentioned in my review of the first album, Steve is not the best vocalist around. He does however have the ability to put a lot of emotion in his voice, giving the songs extra strength when combined with his society critical lyrics. When playing Part Two the first couple of times I did however get mixed feelings. First of all, Steve's mentioned 'emotion trick' which he used so much on Part One is used in the same way in these new songs. The drawn out way of singing and the obvious aggression in his voice are omnipresent again. On top of that, I started to notice a certain 'formula-approach' in Steve's compositions. Most of the tracks are written in a certain structure and some of the verses of songs use an almost 'reciting' approach that I've already heard two years earlier. As a matter of fact, I actually found myself remembering lyrics of previous songs that fitted perfectly in the structure and melody of the new ones. In other words, there's a danger in Steve's music of songs sounding a bit 'samey'. Now, on this record you might not notice it all that much because of the brilliant orchestration and cast, but I would bet that one and a half hour of acoustic one-man renditions of Steve's music (as he often performs his songs) would result in a bit too many 'haven't I heard this before?' moments.
Something that also remained the same - and fortunately this time - are Steve's wonderful society-critical lyrics. It's great to have a set of songs that are actually about something and don't drown in poetic vagueness. As far as I'm concerned this creates an immediate empathy for most of the songs, helping me to accept some of the aforementioned weaknesses of the tunes.
A couple of words about the individual songs. Toxicana Apocalypso is a great instrumental opener and one of the highlights of the album, with smart use of sequencers and organ solos and a great drum break by D'Virgilio. For those who listen closely there's a little rant to be detected at the end of the song by some weird bloke with a theory that we should kill birds to save energy. No better way to demonstrate the ignorance of some people regarding the environmental issues of today.
Wayward is a good atmospheric song with wonderful bass stick work by Levin, but suffers a bit from the 'Thorne formula' mentioned earlier. Crossfire starts acoustically but builds towards a nice climax that has John Mitchell and Steve dueting on respectively electric and acoustic guitars, before flowing seamlessly into the spooky Roundabout. Unfortunately this next track drags a bit and unlike Crossfire doesn't really seem to be going anywhere.
Hounded is another low-paced atmospheric tune and the album starts to get into a bit of a dip here. Fortunately the powerful climax at the end of the track saves the album from getting boring. It's got Spock's Beard's Dave Meros doing some fine Rickenbacker bass, Martin Orford going crazy on the Hammond Organ and Gary Chandler doing a fine guitar solo. I don't care all that much for the first half of the song, but the instrumental second half is one of the highlights of the album.
The highlight of All The Wiseman is the brilliant guitar work by John Mitchell, echoing his best solos for Arena and David Gilmour's high-pitched style for Marooned. Great Ordeal is a nice stripped down song of pure Steve with just guests on the female backing vocals and mandolin. A nice breather after the previous tunes and proof that Steve doesn't always need the all-star cast to perform a good song (I was actually beginning to wonder about that at this point).
6AM and Solace are an instrumental duo, with the latter being not much more than Steve doing sound effects. 6AM on the other hand is a stomper with the Spock's Beard rhythm section (D'Virgilio and Meros) driving the piece while Steve shows his skills on guitar and keys. It seems to work towards a climax after 1.5 minutes but strange enough this never arrives. As such the song lacks a but of direction, or maybe should have been a bit longer than the 3 minutes it lasts.
The album closes with two songs Steve wrote in the early nineties. Both feature a small string orchestra and one of them (The White Dove Song) a brass section. It's this brass section that gives the The White Dove Song anthem a wonderful Beatlesque feel. Melody-wise Sandheads is not the most interesting tune on the album but it's got great lyrics and even has Steve doing 'a Sting'; throwing in snippets of songs from his previous album while to song fades away.
As with the first album the cover of the album is beautiful but doesn't really match the mundane subject matters of the music and lyrics. The interior artwork is much more appropriate and has beautiful pictures (see them here).
