Reviews in this issue:
- Phideaux - Doomsday Afternoon (Duo Review)
- Mermaid Kiss - Etarlis
- Cast - Com.Union
- Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites - Ascendances ~ Friesengeist Part III
- US - Reflections
- Kurt Michaels - Outer Worlds
Phideaux - Doomsday Afternoon
Tracklist: Act One Micro Softdeathstar (11:13), The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice [Part One] (3:01), Candybrain (4:06), Crumble (2:55), The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice [Part Two] (8:06) Act Two Thank You For The Evil (9:16), A Wasteland Of Memories (2:23), Crumble (2:54), Formaldehyde (8:17), Microdeath Softstar (14:48)
Mark Hughes' Review
Phideaux is back with his sixth album in a little over three years. If there is a list of modern artists who can be considered truly progressive, then Phideaux must surely be at the top of the list. Not only has each album documented the development of an artist and songwriter in terms of complexity and ambition but each has shown an admirable scope of diversity while still retaining an identity all of his own. With Doomsday Afternoon we reach, in progressive rock terms, the pinnacle of achievement thus far. The second part of a trilogy, that started with The Great Leap at the end of 2006, Doomsday Afternoon is a long form concept piece about environmental decay. With a total of 31 musicians, including 14 members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra, the piece more than lives up to the promise of "one long song in the tradition of Thick As A Brick and is set to feature some orchestration and a few kick ass solos".
Given that Phideaux is an independent artist who has not been unknown to give away large chunks of his musical output in the past, the album is a complete triumph. Back in the 1970s, classic bands of the period spent the equivalent of the gross national product of several small countries to achieve results as good as this! The core band is Phideaux Xavier (keyboards, guitar, vocals), Rich Hutchins (drums), Gabriel Moffat (guitars), Mark Sherkus (keyboards), Eyestrings' Matthew Kennedy (bass), Valerie Gracious (piano, vocals) and vocalists Aeriel Farber, Linda Ruttan Moldawsky and Molly Ruttan (who also provided the excellent artwork for the album, a continuation of the style and theme seen in The Great Leap). Once again, the use of different vocalists adds tone and texture, with the females having a more prominent role to play as in the simply gorgeous vocal version of Crumble in Act Two where the simplicity of vocals and piano is striking. The orchestrations, by conductor Paul Ruldolph, feature strings, brass and wind and blend seamlessly in with the group. This isn't an exercise of taking established songs and adding an orchestra, for the orchestral parts are integral to the songs themselves. The whole having a more symphonic feel, rather more in the way that Renaissance approached such endeavours.
Act One kicks off with Micro Softdeathstar which undulates in its approach from solo opening piano, to an upbeat musical section (albeit with rather more downbeat lyrics), to a tad more psychedelic section introducing a solo violin (by Matthew Parmenter) to the introduction of the orchestra. And we are only three and a half minutes into the song! The lyrics are superb (think more Peter Nicholls than Roger Waters, both excellent lyricists) and the vocal arrangements make best use of the various voices. The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice [Part One], one of two instrumentals on the album, again features the orchestra, although the brass and wind instruments feature more prominently. One nice touch is the keyboard strings playing against their orchestral equivalent. A fine electric guitar solo and final piano leads into Candybrain whose opening is reminiscent to parts of Camel's The Snowgoose. A more acoustic number with some excellent flute parts and an engaging melody the song is a perfect introduction to the instrumental version of Crumble with piano, synth and string quartet, all topped off with some ethereal vocal parts and a clarinet solo. Superb! Act One ends with the second, and major, part of The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice. Xavier's Rhodes electric piano adds more a different texture to the song which has a rather more ominous feel, appropriate since in the narrative "Satan's angels swarm to catch the tide, Satan's angels fly".
