Reviews in this issue:
- Abel Ganz – The Dangers Of Strangers ~ 20th Anniversary Edition
- Rational Diet - At Work
- Yak - Journey Of The Yak
- Qui – Qui
- Factory Of Dreams - Poles
- Presence – Evil Rose
- At Hands Productions – Prophecies Of War
Abel Ganz – The Dangers Of Strangers ~ 20th Anniversary Edition
Tracklist: The Dangers Of Strangers Part i & ii (12:08), Rain Again Part i, ii & iii (8:11), Hustler 2 (5:59), Dreamtime (7:57), Pick A Window, You’re Leaving! (4:38)
Bonus Track: The Dangers Of Strangers (7:12), Bonus Video: Makers Of Strangers (20:27)
1988’s The Dangers Of Strangers was the third release from Glasgow based Abel Ganz in what looked set to be a run of quality albums that would continue into the 90’s. Only one further recording materialised however, 1994’s The Deafening Silence. Following a split around this time, bassist Hugh Carter and keyboardist Hew Montgomery reformed the group in 2001 resulting in the excellent Shooting Albatross from earlier this year. In addition to Carter and Montgomery the 1988 line-up included guitarist and vocalist Paul Kelly, guitarist Malcom McNiven, drummer Denis Smith and Alan Reed before taking up duties as lead vocalist with Pallas. Abel Ganz boasted a neo-prog sound that on the evidence here was in the same vein and league as the likes of Pendragon, IQ and Twelfth Night. The music is brimming with confidence and melodic energy that displays Carter and Montgomery’s strong compositional sense.
The title track is in two parts beginning with City Park a mid-tempo song based around an edgy guitar and bass riff. The instrumental bridge features some truly inspirational synth and guitar interplay that has more than a hint of Camel and Genesis circa Wind And Wuthering. The second part At Times Like These sees an otherwise fine vocal from Kelly bringing Chris de Burgh’s A Spaceman Came Travelling to mind (not one of my favourite songs but very appropriate for this time of year). The three part Rain Again opens with the aptly titled Beginnings, a beautifully evocative song with a rippling 12 string sound and glorious harmonies courtesy of a multi-tracked Alan Reed. The mid section Lost And Found is a catchy song with excellent guitar work from Malcom McNiven giving way to Hand In Hand with its reoccurring acoustic guitar motif that has an air of Pink Floyd about it.
The Montgomery penned Hustler 2 opens with a stirring fanfare announcing a strong and bubbly synth melody with superb guitar support. The atmospheric Dreamtime includes ambient keys and a thoughtful vocal from Reed but the highlight is a restrained but excellent Steve Hillage flavoured solo from McNiven that dominates the second half. Producer Clark Sorley supplies additional keyboards on this song whilst Denis Smith sits it out leaving a certain "Al Esis" to pick up the drum sticks for this and the concluding track. Carter’s bass is given more prominence in Pick A Window, You’re Leaving! pulsating through this compelling and melodic instrumental. A neat bass solo reminiscent of Tony Reeves work with Greenslade before an all too soon ending with a sea of floating synths cut short by an electronic blast straight out of the Dr Who theme.
The bonus track included on this re-release is an alternate and abridged version of the title piece. It previously saw the light of day on the vinyl album Double Exposure, a prog rock compilation put together by Steve Wilson. Paul Kelly stands out on both guitar and vocals and if anything the instrumental section is a tad punchier with a more upfront bass line where the ghost of Genesis is even more conspicuous. Unfortunately as regards the bonus video Makers Of Strangers I’m unable to comment fully because other than the audio content I couldn’t get it to run on my PC. Only the evidence of the sound only however it provides an intriguing insight into the collective and often complex recording process particularly the title track.
