Reviews in this issue:
- Cut - Millionairhead (UK Edition 2007)
- Ray Wilson & Stiltskin - Live
- Dirt Jake Replicas – Dirt Jake Replicas
- Jack Foster III - Tame Until Hungry
- Onségen Ensemble - HottoizzoH
Cut - Millionairhead (UK Edition 2007)
Tracklist: Jigsaw (3:44), Sarah (3:51), Another Day (3:48), Hey, Hey (5:10), Millionairhead (2:27), Shoot The Moon (4:44), Young Ones (4:33), No Place For A Looser (3:34), Space Oddity (4:30), I Hear You Calling (3:38), Gypsy (3:48), Ghost (4:15), Dark (4:55), Adolescent Breakdown (3:18), Reason For Running (2:52)
My real interest in Ray Wilson wasn't sparked by his work with Genesis, but with the acoustic performance of Unplugged. This album didn't only prove the exceptional quality of his voice, it also proved his songwriting skills. Ever since I have followed his releases, which include two studio albums and a couple of live albums. On these live albums Ray would play quite a few covers of bands and artists he admired, as well as songs from band's he previously played with, including Stiltskin, Genesis and Cut. Especially his renditions of song by Cut appealed to me a lot, so you can imagine how pleased I was to learn that the 1999 album Millionairhead had been re-released with three bonus tracks.
Cut features Ray on vocals and his brother Steve on guitars. Nir Z, who also drummed on Calling All Stations, is behind the drum kit. Paul Holmes on keys and John Haimes on bass complete the line-up of the band that only released this one album.
Sarah, Another Day, Gypsy and Ghost are all songs that Ray has performed live in acoustic and/or electric renditions and these original versions have a class of their own. They are often more powerful than Ray's own renditions, without becoming too heavy. As such Cut can probably be positioned quite well between his (often more mellow) solo work and the heavier work of Stiltskin.
Another Day has been released in many different forms: the original by Cut, renditions by Ray Wilson acoustic, studio and live, Ray & Stiltskin live and let's not forget the trance remix by Armin van Buuren. You might think that one gets a bit fed up with the tune. On the contrary! This song has become one of my favourite songs ever and this more powerful, up-tempo version is just another fine rendition to pick from, even though the more tuned down and sad approaches do work better for the songs lyrical content (about the suicide of one of Wilson's friends).
The album opener Jigsaw starts lovely and fragile but also features a couple of powerful 'sing-along' parts with full band approach. Nice track. Hey Hey is one of my favourites in it's diversity; the tasteful percussion, the lovely melody and vocal overdubs of the chorus, the powerful second half that suddenly breaks down to a nursery rhyme melody... this tune has it all. It's a mystery why Ray hasn't played this Cut tune in his live set yet. The title track is an energetic short rocker full of power that seems to comment on Ray's short-lived superstar status with Genesis. Young Ones is another tune with a strong contrast in power between verses and chorus and an unexpected piano intermezzo.
Another interesting track is the David Bowie cover Space Oddity. Most of the song is almost identical to the original, including Ray's vocal delivery, which sounds eerily identical to Bowie's voice. For me this makes it less interesting, but fortunately the song develops into something that's more contemporary and heavier in the guitar department. Still, I do think the band could have done more to make it their own. Talking about Bowie, the start of No Place For A Loser sounds a bit like the Bowie penned All The Young Dudes. It's not one of the best tracks on the album but it has a really nice different chorus that starts appearing in the second half of the song. Finally, I Hear You Calling is a nice bass-driven stomper with distorted vocals that leans more towards the Stiltskin material.
But every album with highlights also has it's disappointments. Shoot The Moon is a rather depressive song in which Ray's performance is intentionally uninspired. It sounds like he just got out of bed and doesn't really feel like singing at all. As I said, this is without a doubt intentional, but it does not result in a pleasurable listening experience for me.
This re-release edition of the Cut CD comes with three bonus tracks that were originally released on singles that were taken from the album. Dark is probably the most interesting of the three, starting with just vocals and electric guitar and building from there. Nice, but the song misses a good melody in the first half. In the second half the song breaks down to vocal and piano and suddenly sounds an awful lot like Live's Lightning Crashes. Dark was later released on the Special Edition of Ray's Change album. Adolescent Breakdown is an outtake that was later re-recorded for Ray's The Next Big Thing album. This version isn't extremely different, just a bit more 'raw and stripped down'. It never was a favourite of mine but if you like it on the aforementioned album you'll probably find it interesting. Reason For Running is a short straightforward rocker with some nice melodic hooks, making it the bonus track that sticks best of the three.