Act Two starts with Thank You For The Evil, with a style, particularly the Moog synthesiser, evoking Pink Floyd at the time of the wonderful Animals album. A modern take on the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden complete with temptation's apple as a symbol of resistance to subjugation. The orchestra is back in fine form for the brief A Wasteland Of Memories with it's lyrical link to opening track Micro Softdeathstar before heading into the previously mentioned glories of the vocal and piano version of Crumble. Formaldehyde, a major component of smog pollution caused by smoke from forest fires, car exhaust fumes and even cigarette smoke, again has some initial similarities with Camel. Featuring an array of musical guests, including Matthew Parmenter (Discipline, solo) on violin, Stephen Dundon (from Molly Bloom) on flute and Martin Orford (ex-IQ) playing a rare synthesiser solo. Although the initial of the song is along similar lines to what has gone before, the end section allows the rock band a chance to shine, with guitars, synths and flutes flying in at all angles and tempo changes a plenty, this one will keep the rockers happy. Oh and in case you wonder what the final H-C-H-O chant is, that is the chemical formula for formaldehyde!. Lastly up is the totally impressive fifteen minute Microdeath Softstar which reinvigorates the previous musical themes. Once again the orchestral components are integral to the composition, either provided by the whole orchestra or by Parmenter's solo violin. More guests provide additional guitar (Joel Weinstein) and keyboard (Johnny Unicorn) solos. However, the album ends on a cautionary note setting up the final part of the trilogy: "Fear leave a trace of something stale, A wasteland of memory of how we failed, All we need is time, all we need is time, But time's too damned unkind".
The concluding part of the trilogy, tentatively called Infernal, is due to start being recorded in September and it is an album that I for one, eagerly await. Promising to be different once again, with just the live band and no guests or orchestras one wonders what the outcome will be. However, with the live band comprising 11 musicians the outcome will no doubt be pretty diverse. And speaking of live, Phideaux is taking to the road in August with a couple of dates, one in Virginia and the other at the free Festival Crescendo in Saint Palais sur Mer in France. I urge everyone to attend these gigs to support this innovative and exciting artist. I just hope that they have the presence of mind to record the dates for a live release for those of us who can't attend the concerts. I'd love to hear how this material is presented live. However, in the meantime the album is more than enough enjoyment, This really is an album that everyone should hear, musicians and music fans alike.
Tom De Val's Review
I’ve heard the name Phideaux Xavier banded about in progressive rock circles, and read very complimentary reviews of his past work (many by my colleague Mark on this very site) but had yet to take the plunge and actually listen to any of his music – another victim of the ‘so much music, so little time’ syndrome I seem to be struck with more and more in our information-overloaded age. So when the chance came to participate in a duo review of Phideaux’s sixth album I was quick to put my hand up… and I’m glad I did, as it was immediately clear I’ve been missing out on some fantastic music.
With Phideaux having created their previous five albums in little more than three years, my first thought that this would be a typical modern ‘DIY’ affair – one man playing the majority of instruments with a few guests, a drum machine, big on ideas small on budget, etc., right? Wrong! Just a look at the line-up for this one blew any misconceptions out of the water. Pianist, guitarist and vocalist Xavier is joined by 8 regular band members (including guitarist Gabriel Moffat, keyboardist Mark Sherkus and drummer Rich Hutchins, not to mention four female vocalists), a number of guest performers (including Matthew Parmenter (Discipline) and a solo spot from ex-IQ man Martin Orford), plus an orchestra who are utilised on the majority of tracks. And its’ all there on the album; this is one of the most instrumentally rich and beautifully textured albums I’ve heard in a while, with each instrument getting room to breathe yet also working well with each other. Particularly impressive is the use of the orchestration; although there are a few solo spots (notably some great mariachi trumpet bursts on The Doctrine Of Eternal Ice) the main use is as an embellishment of the music, rather a total dominance of it. The use and interaction of so many instruments means that this is one of those releases that always yields something new on each listen, and therefore is unlikely to be something you either ‘get’ on first listen, or chuck away to gather dust after just a few plays – its what we reviewers sometimes refer to as a ‘keeper’.
