Reviews in this issue:
- Kaipa – Angling Feelings
- Frogg Café – The Safenzee Diaries
- Starcastle – Song Of Times
- Shades Of Dawn - From Dusk Till Dawn
- Bosch's With You - Defamiliarisation
- Yeti Rain – Discarnate
- N.R.Hills - Eleven Nails In The Coffin
Kaipa – Angling Feelings
Tracklist: Angling Feelings (6:43), The Glorious Silence Within (7:17), The Fleeting Existence Of Time (12:37), Pulsation (4:01), Liquid Holes In The Sky (4:42), Solitary Pathway (4:05) Broken Chords (6:26), Path Of Humbleness (9:29), Where’s The Captain? (4:23), This Ship Of Life (4:40)
Since reforming at the beginning of the decade Kaipa have remained fairly active with this their fourth album release. Originally part of the 70’s prog boom the reformation followed a reuniting of the bands two leading lights keyboardist Hans Lundin and guitarist Roine Stolt. With the albums Notes From The Past, Keyholder and Mindrevolutions in the can Roine has since departed to concentrate fully on all things Flower Kings related. Hans remains at the helm, joined once again by Morgan Ågren drums, Jonas Reingold bass, Patrik Lundström vocals and Aleena Gibson vocals. Stolt’s replacement Per Nilsson joins the band from Swedish metal merchants Scar Symmetry with a guitar technique that’s just as melodic and skilful as his predecessor. Adding a touch of Swedish folk to several tracks with recorders and whistles is guest Fredrik Lindqvist, Lundström’s band mate from Ritual. Interestingly, apart from Lundin himself all members remain musically active in other outlets with Kaipa being very much a secondary role. Not surprising then that in addition to keyboards Lundin is responsible for writing all the material and the production.
One thing that struck me was the remarkable parallels between Kaipa and The Tangent. Both bands are dominated by a keyboardist and composer influenced by 70’s prog rock, especially Yes. Both had Roine Stolt in the line-up until the most recent release and both include fellow Flower King Jonas Reingold on bass. They can also both boast the most evocative album artwork this side of Roger Dean. Regular Kaipa artist Jan Ternald’s vivid digital cover provided the inspiration for the title song. Angling Feelings includes an array of tricky time signatures with Nilsson impressing from the start with fluid guitar lines that blend seamlessly with Lundin’s keys. Reingold remains as inventive as ever reaffirming my belief that he is the best bassist around at the moment ably supported by Ågren’s busy drum work. The re-occurring line Into The Heart Of The Sunrise should strike a chord with all Yes fans.
The Glorious Silence Within includes one of the catchiest instrumental hooks I’ve heard this side of any Flower Kings’ album. Stolt would have been proud of this one. Lundström’s acrobatic vocals are easily the best I can recall from any Kaipa release. Nilsson caps things nicely with a guitar break that soars over Lundin and Lindqvist’s symphonic soundscape. The Fleeting Existence Of Time is possibly the bands finest twelve and half minutes ever. The first section features Aleena’s stirring vocal melody offset with stunning interplay between rippling guitar and Lundin’s gritty sounding Hammond. At the half way mark it develops into a jazzier affair with excellent ensemble playing delivered with rapid fire precision.
The song orientated Pulsation is the albums least successful piece for me and despite a memorable swing rhythm it lacks the expansive quality of the proceeding track. I’m also not sure about the abrupt ending which equally affects Liquid Holes In The Sky. This song works much better however thanks to a strong chorus and stately vocal delivery from Aleena augmented by lyrical guitar and synth. Solitary Pathway is a departure for Kaipa featuring a driving guitar riff and excellent word play between Lundström and Gibson. On Broken Chords Lundström manages to sound uncannily like Freddy Mercury with Reingold providing stylish fretless bass joined by exceptional drumming from Ågren. The coda featuring Nilsson’s liquid guitar together with meticulous vocal harmonies is an absolute joy.
