Reviews in this issue:
- Carptree – Insekt
- Beardfish - Sleeping In Traffic: Part One
- 23 Current - Curve Of The Universe
- Discordia - Utopia Perfection
- John Macaluso & Union Radio - The Radio Waves Goodbye
- Musea Records Compilation (VA) - Progressive Rock Covers
Carptree – Insekt
Tracklist: Taxonomic Days (5:28), Mashed Potato Mountain Man (6:52), The Secret (6:20), Pressure (7:13), Sliding Down A Slippery Slope (4:59), My Index Finger (6:27), Slow Corrosion Of Character (5:53), Evening Sadness (5:56), Where Your Thoughts Move With Ease (4:59), Big Surprise (6:54), Stressless (4:07)
In his DPRP recommended review of Carptree’s 2005 album Man Made Machine, Mark Hughes noted how the songs on that album worked together to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts, the result being an album with difference and uniqueness, difficult to compare with the work of other bands. This is still the case on their latest release, Insekt.
This is the Swedish act's fourth album since forming in 1997, released on their own FOSFOR Creation label. The band still centre around the duo of Carl Westholm and Niclas Flinck on vocals, keyboards and percussion with the six piece No Future Orchestra filling out the sound with the usual guitar/bass/drums/backing vocals and regular contributors The Trollhaten Chamber Choir also appearing on two tracks.
Opener, Taxonomic Days, sets their stall out perfectly. There is heaviness in the instrumentation that counterbalances the sometimes fragile English language vocals of Flinck, the slight accent adding to the quirky and mysterious feel. Lyrically the album is very interesting and well written. There are nice hooks and an accessibility that belies the imagination contained within these beautiful songs, the power within the music being given a pleasing bleakness by the delivery. Second track, Mashed Potato Mountain Man, despite its awful title is just great and contains hints of Pink Floyd within its whole without sounding anything like that band. Tastefully arranged and with a beautiful melody, The Secret is the sign of talented artists at work who know exactly what they are doing. Throughout the album, the arrangements by Westholm are excellent and build up an underlying sense of theatre without needing to employ any showing off from the contributors. The Trollhaten choir appear here for the first time to very nice effect, backing the albums first guitar solo; understated and grown up. Again, Floydian elements occur with the use of a loudspeaker to deliver some of the lyrics.
Pressure does remind me of someone though I can’t quite place whom! Maybe a bit of Rick Wakeman with the nice use of Vocoder or perhaps a tip of the hat to The Flower Kings in the last minutes instrumental section. There is a sense in this track and the following Sliding Down The Slippery Slope of fighting an un-winnable battle against the world around you, the latter being a very straightforward and effective song with a possibly wider appeal. After a fragile start, My Index Finger opens out into chorus section with some excellent heavy guitar.
There is a rising scale intro with choir to Slow Corrosion Of Character before a more acoustic section with early Genesis overtones takes precedence with an excellent off kilter chorus, again the choir making an excellent contribution. A more straightforward feeling settles over Evening Sadness with an air of simplicity and melody reminiscent of later Genesis. The sparseness of the piano is the key to the opening of Where Your Thoughts Move With Ease, and is that a spot of Peter Gabriel in the vocal?
Big Surprise is much heavier with treated vocal, more drums and a traditional band sound. Possibly the least interesting cut on the album but adding variety to the whole, slightly too long it is the only track that outstays its welcome. Stressless comes across as just that, very relaxed vibe, again with a Pink Floyd influence.
It took me a number of listens to finally get this album but once I had it opened itself up to offer a very enjoyable listening experience, well worth a visit. There is certainly uniqueness in the approach that this band takes and I’m keen to hear some of their other work. Very highly recommended to those who like a little atmosphere in their prog without the bombast and over the top instrumentals. As mentioned, the atmosphere and arrangements coupled with a good ear for a song and a powerful central performance from Niclas Flinck raise this above the rest. Few if any competitors that I’ve heard recently and worth spending time with.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Beardfish - Sleeping In Traffic: Part One
Tracklist: On The Verge Of Sanity (0:47), Sunrise (7:54), Afternoon Conversation (3:42), And Never Know (5:59), Roulette (12:07), Dark Poet (3:24), Harmony (7:20), the Ungodly Slob (6:42), Year Of The Knife (7:28), Without You (2:39), Same Old Song (Sunset) (7:51)
Swedish four-piece Beardfish seem to have slipped under the radar a bit, as there seems to have been little notice paid to their first couple of discs (the second was a double disc effort); neither have been reviewed on DPRP. Well, on the strength of this, their InsideOut debut, the increased attention they should hopefully garner, is richly deserved, and their back catalogue is certainly worthy of further exploration.