So what of the music? Well, to refer to this album simply as a ‘prog rock concept album’ would be partly correct, yet would also be doing it something of a disservice. It undoubtedly can be described as a prog rock album, and Xavier is clearly influenced by some of the bigger names in the scene, such as Pink Floyd and Genesis. Yet it goes far further, and incorporates a range of different styles, to the extent that it’s’ actually rather hard to give a clear description, or point of reference, as to exactly what Doomsday Afternoon sounds like. For instance I could just as well say that parts of this album sound a little like Split Enz – those who only know the pop-rock hits such as I Got You may be confused by this comment, but check out the bands earlier material (such as Mental Notes or Disrhythmia) and you’ll see that the skewed, theatrical avant-garde pop the Kiwi band were then purveying isn’t a million miles away from what Xavier and his crew have come up with (in parts) here.
Let’s return to the Pink Floyd / Genesis comparisons. You’re probably expecting the usual reference points in terms of albums here – i.e. Dark Side... and Foxtrot. Well, not really – the era’s this release recalls is more late 70’s Floyd (particularly Animals) and The Lamb… era Genesis. In other words, the dark, rather unsettling side of these bands rather than the quaintly English, pastoral side. And that makes sense, as the music on Doomsday Afternoon is unquestionably rather dark, and at times pretty unsettling – entirely appropriately given the bleak lyrical concept, which I will return to. Yet that doesn’t mean the album is devoid of musical colour – far from it. Just taking a look at the keyboards used – Hammond B3, Moog voyager, Arp string ensemble, Minimoog, Rhodes – should get fans of vintage keyboard sounds salivating, and the results will certainly satisfy their appetites. Xavier also knows when to strip things back and keep the music simple – the piano and female vocals of Crumble, for instance – and when to pile on the orchestration, such as on the finale of The Doctrine Of Eternal Evil. The use of recurring themes and motifs is also skilfully done, and means that the album is best appreciated as a whole rather than in several separate sittings. I particularly like the aggressive piano melody which recurs on several occasions, and reminds me of Queen’s Death On Two Legs – that had biting lyrics too, although were perhaps more to the point than Xavier’s.
Such is the quality of the compositions as a whole that it’s hard to pick a highlight. One track that does stand out, as much for the fact that it is quite different than others on the album than anything else, is Formaldehyde. Kicking off with flute and acoustic guitar, yet backed by that ever-so-slightly-sinister keyboard sound, its almost like Jethro Tull and IQ in a blender – a comparison helped by a Martin Orford solo spot later in the song. Yet the mid-section takes off in a different direction, a folk-y yarn with female vocals which really did remind me of Mike Oldfield’s eighties hit Moonlight Shadow. Yet there are enough ‘typical’ Phideaux embellishments and themes to mean that the song doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb.
Lyrically, as I have stated, this is a concept, and isn’t exactly a barrel of laughs. Subtitling the album ‘an eco terror tale’, Xavier sketches out a dark tale of man’s destruction of his habitat, although you have to dig at times for the meanings – he’s a poetic rather than straight-down-the-line lyricist, but again this suits the music to a tee. Vocally, Xavier himself is helped out by Matthew Parmenter on a few tracks – both deliver in theatrical style, with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Roger Waters and Peter Hammill clearly influences. The female solo spots nicely contrast the two male singers, and whilst used sparingly, this probably works in the album’s favour as it increases the impact when they do appear. It almost goes without saying that there are multiple occasions where strong vocal harmony work is used to further embellish the music.
The only real criticism I would have is that the last track, Microdeath Softstar (now which well-known global industry giant can they referring to there?!) seems to amble and lose focus in places, with some rather throwaway guitar solo’s – the only time I felt my attention wavering. I should also state that this is an album you really need to sit and listen to – it just doesn’t work as well as background music…
A final mention should be made to the excellent illustrations in the CD booklet by Molly Ruttan – possibly influenced by the likes of Munch and Dali, these colourful but unsettling gothic paintings perfectly compliment the lyrics and gives another reason you should actual buy the CD rather than obtaining it through downloading.