To conclude, the positive aspects of the album are the brilliant production and all-star performances, plus a darker and more adventurous mood that make this album better than the first one. On the negative side, I was a bit put off by the similarities in vocal melodies, vocal styles and structure of the songs, which all to often are a bit too much like the ones I already heard on the first album. Combined these positive and negative factors do however still add up to a recommendation to go and check out the album. However, taking into consideration that the production and cast are the actual stars of the album I'm slightly worried about what Steve has to offer for the future, and how much he will depend on 'helping hands'. I'm hoping he will surprise us with his next release.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Blind Ego - Mirror
Tracklist: Obsession (4:21), Moon And Sun (5:07), Break You (6:16), Black Despair (6:48), Open Sore (3:16), Hollowed (1:27), Mirror (4:26), Don't Ask Me Why (8:11), Moorland (4:14), Forbidden To Remain (10:04), Artist Manqué [by Violet District] (6:42)
Mirror is the unintentionally autobiographical solo album by RPWL's guitarist Kalle Wallner. Demo versions of the album's songs, produced at RPWL's Farmlands Studios, were distributed to various prog rock luminaries who were invited to contribute to the final recordings. Step forward the ubiquitous John Jowitt (bass), John Mitchell (forgoing the guitar for once and singing on the heavier numbers), Paul Wrightson (singing the more emotional tracks), Tommy Eberhardt drums and special guests Yogi Lang (keyboards and production) and Clive Nolan (backing vocals and no keyboards!).
Given that Blind Ego is a solo project from a guitarist, it is not surprising that there are a lot of guitars on this album! Fortunately, that does not mean endless guitar solos and, despite the band name, nor is it self-indulgent, 'hey listen to me, I'm brilliant' egotistical meanderings. Instead, melodies, tunes and thoughtful arrangements are the order of the day. The material is quite diverse within the rock idiom, a fair smattering of ballads, epics and heavier rock numbers that gives the album contrast, particularly given the two vocal styles of Mitchell and Wrightson. Unfortunately I am not a great fan of Wrightson as a singer, his intonation, although having the desired ethereal effect, sounds rather forced and over-produced. Maybe the fact that these vocals were produced separately from the rest of the album (by Clive Nolan), has something to do with it. I found it particularly grating on the otherwise lovely ballad Black Despair. However, the vocals don't last long and the emotive guitar passage more than made up for my disappointment at the singing. Likewise, on the album closer, Forbidden To Remain, the largely instrumental nature of the track overcomes my personal dislike of the vocals. This track is also one of the most proggy on the album and featuring the most keyboards, possibly because it was apparently originally written at the time of RPWL's 2002 album Trying To Kiss The Sun. Concluding guitar solo is a peach! Moon And Sun is a more likeable Wrightson effort due to the strong melody and the fact that the vocalist stretches himself and doesn't rely solely on the softer, dreamy aspects of his voice.
Of the rockier tracks, Obsession is a powerful riffing opener and Break You sees the return of the talk box guitar effect amidst a more electronic song which also features more straightforward rock guitar solos. Title track Mirror has masses of overlaid guitars which combine harmoniously in a song of almost bitter self-reflection. The final vocal track, Don't Ask Me Why effectively combines electric and acoustic guitars while still leaving enough space for the vocal melody and the simple, yet successful, chorus. Again, the end section features some excellent guitar work from Wallner.
Of the three instrumentals on the album, Hallowed is a brief introductory piece to Mirror with lots of added sound effects (including the rather camply spoken Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs incantation 'Mirror, Mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?') which would make a great 'walk on' piece at the beginning of a concert; Open Sore is a bass-heavy all-out rock number; and Moorland is a lively and entertaining piece that easily bears repeated listening as all the parts and layers are distinguished by the listener. Finally, the bonus track, a remix of Artist Manqué by the precursor band of RPWL, Violet District, is a bit out of place on the album as it sounds totally different from what has come before, although, not withstanding that, it is a decent enough pop-rock song.
Mirror is a decent enough solo album and will certainly have appeal for fans of RPWL. The playing is certainly impressive in places and, at points, fairly innovative. I would recommend several tracks, namely Don't Ask Me Why, Forbidden To Remain and Moorland but overall the album falls a tad short of an overall recommendation.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
Yole – Lead Us Away
Tracklist: Now (1:58), To Sail Out (2:31), Crossing (6:06), Lead Us Away (6:16), I Dream (5:07), Crossing Part II (3:13), Ayurveda (1:44), On The Sun (3:14), Epilogue (2:38), On the Sun Part II (6:42), Nowhere (3:51), Elsewhere (3:42)
The ever-reliable Musea promo materials tell me that Yole is influenced “on the one hand by . . . Genesis, Camel, [and] Focus, and on the other hand by Indian/world music.” And you know, that’s a good place to start. On this very pleasant CD you’ll hear both lots of sitar and some decent knockoff Hackett guitar (anyone who’s ever heard Supper’s Ready will recognize something rather more than an allusion to the “I know a farmer” part of that song in the guitar of Ayurveda here). The originality of this disc does indeed consist in the addition of certain (heavily Westernized) elements of “world music” to the sound of Seventies progressive rock. It’s a mellow, pleasant album (yeah, I know I’ve now used that word twice – you’ll hear it again later) that repays repeated listening.