Along with many other recent Swedish acts, Beardfish have a clear retro streak, manifesting in influences from a wide range of acknowledged progressive masters including (but surely not limited to) King Crimson, Yes, Gentle Giant, Genesis, Supertramp and Frank Zappa. More recent bands sharing a similar ethos, if not exactly a common sound or style, might include Anekdoten and Ritual. To all these worthy influences, add plenty of Swedish folk melodies, some hard rock bite, modern rock and jam band inflections, and the resultant stew ends up sounding like … well.. like Beardfish actually.
Even with all this going on, and some surprising song structures, the music is actually, for prog anyway, rather commercial and accessible. Keyboards (pianos and organs mostly) and guitars dominate the instrumental base, but flashy solos are eschewed for the most part.
A few highlights:
- Harmony harbours hard rock moves with strident organ and some serious wailing reminiscent of Ian Gillan from vocalist Rikard Sjobolm.
- Dark Poet is an engaging, reflective piano ballad, with a strong vocal performance.
- The Ungodly Slob melds funky jamming and Swedish folk melodies with gay abandon. Gentle Giant is a good reference point for the level of invention at work here.
The album’s centre-piece Roulette is my favourite track, where a Supertramp-ish electric piano opening leads to some superbly atmospheric organ. This lengthy and thoughtful piece recalls both musically and lyrically, the 70’s classic Being by Finnish combo Wigwam. In fact, there are other places on this disc where Wigwam comes to mind, including the aforementioned Dark Poet. In fact, Wigwam with their eclectic, off-centre approach, their knack for Beatlesque melodies and satirical and socially aware lyrics, perhaps make for the best comparison yet for the Beardfish style.
What this album perhaps lacks, is a few really killer standout tracks to stick in your memory, but with hardly any duff moments, it’s a strong and enjoyable CD which could have wide appeal.
I await Part Two (which the band are currently working on) with eager curiosity.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
23 Current - Curve Of The Universe
Tracklist: Truth and Lies (3:13), Skin Deep (3:36), Hyperstition (2:15), Noise in the Circuit (4:05), A House Divided (4:50), Curve of the Universe (3:39), Letters in Stone (3:36), A Shadow of Doubt (3:31), The Fire of Time (2:31), Strangers Voice (5:14), War and Wonder (3,42), The Aftermath (1:44), Sound and Sight (3:01)
Of the several hundred albums, which arrive at DPRP towers every year in search of top marks, most are instantly snapped-up by reviewers eager to listen to what the artists have produced and to give an opinion. However some albums have to wait their turn, hanging in the 'pipeline' waiting for an ear, eager to listen. Such a fate is not necessarily a reflection on the music on offer. More likely, it's either an act which no-one has ever heard of before or a type of music that doesn't immediately appeal to a reviewer with time to spare.
Anyway that was the fate to befall this second album from Pittsburgh-based 23 Current. It was a quiet Sunday evening as the page of my calendar was turned over to June, and Curve Of The Universe had been sitting in the 'To be reviewed' pile since January. A quick visit to the band's MySpace page told me that it wasn't still there due to the poor quality of the music, so I decided to give it a try. And I'm glad that I did, because Curve Of The Universe is a rather enjoyable album.
From the name, it's impossible to guess what sort of music 23 Current will deliver. After several listens, the music remains hard to categorise. What is easy to tell you, is that 23 Current is the musical vehicle for multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter Shawn Burnette. As well as being the band's driving force, Shawn performs all guitar, bass, keyboard, piano and lead vocal parts and some percussion. Only studio drummer Andy Reamer contributes additional parts.
Burnette is clearly a thoughtful guitarist. His work is far removed from the usual 1000-notes-per-second six-string-show-offs. The solos always fit the songs, the acoustic work is well placed, and the carefully layered guitars that appear throughout, give the impression of several musicians at work.
Burnette claims one of his key influences as Queens of the Stone Age and there's certainly a grungy feel to many of the songs, helped by the deep tone and rough edge to his voice. The pop/rock melody and tempo to the opener Truth And Lies gives a good indication of what is to follow, but that's not to say there isn't plenty of variety. Skin Deep has a bluesy, laid-back vibe that gives a nod to the Moody Blues, the title track is a pleasant acoustic instrumental and A House Divided benefits from good female vocal harmonies.