Besides one cover version, two compositions by and one collaboration with his brother Steve, all songs were written by Ray Wilson. One could therefore easily consider this the first real Ray Wilson solo record. As such, this album is highly recommended to all Ray Wilson fans and lovers of good pop-rock music in general. The songs that Ray has been performing live of this album are definitely among the highlights, but there's more gems to be found on the CD. Check out the audio samples.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Ray Wilson & Stiltskin - Live
Tracklist: Sunshine And Butterflies (5:46), Sarah (4:03), Fly High (5:17), Constantly Reminded (5:06), Gypsy (4:03), Another Day (4:56), Lemon Yellow Sun (4:26), Taking Time (6:25), She (5:06), Adolescent Breakdown (3:28), Some Of All My Fears (4:19), Footsteps (4:40), Inside (5:57), Fame (4:41), Wake Up Your Mind (4:01), Ghost (6:18)
After reviewing the Cut album we'll stay with Ray Wilson a bit longer. Back in the mid nineties Ray started out with a band called Stiltskin that had a huge hit with Inside, which got its success from being used as the soundtrack for one of the Levi's commercials. The band later faded into obscurity while Ray joined Genesis for the recording of and tour for Calling All Stations, and Stiltskin split leaving their second album uncompleted. Recently the band has been resurrected and released their second album She. Well, maybe resurrected is not the right word because none of the other original band members (Lawlor, Finnigan and McFarlane) are present in the new line-up. As such, the usage of the name Stiltskin for a Ray Wilson line-up is rather questionable. It does, however, offer Wilson a way to play music that is a bit more raw and heavy than his solo work. The album release was followed by a tour in which the band played material from both Stiltskin albums, as well as material from other releases with Ray Wilson. Hence the name of this CD, Ray Wilson And Stiltskin Live.
The sound of the band is described on their website as "a fusion of diverse influences including Daft Punk, Phil Lynott, Audioslave, Metallica, Bowie, and Radiohead." Don't know about you, but the inclusion of Daft Punk had me worried a bit. The rest of the influences are pretty accurate though, although the minimalist approach on Radiohead is hard to spot in the lush arrangements of Stiltskin.
To be perfectly honest, I wasn't really planning on buying this CD or the second Stiltskin album. However, when I ordered the Cut album from the shop on Ray Wilson's website it was offered as a package deal that I couldn't resist. Also, some of the tracks triggered my curiosity. The album features three songs from the first Stiltskin album, all of which have been performed by Ray Wilson and his live band: Sunshine And Butterflies, Footsteps and Inside. Unfortunately Rest In Piece is missing on the CD, although it was played live. Remarkably enough, although you would expect differently from the 'branding' of the album, the CD neither features any 'solo' songs by Ray Wilson that were played in the set. However, no less than five songs from the Cut album (Sarah, Gypsy, Another Day, Adolescent Breakdown and Ghost) appear on the live album.
The remaining eight songs are taken from the second Stiltskin album. Some of these songs are really in the same vein as Ray's solo material, but with a heavier arrangement. Lots of songs have nice greasy double guitar riffs that sometimes sound a bit familiar (Some Of All My Fears sounds an awful lot like Porcupine Tree's Signify or The Beastie Boy's Sabotage). Here and there the melodies could be better but I find most of the songs remarkably enjoyable and they grow on me the more I play them. It's good though that the Stiltskin songs in the set-list are mixed with Cut and (on the CD missing) Wilson material, or one might get bored with the constant guitar violence. Highlights are the Pop Idols parody Fame, the relatively melancholic Lemon Yellow Sun and the driving energy and venom of She. It's a shame though that some songs seem to use a lot of tapes with Ray's own backing vocals, thereby sort of destroying the live feel of the renditions (check out Taking Time to hear what I mean).