Overall I was highly impressed by Phideaux’s Doomsday Afternoon, and will certainly be seeking out the back catalogue. The main problem being where to start…
Mermaid Kiss - Etarlis
Tracklist: Prelude (2.11), A Different Sky (5.17), Walking With Ghosts (4.01), Dark Cover (4.37), Nowhere To Hide (7.08), Siren Song (3.14), A Sea Change (7.20) (i) The Lighthouse, (ii) The Running Tide, (iii) In Deep, (iv) Slide and Sway, (v) In Deep (Reprise), Shadow Girl (4.04), Beat The Drum (6.35), Crayola Skies (5.34), The City Of Clouds (Qway-Lin) (10.30)
This is the third release from Mermaid Kiss and coincidentally their third appearance in these review pages. The 2003 debut album Mermaid Kiss and last year's Salt On Skin EP both received very respectable ratings but the DPRP recommended tag has so far eluded the band. Etarlis however could be the one that might just swing it for them. Based on a fantasy adventure penned by band members Jamie Field and Evelyn Downing the songs certainly have all the necessary ingredients. The story follows two friends Anna and Gerri and their discovery of the parallel world of Etarlis whilst holidaying in Snowdonia, North Wales. The central characters are actually based on two girls Anna and Geraldine that Jamie met during a trip to Wales following the 1975 Reading Festival. The fantasy element is enhanced by the excellent booklet artwork with contributions from photographer Chris Walkden and designer Richard Pocock.
Musically this is symphonic prog in the truest sense. Sweeping orchestral passages courtesy of keyboardist Andrew Garman and soaring lead guitar by Nigel Hooton are supported by lyrical woodwind playing from Wendy Marks and vocalist Evelyn Downing. Jamie Field adds acoustic guitars and backing vocals and the end result is a melodious backdrop to the narrative on a cinematic scale. Evelyn’s striking soprano voice reaches the high notes with ease and as I remarked in my previous review her confident delivery is occasionally reminiscent of Kate Bush. Three of the eleven songs feature the sweet refrains of Kate Belcher who adds her own beautiful, sometimes melancholic vocals to Nowhere To Hide, Siren Song and Shadow Girl. Kate made her first appearance on the Salt On Skin CD whereas Evelyn has been with the band since its inception.
During the instrumental Prelude and the dramatic Nowhere To Hide the sumptuous orchestral sounds created by Garman are demonstrated to full effect. The former has an eerie, ghostly feel that put me in mind of Karda Estra whilst the latter combines synth and string washes to produce a symphonic effect to rival And You And I era Yes. The sparkling synth and organ sound of A Different Sky combined with Evelyn’s strident vocal bares close comparison to the Rob Reed and Tina Booth partnership in Magenta. This song, along with Beat The Drum, is also notable for the stirring guitar work off Hooton. His playing however in my opinion is at its very best towards the close of Dark Cover. His melodic style brings Andy Latimer and Mostly Autumn’s Bryan Josh to mind with a hint of vintage Steve Rothery.
Although rich in instrumentation the whole album benefits from a smooth and spacious sound. Several songs including Dark Cover, Beat The Drum and The City Of Clouds open with ambient synths and piano recalling Pink Floyd amongst others. It also boasts two beautifully laidback songs that would probably qualify as ballads. Siren Song and Shadow Girl feature the sensuous understated vocals of Kate Belcher with delicate piano accompaniment and background strings. The instrumental bridge in the latter with its low strings, cor anglais and flute is worthy of maestro film composer Thomas Newman. Evelyn Downing gives possibly her most sensitive performance on Walking With Ghosts with its memorable chorus and a passionate vocal supported by her own rippling flute playing. During the stately Crayola Skies her delivery is almost hymn like and includes an elegant oboe solo from Wendy Marks.
