Reviews in this issue:
- Ksiz – Sandcrawler
- Andromeda - The Immunity Zone
- Sub.Science – A History Of Hysterics
- The Dear Hunter – Act II: The Meaning Of And All Things Regarding Ms Leading
- Rare Bird – Somebody's Watching
- Rare Bird – Born Again
Ksiz – Sandcrawler
Tracklist: Balrog Wakes Up (1:37), Balrog Dance (5:12), The Second World (15:05), Aramattan (6:37), Gedwëy Ignasia (5:28). The Sandcrawler’s Intro (1:07), The Sandcrawler (7:27), Pasta Solo (3:08), Dark Bull (10:28)
Yes, you read that right in the track listing: this album contains a track called Pasta Solo. No, it’s not a drum solo played with dry rigatoni, but it is a drum solo, all right. A three-minute drum solo on an instrumental progressive-rock album? Not such a great idea, perhaps, but when you know about the composition of this group, it’s less surprising: Ksiz consists of a guitar player (Mathieu Spaeter) and a drummer (Jimmy Pallagrosi). (There are guest musicians, too, on bass, piano, keyboards, and real and synthesized strings.) So yes, there’s Pasta Solo, which is all drums, and The Sandcrawler’s Intro, which is all guitar (heavily distorted, fuzzed-out chording and soloing – quite cool, really). So the two main guys get their special chance to shine on one solo track each.
That leaves us with the rest of the album! As I’ve said, this is an instrumental album composed and performed by those two talented young guys. It may even be a sort of concept album, but I’m only guessing from the song titles. Happily, it’s a very enjoyable album. However, it’s not easy to describe or categorize. “Instrumental progressive rock” is the narrowest category I can put it into, and I’m pleased to say that – there’s really no other group that Ksiz reminds me of. Oh, in their promo letter, they cite Rush, Dream Theater, and several other groups, but I detect nothing of those groups in Ksiz’s sound.
The neatest thing about the music here is its cheerful eclecticism. By turns jazzy, metallic, and contemplative, the compositions easily accommodate funky bass solos (in Gedwëy Ignasia), wild violin solos (courtesy of guest musician Elvina Fredout), and of course drum and guitar solos, along with lovely embellishments on Spanish guitar, piano, and even (synthesized) sitar. The whole album is played with real energy, too, a sense of fun, so that the solos never seem self-indulgent; if the performances were more solemn, the album might not sustain our interest as well as it does, but I like to think that what makes any album in any genre really stand out is the sense we get that the performers are taking real joy in making the music, and that’s certainly the case here.
For my money, the standout bits of this album are those that feature guest violinist Elvina Fredout, mentioned above. Interestingly, despite some reliance on her electric violin work, the music never recalls that of U.K., the progressive band most commonly associated with that instrument; interestingly, too, guitarist Mathieu Spaeter often wrings an electric-violin sound out of his guitar in his solos! I should also mention the excellent, spacious acoustic piano playing of guest musician Remi Plotton. Plotton’s virtuosity is displayed in his tact, not only in his sense of just what to play but in his sense of where to leave space. His contribution to the album is one of colouration: his most important function is to accent the work of the other musicians. (Some of my favourite moments are those – as in the middle of Gedwëy Ignasia – when Plotton’s piano is actually backing up the tasteful, tuneful bass work of guest bassist Manu Vallognes.) It’s nice that, although Ksiz is officially a duo, the album sounds like the work of a full band, not two bosses and a bunch of hired guns. It’s a delightful, coherent whole.
I’ve hit a few of the high points, but there are many other pleasures on this album. If it was clearly fun to make, it’s also fun to listen to, and I recommend it highly. I can’t imagine where Spaetner and Pallagrosi will go from here, after such an enjoyable and successful debut album, but I’ll certainly want to hear whatever they do next.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Andromeda - The Immunity Zone
Tracklist: Recognizing Fate (7:19), Slaves Of The Plethora Season (5:34), Ghosts On Retinas (4:28), Censoring Truth (6:42), Worst Enemy (6:01), My Star (5:40), Another Step (5:58), Shadow Of Lucent Moon (7:22), Veil Of Illumination (17:25)
Andromeda has already made an indelible mark on the progressive metal scene; even among the talent-rich Swedish offerings, Andromeda is a rare gem. The steady output of this band has been a gradual ascent toward their latest and finest release, The Immunity Zone.
