Reviews in this issue:
- The D Project – The Sagarmatha Dilemma
- ARZ - Soloman's Key
- Blackmore's Night - Secret Voyage
- The Treat - Phonography
- Cog - Sharing Space
- Heavy Water Experiments - Heavy Water Experiments
- George Bellas - Planetary Alignment
The D Project – The Sagarmatha Dilemma
Tracklist: Closer To My Soul /Closer To Heaven (9:50), The Sagarmatha Dilemma (6:07), The Red Mountain (11:40), Thin Air (6:01), Even If I Was Wrong (5:06), Radio Sherpa (4:37), I’m Coming Down [I Shall Go Back] (5:21)
The D project is helmed by Stephane Desbiens of the wonderful Québecoise group Sense. (You can read my raving and drooling over their last CD here and Mark’s more measured assessment of the first D Project CD here.)
The Sagarmatha Dilemma is a delightful and skilfully executed concept album, utilising a blend of symphonic rock/prog metal and fusion elements, together with inspirational lyrics by Francis Foy and some judicious placement of guest musicians, to weave a stirring tale of Everest and the fulfilment of childhood dreams.
Where Sense’s Going Home drew on the music of Yes, here one of the chief influences must surely be Pink Floyd, with Desbiens contributing lots of Gilmouresque guitar leads, and some of the vocal lines (particularly on album closer I’m Coming Down) having a Roger Waters type edge to them.
Desbiens demonstrates an admirable command over the balancing of light and shade / hard and soft textures in his compositions, in the best tradition of progressive rock.
Violin and cello help enrich the grandiose symphonic sweep of much of the music, but the overall atmosphere is closer to 80’s/90’s prog bands like Pendragon and Galahad than the original 70’s bands. Indeed, Galahad’s vocalist Stu Nicholson turns in a sterling performance on the title track, unfortunately showing Desebiens’ own, slightly shrill vocals to be falling somewhat short of the mark. Opening with acoustic guitars and string accompaniment, the song alternates a strong Genesis feel with more modern-sounding upbeat sections and also has a great guitar solo from Echolyn’s Brett Kull.
The Red Mountain is the album’s centrepiece, building from a tender, wistful romantic opening, through some very Beatles-ish chord progressions and atmospheric, Eastern tinged passages to a very Pendragon-like song section and some lightening fast acoustic guitar runs before a wicked, melodic electric guitar solo and a suitably majestic conclusion.
Thin Air cheekily appropriates the classic riff from Led Zeppelin’s Misty Mountain Hop, here much modified and slowed down/ heavied up, but still recognisable nonetheless.
Although present at various points on the album, the fusion influence comes to the fore on Radio Sherpa, with Desbiens trading frantic flurries (a la Al Di Meola) with Planet X / ex-Dream Theater keyboard maestro Derek Sherinian.
The story is brought to a close on the self explanatory I’m Coming Down [I Shall Go Back], which, as I mentioned before, has a Floydian feel to it and is a suitably emotional climax to a very entertaining, uplifting and inspirational album.
Overall, I do prefer the last Sense album to this work, but it’s a close run thing, perhaps only reflecting my slight preference to Yes over Pink Floyd, but the quality of music on offer here, coupled with a varied stylistic approach - spanning influences from all eras of prog from the 1970’s to the 21st Century- means it should appeal to a great many of the regular readers of this site.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
ARZ - Soloman's Key
Tracklist: Almadel (4:33), Babylon (8:23), Saracen (7:30), India (5:10), Lemegaton (13:41), Jester's Court (3:56), Burning Bush (7:11), Solomon's Key (18:26)
Steve Adams, under his progressive moniker of ARZ, releases his first album since the 2005 twin releases of Serai and The Magi. This time round the album is available as a digital download only, through the usual digital distribution outlets. The previous albums were entirely solo efforts with Adams composing and playing everything. On this latest release Adams is joined by drummer Merrill Hale who also contributed to the composition of the last two tracks on the album. Notably heavier than either Serai or The Magi, the album flirts with progressive metal in places but is saved from over-indulgence in that genre by comprehensive use of different styles and guitar sounds. Once more influences from around the globe are evident with, on the title track in particular, Middle Eastern overtones present.