The albums centrepiece is the five part A Sea Change. The brooding intro has a Celtic folk feel with Evelyn’s vocal harking back to Simple Minds’ (remember them?) Belfast Child. The atmosphere is enhanced by guest Troy Donockley’s resonant uilleann pipes interwoven with acoustic guitar and recorders. The mood changes for a proggy jazz tinged synth solo from Jonathan Edwards of Karnataka and Panic Room fame. In terms of instrumental density the two busiest tracks are undoubtedly Beat The Drum and the concluding song. The first includes an excellent chorus with an assured performance from Evelyn and contrasts a modern synth sound at the start with classic organ work to play out. The City Of Clouds [Qway-Lin] provides a grandiose conclusion with an infectious synth string motif reaching a peak with tubular bells and a majestic Keith Emerson synth break to fade.
Although the previous two outings from Mermaid Kiss demonstrated a flair for strong compositions and polished performances I believe they’ve really struck gold this time round. Etarlis sees the bands prog credentials firmly in place with a finely judged balance between tuneful vocal sections and dynamic instrumental interludes. Guitarist Nigel Hooton and keyboardist Andrew Garman in particular really come into their own on this release. In addition to providing bass and drums the keys man also shares song writing credits with Field and Downing and is responsible for the sonically clean production. Whilst the band’s sound may lack the harder edge to appeal to some tastes the mature arrangements and thoughtful style should find a wide audience amongst devotees of classic prog.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Cast - Com.Union
Tracklist: Orogus (4:03), Al Bello (3:15), Fantasmas Y Demonios (6:09), Elfonia (11:16), Sensacion Arabe (7:46), Damajuana II (4:48), Donde Se Visten Las Serpientes (7:28), El Cojin Verde (5:40), Cosas Simples (5:48), Hogar Dulce Hogar (3:55), Lobos (4:27), Io (5:27)
DPRP reviews often start with a brief bio of the artist or band that will include the inevitable statistics. In the case of perennial Mexican prog rockers Cast the statistics flow like rain on a UK summer's day. The band is just one year away from their 30th anniversary, a birthday they will share with Yes, although the UK veterans have a ten-year advantage. The first album didn't appear until 1994, and if my colleague got his sums right in the review of last years Mosaïque album then Com.Union is their 20th release to date. Bandleader and keyboardist Alfonso Vidales remains the sole surviving member from the early days with a revolving door approach to the ever-changing line-up. The band boasts an impressive arsenal of instrumentation and with the current membership Vidales has some big guns by his side. They are Pepe Torres flute, saxophone, clarinet and gaita (bagpipes), Flavio Miranda bass, Lupita Acuna vocals and percussion, Dino Brassea vocals and flute, Antonio Bringas drums and Claudio Cordero lead guitar. Vidales is responsible for writing the music whilst Brassea, in addition to his gritty and expressive voice, provides the majority of the Spanish lyrics.
A characteristic the band shares with The Flower Kings is a penchant for double and lengthy single albums. This falls into the latter category and continues the custom of mixing shorter pieces with the occasional ten-minute plus track. Musically this is a rich blend of free flowing symphonic prog that combines melody and complexity with rare bouts of experimentation and only the occasional lapse into self indulgence. The two opening instrumentals Orogus and Al Bello are prime examples. A strident string sound courtesy of keys launches the first with a flute and piano sound that conjures up the Gabriel and Banks partnership of early Genesis. Lightning fast synth playing underscored by chunky guitar riffs segues into the second tune and a fragmented sound that owes a debt to Utopia and Yes' Solid Time Of Change intro to CTTE. Fantasmas Y Demonios borders on prog metal with crunching metallic guitar and dramatic performances from the two vocalists. It took me a while to place the gothic Hammond sound before memories of Genesis' The Return Of The Giant Hogweed came flooding back. Unfortunately it goes a bit OTT towards the end with wailing sax and heavy rock guitar meanderings before the song eventually runs out of steam.
