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2011 : VOLUME 17
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REVIEWS IN THIS ISSUE:


Amplifier - The Octopus
Amplifier - The Octopus
Country of Origin:UK
Format:2CD
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:AMPCORP02
Year of Release:2011
Time:CD 1 58:33
CD 2 62:04
Info:Amplifier
Samples:Click here

Tracklist:

CD 1: The Runner (3:38), Minion’s Song (5:52), Interglacial Spell (6:25), The Wave (6:58), The Octopus (9:18), Planet Of Insects (5:50), White Horses At Sea/Utopian Daydream (8:55), Trading Dark Matter On The Stock Exchange (11:32)

CD 2: The Sick Rose (8:57), Interstellar (10:18), The Emperor (6:39), Golden Ratio (5:15), Fall Of The Empire (8:29), Bloodtest (5:16), Oscar Night/Embryo (7:45), Forever And More (9:20)

Jon Bradshaw's Review

This is Amplifier’s third full-length release but, unlike their previous efforts, The Octopus is entirely independent of label support or “interference”. The band have self-funded its development and given it three years to gestate and evolve into its finished form. This form spans over two hours and two disks of crushing, aggressive, depressing, uplifting, delicate, brutal, graceful, thought-provoking, boring, and puzzling rock music. It plays like a movie and it sprawls like a giant megalopolis city, simultaneously inducing vertigo and clarity, bewilderment and haunting joy. This is an enigmatic album that refuses to yield its mysteries but repeatedly offers maps and signposts that claim the promise of revelation, but these only to further clues. The experience is that of the role-play adventurer: armed only with some magic biscuits and a leather hat, the promise of gold, experience and a weapon with which to defeat the mightiest of demons is enough to drive you on through the impenetrable forest. Roll 2xd10 and eat a biscuit.

Some of these clues come from the packaging itself. I received the two disk special edition which has a booklet that describes a philosophical tract, a description, an interpretation of the order of all things. The further one reads through this, the more vowels are removed from the words to be replaced with symbols until this reductive process produces only a sequence of glyphs, a code. Comic strip illustrations on the inner case depict a termite world ‘invaded’ or overshadowed by a giant octopus. Giant octopi subsume, ride or drive (depending on your perspective) whole planets. Planets within galaxies, within galaxies all within human minds are all ‘infected’ with this ubiquitous octopus presence and this is reflected in the material, architectural world where the octopus runs in and through everything. Finally, the cover art sports the aphorism that: “The beginning is important in all things”. The first lyrics we hear are: “O masters of the universe/Won’t you please reveal/The secrets of the Octopus/which within I feel” and so the territory of the concept is revealed. “Huge in scale and panoramic in scope” as the press release says, and indeed it is.

Amplifier have been the doyens of the British music press since their eponymous debut in 2004, but their critical plaudits have never seen them break through to the kind of international significance or recognition that the praise might warrant. Bad luck and circumstance have conspired to neuter their aspirations and ambition. The Octopus could well be the album to change this. Drawing on the strands of late-era Pink Floyd and the sonic largesse of mid-era Rush, combined with a distinctly British epic-rock heritage that stems back to Cream’s psychedelic blues, Amplifier reclaim the power trio as an entirely new dynamic possibility on this album. They play with the fury of punk, the depth of prog and the dreamy imagination of psychedelia.

If the beginning is important in all things, then the opener The Runner sets us up with an intriguing soundscape that (for me) allegorises a human life, much like Jaques ‘Seven Ages Of Man’ speech in As You Like It but in a more direct (and much less accurate) way. We hear the sea, a heartbeat and then the footfall of someone running (remember Dark Side Of The Moon?) gradually faster through an ever more noisy and chaotic landscape until a final lungeing, guttural cry and a flatline beep: not too joyous a view, not too attractive a prospect. Then Minion’s Song is the first real musical track and this is British pop rock that has its roots in late-era Beatles and Queen, as well as a more contemporary resonance with another massively underrated band, Aereogramme (RIP). A simple piano motif over clean guitar builds into a big, martial chorus and an even bigger choral ending followed by massed instruments. Very smart lyrics tell of religious martyrdom and the promise of paradise for an acolyte of an imagined faith.

Interglacial Spell and The Wave then give room to showcase the truly enormous and exciting production that characterises the whole album – the studio as performer. Some people may dislike this kind of overt use of the studio, drawing deliberate attention to itself in the use of extensive multi-tracking, sampling and effects. I love it, especially when it’s done with such élan as this. Interglacial Spell has an enormous sound propelled by overwhelming guitars in an insistent, pulsing groove and vocals that remind me of Page Hamilton (Helmet). Matt Brobin may well be beating out the drums on God’s chest, such is the vastness of the sound, whilst Neil Mahoney’s amazing bass sound is surely being created by plucking on God’s eyelashes. I’ve not been so impressed by the sheer scale of a rhythm section in quite some time. Together they rock through the substantial groove and drama of The Wave whilst Sel Balamir does a great impression of Jonny Rotten with the “to another dimension” lyric (I’m sure this is something to do with Hawkwind, but I can’t quite put my finger on it). This one will be a live favourite, I’ve no doubt.