Path Of Humbleness finds the band in an almost Celtic landscape thanks to Lindqvist’s beautiful recorder overture. The view soon changes with drums and Hammond leading a military march. It develops into an uncharacteristic shuffle rhythm where distorted guitar lines are underpinned by an infectious keys riff. It makes for a brilliant piece of music for driving, take my word for it. The complex structure of Where’s The Captain? draws out virtuoso performances from all concerned. The doubled guitar parts provide a rich harmonic tone and only the cacophonic ending with Lundström going overboard lets it down. The sublime This Ship Of Life provides a sweet sounding album closer with Nilsson’s restrained and melodic guitar bringing vintage Focus to mind. Reingold shines once more on fretless bass with a suitably romantic sounding duet from Lundström and Gibson.
It’s fair to say that this release marks a huge leap forward for Kaipa. Whilst the richly symphonic Keyholder improved upon Notes From The Past in every way, Mindrevolutions in my opinion progressed hardly from its predecessor. Angling Feelings on the other hand sees the band redefining their style of melodic progressive rock and taking a few risks along the way. The influences are less obvious than before with the band sounding more cohesive and with more than the occasional moment of sheer musical brilliance. Lundström’s characteristic vocals are normally an acquired taste but here they sit far more comfortably within the sonic soundstage. Vocal duties are also split more evenly this time round allowing Aleena to demonstrate her dynamic and passionate vocal skills to the full. The material is certainly some of the strongest ever from Ludin and the production is as clear as glass demonstrating that the absence of Stolt is not an issue. That’s unless of course you miss the extra fifteen minutes of playing time that he would have almost certainly have added! Highly recommended and destined to be one of my top albums of 2007 for sure.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Frogg Café – The Safenzee Diaries
Disc One: Leave Of Absinthe (8:24), Space Dust (8:38), Gagutz (11:17), Candy Korn (12:17), Il Gioco (5:17), Creatures (10:57), You’re Still Sleeping (13:31)
Disc Two: Small Chuwawa (10:18), Fat Guys In Shorts (8:35), Abyss Of Dissension (14:18), Tagliarini (10:11), The Gold Ambler (6:30), Asleep On The Rim (8:17), Cut & Run (7:57)
Following on from their superb third CD Fortunate Observer Of Time, this live double CD (in a nice digi-pack with plenty of good live photos) more accurately documents the band’s roots and raison d’etre, showcasing their considerable chops as a hot but also very cool jamming, fusion combo with eclectic influences. The symphonic progressive style of the last CD is still present here, but is merely one facet of a truly fascinating musical panorama.
The Café’s beginnings as a Zappa tribute act clearly shine through, as evidenced on the tightly arranged and compelling Il Gioco, or the feisty opener Leave Of Absinthe which surely would please fans of The Dixie Dregs, Mike Keneally or even Phish.
Space Dust and Gagutz are a couple of straight-ish fusion workouts where violins and electric pianos rule the roost. Personally, I am a big fan of this kind of fusion – Mahavishnu / Ponty etc. – and Frogg Café add extra spice with a splash of funk and out-front brass instruments.
Creatures is a creature (ahem) of a different stripe , being vocal prog rock which nods towards Kansas, but still featuring splashes of brass – Echolyn also flits into view at times. The tune builds in power as it goes on and there’s a jazz interlude later on before the song seamlessly segues into You’re Still Sleeping. It’s superb stuff.
Opening Disc Two, Small Chuwawa is a Zappa inflected vocal parody with a lurching reggae beat. Another delicious violin feature here too. Fat Guys In Shorts is all organ swells and searing violin –in short, a terrific jam.
Mournful brass ushers in Abyss Of Dissension a 14 minute epic song (from the Fortunate Observer disc) which, in its later stages, skilfully blends sympho prog with brass instruments for a modern prog which one might easily imagine Gentle Giant creating had they carried on and rediscovered their creativity after their misjudged commercial phase at the end of the 70’s.
I’ve merely scratched the surface of the many delights this Live set contains, so there’ll be plenty of surprises in store for you when you get to hear it all. Compiled from various live performances (including The Orion Studios Baltimore Progressive Rock Showcase and 2005’s Nearfest) and also intertwined with live in the studio jams, the Diaries nevertheless have a remarkably cohesive feel and flow, representing an idealised Frogg Café concert.