Yole is a six-piece band that seems to be fronted by the Grenier brothers, Raphaël (who sings and plays flute) and Pierre (who plays guitar and sitar); they’ve written and arranged all the songs, too. And the songs themselves are mostly quite strong, with distinctive melodies and satisfying structures, even though many are instrumentals. There might be a little too much sitar for my taste, I’ll admit. Although that instrument is one of the things that make this album stand out from the pack of seventies-influenced progressive rock, I’ve always thought its usefulness in rock music of any kind is, or should be, very limited, and on certain songs here (notably the six-minute Crossing), the instrument wears out its welcome long before the track ends. But I’ll emphasize that that opinion comes from someone who’s not a huge fan of the instrument. If you’re reading this site (and are thus a fan of progressive rock) and you also really like the sitar, this is definitely an album for you.
For my money, the best songs are those that most clearly show the band’s thirty-year-old Western influences. And although I do indeed hear a touch of Camel and Focus in this bit or that of this song or that, it’s early-to-mid-period Genesis that, in my opinion, has made the strongest impression on these talented musicians, especially on Pierre Grenier, whose guitar work, both electric and acoustic, owes a huge debt to that of Steve Hackett. Add to that influence the Gabriel-like flute work of his brother Raphaël, and many of the tunes will take you right back to 1974 with their sound (check out particularly On The Sun).. But the songs are unique to this band despite those instrumental similarities, and – excessive sitar aside – they’re all darned good.
Weaknesses? Well, aside from the derivitaveness of the sound (which I’ve partially excused because it doesn’t much bother me) and the overuse of the sitar, the vocals aren’t top-notch. In fact, Raphaël’s voice is best in the instrumentals. Yes, I know what I said, and I mean it. His voice isn’t bad – he can carry a tune, pretty much – but it’s not at all strong, it’s sometimes rather nasal, and his range doesn’t seem very great. In my opinion, the band should either ditch the singing entirely or get someone else to do it. The instrumental work is alone enough to sustain the listener’s interest, I think.
This CD will now go on the shelf with a number of others I’ve reviewed that depend more or less heavily for their inspiration on the work of my favourite seventies progressive bands. I like the album and will return to it with some frequency, I think. It might be a little dated to the ears of many DPRP readers – leaving unacknowledged as it does pretty well everything that’s happened in progressive rock since about 1976! – but I like it and can’t imagine anybody disliking it. It’s pleasant (yes, I had to say it one more time), melodic, and enjoyable. Inspired? Maybe not.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Lost World Band – Awakening Of The Elements
Tracklist: Awakening Of The Elements (4:23), Infinity Street (6:44), Simoom (3:42), Over The Islands (3:55), Scenery With A Guitar (3:30), Schostoccata (5:18), States Of Mind (Part I) (3:47), States Of Mind (Part II) (3:42), States Of Mind (Part III) (3:26), Paranoia Blues (2:26), Collision Of The Elements (5:13), Sky Wide Open (3:02)
Given the countries rich classical heritage it should come as no surprise that a Russian rock band should be influenced by the likes of Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich and Stravinsky. And that’s the case in point with Lost World Band, a classically trained trio that came together in 1990 whilst still at music college. Following several years extensive gigging they released seven self burned discs over a five year span beginning in 1996 to a small but faithful following. Their official debut CD appeared in 2003 under the title Trajectories. With the albums vocalist Alexei Rybakov now departed comes the all instrumental follow-up Awakening Of The Elements. With their first instruments being flute, violin and piano respectively, Vassily Soloviev, Andrii Didorenko and Alexander Akimov have added rock instrumentation which provides a more contemporary prog influence, especially King Crimson. They also remind me of the UK band Sky from the 70’s and some of the more classically influenced Italian symphonic bands from the same era.
The title track Awakening Of The Elements is an excellent showcase for the band combining a heavy full on guitar riff with a lively symphonic fusion of violin, flute and keys. Didorenko’s skilful electric guitar work throughout incorporates both the darker and sweeter side of Robert Fripp’s playing. It’s helped by a memorable tune that would sit comfortably behind the opening credits of the latest American TV Police drama with the camera sweeping over a city nightscape. A change of tempo for Infinity Street opening with a classical guitar duet with odd meters and percussive effects adding a distinctively Mike Oldfield Amarok flavour. It’s skilfully done but the track never fully develops beyond its opening promise to justify its near seven minute length. Simoom is a high speed violin and piano tour de force followed by the electric guitar dominated Over The Islands which seemingly picks up from where the former left off. The latter includes some standout fretless bass work from Didorenko.