I wouldn't call this a particularly progressive album, nor one that is necessarily going to turn Burnette into a household name. It may be just too well-crafted, leaving a desire for Burnette to occasionally step out of his musical mould to try something more adventurous.
However Curve Of The Universe will appeal to anyone who enjoys modern, mid-paced rock with a heavy reliance on multi-layered guitars. 23 Current already has a catalogue of new songs ready to roll, and I would be very surprised if the next album is not snapped up for review in an instant!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Discordia - Utopia Perfection
Tracklist: Foreseen (4:24), Mystery Man (3:47), Speak Directly (4:29), As Above So Below (4:51), The Group (3:58), Interlude (4:04), Slave Planet I (3:31), Slave Planet II (6:03), The Comment Of The Wise (2:03), Mighty Power Of Metal (3:39), Giant Dwarf (3:06)
Finnish band Discordia was founded in 2001. After several changes in personnel the current line-up was finalised in early 2006 and comprises founding members Antti Tolkki (guitar) and Petri Sallinen (bass) along with Otto Mäkelä (drums), Liisa Lipas (keyboards, violin, santur), Tero Väänänen (vocals, bass clarinet) and Riikka Hänninen (vocals, tin whistle). As the name suggests, the band are interested in combining often conflicting forms of music to form rather unique compositions imbued with polyrhythms and polyphony - independent melody lines vie against each other while elements of rock, classical and traditional folk can be heard within the songs, often simultaneously! To this end, Discordia have produced an album that is beyond genres as I doubt if you will have heard the like of this before, truly progressive.
The opening number, Foreseen manages to blend almost classical layers of vocal harmonies with heavy riffing guitars despite having totally different tempos. Mystery Man has a great tune and uses the different vocals of Väänänen and Hänninen to great effect. Speak Directly uses multilayered vocals, a trend that continues in The Group and both numbers are unremittingly jolly and upbeat. Dividing these two is the more sedate and mournful As Above So Below with some rather lovely violin by Lipas taking the instrumental lead.
Interlude is largely instrumental based around a recurring drum pattern. Although the voices and vocals are neatly arranged over the top, this is probably the least interesting track on the album. Slave Planet I and II and totally different compositions, although lyrically loosely linked. I is aggressive and II is plaintive with Hänninen providing her best vocal performance. Väänänen, who does not sing on this track, makes his presence felt by adding texture via a vibraphone. The Comment Of The Wise is the only completely instrumental piece on the album, being rather bombastic and taking musical cues from previous tracks and raising the tempo as a prequel to the amusing, albeit unintentionally so, Mighty Power Of Metal. Despite the chorus being as close to the heavy rock or metal genre as the band gets, the song is not exactly about the all-conquering forces of rock 'n' roll but rather the more Tolkeinesque tails of wizards, orcs and elves, with the mighty power belonging to the metal of the rings or what other talisman this particular tale holds dear. Final track, Giant Dwarf is a more predominantly in a folkish vein with accordions and tin whistles in abundance. Also contains the top lyric of the album: "Does the size really matter, when you have a pretty good ladder?"!
Overall, Utopia Perfection becomes more enjoyable the more you listen to it and the originality of the approach that the group takes towards their compositions makes the album somewhat unique. However, one caveat: the band have stated that the "music somewhat resembles bands like Camel, Gentle Giant, Rush, Marillion, Renaissance, Queen and Van Der Graaf Generator". That would be 'somewhat' as in 'not at all like' then!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
John Macaluso & Union Radio - The Radio Waves Goodbye
Tracklist: Soul In Your Mind (5:44), Mother Illusion (5:28), The Prayer Pill (5:36), Dissolved (5:07), Gates To Bridges (4:09), Shimmering Grey (4:46), T-34 (7:32), Staring "Pain" (4:18), Pretzel (4:08), Yesterday I'll Understand (4:32), The Six Foot Under Happy Man (3:05), Things You Should Not Know (5:18), Away With Words (5:47)
I must confess that John Macaluso is a new name to me but judging by the long list of guest musicians that join him on his first solo project he is a highly respected drummer. As a session player and band member he has appeared on some 200 albums by various metal artists including ARK, TNT and Yngwie Malmsteen. In addition to providing the drums and occasional vocals on The Radio Waves Goodbye he has written all thirteen songs and is also responsible for the superb production. The playing throughout the album is singularly excellent with Macaluso and his contributors weaving a fusion of hard rock, psychedelic rock, jazz and prog.