Should you buy this CD? If the idea of Ray Wilson doing more heavier stuff appeals to you, or if you like contemporary rock bands like Nickleback, you might indeed want to check out this album. The songs are quite enjoyable, but don't expect any overtly prog pieces here or material on the same emotional level as some of Wilson's solo work. Should you however be planning to buy the Cut album reviewed above from Wilson's online shop you can throw in this album for only five pounds extra, which is a wonderful deal. You'll get almost 80 minutes of music that is bound to include something of your liking.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Dirt Jake Replicas – Dirt Jake Replicas
Tracklist: Bell (9:39), Mend (7:58), Raeleen (8:25), Gorde (10:38), Ambigris (11:09), [Part I] (11:39), [Part II] (12:06)
We’re used to reading in promotional materials for bands (and in reviews) lists of influences, or lists of bands that a new band “sounds like.” However, rarely is a band so explicit as Dirt Jake Replicas, who claim they deliberately searched their country (the United States, that is) for musicians “to create a specific style of art rock that is influenced by” Pink Floyd, Tool, and The Mars Volta. With such a forthright statement, the band necessarily directs the listener’s (and, in this case, the reviewer’s) attention to those elements in its sound that reveal specific indebtedness to those touchstones. But you know what? I’m happy to say that in this case, I won’t find it necessary to write a trace-the-allusion review. As a huge fan of Floyd and The Mars Volta who has also never even begun to understand Tool, I’m pleased not to have to mention those bands again except in passing, because Dirt Jake Replicas really have a sound all their own that needn’t be seen as owing more to their influences than as the kind of inspiration every young band needs.
The first thing I need to say is that, while this album is made up not of songs but of compositions (I mean, look at the times: the shortest track is eight minutes long!), and thus you can rightly expect something other than verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus, never did I find myself becoming annoyed or distracted, diffuse though the compositions are. A bit miraculously, this young band manages to keep things interesting through the course of tracks that run up to twelve minutes. I think the most compelling thing about the compositions is the vocals, provided sometimes alternately but most often simultaneously by Dakota Max and Ashley Beard. Whatever the instruments are doing at any point, the vocals sort of do their own things, sometimes (when Max and Beard are singing simultaneously) very different things. But both vocalists have appealing and expressive voices, so that we’re always drawn in, wondering what they’ll do next.
And just what is it that the instruments are doing? For the most part, they’re creating an atmosphere. Guitarist Joshua Ash, bassist Adam Gurr, and drummer Julius Panimdim weave (along with vocalist Ashley Beard’s piano) entrancing soundscapes for the vocals to float above. On most tracks, the percussion is what most stands out from the background, although, especially on such tracks as [Part I], Gurr’s brightly recorded bass also plays a significant role. Ash mostly uses his guitar to embellish, more often than not with delicate chords or slow lead lines, but he’s not much interested in traditional solos or rhythm parts. All the instruments are sublimated to the total sound of each composition, all directed towards a single effect, and so it’s hard to single out individual performances; the highest praise I can give the musicians, in fact, is that one doesn’t so much hear the specific instruments as grasp the totality of each piece.
To my taste, some the best parts of this album (and I’ll refer not to whole compositions but to this bit or that bit of one or another composition) are those that steer a little more closely to traditional song structures. Take for example several minutes in the middle of Gorde. One could almost excerpt those three or four minutes and call them a slightly eccentric song on their own. Here perhaps more than anywhere else on the album, with drums, guitar, and bass playing a comparatively simple chord progression on top of which Max’s and Beard’s vocals, Beard’s providing high harmony, soar gorgeously, we appreciate the band’s grasp of melody. A similar sort of passage can be heard about one-quarter of the way through [Part II], the band grooving along for a couple of minutes in a mini-song within the larger composition. But the bulk of most of the tracks consists of pleasantly torturous shifts of tempo, dynamics, and instrumentation. If you like that sort of thing, and I believe most fans of progressive rock do, this band provides challenges that are both slightly familiar and wholly original.
My one significant criticism is that the compositions are perhaps too little differentiated one from another. Even after quite a few listenings, I would not be able to tell you, if you played me a snippet of one or another track, which one it was – far from it. That is, while the album works very well as a unified whole, its individual parts are not specifically memorable. But with pieces ranging from eight to twelve minutes, the band’s clearly not going for the catchy hit single here, and, as I’ve suggested, though the album and its component tracks are very long, the band repays the attention it demands. Returning finally to those three groups mentioned at the outset, I’d say that certainly any fans patient enough to listen to and appreciate Pink Floyd, Tool, and The Mars Volta will also find a lot to like here.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Jack Foster III– Tame Until Hungry
Tracklist: No Tears Left For Cryin’ (5:22), The Solution (7:32), Civilized Dog (3:30), One Dark Angel (4:02), Mourning Glory (5:02), Bloodstone (5:17), Broken Hallelujah (5:32), Heart And Mind (5:46), Inside My Mind (5:17), Limbo And Flux (5:06), Rainbow Asylum (5:02), Every Time We Say Goodbye (3:22)
When I reviewed Jack Foster III’s debut release, Evolution Of Jazzraptor, back in 2003, I remember describing him as a fairly diverse singer-songwriter incorporating some elements from jazz, and certainly boasting his fair share of eclectic tendencies. Well, on Tame Until Hungry (his third album), the jazz influence has faded, as (to an extent) has the off-the-wall elements present on the debut, but there’s still plenty of quirkiness and diversity present – not, I should add, at the expense of accessibility – this album is easy on the ear throughout. If anything, the progressive element is a little stronger on this release, no doubt influenced by Foster’s returning collaborators, Magellan main-man Trent Gardner and drummer/ bassist Robert Berry, best known for his work on a number of the Magna Carta label’s all-star concept albums released in the nineties.