The title song again highlights the huge production sound with Mahoney’s dark and sinister bass line making the room quake while Balamir’s shimmering, echoing guitar transports us through “the sinews of eternity”. This is great modern alternative rock with a twist – Nine Inch Nails with a post-rock aesthetic. There are elements of shoegaze before exploding into a massive groove reminiscent of Perfect Circle but much edgier and more dangerous.

Planet Of Insects takes us back to the Amplifier sound of previous album, Insider with its fast and harsh heavy –prog vibe, balanced by a slow-breathing 7/4 bridge section. White Horses At Sea/Utopian Dreams features Charlie Barnes as guest pianist who, at only 19, lends a deceptively mature facet to the sound with a distant piano carrying a lot of large, empty room ambience to a lilting theme that again conjures cosmic notions. The space between the instruments is galactic on White Horses At Sea whilst your head feels like it is inside the shell of the crumping bass drum. The first disk closes with Trading Dark Matter On The Stock Exchange which is a great title, but it’s a step too far into post-rock territory for my tastes and my attention wanders. It has the ennui of looking through the rain-streaked windows of a train carriage on what seems to have become an interminable journey…

Disk 2 opens with the dark, gloomy, doomy strains of The Sick RoseRiverside on steroids and is followed by the amazing Interstellar, the real highlight of the whole two hours for me. It opens like a fanfare or an anthem and settles into a lovely liquid groove that builds in layers to the “Travelling faster than light” chorus, and it’s so uplifting. Multiple guitar voices compete for the soundstage as the refrain transforms into a catch, dreamy Doo-Wah, surf-rock (not unlike The Von Hertzen Brothers) dominated by flanging, chorusing, phasing guitars. This will also be another one to captivate live audiences, I’m sure.

The Emperor is a twisting, wheeling squall of a tune that blends the anthemic stomp of XTC with Porcupine Tree’s harmonic sensibilities and the structural convolutions of Tool. With a dominant lyric like “This could be your lucky day” it has every chance of being picked up by lottery idents the world over. Golden Ratio mixes brash, heads-down, charging rock with arms-up, lighters-out, swaying, atmospheric, blissed-out space mantras. A long silence broken by a cuckoo clock invites in the bombastic monster that is Fall Of The Empire. An Audioslave-like riff becomes a kind of palm-muted march into an amazing chorus of distant massed voices, recalling Tchaikovsky’s Marché Slave and musically conjures images of vast slave armies building monolithic structures that ultimately collapse under their own sonic weight. Great stuff.

Some of the ideas don’t really add anything but more time to the album. Bloodfest and later Embryo are a case in point. The former is a repetitive, slightly formless spacey incantation and the latter is just pointless burble – I’m sure Sel had his reasons, but I just don’t get it. Oscar Night is notable for its caustic lyrics. When Sel sings. “Paradox of tolerance/The engineering of consent/An America for Americans/Preserved in amber" and “Let’s put an end to Hollywood”, you sense that there’s an undisguised loathing there that echoes from and embraces Roger Waters’ anti-establishment missives on The Final Cut. Forever And More reiterates much of what we’ve already heard in other places and, I’m sorry to report, whiffs a little of a band that’s run out of ideas. Whilst the closing guitar histrionics from Sel are good, let me point you at Titan, Quest For Fire and Grails for deeper, richer explorations of this kind of modern psychedelia and slow-burning noisemongery.

The big problem here is that The Octopus seems to be a creative and aesthetic reaction to the band’s earlier frustrations with record labels that mean they have to buy their own material back in order to sell it again, or that forced them to produce Insider in only three months. Consequently, this album feels like a bit of a statement. I don’t blame them, in fact I actively applaud their ambition, but it does kind of feel like they set out to ‘create a masterpiece’ and Sel has said that, in retrospect, this may well be their magnum opus but he never again wants to spend three years making a record.

The vast amount of material is an indication of just what Amplifier are capable of, but I make it seven or eight truly majestic tracks and eight or nine tracks that seem so-so in comparison and might better have been released as a separate entity? Certainly, as I said at the start, this album stubbornly clings to its own enigmatic reasons and, maybe in time, I’ll come to love it all. It simply won’t reveal itself easily or quickly. In spite of my reservations, there’s absolutely no question over the value for money aspect of the project and there’s something magical about its sound that any self-respecting aficionado of rock history would want to know about. I somehow think that this will register as a flawed but brave attempt in its present life. However, I’m equally of the feeling that kids being born right now who become audiophiles in their middle age and want to investigate what was happening at the start of the century, will view this as an under-rated masterpiece. So, The Octopus, it’s a classic waiting to happen and, with that proviso firmly in your mind, I recommend you buy it.