In the rocking opener Soul In Your Mind it’s the familiar voice of Dream Theater’s James LaBrie that initially grabs the attention. It soon becomes apparent however that this is Macaluso’s baby with a supercharged solo at the half way mark. In fact his drums are well up in the mix throughout the album leaving no doubt as to who’s in the driving seat. Synth man Vitalij Kuprij and guitarist Alex Rastopskin each squeeze in brief but flashy solos. Following LaBrie, Mike Dimeo adds his impressive vocals to Mother Illusion and Gates To Bridges as does Adrian Holtz with his higher register to The Prayer Pill and Dissolved.
Each of these track has a mid tempo spacey feel giving Macaluso the room to demonstrate his skills. During The Prayer Pill he even manages to replicate Phil Collins’ infamous drum pattern from In The Air Tonight. If I had to add one small note of criticism regarding the production it would be that the pronounced snare sound does sound a tad hollow especially during Dissolved. Gates To Bridges is the best of this bunch with exceptional heavy weight guitar from Robert Katrikh and Macaluso pounding his kick drums like there’s no tomorrow.
Shimmering Grey is a real slice of Pink Floyd atmospherics with a suitably emotive vocal from Holtz and tasteful Mike Portnoy style dynamics from Macaluso. The instrumental T-34 is the albums true progy moment and for me the highlight. Keyboardist Kuprij gives a tour de force performance with overtones of Keith Emerson in his style. In addition to hammering out the rhythm on piano he plays sensitive classical fills and lightning fast jazz runs on both piano and synth. The angry Staring "Pain" gives Marco Sfogli the opportunity to demonstrate his aggressive lead guitar skills supported by quick fire acoustic work from Dimuti that has a Trevor Rabin flavour about it.
I’m not a big fan of novelty tracks and this album boasts a couple of them. The Six Foot Under Happy Man is a pastiche of the 1940’s big band sound complete with vocal impressions of The Andrews Sisters and Louis Armstrong. OK so it’s cleverly done but why bother? I reckon Macaluso had Frank Zappa in mind when he put this one together. Thankfully at three minutes it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Pretzel on the other hand works much better. A female voice tells a friend how she missed the drum solo during a concert because she went to buy a pretzel. Her words signal a three and a half minute solo with Macaluso in his element demonstrating his lightning fast style.
Of the remaining tracks Yesterday I'll Understand features a memorable vocal from Don Chaffin including a respectable Robert Plant impression. Macaluso responds with a monumental performance of John Bonham proportions. In Things You Should Not Know he gives one of his best workouts underpinning Kuprij’s restless synth work. Guitarist Alex Masi replies with an impressive display of his own. The closing instrumental Away With Words opts for a relaxed almost world music feel. The cutting sound of Rastopskin’s controlled guitar atmospherics is complemented by Macaluso’s restrained playing, proving that his forte is more than just pounding skins.
Although many drummers have tried their hand at solo albums the end results have been variable. Macaluso has got it mostly right I feel surrounding himself with top-flight musicians whilst allowing ample space for his own playing to cut through. He certainly demonstrates exceptional playing skills with speed, weight and versatility in abundance. It’s not all good news however. For me his song writing skills, which do not match his playing abilities, are spread too thinly over the 13 tracks. Despite the diverse lineup of musicians several songs sound very samey even after numerous plays. To close on a positive note however this release is a master class in technique that should strike a chord with all would be and pro drummers alike.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
Musea Records Compilation (VA) - Progressive Rock Covers
Tracklist: Gerard: Toccata (7:39), Pangaea: Time (4:59), Blue Shift: Immigrant Song (2:53), Ars Nova: Birds Medley (7:52), London Underground: Travelling Lady (5:33), Twenty-Four Hours: Darkness – 11/11 (7:08), Quidam: Child In Time (9:46), Halloween: House With No Door (4:07), Now: Kashmir (14:39), Dificil Equilibrio: Dynamite (2:56), Visible Wind: Strange Days (3:06); Bonus Track: Thierry Crusem & L’Autre Systéme: Exiles (4:51)
You’re all sitting there – I know you are, don’t deny it! – saying “Yeah, the latest Rush album is pretty okay, and the new Dream Theater’s decent – but what I really want is a progressive-rock cover of, oh, Immigrant Song or Kashmir or, hey, maybe even something by The Doors.” I too have been waiting for just such a treat – and here it is.