Anyone who has the opportunity to catch the band live should do so without hesitation, but for the rest of us, this is an excellent addition to any prog/fusion collection, and also has crossover potential to fans of the jam band scene too. Get it soon!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Starcastle – Song Of Times
Tracklist: Red Season (5:28), Babylon (9:24), Song Of Times (6:04), Islands (4:59), Faces of Change (4:56), Love Is The Only Place (4:27), Master Machine (4:24), All For The Thunder (6:06), Children Believe (6:26), Babylon [edited] (4:37)
Back in the 70’s along with other major league acts Yes had more than their fair share of imitators. The band that came closer than anyone was America’s Starcastle. Their sound dominated by Chris Squire influenced bass melodies and Jon Anderson like rich harmonies graced four album releases from 1976 to 1978. In a twist of circumstances Queen producer Roy Thomas Baker’s work with Starcastle suggested that he would be the right man to oversee Yes’ follow up to the Tormato album. The project eventually fell through with Anderson and Wakeman’s departure but the abortive results have been widely available on the bootleg market for years. Starcastle proved to be a popular live attraction throughout the latter half of the 70’s supporting the likes of Rush, Kansas and Styx. Apart from a bout of touring in the early 80’s they maintained a low profile until the new millennium saw a return to the recording studio. This move may have been prompted by Yes’ recent activities which proved that the sound still had a viable market.
Sadly the bands bassist, principle songwriter and leading light Gary Strater passed away in 2004 although not before completing his mammoth contribution to the new album. Original singer Terry Luttrell (who started out in REO Speedwagon) lends his Anderson like vocals to one track recorded prior to his departure from the band. Ironically (or deliberately) his replacement Al Lewis has a high tenor voice that also brings the Yesman to mind. The album obviously had a long gestation period with the original Starcastle line-up sharing track space with newer members and guests. The long list of musicians credited includes four guitarists, three keyboardists, three drummers, two vocalists and unsurprisingly one bassist. The excellent Olias Of Sunhillow style artwork is the work of Ed Unitsky the man responsible for the Tangent and Guy Manning covers. The inlay includes a striking painting by friend of the band Annie Haslam dedicated to Gary Strater. Incidentally Annie was guest vocalist during the bands recent headlining appearance at the USA RoSfest.
The rocking Red Season kicks off the album with trademark lead bass lines, Anderson/Squire inspired harmonies and a Rick Wakeman style synth melody. Guitar takes a back seat for the most part although when it does appear it has a harder edge than previously from the band. The style is still Yes but this time the role model is Tempus Fugit from Drama. The sound is also much leaner than the dense pop-prog of Citadel, the bands 1977 album that still sits in my vinyl collection. With each song averaging less than five minutes the band certainly cannot be accused of self indulgence. The longest cut Babylon has a lazy swing rhythm and only really comes alive during the memorable chorus. A lengthy instrumental break takes a long time to get going but when it does it takes in some inspired organ and synth soloing from original keys man Herb Schildt.
The elegant title song is for my money the albums best track possibly because it reminds me of The Dream Academy’s Life In A Northern Town one of my favourite tunes from the 80’s. Penned by Strater it has a haunting quality thanks to a symphonic keys backdrop and delicate acoustic work from original guitarist Matt Stewart. Islands finds the band in YesWest territory with a bass pattern that nods its head in the direction of Miracle Of Life from Union. Some gutsy Trevor Rabin guitar dynamics complete the picture. The simple guitar riff that drives Faces Of Change is taken from The Who’s Substitute otherwise its business as usual with a complex vocal arrangement that’s unadulterated Yes. The ponderous Love Is The Only Place is easily the albums weakest effort which even Stewart’s Steve Howe flavoured electric sitar cannot redeem.
Master Machine opens with Crosby, Stills & Nash sounding a cappella harmonies (the songs best part) and allows Schildt a rare burst of Keith Emerson inspired synth work which was a major feature of the bands 70’s sound. Speaking of which All For The Thunder is a pure slice of vintage Starcastle with its signature ringing guitar, heavyweight synths and Luttrell’s lead vocal. It certainly has a catchy chorus but sadly its overly poppy tone sounds dated and out of step with the rest of the album. The stately Children Believe is one of the better songs although I’m not convinced by the raunchy phrasing Al Lewis adopts here sounding close to Steve Marriot at times. John O’Hara provides the tasteful keys work to close out the song. That should have been the end of the album but it was deemed necessary to add an edited version of Babylon, a pointless exercise in my opinion. It does at least give me an opportunity to acknowledge the lyrical twin lead guitar work that I omitted to mention above.