There is no doubt that Adams is a very versatile guitar player, his use of the full range of the six-string instrument shows that he is no slouch as a master of the instrument, and the contrapuntal elements throughout his music are often sublime. However, opening tracks Almadel and Babylon display the heavier direction of the music, with grinding guitars and incessant riffs. This is a theme throughout the album, but fortunately there are plenty of other aspects to the album that lift it above the usual grind. For instance, on Saracen we get a tabla and sitar introduction, a tubular bells solo plus electric and acoustic guitar solos. India offers a contrast, with a very authentic Indian classical music derived introduction. The track continues in a relatively sedate manner with a nice blend of Eastern and Western music.
The first of the two large scale compositions on the album, Lemegaton, is a diverse and interesting piece of music, more in line with the style of the earlier albums. Again, the jazz-inflected rock of early Al Di Meola is brought to mind throughout. The mixture of acoustic and sitar guitar on Jester's Court is lovely with these two instruments performing a soothing duet that is a calm before the electric maelstrom of Burning Bush. Hale's writing input on this number is obvious from the inventive and engaging drum patterns throughout, whether backing the passages of frantic electric soloing or guiding the rhythm of the acoustic sections, it all sets the scene for the epic title track. An eighteen and a half minute track of predominantly guitar and percussion could be a recipe for overload and over-indulgence. Fortunately, Adams and Hale are skilful enough musicians to avoid going over the top or repeating themselves. Once again it is the various textures provided by the different guitars employed throughout, the changes in tempo, the stylistic variations and the quality of the playing that provides the overwhelming redeeming features of this track and, indeed, the whole CD.
I have to confess that a lot, if not all, of metal-type music leaves me cold and I find some of the more frantic numbers rather pointless. There are times throughout this album when I wish that the really heavy elements could have been missed off or toned down and the focus more concentrated on the more diverse, aspects of the album. However, having said that, there is more than enough diversity for the metal aspects to be considered as simply part of the palette of compositional tools employed in the creation of the overall work. The quality of the compositions and performance is easily the equal of the earlier ARZ releases and if those albums were to your fancy then Solomon's Key will be as well.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Blackmore's Night - Secret Voyage
Tracklist: God Save The Keg (3:40), Locked Within The Crystal Ball (8:04), Gilded Cage (3:42), Toast To Tomorrow (3:49), Prince Waldeck's Galliard (2:12), Rainbow Eyes (6:01), The Circle (4:48), Sister Gypsy (3:20), Can't Help Falling In Love (2:51), Peasant's Promise (5:32), Far Far Away (3:53), Empty Words (2:40)
Ritchie Blackmore is most famous as former guitar player for Deep Purple but for a long time now he is been playing traditional European melodies with mystical lyrics under the name Blackmore's Night. Secret Voyage is the seventh studio album and it is inspired by nature and recorded with renaissance instruments combined with the enchanting voice of Blackmore's fiancée Candice Night. Occasionally Ritchie picks up his electric guitar, but on the whole this album is acoustically based folk music.
God Save The Keg sounds to me as a crossing between God Save The Queen and the tune for the Champions League, a bombastic opener that is a bit too long, although the end nicely flows into the rolling drums that starts the one epic song on this album. Locked Within The Crystal Ball is a powerful folk song with great guitar playing by Ritchie Blackmore. The piece is dominated by a fiery beat and shortly interrupted for a slow instrumental passage. Although the fiery beat is great, it is stretched out a bit too far and one could demand a little more variation within this eight minute song.
Next track is Gilded Cage which has a mystical atmosphere, acoustic guitar with violin but above all the enchanting voice of Candice Night. Whilst Toast To Tomorrow is a Russian drinking song which invites anybody to move to the music and off course drink. I'm sure this very cheerful song will do very well at parties. Following oo is Prince Waldeck's Galliard, an acoustic tribute to a medieval fortress in Germany and here Ritchie shows he is still very interesting when he is alone with a guitar.