Ambient synth effects glide into Scenery With A Guitar where the acoustic guitar riff again has a ring of Mike Oldfield about it. Schostoccata is the bands take on the String Quartet no.8 by Shostakovich introduced by a descending guitar riff very close to Steve Howe’s on Machine Messiah by Yes. Otherwise it’s a frantic display of musicianship with electric guitar, violin and flute battling it out for supremacy. Very showy but it’s not really my cup of tea. States Of Mind (Part I) is the first in a short violin suite with supercharged bowing and a cod 80’s disco beat making it sound like a refugee from a Vanessa-Mae album. The brooding States Of Mind (Part II) works much better with some very moody violin work that builds to a stately crescendo. States Of Mind (Part III) sounds like part two speeded up and despite some tricky guitar and violin interplay it’s not as effective.
Other than the authentic bass line Paranoia Blues doesn’t live up to its name although it does contain a persistent and spooky flute pattern from Soloviev. Collision Of The Elements is one of the better tracks mostly due to Akimov’s excellent Hammond work that will appeal to Keith Emerson and Rod Argent fans amongst others. The dramatic orchestral punctuations and overblown percussion lends the piece a cinematic scale. Sky Wide Open ends the album on a serene and wistful note with soaring electric guitar reminiscent of Jade Warrior that builds to, but wisely pulls back from a full blown climax.
There is absolutely no doubting the virtuosity of this trio or the writing abilities of Didorenko who is responsible for all the original material. The best of these which includes Awakening Of The Elements, States Of Mind (Part II), Collision Of The Elements and Sky Wide Open display a good ear for a strong melody. Twelve tracks however does seem to be stretching things a little especially in the middle section where the tone of the album becomes a tad samey. Whilst the desire to keep the pieces short and precise is admirable I feel that they would have done better further developing some of the stronger material. There are occasions when this album impresses more than it entertains and it would be a safe bet that the band goes down a storm in a live environment. They can also count production amongst their unquestionable talents with a crystal clear sound ensuring that every note leaps off the disc. An all important plus for an album of this intricacy.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Apple Pie - Crossroad
Tracklist: The Beginning [a] Once Upon A Time [b] Overture (8:22), Sunrise (9:17), Crossroad (7:58), Nothing (3:43), Temptation (4:40), Escape (10:31), Still Got My Faith In You (4:02), Solution (7:26), Nothing Comes Everything (8:07), The Final (12:24)
There is a saying, "as American as apple pie", although in the case of the group who go by that name, nothing could be further from the truth, they are in fact Russian. However, listening to the album you would never be able to guess it! The quartet, comprising Vartan Mkhitaryan on guitars and lead vocals (who is actually Armenian), Oleg Sergeev on keyboards and backing vocals, Aleksey Bildin on bass, saxophone and backing vocals and Andrey Golodukhinon on drums, are very accomplished musicians who have come up with an album that is astonishing in its maturity and polish. Although the band have been together for six years and have had a stable line-up for the last four years, Crossroad is their debut album. As is the norm with the majority of progressive bands these days, the members of the group all have full-time jobs (one a doctor, two as members of a military orchestra and one an engineer in a bank) which may explain the long gestation time of the album, but boy, was it worth the wait.
First off, Crossroad is a concept album about a chap who is full of doubts and faces a struggle between good and evil that rages in his head, finally making the choice on the side of goodness. Okay, hardly an original concept but one that is well handled within the lyrics. Secondly, although a non-native English speaker, Mkhitaryan's vocals are perfectly pronounced and you would have no idea you were not listening to someone who had not grown up in the UK or America. Add to that the fact that he has a very smooth voice which is pleasing on the ear and you are on to a winner. Musically, the most obvious comparison is with Spock's Beard, although in their heavier moments, such as on title track Crossword, a nod towards Dream Theater can be heard. However, and listen carefully, I rate this album higher than ANYTHING released by either of those bands! A bold statement perhaps, tempered by the fact that I have only ever really liked a couple of Dream Theater albums and find a lot of Spock's Beard material, particularly the stuff written by Neal Morse, to be somewhat pompous and overblown.
Apple Pie seem to have got the mixture just right, electric and acoustic guitars blended with some fine keyboard work blending gritty organ sounds with modern synths, vocal harmonies (particularly noteworthy are those of backing vocalist Anna Sidorenko) all combined with an originality that is both refreshing and yet comfortably familiar. The sax solo on Nothing is a nice variation in tone and the rather funky Temptation has a phenomenal brass section which adds further dimension.