The instrumental Elfonia makes the most of its near twelve minutes and includes some distinctive classical baroque moments with shades of Bach amongst others. Ridiculously fast but lyrical piano and acoustic guitar gives way to strident Hammond and meaty guitar riffs. A mellow respite is provided by flute, piano and classical guitar followed by the stirring sound of pipes and Hackett like guitar and synth musings. A tricky unison flute, guitar and Hammond melody is showy in a Gentle Giant kind of way that eventually develops to a logical bombastic conclusion. Sensacion Arabe takes the band down a different avenue combining a mellow sitar like sound with piano, flute and evocative vocals to conjure up an authentic Middle Eastern flavour. A sprightly piano, flute and clarinet melody takes it in another direction with a poppy tune and memorable vocals from Lupita Acuna. As previously observed in these review pages her warm vocals are reminiscent of Annie Haslam at times.
The saxophone drenched Damajuana II is presumably a follow-up to the similarly titled piece on the 2003 Al-bandaluz album. The smooth as silk sax playing is underpinned at various stages by fuzz guitar, creative piano work and busy drumming rounded off by a Latin rhythm. A remarkable performance from Pepe Torres. Donde Se Visten Las Serpientes goes through several mood and key changes that include ambient synths and a reflective male vocal and a rippling guitar, flute and bass theme. The instrumental El Cojin Verde provides some of the albums best playing and a good melody. Some very Rick Wakeman style piano work is joined by melodic Andy Latimer inclined guitar that changes to a sharper tone for a searing solo to close. A defining moment for Claudio Cordero I feel. Cosas Simples (Simple Things) is anything but, although it does convey a romantic mood with mellow piano, moody sax and lyrical flute. The vocal duet is more restrained than on previous tracks but the highlight is an amazing display of classical guitar from Cordero.
From the sublime to the ridiculous as they say with the tongue in cheek Hogar Dulce Hogar (named after a 1970's Mexican TV sitcom I believe). Sax and keys provide a 1920's swing jazz sound that develops into a bluesy rock and roll romp complete with honky-tonk piano. If it wasn't for the proceeding track then Lobos would for me be the sets weakest. It has an abrasive and predictable vocal melody that's rounded off by some uninspired heavy metal guitar histrionics. The strident instrumental bridge goes partway to redeem things with a thumping bass and Hammond sound that recalls ELP in full flow. Without a pause the instrumental Io follows, which finds the band in jazz-fusion territory. A memorable melodic groove is driven by rapid flights of piano, flute and lead guitar runs that bring Brand X to mind in some parts and Focus in others. The repeated piano chords are a throwback to Keith Emerson's technique in Take A Pebble. Alfonso Vidales has saved possibly his best playing until the last giving a very fluid performance.
In the review of the last album it was observed that Cast are "one of those bands where the mood of the listener plays a big part in the perception of the music". I feel I know where he's coming from. At times I found the pace and tone of this release a little unrelenting but in a more receptive frame of mind I was completely won over by the melodic hooks, skilled arrangements and monumental performances. Even the acoustic instruments are played with vigour and bite. In addition to the names previously mentioned I should also add PFM to the list as their influence can be heard throughout the album. The three leads in particular impress and Vidales' preference for piano and Hammond suits the classic prog style perfectly. My only quibble is tracks 10 and 11, which could have been sacrificed and still given a very worthy playing time of over sixty minutes. A little more restraint in terms of material selection would I feel have boosted an already excellent release.