If only for old time’s sake I would have liked to have scored this album higher. But sadly it lacks adventure with Strater’s inspired bass playing aside, instrumental work that’s mostly functional. There is also an over dependence on the song choruses which are repeated to the point of overkill. They’ve obviously attempted to add a commercial edge but unfortunately the melodies are not as strong as they might be. There’s no denying the smooth production and energy injected however and the vocal arrangements are as skilful as you are likely to hear all year. If you remember the band with fondness from first time round and you really can’t wait for the next Yes album then this may well be worth checking out.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
Shades Of Dawn - From Dusk Till Dawn
Tracklist: Howling At The Wind (1:14), Confused (5:45), President Why (5:40), The Silent Death Of A Mother‘s Heart (8:10), I Never Thought (4:13), Bombs (7:56), Thunder (4:15), Burning Drums (9:18), Wolke (0:56), Prelude (2:19), Memories (5:33)
Shades Of Dawn are a German band whose only previous release was in 1998 with an album entitled The Dawn Of Time. However, instead of being a follow-up, From Dawn To Dusk actually takes us back four years prior to the first album being a collection of previously unreleased demo recordings made some 13 years ago. Further work was done on the demos in 2003 to enhance the quality and the opportunity was taken at that time to add some overdubs and rework a few pieces with four tracks being completely re-recorded in 2004. The band, who at the time of this recording were a quintet of bass (the late Wolfgang Schmidt), drums (Christopher Struwe), guitar (Hans-Jürgen Klein) and two keyboard players (Annette Schepermann and Peter Schneider), are still performing, albeit with a couple of personnel changes, and have a new album set for release later in the year.
With two keyboard players there is an emphasis on the symphonic side, the band having more in common with fellow Germans Eloy rather than the other comparisons of Floyd, Camel and Genesis cited in the accompanying press release. This is primarily due to the abundant use of synthesisers. However, it is not all keyboards, as guitarist Klein certainly isn't one to be left on the sidelines making his presence known with several melodic solos. The interplay of guitar and keyboards is fairly good and reminiscent of the style of progressive rock that was popular in the early 1980s. My main problem with the album is the poor vocals. Klein takes most of the lead vocals but unfortunately has a rather weak and thin voice. Drummer Struwe takes lead on a couple of tracks, his baritone is stronger but tends to wander in and out of tune. In addition the vocal melodies are not that great. However, as these are primarily demos one has to perhaps make allowances and consider that a full recording may have sounded better.
Musically there are some very good moments, Thunder has some particularly nice moments and once Burning Drums gets going Klein impresses with his extended solo against a slow and steady rhythm. What bodes well for the group is that the best pieces by far are the ones that were the most recently recorded. I may be labouring a point, but it just so happens that three of the four tracks are instrumentals! These three pieces, Howling At The Wind, Wolke and Prelude are very atmospheric, with the latter track perhaps deserving of comparison with A Momentary Lapse Of Reason-era Pink Floyd. Prelude merges seamlessly with Memories, which features some good, prominent bass from Schmidt who even gets quite funky at times. But just when things were getting interesting the song abruptly ends making it sound rather unfinished.
If Shades Of Dawn have continued to improve then their new album could prove to have been worth the wait, although I hate to say that I hope it is an instrumental recording!
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Bosch's With You - Defamiliarisation
Tracklist: #1 - As It Is Bird (21:30), Penetrating In / Outside Point Of View III (11:06), HCTD Do The D.O.W. Another Way (9:36), HCTD A Modem Defamiliarisation (7:30), The Last Image Attenuation (9:37)
Bosch's With You was formed in 2004 as a solo project of Dima The Pilot, founder and guitarist for the Moscow-based Noise Independent Psychedelic Punk band, Pilots Up In Smoke. Although originally supposed to be a studio-only project, the success of the first album, Birds & Fishes led to the formation of a more permanent band and an initiation into the concert scene. A double CD, Here Came The Day - Here Came The Night followed in 2005 which brings us to the latest release, a live in the studio album Defamiliarisation. The four-piece band on the album comprises Dima The Pilot (guitar, ambients, bells, noises & another instruments) Bad_C (drums, noises), A.B. (guitar, noises) and Bubble (bass).