Escape packs just about everything into its 10.5 minutes: great solos on guitar, synths and piano, more great backing singing from Sidorenko and a riff that is aggressive yet melodic while Still Got My Faith In You is a soulful/bluesy acoustic number with Mkhitaryan and Sidorenko combining beautifully. It is somewhat superfluous to try and describe the other tracks as they are all very thoughtfully arranged and right little gems.
If you think that the Beard have gone off the boil since Neal Morse left and can't stomach the sermonising of Morse's solo efforts, then a more than adequate substitute can be found in Apple Pie. One taste and you'll be hooked!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Cyclops Sampler 6
Tracklist: CD1 Abarax: Journeys End/Autumn Storm [previously unreleased] (14:01), Rob Andrews and Ra: Last Farewells [previously unreleased] (5:48), Discipline: Canto IV (limbo) [live] (13:44), Drama: A Revelation [alternative version] (7:36), Flamborough Head: Mantova [live] (8:19), The Gift: Escalation [alternative version] (6:19), Karda Estra: The Alpha And The Omega [previously unreleased] (7:08), Land's End: My Home [alternative version] (7:01)
Mostly Autumn: Heroes Never Die [2000 reprise] (8:26), Nautilus: The Dark Room [alternative version] (5:35), Nice Beaver: Saturday Nice Beaver [previously unreleased] (7:10), The Pineapple Thief: Dead In The Water And Blood On Your Hands [previously unreleased] (12:52), Product: Stranger And Kiroshi [previously unreleased] (10:16), Sensitive To Light: Carpe Diem [alternative version] (7:11), Trion: Out There Somewhere [previously unreleased] (4:25), Tr3nity: Into The Dark [alternative version] (13:15)
Cyclops Records release their latest double sampler CD for the bargain price of £6. Now that has to worth serious consideration for 2.5 hours of music, particularly as the majority of tracks on the album are either previously unreleased or alternative versions. What is even more impressive is that almost all of the artists have received good or recommended reviews by DPRP. Rather than try and describe each track in any detail, I have, where appropriate, included a link to the DPRP review of the album which included the original version of the song or the latest album released by the group.
CD 1 kicks of with Abarax and the 14 minute Journey's End/Autumn Storm. Journey's end was included on their debut album, Crying Of The Whales, but the sampler version of the song is a bit punchier and is effectively doubled in length by the addition of the previously unreleased Autumn Storm. Despite the overt Floydian influences this additional track is a nice accompaniment to the album with a rousing chorus and some nice double-tracked guitars. Rob Andrews seems to have been floating about for years without making much of an impact. His last album, The Host, was released back in 2001. However, Last Farewells, composed by guitarist David Groves is a fine instrumental confidently played by the Ra group (which also features Steve Hillman on keyboards and the rather disappointing drumming of Dai Rees). The always excellent Discipline are next with a live version of the epic Canto IV (limbo). This version was previously released on the Into The Dream CD which is now sadly deleted. Never fear though, as Cyclops are soon to re-release this album as a two-CD package. Discipline rank as one of my favourite progressive groups of recent years and all of their albums are thoroughly recommended.
Drama obviously read the DPRP review of Stigmata Of Change and for the alternative version of the instrumental A Revelation, one of the highlights of the original album, have cut the song down by over two minutes. The piece has its moments but the synth sound was a bit annoying and the programmed drums didn't do a lot for me. A live version of Mantova from the most recent album by Flamborough Head closely follows the studio version but, as would be expected, has a greater degree of attack. The flute work of Margriet Boomsma is worthy of particular note. Listening to the Tales of Imperfection album inspired me to check out the band's back catalogue and hearing this live track now makes me want to see the group live! The Gift hit the prog world last year with a debut album, Awake And Dreaming, which contained two tracks with a total running time of 71 minutes. Escalation is the ninth part of the album's title track and stands up even out of context of the whole piece. One of the most progressive and rockier parts of the album, the sublime guitar riff is a good intro to this group. The Alpha And The Omega is the first new material to be released by Karda Estra since The Age Of Science And Enlightenment CD. As on that album, and to quote the DPRP review, the track has "a distinct pre-occupation with the macabre... The music is dark and brooding for the most part, with an ethereal quality conveyed by classical instrumentation and choral voices". I was very impressed with the band and on the basis of this recording will be seeking out their earlier recordings. Similarly, the alternate version of My Home from the double CD The Lower Depths persuaded me to dig into the wallet and buy the album. Relatively sedate initially, the piece builds to a fitting climax with which to wind up the first CD.