Abel Ganz have certainly done themselves proud with this 20th anniversary release which excels on almost every level. The sound re-production is vibrant and the digipak sleeve looks suitably lavish with all new artwork and extensive liner notes from some of the key participants including Carter, Montgomery and Reed. It helps of course to have good source material and on that score The Dangers Of Strangers belies its 80’s origins with superior songs, arrangements and musicianship. And thankfully it’s free from both the AOR and electro-pop indulgences that blight many so called prog albums from this era. So apart from the issues I had with the video content, audio wise it all adds up to a very desirable package that’s available through the bands website, or if your fortunate enough, the DPRP competition.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Rational Diet – At Work
Tracklist: Pukhow (3:43), Dear Kontrabandist (6:28), Wet Moss (1:19), The Mourners (1:49), Closed Case (7:36), Ariel’s Last Dream: Birobidjan (5:20), Horse Army (5:29), Condemended (10:47), On Tusedays (3:41)
One look at the startling cover, and you should know you’re in for one wild ride with Belarusian avant-rockers Rational Diet and their second album At Work. The music contained within is every bit as visceral, exciting and rambunctious as the cover would suggest. Their tumultuous take on twenty-first century chamber music pushes lesser discs aside as it shoulders its way to the higher reaches of my best-of-year list.
Their debut album was impressive but, consisting of works composed over a long period, lacked a cohesive direction. This new CD rectifies that problem with a unified approach that cuts away all the extraneous fat leaving a lean, mean avant-garde machine, fighting fit and full of fire. The compositions, though convoluted and complex, are tighter, more purposeful and generate palpable tension and excitement.
The traditional rock elements of guitar, bass and drums act as a toughened skeleton for the musical “flesh” of bassoon, saxophone, violin & cello to cling to as it writhes and flails in tortuous abandon, occasionally giving itself up to total chaos but mainly remaining on the edge of control. Some avant rock groups, which cross the mind whilst listening to this disc, include Univers Zero, Henry Cow, Miriodor and even occasional flashes of The Cardiacs, though much more prominent are modern classical composers like Shostakovich and Stravinsky, albeit in an electrified and rockier setting.
I have to admit that the shrillness of some of Olga Podgaiskaja’s vocals occasionally scared me (especially on Dear Kontrabandist), but they are sparingly used and Henry Cow/Art Bears fans should find nothing to worry them here. On closing track On Tuesdays, she delivers a more restrained performance that ideally suits her own sombre and evocative composition, and is quite beautiful.
Most of the tracks are kept to an optimum length, in the 3-7 minute range, but there are a couple of brief vignettes (Wet Moss, The Mourners) which don’t really amount to much. Conversely, the Pièce De Résistance Condemended runs for just over 10 minutes. Here, the band bring it all together in an angular composition which starts off slow, journeys through a chaotic, disturbing, dissonant section before resolving in a powerful, strident but tuneful climax.
Last year, whilst reviewing their debut CD, I tempered my rating, as I knew that it would only appeal to a minority of DPRP readers. Although that is still very much the case with this CD, the sheer leap in quality from the debut to the second CD is so staggering that I feel it would short-change the group to award them anything less than 9 out of 10. That is my honest assessment of the power, focus and delivery of the intense if unusual music contained herein. I know there will be many who cannot stomach this kind of thing, but I love it and, of its kind, it really is an outstanding piece of work. It’s certainly the best RIO oriented album I’ve heard all year.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Yak - Journey Of The Yak
Tracklist: Gates Of Moria (3:15), Entangled In Dreams (10:06), Jadis Of Charn (11:32), March Of The Huorns (12:08), Dearly Departed (3:10), Journey Of The Yak (8:33)
Yak seem to have had a rather on/off history, originally having been formed by Martin Morgan (keyboards) in 1982. It wasn't until 2004 that the first Yak music was released, performed entirely on keyboards. Two full band live albums followed, the first in 2005, the second a year later, but the line-up that recorded those CDs was somewhat transient and by the time new material was being streamlined on the inevitable MySpace page, the main yak was alone again. The power of the internet then stepped in and soon Morgan was joined by Dave Speight (drums) and Gary Bennett (bass) who had, respectively, previously played In Peter Banks' band Harmony In Diversity and Nick May's Whimwise.