While being live and largely improvised, Defamiliarisation does contain variations on melodic lines borrowed from the groups two previous albums. Thus, the improvisations do have some form on inherent structure. Given Pilot's previous band, this is a surprisingly gentle release. Centred squarely on the ambient side, the majority of the album is of a pretty laid-back nature. A lot of each of the compositions features the twin guitars of Pilot and A.B. creating sonic soundscapes that gently drift and intertwine. Indeed, it is almost halfway through opening track, the 21-minute #1 - As It Is Bird, before the rhythm section is introduced. There are moments of a more rockier nature, the ending of the opening track rises to a crescendo and, in a similar manner, HCTD Do the D.O.W. Another Way also has a more upbeat final section following a tranquil and melancholic opening.
Penetrating In / Outside Point Of View III is possibly the highlight of the album for me, a very gentle introductory passage sets up an insistent groves that slowly builds underpinned by a beautifully melodic bass. As the tempo increases restrained feedback is introduced before, first one, then two crescendos leaving the track to die away gracefully. The final two tracks, HCTD A Modem Defamiliarisation and The Last Image Attenuation, flow seamlessly into each other while maintaining a languid air. There are moments of quite delicate beauty, mingled with reflective passages and more dynamic places where the musicians sound more like a cohesive group.
Overall, Defamiliarisation is a rather sedate album that is fine for moments of reflection and relaxation. However, this mildly psychedelic, guitar-based ambient soundscape album, although being fine for what it is, will probably only appeal to a niche market, particularly within the progressive rock community.
Conclusion: 5+ out of 10
Yeti Rain – Discarnate
Tracklist: The Veiled Daughters Of Sleep (8:06), Book Of Visions (7:23), Ebon Ebon Thalud (8:18), Sea Of Endings (10:02), The Prophets’ Needle (4:39), Darklight (6:53), Dreaming In The Teeth Of Forever (10:26)
Occasionally, an album impresses me on a first playing or even part of a first playing. More often, I have to listen several times to get a reasonable feel for it. Usually, that’s a pleasant process, to a greater or lesser degree. However, I can’t say it’s been so very pleasant with Yeti Rain’s Discarnate. I want to be as fair as possible to this group, as I want to be to every group or artist, so after a brief description I’ll speak first as well as I can of the album’s virtues before explaining why repeated listenings, themselves not terribly enjoyable experiences, have not changed my initial opinion of this disc.
The group, really a duo (on this recording though not on future ones: you can read about the group’s expansion on the website) consisting of William Kopecky and Roger Ebner, boasts in the CD booklet that “All music [was] spontaneously composed by Yeti Rain.” And so you have to imagine Kopecky and Ebner sitting around, tape rolling, with their instruments – “wind drums” for both, “wind synthesizers” for Ebner, and fretless bass and tanpura (an Indian lute-like instrument) for Kopecky – improvising for, what, almost an hour. I assume the seven compositions more or less divide the recording sessions into separate “jams,” although I’ve not been able to differentiate much among the seven pieces. I have to say that this album does to an extent fulfil the promo literature’s claim that it will act like “an aural hallucinogenic,” but even as a long-time fan of many varieties of ambient music, I have to question whether that’s necessarily such a good thing.
But as I promised – on the plus side, the music, if not soothing, is anything but abrasive – the “wind drums” are hardly drums at all, the bass is used not for support but for colouration, the tanpura supplies interesting drones, and the wind synthesizer sounds, well, like wind. You might imagine a scene in a horror movie where a bunch of people are trapped on a dark and windy night in a drafty old barn – they’d hear the wind howling through the cracks in the walls, but they’d also hear, or fancy they heard, those eerie, inexplicable sounds that emanate from all horror-movie forests on dark nights. Well – this is a fifty-five-minute soundtrack to that scene.