CD2 opens with the almost obligatory Mostly Autumn track, a reprised version of Heroes Never Die (originally featured on the band's debut album For All We Shared) that was issued on the now deleted Prints In The Stone CD. A nice inclusion for newer fans of the band who missed out on the single when it was originally released, and a prime example of the early work of the band that got them so much attention at the turn of the century. The instrumentalists Nautilus released an impressive debut album in What Colours The Sky In Your World? In fact, it was so good it was released twice and both times received a DPRP recommendation! The alternate version of The Dark Room (which on the album is a component part of opening track Doors To The Dark Room) is an excellent King Crimson inspired piece of music: brooding, menacing and almost gutterally angry. The first new material since 2004's Oregon, show's that America's Nice Beaver have continued to develop. Saturday Nice Beaver starts with a guitar solo reminiscent of Camel but then develops a harder edge, although at times it does remind me of one of the multitude of 1980s prog bands (although can't remember which one!). The track has some really good moments but sadly doesn't really hang together as well as the material on either of the band's excellent albums. Pineapple Thief contribute a new version of Dead In The Water from their most recent Little Man CD. This version has the previously unreleased Blood On Your Hands added to the end making the combined piece a 13-minute epic. With the benefit of time, my review of Little Man was spot on in that I now consider the album an essential purchase! This new recording expands on the original and the inclusion of Blood On Your Hands is reason enough to buy this Sampler.
Having not heard any of the three albums thus far released by Product, I can't say how new track Stranger And Kiroshi compares with what has gone before, in particular the last album The Fire. What I can say is that the first part of the song is quite poppy with Arman Christoff Boyles having a very pleasant voice while part 2 is a complete contrast being heavier and a lot more discordant. I found the alternate version of Carpe Diem from Sensitive To Light's Almost Human album (about the life of puppet-boy Pinocchio), was rather too bland for my tastes and never made it through to the end of the track in all the times I listened to the album. After Trion's excellent Tortoise CD I was delighted to see that they had a new track on this sampler. As to if this heralds a new album I don't know (hope so!) but needless to say the relatively short Out There Somewhere is another great piece of music that admirers of the album will want to own. Finally, Tr3nity contribute a re-recorded version of Into The Dark from their 2002 debut The Cold Light Of Darkness. One of the better tracks on the album, this extended version, lengthened by some 3.5 minutes, contains a lot more guitars and closes the album on a six-string high.
As with the other Cyclops samplers, this double CD is recommended as it not only reveals the variety of talent on the label and offers previously unavailable and exclusive tracks, but also for the fact that it is ridiculously cheap. I guarantee you won't find a better bargain than this CD all year, 2.5 hours of some really great music for the price of a couple of beers in a trendy nightspot. Do your liver a favour, forego the alcohol and buy this CD instead!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Atoll – L'Océan
Tracklist: L'Océan (3:52), Quelque Part (4:04), Un Soleil Caché (3:59), Sahara (Part I) (2:47), Odyssée [Sahara Part II] (2:11), Coup De Coeur (4:38), Hymne A Laïah (4:41), Encore Vivre Libre (3:06), Lune Noire (3:44), Métamorphose (2:46), Tu Sais (4:20) Bonus Tracks: Try Not To Worry (3:41), Tu Sais - Live (5:42), L'Age D'Or - Live (4:17)
During the Seventies Atoll were part of a lively French progressive rock scene releasing four albums between 1974 and 1979. At the end of this period John Wetton briefly passed amongst their ranks on his journey from UK to Asia. They went their separate ways shortly after, until original guitarist Christian Beya reformed the band in the late Eighties with a completely new line-up. The resulting 1989 album L'Océan was a far cry from their past displaying a shorter song based format integrating elements of pop with prog. The artwork may have been influenced by Tales From Topographic Oceans but the music certainly wasn’t. It did however reveal itself to be a far more enjoyable listening experience than I anticipated. This re-mastered version from Musea boasts three bonus tracks although I believe that at least two of the original songs have been re-recorded. Joining Beya is vocalist Raoul Leiniger, drummer Gilles Bonnabaud, bassist Jean-Pierre Klarès and keyboardist Nathalie Geschier.