Despite having an instrumental line-up similar to ELP, Yak sound nothing like the more famous prog trio. This is primarily down to Morgan who generates swathes of moody, tuneful music that has more in relation to Camel than the sturm und drang and virtuoistic pomposity of Keith Emerson. In addition, Morgan manages to get some quite authentic guitar sounds from his keyboards which gives the band a bit extra bite. The six instrumental numbers are worthy symphonesque pieces with the longer tracks having plenty of atmosphere and stylistic changes to keep the listener engaged. The departure, if you'll excuse the slight pun, is Dearly Departed, a elegiac lament which successfully combines piano and synths, including some very nice flute sounds. The stand-out piece is the title number, a grandiose number that has hints of early Genesis as well as the aforementioned Camel. A great number that rounds the album off superbly.
The album is a decent purchase for lovers of symphonic-type prog but an extra incentive is that all profits from the album, as with the previous three Yak albums, are being donated to the Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary which cares for over 400 rescued animals. The charity relies solely on donations to pay a monthly feed bill of over £5200. As it is the season of goodwill why not treat yourself to a very good album and at the same time help to look after some unfortunate creatures who are unable to look after themselves.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
In light of the charitable nature of this release, the author of this review has donated the purchase cost of the CD to Tower Hill Stables Animal Sanctuary
Qui - Qui
Tracklist: Puyol (9:55), Mimique (10:36), Minamo Ni Tsuki (5:55), Dachou No Uta (8:59), Jirou (4:48), Astratto (8:20)
Qui first appeared in the DPRPages back in 2007 with their eight track CDR album, Prelude from the previous year. Released through the Vital label (a sub-division of Poseidon Records), the material showed an emerging band and perhaps one to lookout for in the future. Like much of Vital's output the production and artwork are minimal and the sole aim is to offer wider distribution for undiscovered Japanese bands. So it was a pleasant surprise to receive Qui's latest CD via Musea/Poseidon Records.
At that time of Prelude Qui were a three piece, however much has changed, not only in the growth of the line-up but also the band's sound. Gone is the heavily Holdsworth influenced jazz fusion material and what we have now is an engaging Canterbury tinged progressive jazz-rock. From the original line up only guitarist Takashi Hayashi remains, now joined by Naoyuki Seto, Dan Yoshikawa and Takashi Itani on bass, drums and percussion respectively. Completing our quintet is flautist Kazuo Yoshida, although saxophonist Mitsuharu Ouchi makes a guest appearance on track four.
For me it is the inclusion of Kazuo Yoshida that has made all the difference, his light and airy flute is both melodic and sweet to the ears. However let us not dismiss the other members of the band. Dan Yoshikawa is an excellent drummer and holds the music together superbly, whilst Naoyuki Seto's bass is melodic, precise and remains to the point almost throughout. A pleasure to listen to. Takashi Itani's role is perhaps more subtle and tends to come to the fore towards the second half of the album. The inclusion of the flute as one of the principal lead instruments has meant that guitarist Takashi Hayashi is no longer required to dominate the sound. This allows the music to breathe and ultimately better demonstrates Hayashi's abilities - his chordal work is extremely effective, whereas his solos are now more to the point.
The first three pieces from Qui demonstrate the musicality of the band well - the tracks exhibit light and shade, strong writing and melodies, to the point solos, and as mentioned above, the light whimsy of the early Canterbury scene... Camel and Caravan sprang to mind on many occasions. Kazuo Yoshida's flute work is a delight to listen to, and despite the strong flute playing, references to Mr Anderson are few and far between.
Sadly the second half of the album didn't quite live up to the same standards (for me). Despite a great driving rhythm Dachou No Uta suffers the fate of much Japanese music I've come across as we move into the area of free experimentation. The conciseness of the material is lost and sadly Mitsuharu Ouchi's contribution is irritatingly squawky and heavy on the ears. Whereas Dachou No Uta had at least a strong drive to it, Jirou is a drifting cacophonous piece that ultimately just engaged the skip button. The final track initially is a return to form, albeit in a more jazz rock vein, and the opening minute or so is superb, however it is time for the "solos"... So we have flute, guitar, fretless bass and a drum solos to endure, and as good as they maybe, on a studio album I find them difficult to digest.