The evolution of this band has not been without its critics, namely the shift from the technical prog in their debut to the more mainstream polished sound that carries through to this release. But what’s not to like? Each of their albums has been great, each for very good reasons and all achieving “recommended” status here at DPRP (just look under A).
This time the band has put together a set of songs that are remarkably fresh, technical, and albeit unusual to use this term to describe a metal band, FUN! I believe it is this final element that sets this release apart from all their previous work. They sound relaxed and confident and the skill they display is as good as any I have ever heard.
The album opens with unhurried strength in Recognizing Fate and runs us through some dramatic changes. Early on this band is letting us know that this time around is different than their previous offerings and disappointment isn’t likely.
Stylistically the next three songs sound much like what you would have heard on Chimera and are used as a means to build up to the powerful, catchy, riff-heavy Worst Enemy. From there The Immunity Zone really gets moving and never looks back.
My Star is next and is an extraordinary tuned down journey through sound and I couldn’t help but get images of David Bowie influence in this one. Another Step follows where the keyboard takes centre stage but still sits behind the guitar in the mix. Rightly so perhaps since Andromeda are guitar driven, but the keys do feel like they are sitting a little far back where they should have been given a bit more of the limelight, at least where Martin Hedin is ripping it up.
The drumming of Thomas Lejon is extremely impressive in Shadow Of A Lucent Moon. I get a charge out of listening to drummers like Thomas and wonder how in the world they pull off those licks. If I could host my own music awards ceremony, I would create a category called “Best Use Of Fills” and the award would go to the talented Thomas Lejon.
Running at nearly seventeen and a half minutes, Veil Of Illumination closes out the disc with flair. It is an exhilarating ride and by the time it is over, you will have to agree with my use of the word ‘FUN’ for a describer of this album. I enjoyed every minute of it.
To conclude, this is one of those must haves for anyone who like metal of any kind. Andromeda is a tribute to the genre. I hope the game of musical labels that they seem to be playing works out for them because I am looking forward to hearing how they follow this up.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Sub.Science – A History Of Hysterics
Tracklist: Hole In The Ocean (3:29), Hysterics (3:14), Comfort (3:58), Fire In The Hole (3:23), Distracted (3:12), Hyde (4:30), End It All (4:13), Shallow Home (4:55), Paralytic (3:33), The Descendants (5:26), The Shame (5:56)
I don’t want to imply anything about influence by mentioning The Mars Volta in this review of Sub.Science’s debut album. Sub.Science’s promo materials tell us that the band was formed in 2001, and The Mars Volta’s first CD – not the stunning full-length debut De-Loused In The Comatorium but the three-song EP Tremulant – wasn’t released until 2002. It seems unlikely, then, that Sub.Science was at all influenced by The Mars Volta, or at least that the band had developed its own sound before The Mars Volta came into being. However, I have to mention the two together to give you the closest possible idea of what Sub.Science sounds like. The first couple times I heard the album, “a more accessible, less self-indulgent Mars Volta” was how I characterized the band, and I’ll stick by that description, again without implying any influence.
Sub.Science is a quartet from Antwerp employing the standard four-piece instrumentation – guitar, bass, drums, vocals. I’m happy to note, too, that – although this is a self-produced debut – the production is really quite good, giving each instrument its space while also allowing the vocals to be heard; best of all, the drums, which play a large part in the band’s sound, are well recorded, not “tunky” but full and resonant. And despite the tricky, time-signature-shifting nature of the music, the band is tight, the album having a sort of live feel because of the interplay among the musicians.
Having given The Mars Volta as a point of reference, a pretty accurate one I think, I can still elaborate a bit on the album’s sound. A trademark of many of the songs is Jeroen Rau’s rapidfire snare-drum work, which often announces the stops and starts in the songs. Guitarist Leander Verheyen Tsjakalov’s job is mostly to provide chordal support, strumming and chopping wickedly through the fast changes, though he can be counted on for wicked riffs and the occasional off-the-wall but interesting solo. The secret (not so secret, I suppose, in a four-piece!) weapon is bassist Juan Manssens, whose fast, tasteful bass lines power the songs. Manssens achieves an excellent tone on the album, too, deep and rounded yet punchy enough to drive the songs with authority.