Nor is this an atonal jumble of noise, as such an experimental album might well degenerate into (I do not mention in that connection the experimental group Electric Tiger). These musicians are clearly skilled ones (Kopecky himself has played with such artists as the Par Lindh Project and even Michael Angelo Batio!), and even at their most meandering, the compositions don’t disintegrate into aimless or dissonant noodling. Those wind synthesizers provide a pretty constant background for the other instrumental experimentation, so the album is nothing if not consistent in sound and tone.
However, all that said, I don’t find this an enjoyable CD to listen to. I don’t want to sound too traditional or unadventurous, but I like a melody, whether I’m listening to death metal, dance music, or ambient – and there ain’t no melodies here, not a thing that sounds like any kind of traditional Western “music.” I do understand that that’s probably the duo’s aim, I’m not naive, but I’m explaining now why I personally don’t care for the recording. And, try as I might, and although of course none of the songs is just like any of the other songs, I can’t say there’s much to differentiate them one from another except the titles, which I like a lot – especially “Ebon Ebon Thalud” (say it aloud for maximum effect).
So you know what you’re getting here: a little less than an hour of, essentially, synthesized spooky wind sounds. I can imagine the CD appealing to other ambient fans perhaps a little more adventurous than I, so add as many points to my rating, which reflects my opinion of the album as I’ve described it, as necessary to accommodate your tastes, if you’re such a fan; but I honestly can’t say I expect to listen to this CD much in the future.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
N.R.Hills - Eleven Nails In The Coffin
Tracklist: A Slam To The Laughter [Revised] (2:20), A Signature Of Times [Revised] (4:08), Hitch-Hiker [Revised] (3:42), "They Call Me Shock-Headed" [Revised edit] (7:29), A Fearful Symmetry [Revised edit] (3:42), Kathy [Revised] (3:02), Romeo & The Beast [Medley from the album] (10:43), Don't Go Into The Apple Tree [Revised] (3:29), The Boat of Nails [Revised] (6:11), Feline [Revised] (2:03), The Hopeful Heart [Revised] (1:17)
N.R.Hills is the artistic name of Nigel Hills, a composer who in the late 80's released with his own label seven instrumental ambient experimental albums, all self-produced and self-performed. He is also the man behind the covers of numerous books (e.g., Philip K. Dick's books) and the artwork of his own albums. The tracks featured in this CD release are all revised or revisited material from three of his past efforts, namely Romeo & The Beast, Nails and The Triumph Of Death, and that also justifies the cover which is simply the covers of two of the aforementioned albums put together. Those albums were never released on CD, and thus N.R.Hills has worked in the past three years refining that material to fit them into this CD. Having talked about the artwork's story, I can go further and say that this is the only thing that is fine here. Interesting and even "familiar" - brings to mind some Arena, or Nevermore covers. The music of Eleven Nails In The Coffin though is only slightly better than an imaginary album called "Eleven Nails Scratching A Coffin".
Ok, I'm nasty. So let me explain and describe. The music belongs to the new-age/ambient genre with some oriental influences and sounds a bit like a soundtrack. For some very fuzzy pointers I would give Eno, Tangerine Dream or Vangelis. I would summarize it in the following three points:
a) Total lack of structure. It is just a collection of themes, tunes and little compositions and ideas.
b) Abundance of annoying sounds, sound effects and samples. Either it is voice or noises, these "things" invade the ambience potentially created here and there and destroy it.
c) Presence of some good ideas, buried in that coffin, doomed to die undeveloped, when the composer applies abrupt changes that spoil it all.
Some examples to be a bit more elaborate: In A Slam To The Laughter, the track kicks off fine with some interesting keys and then we are attacked by useless noises out of nowhere. Why? The new-wave atmosphere of "They Call Me Shock-Headed" falls to pieces as an incomprehensible narrative comes in. Why? In the otherwise satisfying Don't Go Into The Apple Tree the Vangelis ambience gives way to an annoying chanting. Why? Maybe the only track I wasn't that disturbed by a surprise the composer kept for me was A Signature Of Times, a bit reminiscent of the style dominating Eno/Byrne's My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts. Maybe it was also because of the (I guess electronic) percussion that gave some taste to this otherwise tasteless release.
I am in general a bit critical to the ambient/new-age genre, but I do not think this has biased much this review. This music is simply doing its best to destroy whatever good might be in itself. Self-destructive.
Conclusion: 2 out of 10