Apparently when originally released it was a big hit in Japan and on the evidence of the title track is not difficult to see why. L'Océan has a distinctive oriental feel combining Beya’s rich Mike Oldfield inspired electric and acoustic guitar textures with symphonic keys and expressive tenor vocals. In fact Leiniger’s voice is not a million miles from Steve Walsh of Kansas albeit with French lyrics. The otherwise wordy Quelque Part is lifted by an excellent almost metallic guitar break. Un Soleil Caché has a surprisingly flatter tone than the two previous songs and sounds like it was recorded at a different time and in a different place. The snare sound is over emphasised in the mix at the expense of the rest of the drum kit. The instrumental Sahara (Part I) brings a welcome change of mood with intricate classical guitar and baroque style oboe from guest Vincent Tricari against an orchestral keys backdrop. The musicianship here is truly inspired and reminiscent of the acoustic work of Steve and brother John Hackett. Odyssée (Sahara Part II) continues the mood this time with electric guitar and synth giving a more strident but equally melodic sound.
With Coup De Coeur we are back in pop-prog territory but what an excellent song it is with a chorus that’s as catchy as chicken pox. The urgent Hymne A Laïah allows Beya to really show off with thousand-notes-a-minute flashy guitar runs. The occasional vocals are almost incidental here. Encore Vivre Libre has an 80’s Yes feel about it thanks to the driving Trevor Rabin flavoured guitar work. Lune Noire is in a similar vein although with a weightier and more rapid technique. According to the French liner notes this is an instrumental edit of a presumably longer piece. Métamorphose replies with a ringing acoustic guitar instrumental that sounds uncannily like Steve Howe’s solo Masquerade on the Union album. Another superb performance from Beya. Tu Sais is a mid paced and decidedly average rock song that could have easily come from a Fleetwood Mac album of the same period.
Try Not To Worry is a bit of an oddity and a remnant from 1983 when Beya attempted to restart the band at that time. With its dated 80’s disco rhythm and embarrassing refrain (this time in English) it’s most notable for vocalist André Teitschaid. He sings in a higher register than even Leiniger sounding remarkably like Dennis DeYoung of Styx fame. The two final bonus tracks were both recorded during the bands tour of Japan that followed the albums initial release. Tu Sais has an urgency not present in the original with some sharp instrumental work demonstrating that the band could cut it live. I particularly liked the punchy bass playing of Klarès. L'Age D'Or gives drummer Bonnabaud a chance to demonstrate his precise Bill Bruford style rhythm work and synth player Geschier provides a majestic intro and outro.
Whilst this album is far from being a classic I for one was suitably impressed by what I heard. It combines some very tuneful moments with excellent instrumental work especially from main man Christian Beya. He’s certainly a gifted guitarist and at his best can hold his head up alongside some of the more famous prog musicians. He is also responsible for writing the music and for the arrangements. The production pushes the guitar and vocals well to the fore which is fine but unfortunately bass and drums suffer sounding a tad lightweight. The keys sound is also rooted in 80’s technology and ironically as a result now sounds very dated. An album well worth checking out however, if only for the exceptional playing of Chris Beya. In addition to a 1990 live album the band released a further studio album in 2004 which unfortunately passed the DPRP by.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Seid - Creatures Of The Underworld
Tracklist: Café Lola (5:27), Creatures Of The Underworld (3:32), Swamp Doom (5:01), The Evil Gnome (3:58), Dragons & Demons (8:46), Do As You're Told (4:31), Moonprobe (4:05), Starla's Dream (5:00), Flight Towards The Sun (8:38)
Creatures Of The Underworld is the second album from Norway's psychedelic/progressive spacerock band Seid, following up their 2002 Among The Monster Flowers Again release. With a cover freely adapted from the painting Hell by Hieronymus Bosch this was always going to be an interesting release. If the description of the band given in the previous sentence seems confusing enough (Prog? Psych? Space?!) then it doesn't really help that influences of indie and punk rock as well as Balkan folk music can also be identified within the music. That might sound as if the album is an unholy mixture with no discernable direction but, surprisingly, it all seems to work rather well. Album opener Café Lola is a prime example: distorted organs and saxophones, atonal guitars, punkish vocals and a fairly rapid tempo, just when you think you are getting to grip with things, an (electric) folkish middle eight takes things down a step or two until the band launch into a sonic frenzy, before returning to the opening theme. Mmm, what exactly is going on here?
The title track has a more ominous sound, a heavy riff dominating throughout until a very quirky guitar and keyboard section once again stirs reminiscences of Balkan folk music. Swamp Doom features a progressive instrumental section with a nice riff played out on echoed guitars and then keyboards before ending with a foreboding harmonium and manic laughter which is undoubtedly representative of the subject of the next track The Evil Gnome. Introduced by Hammond and various synths, the piece progresses into a rather pleasing keyboard dominated number, with vocals intoned in a rather menacing manner. Dragons & Demons starts as a more conventional space-rock number, very moody and atmospheric, which meanders along drawing the listener into its mesmerising groove until the three-and-a-half minute mark when things go into overdrive. Layers of guitars and various keyboards create an acid-rock nightmare. After a short break there is a somewhat laidback organ theme (presumably the Intermission - Opus Vulgaris referred to on the album sleeve but not separated into a separate track) which has a very 1970s feel and at times an almost fairground quality.