Probably the best song on the album is Fire In The Hole, which – in an alternate world very much like our own but more musically adventurous – could be a top-40 single. It’s on that song that the band most effectively marries its experimentation with a catchy chorus, creating – what shall I call it? – a hummable art-rock tune. But none of the songs is a dud, to be honest, and it’s further to the band’s credit that they don’t, as do so many young bands, drag out the proceedings and overstay their welcome: the album clocks in at three-quarters of an hour, which, to my Seventies-trained sensibilities, is the proper length for an album. And while the band’s eclectic sound might cloy had the album (or any of the individual songs) been too long, A History Of Hysterics is just the right length to provide a good introduction to this very interesting band.
All in all, then, a very auspicious debut. To return to where I began: if Sub.Science’s music isn’t as challenging as The Mars Volta’s, nor is it as frustrating; and Sub.Science is far from a second-string art-rock band just because of that similarity. I prefer to think that they developed their sound independently, and it’s a good one, one amenable to further development. I can happily recommend this album and very much look forward to their next.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
The Dear Hunter – Act II: The Meaning Of And All Things Regarding Ms Leading
Tracklist: Death And The Birth (0:38), Procession (4:59), Lake And The River (9:29), The Oracles On The Delphi Express (4:18), The Church And The Dime (4:57), The Bitter Suit 1 And 2: Meeting Ms. Leading / Through The Dime (6:06), The Bitter Suite 3: Embrace (7:46), Smiling Swine (4:45), Evicted (3.44), Blood Of The Rose (3:48), Red Hands (6:07), Where The Roads Part (4:29), Dear Ms Leading (4:28), Black Sandy Beaches (4:13), Vital Vessals Vindicate (7:09)
Hailing from Boston in the States The Dear Hunter were formed by guitarist and vocalist Casey Crescendo initially as a side project to his involvement with post-hardcore band The Receiving End Of Sirens. However in 2005 he departed the band to concentrate solely on this new project. That same year he released Act 1: The Lake South, The River North to critical acclaim. Shortly after the release he recruited Luke Dent (keyboards), Erick Sema (guitar), Sam Dent (drums) and Josh Rheault (bass) to record the next album.
The extraordinarily titled Act II: The Meaning Of And All Things Regarding Ms Leading is the follow up to Act 1 and is part of an ambitious six-album concept concerning the life of a young boy at the turn of the 20th Century. It is fair to say that the mind-boggling scale of Crescendo’s vision is very much in line with the scale and scope of his music and due to the breadth of the bands influences it is difficult (and maybe a tad unfair) to position them within a particular category or genre. However as a rough guide their sound can best described as a blend of The Mars Volta (without the Metal), Mr Bungle (circa California) and Muse (which is especially noticeable in the vocal phrasing in the quieter moments) with a liberal dose of Dixieland, Big Band, lounge jazz and 50’s deep south Gospel blues thrown in for good measure. The Dear Hunter are undoubtedly progressive in the truest sense of the word.
Alas for all the impressive credentials Act II has its flaws. There is little doubt that Act II is a sprawling, complex and often impressive statement that effectively begs, borrows and steals from a myriad of musical styles and genres often sounding completely original. It also, for the best part, succeeds in being a seamless listening experience. The musicianship is top-class as is the multi-layered production. The real problem is that the album is very much a Jekyll and Hyde affair – the first half is fantastic and contains some truly jaw-dropping moments whereas the second half is rather uninspired, repetitive and at times a little tepid. As a result the whole thing does feel uneven and outstays its welcome by 20 minutes or so. It is also fair to say that Crescendo’s lyrics are rather unconvincing in a 6th form college sort of way.
Starting with the positives the first part of the album has much to admire opening with the effective short classical styling of Death And The Birth that then fuses into the energetic explosion of Procession with its fidgety The Mars Volta rhythms, Beach Boy vocal harmonies and chaotic chorus. Stand out track Lake And The River is brilliant - cleverly blending the lazy lounge jazz and weirdness of Mr Bungle, huge bombastic vocal harmonies, big band instrumental breaks, moments of classic 70’s prog rock, laid back Muse-like melancholy and even squeezes in some Dixieland and Gospel for good measure.
The Oracles On The Delphi Express sees a classy Mr Bungle piano line wrestling with the gothic textures of The Cure and the 3-part The Bitter Suite effectively combines laid back jazz themes with big brassy crescendos and chugging guitar. And the Smiling Swine is a pleasant enough psychedelic mood piece with some interesting Queen-like phrasing.