Rainbow Eyes is a cover from Ritchie Blackmore's Rainbow, taken from the album Long Live Rock'n'Roll. Of course this version is played in the style of Blackmore's Night, I am not familiar with the original, but this one sure sounds great. The aptly titled The Circle is about the circle of life in nature and the music would certainly fit perfectly in the soundtrack of Disney's The Lion King. Sister Gypsy is a sad folky song with mainly renaissance instruments. The somewhat misplaced Can't Help Falling In Love, a cover from Elvis and also UB40 in the early nineties, sounds too much like Abba and is not a successful try in my opinion.
Peasant's Promise takes us back to the medieval times. Ritchie starts on his acoustic guitar, brilliant as ever, and after that the rest of the song sounds like a witches dance with nice melodies but not very much variation in the latter part of the song. Far Far Away is a fairytale like chanting, just close your eyes and picture yourself in castle. The album concludes with Empty Words and is just Ritchie on acoustic guitar, Candice singing and some distant violins. This song reminds me a lot of the works of Damian Wilson from his album Disciple.
Secret Voyage is a typical Blackmore's Night album and certainly fans of this band can blindly buy this album. However for me this album has some interesting moments, but on the whole it doesn't do it for me. The acoustic melodies are appealing but only hold my interest for a couple of minutes. As mentioned above a song like Locked Within The Crystal Ball is over eight minutes long, a shorter version would have been better. To my ears Secret Voyage could have been much better and the Elvis cover played in the style of Abba certainly does not sit well for me. On the other hand it is a very crafted album and one that I will certainly return to many times - although I must restrain myself not to press the "next" song on the remote.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Treat - Phonography
Tracklist: Fanfare For The King (5:41), Make You Crawl (3:36), The Deathday Parties (3:22), Bolivian Diary (4:30), Roaming (2:55), Meadowland (3:32), Haitian Mourning Dress (2:54), Too Late (4:37), Clutching At Jagged Glass (3:53), Effervescence (4:12), Black Cat Whites (1:59), Erased (5:55)
The Treat, a three piece band from Oxford, show themselves to be a power trio in the traditional sense, the pure joy of making music with guitar bass and drums shining through. The first couple of tracks on this, their second album, sees the band drinking from the same musical well as the pioneering late 60’s early 70’s UK hard rock acts who used traditional blues as a base for exploring new territories; Fanfare For The King kicks things off with confidence, with a great lead guitar fanfare and a rollicking verse which echoes Black Sabbath’s classic Paranoid, whilst Make You Crawl has a swagger and groove that reminds one of early Led Zeppelin. Band main man Mike Hyder’s deep, gritty voice has a hint of Ian Gillan to it, which only emphasises the connection to the period. Yet Make You Sway also nods towards a harder, alternative rock sound reminiscent of Soundgarden, which starts to hint at the variety of sounds and influences which The Treat proceed to, err, treat us to over the fifty-odd minutes of this disc.
At one extreme we have the hard-edged, politically charged Bolivian Diary, at the other the melodic indie rock of the world weary closer Erased; in between we get the band’s take on traditional blues (Hawaian Mourning Dress), edgy new wave (Clutching At Jagged Glass) and Faces-like mod rock, complete with rollicking piano and Hammond (Too Late).
Of most interest to readers of this site will be the tracks which show Hyder’s clear love of Syd Barrett – Meadowlands (a gentle, hazy track which could have come from one of Barrett’s solo efforts, and also nods to Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake-era Small Faces) and Black Cat Whites (which echoes Floyd’s Bike a little too closely) – and the instrumental Effervescence, which with its flute work, pastoral guitar jangle and fluidity evokes the spirit of classic English prog bands such as Camel and Caravan.