The intermission is followed by the heaviest track on the album Do As You're Told. Musically the song sounds like Deep Purple at the time of their In Rock album - Hammond organ driving the song along with incisive guitar riffs. The instrumental Moonprobe takes things down a step or two providing a melodic and somewhat dreamy interlude before Starla's Dream, which the group describe as the most "normal" song on the album. Almost poppy, albeit with the ever present psychedelic overtones, the song features some interesting saxophone and violin arrangements ending "in a majestic Rhodes/Mellotron-driven 5/4-part". The album ends with the longest track Flight Towards The Sun (well, it's a long way!) Another instrumental, the track moves from an opening spacerock theme through more Balkanish folk influences, into a more 1970s progressive rock section before ending with a lullaby. A great track that builds throughout and brings the album to a fitting close.
Although initially I didn't think I would enjoy this album, it just goes to show that first impressions are often wrong. The album has a lot of humour, features a lot of weird and strange sound experiments and skilfully blends different types of music that one wouldn't think would sit comfortably side-by-side. As a bonus the CD also contains a video for the trippy Meet The Spaceman (a 2003 single) which is very amusing as well as being a jolly good song!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Picture Of The Moon - Ageless Day
Tracklist: Black Roses (5:11), No Break Space (5:52), Ageless Day(5:17)
Almost three years ago I reviewed the first offering of Picture Of The Moon, Waxing Crescent, a demo that sounded promising but was a bit sloppy here and there. Something that could easily be explained by youthful enthusiasm. At that time I wrote: "Picture Of The Moon are still in the progress of becoming a band". Three years later one can safely say that Picture Of The Moon have developed into a real band. The compositions are much more balanced and have a better flow. It is clear that the band is much more experienced and now are now able to create a tight sound. The recording quality of this EP does not need to be discussed: it is up to standard.
POTM have chosen a very different direction with this EP: heavier and a bit more straightforward. POTM call it a mix of Riverside and Threshold but I think a mix of Dream Theater and After Forever would be more exact. When all guitars are playing rhythm instead of melody it is very much like After Forever, and especially the keyboards and some of the vocals justify the Dream Theater reference. And it must be said that although the band has made massive progress, people might not be too happy about the direction they have taken with this EP. It is often the case that when youthful enthusiasm becomes professionalism the freshness also disappears. And in this case the (sloppy) enthusiastic guitar and keyboard loops have changed into (professional) tight and driving rhythms, which in themselves sound great, but lack a bit of diversity. While Waxing Crescent could be called progressive metal with a capital P Ageless Day is progressive metal with a capital M. Which of the two one likes is of course a matter of taste.
It must be repeated that it is a pleasant surprise to hear how good the band has become in the past three years, because there is a lot to be said for the tracks on Ageless Day. The voice of Michiel Borkent, probably POTM's most distinct trademark, is spot on in all regions. The guitar loops in the chorus of Black Roses are great (so why not have them last a little longer) as is the solo close to the end, finally some melodic guitar. The middle part of No Break Space again has a great melodic (double) guitar solo, a prominent bass working together with excellent drums and diverse vocals (from whispers to grunts). But the best track is without a doubt the title track Ageless Day, a catchy chorus ("We're all the same"), weird voice, haunting keyboards, good guitar solos . Again the chorus is where the band leaves the driving rhythms and shows they are able to create fine melodies.
Another thing to note is the great artwork of this EP. POTM have chosen a very convenient band logo (a waxing moon) that fits in a lot of pictures seamlessly. In this cover it appears to be part of the picture instead of the band logo. And what is that figure doing in the picture? A very intriguing picture with a kind of desolate feel to it.
It would have been great if POTM had kept some of the features of Waxing Crescent and used the experience gained in the past years to top their first offering. Every now and then this melodic music seeps through but just a bit too little. Then again whether or not one likes the solid metal rhythms over more progressive melodies is a matter of taste. For people that like a good piece of metal but need diversity and intelligence to go with it, Picture Of The Moon has created a EP to tailor their needs. I personally hope they will return to the more progressive sound of Waxing Crescent on their next offering. I am sure this great band will be able to pull it off . For now this EP is a job very well done!