Conclusion: 7.5+ out of 10
Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites - Ascendances ~ Friesengeist Part III
Tracklist: Paradoxe Nocturne - Phase Une (5.50), Salsepareille - A Cent Lieues (5.54), Le Traducteur De Corps (4.44), La Pyrothèque De Maximilienne (5.50), Les Rondes Sorcières - Passion Des Inclinaisons (1.40), Backwards Running Pigs Disturbing Morpheus (4.18), Paradoxe Noctambulesque - Phasme Un (5.12), Hystereophonics - Danse Des Cent Poules Pondeuses (4.21), L'Intrus Mental - Petits Travaux D'Étanchéité Cérébrale (4.20), De La Pénibilité Des Tendances Dodelineuses (5.20), Le Périmetre De Confiance (3.37), De La Comestibilité Des Événements Prévisibles (7.06), Le Théâtre De L'Éclipse - Vision Stroboscopique (4.41), Le Sage À Niveau (4.07), Paradoxe Crépusculaire - Phrase Une (3.55)
Ascendances, the third and final installment of Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites' Friesengeist trilogy kicks-off where Regelmässige Zestörungen ~ Friessengiest Part 2 finished. Again we have the same bleak piano complemented with nylon accoustic guitar, meandering melancholy violin, ambient noise and the occassional voice. However, whereas Part 2 was quite a little gem, this CD is ultimately, for myself at least, unsatisfying. Regelmässige Zestörungen was particularly interesting as it blended this minimalist approach with more up-tempo sections, either percissive or through vocals and thus latest offerring, although very fine in parts really stays rather once-paced throughout and as a result becomes tiresome quite quickly.
I have been listening to this CD for six months now and at the end of each listening have really struggled to look back and be able to write anything about the music at all. About halfway through the third track my mind will have wandered-off into the other room for a cup of tea. Perhaps this over-states somewhat, many of the tracks on Part 2 had a similar feel, Trockenspiel - Avant Le Pluie and Une Simple Erreur D'Appeau for instance but these were on the whole more attacking and immediate whereas much of Ascendances remains rather passive and lacks the more interesting pieces like Le Poids Écrasant De Ces Instants De Grâce, Au Bal Du Palomer and Salt M. Valente. Actually, come to think of it, the whole album is very much like the final piece on Regelmässige Zestörungen - Eight and a Half Tracks so, if you know and like that then basically you have a whole CD's worth this time.
There is some slight variation, Paradoxe Nocturne - Phase Une and Backwards Running Pigs Disturbing Morpheus are stronger tracks using some of the themes introduced previously on Regelmässige Zestörungen but overall the CD is rather one-paced and a little too ambient for its own good. Perhaps ironically, although this is more classically driven than the one before, it lacks the Glass and Nyman vibe that helped define Regelmässige Zestörungen. Positively though the recording quality and production is much better than before - listening again to Regelmässige Zestörungen there's a lot of hiss on the CD which can be quite distracting in the more ambient parts - this appears to be resolved on this release.
One must of course commend Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites for treading their own path - I'm not aware of any other artists out there sounding like this (or indeed coming up with such inventive track names) and originality goes a long way in this day and age when almost everything can be said to be derivative. That aside I really do think it lacks the vitality of Regelmässige Zestörungen but I daresay some others will appreciate the more mellow approach.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
US - Reflections
Tracklist: Runners On The Run (6:58), A Mind's Take (11:08), Nothing can Last A Lifetime (11:24), A Blink Of The Eye (6:42), Timeless (6:10), Through Hell And High Water (18:48)
Dutch band US have a rather convoluted history stemming all the way back to 1975 when the group performed under the name of Saga (not to be confused with the Canadian outfit of the same name). Following a sixteen-year hiatus between 1983 and 1999,the band regrouped under the new name US and since 2002 have released five CDs of original music. The band, which does seem to have undergone a plethora of personnel changes over the years, essentially split up following the release of The Ghost Of Human Kindness in 2004. However, bothers Jos (guitar, bass, vocals) and Ernest (synths, vocals) Werners resurrected the band for the 2006 album The Young And Restless where they were joined, as on Reflections, by Jos's wife Marijke on vocals and still guesting drummer Joris ten Eussens.