Unfortunately at the albums mid point things started to tail off. The Languid Evicted starts well enough but becomes repetitive and the shouty vocal harmonies seem out of place. Blood Of The Rose and Red Hands are notably downbeat and although containing some nice moments (the former includes a good trumpet solo and the later has some nice vocal harmonies ala The Polyphonic Spree) both lack any real variety. Things do take a turn for the better with Dear Ms Leading with a return to The Mars Volta extravagant climbs of the first half of the album but this change is brief. The gentle acoustics of Black Sandy Beaches is dull and album closer Vital Vessels Vindicate meanders without ever taking off and indeed concludes with a whimper.
Rating The Dear Hunter – Act II: The Meaning Of And All Things Regarding Ms Leading has proved difficult. If the quality of the first half had been maintained I would have no hesitation in giving it an 8 or 9. However if rating the second half in isolation I would probably struggle to give it any more than a 5 or 6. It would also be fair to say that the album may appeal to a whole host of different listeners. The first half of the album is very progressive whereas the second half is probably better described as indie / alternative. To this end I will plumb for a rating somewhere in the middle.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Rare Bird – Somebody's Watching
Tracklist: Somebody's Watching (5:27), Third Time Around (4:56), Turn Your Head (4:40), More And More (4:06), Hard Time (3:07), Who Is The Hero (3:40), High In The Morning (3:32), Dollars (0:31), A Few Dollars More (8:12) Bonus Tracks: Virginia (3:11), Lonely Street (4:17)
If like me you have more than a passing interest in late 60’s/early 70’s prog-rock and a long memory then you’ll probably recall the dual keyboard led Rare Bird and their European hit Sympathy. Alternatively you may have read the DPRP review of the first two albums Rare Bird and As Your Mind Flies By as reissued by Esoteric. Either way unless you followed the bands later career you’ll be ill prepared for the music here. Originally released on the Polydor label the fourth album Somebody's Watching followed 1972’s Epic Forest (which so far has remained under the Esoteric radar) which in turn was superseded by the final recording Born Again. As ever with Esoteric re-masters expect a significantly improved sound especially if you own a copy of the scratch prone vinyl originals.
By the time they came to record the fourth album Somebody's Watching the original quartet had lost one half of its original members with Dave Kaffinetti (piano, clavinet, organ) and Steve Gould (vocals, guitar, bass) remaining. Both had widened their instrumental scope and are supplemented by a long list of session musicians and singers. As I alluded to earlier the musical style had also undergone a major change with mainstream-rock, R&B, funk and country-rock replacing their Hammond organ led progressive leanings. Both the title song and Third Time Around provide a good indicator of where the band was coming from in 1973. Gould’s soulful vocal and Kaffinetti’s funky clavinet evokes the New Orleans funk sound of Little Feat and Redbone (ala Witch Queen Of New Orleans) with Andy Curtis adding some fine bluesy guitar licks to the latter tune. In contrast with the earlier albums the sound is far more guitar based although ironically a gritty Hammond sound would have fitted in perfectly.
With Gould concentrating on vocals Nic Potter of Van Der Graaf Generator fame was recruited to provide the majority of the bass work for the album and does a superb job. Turn Your Head is mellower in tone with Paul Korda, Nicky James and Kevin Lamb assisting in some fine CSN&Y style harmonies with the distinctive voice of Graham Nash in particular coming to mind. Both More And More and Hard Time are strongly reminiscent of the white soul-funk sound of the Average White Band and Ace with More And More in particular benefiting from soulful counterpoint singing that any US black act you could care to mention would be proud of. The chorus driven Who Is The Hero and High In The Morning add a lighter country flavour and the smooth vocal style of the Eagles and America. The concluding instrumental is a bit of a curiosity combining Dollars and A Few Dollars More into a lengthy conga fuelled guitar jam with a distinct Santana flavour. In addition to quoting Ennio Morricone’s familiar For A Few Dollars More theme at the beginning and the end it is also noted for John Wetton’s bass contribution.
Despite a three month European tour to promote the album, Somebody's Watching was dogged by poor sales. Boasting some very strong songs and excellent musicianship throughout it really deserved to do so much better. Steve Gould had certainly matured into the kind of singer that demanded far more attention than the band was receiving. My modest rating below is only tempered by the fact that this is a prog-related site and this album contains zero prog. A single followed later the same year that coupled Virginia and Lonely Street, two lacklustre R&B flavoured tunes which unsurprisingly failed to raise the bands profile. Both songs are included here as bonus tracks.