A shame really as going on the evidence of the first three tracks, Qui could well have appealed across a wider spectrum of the progressive field. However only those more in tune with the free form areas of jazz are likely to warm to the latter part of this CD. Enjoyable in parts...
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Factory Of Dreams – Poles
Tracklist: Transmission Fails (4:04), The Sight Of A Better Universe (3:19), Air Powerplant (5:48), Factory Of Dreams (6:06), Gliding Above The Ocean Of Memories (4:53), Peace Echoing (4:08), Stream Of Evil (3:00), The Piano In The Sea (2:55), Generator Of Illusions (3:52), Electric Boom (4:27), Crossing The Bridge To The Positive Pole (4:29)
Hark! What Goth-influenced duo goes there? It’s Factory Of Dreams, the latest project from Portugal-based multi-instrumentalist Hugo Flores. In this new project Flores handled music and lyric writing, and plays electric and acoustic guitars, bass guitars, synthesizers, additional drum arrangements and loops, percussion, sitar, and 12 string guitar emulation. The awesome singer Jessica Lehto, an inspiration for Flores, provides vocals and vocal arrangements. Chris Brown plays fretless bass. Factory Of Dreams sees Flores moving towards a different musical style, Goth, than his previous projects Sonic Pulsar and Project Creation.
Picture modern-era Gary Numan; he is the main point of reference on Poles. Generator Of Illusions offers some Keith Emerson-like synths along with some drums that could have come from the studio of Trent Reznor. Reznor also figures as an influence, via synth, on Gliding Above The Ocean Of Memories. Enigma comparisons get into the act on Lehto’s spoken word bits, like on closing track Crossing The Bridge To The Positive Poles, which also features her powerful choral, but admittedly processed, vocal arrangements.
All the tunes are pretty formulaic, starting with synth-generated ambient and electronic intros before the drums, guitar and bass kick in. It’s tiresome to listen to song after song, while on the other hand the CD is one that just might grow on some listeners after a few spins. I just found the whole thing lacking originality. Admittedly it is produced well. Standout tracks such as the key-changing Peace Echoing and the uptempo Electric Boom keep the CD from being a total train wreck.
Flores is obviously a talented musician and in particular a skillful guitarist, working out a fine solo in The Sight Of A Better Universe and a blistering riff in Air Power Plant.
The CD’s cover shows a fantasy-based picture of Lehto standing by a lake, holding what appears to be an orb of light in each hand.
Poles will appeal to fans of the Goth or black metal genre, but may be an acquired taste for more sensitive listeners.
On another Factory Of Dreams release I suggest Flores mix it up with some male vocals, and concentrate more on originality.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Presence – Evil Rose
Tracklist: Prologue (3:29), Cassandra (7:03), Evil Rose (18:35), Subterreans (6:09), Funebre Dea (3:22), The Prophet’s Song (9:00), No Reason Why (3:19), Gates Of Babylon (7:10), Orphic (10:39)
I’ll confess to being worried about missing the boat with this review. I’ve listened to this CD a number of times, and I’m anxious that I’m just not getting it. But perhaps I am. I’m going to trust myself on this one and say that, unfortunately, this album is a bit of a disaster. Despite occasional local successes, the album as a whole is overblown and abrasive, poorly produced and actually unpleasant to listen to. There – I’ve said it, and now I’ll justify my opinion.
I’ll begin with one of the album’s greatest weaknesses: it contains no songs. (Sorry, that claim is inaccurate: as you can see from the tracklisting, the second-last song is a cover of Rainbow’s majestic Gates Of Babylon, and I’ll say no more about this cover than that not only does it add nothing to the original, but it damages it and shouldn’t have been attempted.) Presence’s own compositions, however, are long, largely devoid of melody, and bombastic. I want to praise their ambitions, celebrate the fact that the band isn’t content simply to write three-minute tunes – but it’d sure be nice to have maybe one tune on an album more than an hour long! The closest thing to a song on the album is No Reason Why, which despite its brevity and (for this band) basic instrumentation, still just misses having a melody. Elsewhere is the monotonous, six-minute Subterreans, which plods along to a rhythm-guitar rhythm supported too loudly by the tinny drums; the subsequent track, Funebre Dea, does feature some nice piano work, but the intrusive and off-putting drumming distracts the ear from the piano. In short, the compositions themselves are deficient in any number of ways.