It has taken me a long time to get into this album and ultimately I am not fully convinced that it is an album that would sit happily in my collection or if it did it would be left to gather dust. Not that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the album. The progressive stylings noted on previous releases are still present and there is a return to longer songs. Indeed, the music and melodies on several of the pieces are very memorable: A Blink Of The Eye has a great beginning and album opener Runners On The Run has an acoustic opening that is reminiscent of Renaissance. However, it is the vocals that deter me. They seem very flat, unemotional and lacking in any vitality. For me this brings the songs right down and at times I have been forced to fast forward through sections. Perhaps I am being too fussy; it is not as if the lyrics are sung out of tune and there are some good harmonic ideas. To be completely fair, the tracks do grow on you and I suppose that with time, my perceived problems with the vocals could be overcome, after all there are far more idiosyncratic singers (take Dylan, Young and Hammill for example) all of whom sit comfortably in my musical preferences.
The music draws heavily on classic progressive rock and, as previously mentioned, contains some very good moments, the energy of Timeless and the sheer scope and adventure of the 19-minute Through Hell And High Water will find many a favour amongst traditional prog fans. Like my colleague who reviewed the band's The Young And Restless LP, I can't quite put my finger on what it is, apart from the vocals, that doesn't draw me into this release. However, I am sure that anyone who has heard and enjoyed any of the band's previous albums will find plenty of merit in this current release.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Kurt Michaels - Outer Worlds
Tracklist: Senor Wences (13:24), Lamb Chop (5:50), Chucky (2:24), Jade Princess (6:01), Hitch Hiker On Venus (3:56), One (43:50)
I had initially planned on including Kurt Michaels' Outer Worlds in the recent Guitar Features we undertook, if for no other reason than to answer the question: Are all guitar albums the same? Clearly not if this release from Illinois based guitarist Michaels is anything to go by.
Outer Worlds consists of live recordings performed between 2004 - 2006 featuring Kurt Michaels (guitar) and accompanied by Jim Gully (keyboards tracks 1,2,3 & 4), Mike Cosentino (electronic wind instruments track 5) and John Melnick keyboards track 6). Musically we are in the grey area, for me, of minimalisitic, ambient soundscapes. Now I've gone on record in the past as not being a great fan of said music, mainly as I failed to see the merit in some of the recordings I reviewed. Michaels however, I have to say, is further up the ladder as it is obvious that he is a musician first and this, his second album, is an extension of his playing rather than merely a collection of ethereal washes with enough space to lose a whole universe in.
If I were to offer comparators I suppose the most obvious choice would be some of Robert Fripp's ambient, looping offerings combined with perhaps dashes of Tangerine Dream. More so on tracks one to four where Jim Gully adds a drifting wash of strings and various tinkling sounds. Over this Michaels adds his reverb drenched, delayed guitar improvisations. Recorded in 2006 these four tracks served as the more interesting of the pieces from the album. Chucky is the liveliest track with delayed guitar moving the piece along, whereas Jade Princess sees Michaels' guitar sound broadening with a sitar flavoured offering. Hitch Hiker On Venus serves as a more dissonant interlude before the "epic" One.
As One takes up the greater part of the album I had hoped that there would have been a greater development of ideas and there may well be, but to my ears the even more minimilistic approach served only to make my mind wander. I did muse the thought that Illinois must have the most attentive audiences in the world as there isn't a murmur to be heard throughout the forty three minute gestation period of this piece. Either that or the audience had fallen asleep as in fact I did on several occasions when I attempted the whole album in one sitting. I fear that my remarks are becoming a little scathing, which Mr Michaels does not deserve, therefore time to wrap this review up.
So why didn't Outer Worlds make the Guitar Feature? Mainly as I couldn't find the words to best describe the music and three months later this is still pretty much the case. I can't see that there is going to be mass appeal amongst our readership for this release. Closest thing that comes to mind (and my memory of this album is now somewhat faded) is Robert Fripp's God Save The Queen (1980). If that album floated your boat then this might well be one to check out - and it is nearly twice as long!
Conclusion: 4 out of 10