Overall, not every song is a cracker and The Treat occasionally struggle to come out from the shadows of the bands who clearly influence them, but there’s plenty to enjoy here from a band who clearly know their way around a melody, know how to incorporate a wide variety of styles without seeming disjointed and certainly seem to be enjoying themselves. Kudos to whoever designed the great cover too, which compliments the album’s contents perfectly.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Cog - Sharing Space
Tracklist: No Other Way (9:54), Are You Interested? (3:40), The Movies Over (6:39), What If (4:18), Bird Of Feather (3:43), Swamp (5:22), Sharing Space (5:35), Say Your Last Goodbye (4:03), How Long (3:25), The Town Of Lincoln (4:18), Bitter Pills (7:32), Four Walls (4:11), Problem Reaction Solution (9:14)
Cog is an Australian band that with Sharing Space releases their second album, their debut The New Normal being released in 2005 and gave them a place as a promising alternative heavy rock act. This new album is not a drastic switch to progressive rock although enough to deserve attention on the DPRP-site. Sharing Space features more keyboards and synths but still retains a raw heavy edge to it. At first listen Sharing Space might not sound that different but to me they have an unexplainable factor that I cannot put my finger on, in modern television it is called the X-factor. The lyrics are about the modern way of living in a pleasant confronting manner with a positive encouraging feeling.
As mentioned the music on this album is rock leaning towards progressive rock and although Cog have used more keyboards than on their debut album, for the die-hard sympho fan it might not be enough. Some influences on the alternative side I found are Pearl Jam and Monster Magnet; Porcupine Tree and Pineapple Thief are the influences with the progressive touch.
This album is filled with quality music including two epic songs that span over nine minutes. First is No Other Way the epic opener and is the sound of Cog in a nutshell. If you find nothing of interest in this song then it's no use continuing listening, as this is what Cog is about. Are You Interested? is a more straight forward piece which opens like a song from The Cult, with interesting lyrics and a catchy chorus. When you play this on headphones be careful not to shout "Are You Interested?".
The Movies Over holds many complex rhythms and is not a very accessible song and a big difference compared to the following track, What If, which starts mellow and jazzy. Bird Of Feather is the most accessible song, a nice poppy rock song. The lyrics of Swamp make this one a nice protest song, lot's of complaints about the government and so on. It's a rock song with complex rhythms and at the end some nice violin. The same concept continues in the title track Sharing Space and in the powerful Say Your Last Goodbye. However in this part of the album all the music starts to sound alike and certainly a bit more diversity would be very welcome.
How Long is the only point of calm on this album, a ballad with again a good use of the violin. The Town Of Lincoln features strange vocal lines that at times entwine. At this point the album turns a bit more ambient, not the best side of Cog in my opinion, although Bitter Pills does turn it up a bit, but still remains very ambient. In contrast Four Walls is a very jumpy song and you will not sit still during this song. However the last song of the album is the second epic, Problem Reaction Solution and again is very ambient which for me is a bit too spacey.
Sharing Space turned out to be a very interesting album - on the first spin appealing and even after several spins it still remained interesting, although qualifying this and towards the end of the album the music did start to sound alike, and the last few songs are a bit to ambient in my opinion. Cog did not completely step into the world of progressive rock and did not leave the world of alternative rock. This album is for people who like their progressive rock music a bit raw, a bit alternative maybe and you can really sink your teeth into this album. This is one of those albums that just keeps making me come back to it, though I would have welcomed a bit more diversity.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Heavy Water Experiments - Heavy Water Experiments
Tracklist: Goldenthroat (6:34), Mirror The Sky (5:31), Anodyne (4:44), Clairvoyance (4:57), Neverlove (4:22), Oracles (4:11), Octavian (2:36), Otherland (4:32), Dementia (4:37), Comflagration Song (5:26), Solitude (4:14), Book Coloured Blue (9:45)
Over a year ago I reviewed the debut album by an LA-based band called Imogene. A change of line-up and a change of name later, the group are back with the eponymously titled Heavy Water Experiments. Well I say group, the album is essentially the creative brainshild of David Melbye who performs everything on the album with the exception of the drums which are handled by Roberto Salguero. The unique sound displayed on the Imogene album is maintained by HWE, with the mixture of eight-string and four-string bass providing an instantly recognisable sound, particularly with Melbye's langourous vocals providing a lot of the melody.
Stylistically, not much has changed since Imogene hit the streets, which is not to say there are no advances. The musical explorations have perhaps got a bit further afield, as demonstrated by the brief, but delightful, Octavian which temporarily forgoes the more overt psychedelic fuzz tones for an Eastern, guitar-driven theme. Otherland has a much fuller arrangement than previous work with layers of guitars, electric piano, keyboards and bass providing a song of great depth. Melbye has not lost touch with the more 'commercial' side of his muse either. Despite the title, Dementia is a great tune; hardly a pop song but still something that would be amienable to the masses given the exposure.