I apologize for the sarcasm. But honestly. There must be people out there, and I apologize also to my readers who fall into this group, who really enjoy cover versions of classic songs and think that whole albums of such things are on the whole a good idea. And I can sympathize, because there’s a pleasure in the familiar, and to be sure sometimes a cover is better than the original – rarely, to my mind, but sometimes. But for the most part, and especially when there is so very much good new music out there (in the progressive-rock genre as in, I think, most others), I don’t know that recycling well-known, or even lesser-known, old tunes is the way to go.
But having established my view, let me assess as even-handedly as I can this rather odd disc that Musea has compiled for us, because, my biases aside, it’s not at all half bad for those who like this sort of thing. Unfortunately, I’ll have to resort to a variation of a format I don’t much like, the song-by-song review, if I want to do any justice to the album, because it’s in no way a coherent work, for obvious reasons; what we have here is a dozen different artists covering wildly diverse material with varying degrees of success. But I’ll make the overview less tedious than it might be by grouping the tracks into three groups: outright successes, interesting attempts that don’t quite work, and failures of one kind and for one reason or another.
Let’s begin with the failures so as to end with the successes. And let me stress in a way that I usually don’t in a review that my tastes may not coincide with yours: you may like even some of the songs in this category. But I have to say that Ars Nova’s version of Trace’s Birds Medley is both draggy and annoying; Gerard’s Toccata, though perky and spirited, really adds nothing to ELP’s original; and London Underground’s Travelling Lady plods for what seems like much more than five and a half minutes with a creepy (I assume deliberately) neo-Ozzy-sounding vocal and an organ and saxophone that will cut right through your eardrums. Worst of all, though, is Now’s version of Kashmir. No, no, no. The band has succeeded, I guess I’d have to say, in making the song their own. They retain the lyrics, vocal melody, chords, and tempo of the original. But this version is, to be blunt, gutless. There’s no bottom end; the drums sound like shoeboxes; the guitar is tinny and grating; there’s a noodling synthesizer throughout that embellishes without adding anything; and the vocals, while serviceable, will do nothing but send you running for your copy of Physical Graffiti. While I do applaud the band’s courage in taking on this iconic tune, there was no reason for this version to exist.
What about the ones that are okay on their own terms? Well, Pangea’s Time is quite faithful to Floyd’s original (down to the guitar solo), and thus it’s a great song competently performed. And there’s a clever ending: a shouted “Time!” that echoes as it fades, coming to sound almost like the “bark” in Dogs (wrong album, but hey). Visible Wind’s version of The Doors’ Strange Days is kind of neat, too, almost out-psychedelicizing the original with its processed vocals and wild guitar soloing. Twenty-Four Hours’s atmospheric take on Van Der Graaf Generator’s Darkness – 11/11 is a bit drum-heavy in its production but is otherwise quite a nice version. And Dificil Equilibrio’s Dynamite (a song I don’t know, originally by Gong) is a bit scary in its eccentricity; not knowing the original, I can’t say what this band brings to it, but it’s not dull, I can certainly say that.
Leading the group of songs that are pretty much successful is Blue Shift’s Immigrant Song. Beware bands (well, like Now and that disastrous Kashmir) that take on Led Zeppelin! – but, wow, Blue Shift’s singer pretty much nails Plant’s sublime wail, and the band rises to the challenge, powering along the oh-so-familiar Viking gallop to a satisfying conclusion. And call me nuts, but a ten-minute live version, with a female vocalist and a flute as pretty much the lead instrument, of any Deep Purple song is going to catch my attention – so I have to say that Quidam’s Child In Time goes farther than any other song on the album in re-imagining the original and giving the band some sort of warrant for covering an already great composition. Also live and also featuring a female singer, but with only piano as instrumentation, is Halloween’s version of Van Der Graaf Generator’s House With No Door, and again this works pretty well. Maybe best of all here is the “bonus track” (I don’t think I understand how the first pressing of a CD can have a bonus track), Thierry Crusem et L’Autre Systéme’s fast, energetic cover of King Crimson’s Exiles. An excellent and compelling ending, at least, to a sort of up-and-down album.
I can’t personally recommend this album; I don’t imagine I’ll listen to it much in the future, though I might crank up a few of those songs in my last paragraph now and again. Whether you’d like it or not depends on your tolerance for cover versions of songs that were pretty much definitive in their original incarnations; and you can see from my descriptions whether what’s on offer here will appeal to you. As a whole, though, I’d say that this album was a pretty strange idea – though considering the record label it comes from, it’s not as strange as it might be.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10