Rare Bird – Born Again
Tracklist: Prelude Body And Soul (3:10), Live For Each Other(2:56), Diamonds (4:08), Reaching You (3:31), All That I Need (3:58), Redman (3:43), Peace Of Mind (5:24), Harlem (3:23), Lonely Street (3:13), Last Tango In Belulah (6:27) Bonus Tracks: Don't Be Afraid (3:38), Passin’ Through (4:29)
Following a disappointing response to Somebody's Watching, Rare Bird soldiered on with their fifth release Born Again. In hindsight the title proved to be a tad optimistic because it was also their last. From the previous album Steve Gould (vocals, guitar, bass), Dave Kaffinetti (piano, clavinet, organ, synth) and Fred Kelly (drums) remained as the core line-up with Kevin Lamb once again providing harmony vocals. Guitarist Andy Curtis restricted himself to production duties this time around whilst Nic Potter had drifted away to be replaced by new bassist Andy Rae. Like so many musicians around this time Kaffinetti added synth to his range and overall his keys play a more dominant role. With Gould doubling up on guitar, apart from the occasional brief solo, it is mostly restricted to rhythm.
As was the case with the previous album, connect Born Again to the progometer and it doesn’t even register above zero. The band had also ditched their funk and R&B pretensions in favour of a tuneful but bland mid 70’s pop-rock sound. Side one of what would have been the original LP comprises five mid-tempo ditties in the style of UK pop acts like Marmalade. The sound is very superficial and for some reason I was consistently reminded of Elton John and Kike Dee’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart although to be fair to Rare Bird that didn’t arrive until two years later. Prelude Body And Soul is a blatant piece of commercialism with trite lyrics that unsurprisingly was released as a single and also unsurprisingly went unnoticed. Live For Each Other and Diamonds at least contain the occasional Clavinet and synth solos whilst Reaching You borders on MOR. Reading my notes for this review, alongside All That I Need I’ve simply written “more of the same'.
Side two is the more sensitive and better half with a collection of more mellow, quality songs in the style of Gallagher and Lyle. Interestingly enough, G and L’s sound didn’t develop and gain popularity until two years after this release. Could it be that Rare Bird were a little ahead of their time in terms of populist appeal? Redman is the best of the bunch here, a song that appeared in a different guise as a bonus track on Esoteric’s reissue of the second album As Your Mind Flies By. It’s a poignant song with a lovely melody and harmonised vocals from Gould out of the same camp as Crosby, Stills & Nash. For the graceful Peace Of Mind he has strong support from Kevin Lamb with echoes of Simon & Garfunkel and a welcome injection of mellow Hammond. Harlem is a slow burning, piano led lament whilst Lonely Street is a shorter, but better version of the song that Esoteric included as a bonus track on the previous album.
The longest track by far, Last Tango In Belulah contains an extended instrumental intro with a jaunty electric piano sound that’s very late 70’s Tony Banks. A pity about the words which contain excruciating ‘70’s lines like “Trunkin’ on out”. As with Somebody's Watching, the two bonus tracks are from a single that followed the albums release. This was in early 1975 but by this point the writing was already on the wall because the band folded shortly after. Don't Be Afraid returns to the funkier sound of the last album and also makes good use of prominent female backing vocals. Passin’ Through in contrast is a haunting electric piano and synth led tune that provides an atmospheric conclusion to this release and the career of Rare Bird.
The band lasted for six years and five albums which some would say was not a bad run particularly as they’d almost exhausted their artistic potential three years earlier. Vocalist Steve Gould went on to work with Dave Greenslade and Mike Rutherford on their respective solo albums and became a long standing member of Alvin Lee’s band. For me his voice has been a revelation remaining the one shining beacon throughout when the quality level has dipped elsewhere. Following a move to the US, keyboardist Dave Kaffinetti worked with a number of artists but will be best remembered for his portrayal of keys man Viv Savage in Spinal Tap. Reflecting on the demise of Rare Bird it’s interesting to note that the further they drifted away from prog into mainstream, the less successful they became. The bands downfall is unfortunate, but there has to be an encouraging message there somewhere.
Somebody's Watching: 6.5 out of 10
Born Again: 5.5 out of 10