It is hard to pin down exactly where HWE lie in the great pantheon of music. There is a definite psychedelic edge to the music, but it does not fit in with what, I suspect, a lot of people's impression of psych music sounds like. The same could be said of the progressive elements. The group themselves recognise this and have come up with some inventive, and amusing descriptors such as Pink Sabbath, Doorphine and Radio Queens Of The Stone Head! What is more, they are quite apt as each of the bands represented in those unholy amalgamations can be identified in sectionsof the HWE album. However, and what is important, they don't exactly sound anything like any of the groups. The closest is on the lengthy closing number, Book Coloured Blue where the vocal line does bear a similarity to one of the early Syd Barrett Pink Floyd songs. But this is just a fleeting couple of moments in an extended jam of a song.
Best played late at night with lights down low and in a mellow mood. The album is somehow heavy and soothing at the same time, different aspects coming to the fore before fading back as if in a haze. HWE is predominently a 'mood' album, not something that will be played all the time, not because it doesn't bear repeated listening, simply because one needs to be relaxed and free from distractions in order to fully enjoy and appreciate the beauty within.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
George Bellas - Planetary Alignment
Tracklist: Color By Numbers (8:15), Encoded In Light (4:06), Subatomic Particles (7:00), New Worlds Discovered (7:41), Parallel Universe (7:35), Overlapping Dimensions (5:24), Escape Velocity (5:38), Gravitons (5:49), Planetary Alignment (4:25), Supersymmetry (5:14)
I last dabbled in the world of George Bellas at the very beginning of 2004 with his release from the previous year Venomous Fingers. An album that initially I struggled with, but with persistent listening discovered what was basically a good album of its type. Its type? For those unfamiliar with George Bellas, then to over simplify matters and by way of a basic introduction, he would fall into that huge cauldron of musicians producing the "guitar shred instrumental album". Here on Planetary Alignment we can certainly add the words - progressive and metal to that description...
The album has a concept of sorts and one that revolves around different aspects of astrophysics – from the smallest of particles to the largest and most distant objects known. Laudable in theory although I did struggle to equate the complex progressive metal instrumentals with the actual subject matter described in the track’s titles. Either that or I have to believe that everything is moving in a hugely complex manner and at breakneck speed. Perhaps it is...
As with the previous album I covered from GB all the writing, performance, recording, engineering, mixing, production plaudits go to him. Even the artwork - the only exception is the drumming which is admirably performed by Marco Minneman (Paul Gilbert, Mike Keneally and soon to be seen with Eddie Jobson's UKZ). And as with Venomous Fingers the music of GB proved once again to be a weighty task. I remarked previously that with persistent listening, greater depths were revealed, however some four and a bit years later I found the task of wading through this CD innumerate times just too much like hard work.
Look the guy is a fabulous guitar player - but is it enough to make a great album?
Now according to the blurb GB has moved away from the more neo-classical stylings of his previous releases and (I quote): "Planetary Alignment was initiated using only rhythmic motives, and then later on scale choices were determined while composing the melodic and harmonic content". And therein lies the problem for me. GB is just too wrapped up in the guitar to see that not everyone will appreciate (or even care) about the craft that is held within his music. Sure it is rhythmically stronger than Venomous Fingers, (credit here to Marco Minneman, who is superb throughout), and yes the guitar playing is different in subtle ways. BUT - it is still played at a million miles an hour and with an intensity that is just tiresome. So for me the album is merely technique without substance...
I’m sure reactions to Planetary Alignment will vary dramatically and presumably guitar aficionados will be intrigued by the different scales and techniques employed. Ultimately and as much as I admire his technique, there is a certain level of déjà vu attached to his playing that I found difficult to get past. Granted he is pushing the envelope out further and further, but the intensity of the material and the almost incessant number of notes per bar made Planetary Alignment a wearing listen. The final numeric conclusion is reflective of the appeal to me (and a wider progressive audience) - those on the progressive metal and guitar orientated side of music might want to add a point or two...
Conclusion: 5 out of 10