The band consists of three musicians plus a guest drummer, and each of the musicians (the singer aside) is centre stage almost all the time on almost every piece, too often simply creating cacophony. And what of the singer, Sophya Baccini? I want to be both fair and honest, so I have to say that, if the timbre of her voice is more or less suited to the kind of music (what shall I call it? Progressive gothic art-rock?) that Presence plays, she lacks both the power and the depth to carry these compositions. There are so many female-fronted bands these days, a singer needs something special to stand out; unfortunately, Baccini doesn’t have it. As for the other musicians, I can’t add much to what I’ve said. Both guitarist/bassist Sergio Casamassima and keyboardist Enrico Iglio want to be at the forefront all the time; the only thing more damaging is guest drummer Valerio Silenzi, not only because of his obtrusive style but because of the terrible mix that puts the drums too far up and obscures a lot of the music with excessive punctuation and fills.
I hate to criticize an album so harshly, but it’s been a while since I found one that was so difficult to listen to. According to the CD booklet, this is Presence’s seventh album; had I not known, I’d say it was an overambitious and failed debut. It may be that the band is going through an awkward transitional phase and will produce more appealing work in the future; I genuinely hope so.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
At Hand Productions - Prophecies Of War
Tracklist: Act 1 ~ Introduction (11:21), In The Beginning (13:35), Profit-C (4:55), Attack (5:58), In The Mourning We Cry (7:10), Act II ~ Introduction (4:44), Send Us Your Children (7:58), War (9:01), In The End (7:54)
Prophecies Of War appears to be a long running project from Philadelphian saxophonist Andrew Hanna, with web references to the project spanning back several years. I am also assuming that this CD I have in front of me is a re-compiled/re-issue of earlier releases, which combines political speeches, radio broadcasts and sound effects with experimental music taken from several camps. Although in general the music leans towards avant-garde fusion more often than any other genre.
Joining Hanna on this CD are Brahm Genzlinger (guitar), Art Franklin (synths), Matt Cusack (bass) and Charlie Heim (drums), collectively forming a tight unit. Musically and as indicated above the band perform around, or inside, several narratives. Now the use of political material in music isn't a new concept although Hanna takes this idea a step further than the norm by including large sections of the speeches, spanning several minutes in some cases. All of which forms part of and audio visual presentation and will be touring in 2009. He has also concentrated his focus on two American presidents - Dwight D Eisenhower and George W Bush. The music then lies under the speeches before rising into a full blown pieces in their own right. Although it should be noted that some tracks are solely instrumental.
The accompanying literature suggests the music covers genres such as Experimental Fusion, Prog/Rock/Fusion, Atmospheric and Heavy Metal amongst others. However I would be more inclined to suggest avant-garde, experimental improvised jazz as being a fairly encompassing descriptor. The addition of distorted guitar doesn't make Send Us Your Children Heavy Metal, neither does the inclusion of organ make In The End prog.
Laudable as the concept may be I found this CD long and arduous, and in all truthfulness only managed to listen to the entire album twice. To focus a little on the music I will ignore Mr Eisnhower and Mr Bush's contributions to the CD. Now there are some moments where the music works and certainly some of the footage from YouTube (linked via the band's MySpace above) demonstrates this. However like much that steps into the free jazz area the opening sections are listenable and well constructed, but as is often the the case, and certainly is true here, all to soon the improvisation takes us into uncharted waters. Certainly David Hanna's sorties were challenging to these ears, however if you have a soft spot for free flowing improvised saxophone then this might well be worth checking out.
I can only assume that as an audio visual experience Prophecies Of War works to greater effect, however as it stands here as an audio only CD it didn't convey to me the inferred deeper concepts. The musical content was always challenging and that is a good thing, but it also bordered on unlistenable and that isn't. The rating offered is therefore based on what I have heard.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10