Foster sets the bar high for himself with the first couple of tracks, which rank amongst the strongest he’s written. No Tears Left For Cryin’ is a classy, MOR-style affair somewhat in the vein of The Eagles or Steve Miller – no coincidence perhaps, as the latter’s Fly Like An Eagle is sampled on the chorus. Foster’s deep, soulful and commanding voice demands attention throughout both this song and the album as a whole – the guy can certainly sing. The Solution has Trent Gardner’s fingerprints all over it; an upbeat, Magellan-like song which majors on Gardner’s whizzing synths and Foster’s atypically hard hitting guitar work. It’s a song with plenty of energy and drive, and the gospel-like flavour to the lead and backing vocals on the chorus work well.
Its perhaps a little disappointing that Foster doesn’t reach these heights again on the remainder of the album, but it remains a pleasant listen throughout. Civilised Dog is something of a throwaway, a rootsy paean to his pet, but the likes of the soulful Bloodstone and the slightly sombre, questioning mid-pacer Broken Hallelulah offer more weighty fare. Limbo And Flux is a fine track, offering strong melodies and possessing a good flow, whilst Rainbow Asylum is superior power balladry, which probably should have closed the album out – the cover of Every Time We Say Goodbye does feel a little tacked on, and doesn’t seem to suit Foster’s general style.
If I had a criticism of this album, bar the lack of standouts following the opening two tracks, its that it seems to settle into its comfort zone a little too often – the songs in the middle of the album in particular seem to blend in to each other. That said, Foster does do this style of music well, and there’s no doubt that this is a well crafted and well played album that possesses plenty of enjoyable moments. If you have a penchant for ‘singer-songwriter’ albums, and can handle the fact that the prog content is more ‘around the edges’ than at the core of the material, you should find plenty to enjoy here.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Onségen Ensemble - HottoizzoH
Tracklist: HottoïzzoH (4:55), OUÍA MI MOSA (4:16), VTG (4:50)
Onségen Ensemble is a Finnish trio at the borders of art rock and avant-garde. With the number of bands playing this type of music multiplying day by day, a description like that is no synonym to originality and does not imply that this band has discovered something new. Anyway, these guys here seem to have something interesting to say, even though it is... short. This is their second EP, after Hiukkavaara Session.
The first track is very heavy and driven by the synchronized frenzy of drums and bass, with the guitars playing a little recurring theme to fill the scenery. Closer to avant-garde in its main body (see stuff like John Zorn etc.), it has an interlude of pure art rock references: early Pink Floyd ambience and "Ahhhh Ahhhh Ahhhh" vocals, reminiscent of those early 70's days. And I guess this is the closest I can see them getting to Zeuhl music, as what they are often categorised. The end of the song is the surprise: chaos as all instruments go crazy, bringing to mind the closing of Brand X's Nuclear Burn from the manifesto of jazz-rock fusion Unorthodox Behaviour. The next track is really bizarre and is contributing a lot to the originality of the work. Something like Japanese (?) vocals, in a lounge(y) Rhodes-dominated track, which only reminds me something that has almost nothing to do with the nature of the track: Rush's YYZ. The riffs are very similar but the whole product is totally different. Back to more standard art rock with VTG, and this time it is King Crimson's haunting guitars (Red era) that I will point to. Great track too, with saxophones doing a great job in the background. Grandiose ending with all instruments in full attack, but always in unison.
Very interesting and promising release by this Finnish trio. If you don't trust me, go to their website and enjoy all three tracks - for free. If that was the hors d'œuvre, I can't wait to be served the main dish. Hopefully that will also provide some quantity and not only quality. Let's hope it will flow nicely and have the necessary heterogeneity and variety to keep the interest of a listener alive without tiring her/him. LP's are not the same thing as EP's. And that's why I leave this unrated. Even if it is unfair.
Conclusion: Not Rated (too short - but very interesting)