Hector Gomez's Review

Quote from the Classic Rock Presents Prog mag: “The grand benchmark against which all British prog rock albums will be judged…” These big words are also featured on a sticker gracing the nice but rather simple cover of Amplifier’s new (and ambitious) offering, The Octopus.

Now that’s self-confidence. And who am I to blame them? In the end, self-producing, self mixing and self-releasing a double album is something to be extremely proud of (and Sel Balamir most certainly is); what’s more, reviews have been enthusiastic so far. Should you believe the hype? Well… First, and probably I’ve mentioned it already elsewhere on DPRP, I’m no big fan of double albums, this including everything from The Wall all the way to Subterranea. I’ve always believed a single album with the best material is much better than a padded out double (Tales From Topographic Oceans anyone?), and The Octopus is no exception. With this, I don’t mean there’s loads of filler on this particular release, but (at least to my ears) it certainly is too long for its own good. Why have 2 hours of OK music if you can have a great 70 minutes?

Part One unleashes through The Runner, a short instrumental introduction à la Speak To Me from Dark Side Of The Moon, complete with heartbeat, steps and other assorted atmospherics, which serves as a build up to the first song proper, Minion’s Song. “Oh Masters of the Universe, won’t you please reveal?” are the ominous words that welcome this curious mix between Hawkwind and Muse, a big marching type of anthem with a few hints of melancholy which ends on a high thanks to a soaring, rocking closing section.

An odd trumpet introduces Interglacial Spell, which then descends into a cacophonous mayhem, then presents a big riff and turns into pure classic hard rock, not too far from Black Sabbath or Rainbow. The Wave opts for a more esoteric approach, where intriguing chants and an overall eerie atmosphere find their way, though big drums and heavy guitars don’t take too long to reappear; there’s also a nice twist halfway through featuring handclapping which adds some charm to the song.

Title track The Octopus represents the spacey, echoey side of this band. It is a slow paced, intriguing track, led by Neil Mahony’s creepy bass and Matt Brobin’s robust drumming. Around the four minute mark, a guitar motif introduces a big electric outburst, then a big riff develops. A lovely marimba brings the piece back to the main theme, and soon a great song is over. Planet Of Insects is pure straightforward rock, with an eye on the 90’s and a certain Soundgarden air to it, though it feels a bit irrelevant after the excellence of the previous piece.

To calm things down, White Horses At Sea introduces a lovely, hypnotic main theme; think of Pink Floyd or Porcupine Tree at their most melancholic. The last two minutes of this song belong to Utopian Daydream, a dreamy, evocative piano coda which concludes in weird, surreal fashion. Trading Dark Matter On The Stock Exchange wraps up Part One with 11 minutes of quirky, groovy music, a healthy chunk of space rock at its very best. Undoubtedly, one of the best songs on the album, where you can also enjoy the best instrumental section on the whole double.

William Blake’s words serve The Sick Rose (or is it the other way round?), an Eastern flavoured song where Part Two is presented via an intriguing instrumental opening. Hawkwind resurface on Interstellar, which is groovy and infectious, with a nice balance between some menacing overtones and nice multilayered vocals, though it’s a bit too long for its own good. The Emperor manages to be both aggressive and menacing, yet melancholic and catchy at once, and the chugging goes on with Golden Ratio, though this segment of the album feels a bit weak and disjointed.

Fall Of The Empire recuperates the best moments on Part One, with its mix of ticking clocks, cuckoos, heavily processed vocals and stop-start structure. A great track, and surely the heaviest on The Octopus. In opposition, Bloodtest uses a nice drum groove to introduce some jazzy elements in a dreamlike atmosphere with a gentle, laid back feel. Things keep calm on Oscar Night/Embryo, with acoustic guitars on the forefront. This might be the closest thing to a ballad to be found on the album, a solemn, elegant piece, which finds its way to mutate into a spacey instrumental on Embryo.

Aptly titled Forever And More brings things to a fitting conclusion with its bombastic aesthetics, again referencing to Muse and also Porcupine Tree at their most intense.

So, what you can find here is an excellently produced double album which is more Physical Graffiti than The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway (which isn’t a bad thing by any means, but maybe not what I (we?) expected), as Amplifier relies confidently on the classic (power trio) rock sound, with great guitars and powerful drumming. Sel Balamir’s vocals are OK, but not outstanding, and might well be the weakest link on this otherwise wonderful band, where no keyboards are needed to give their sound and songwriting a twist.

If you like Oceansize, or PT, this is a band you’ll certainly enjoy, though The Octopus might feel a few songs too long for your attention span.

Conclusions:

JON BRADSHAW : 8 out of 10
HECTOR GOMEZ : 7.5 out of 10



Beardfish - Mammoth
Beardfish - Mammoth
Country of Origin:Sweden
Format:CD
Record Label:InsideOut Music
Catalogue #:IMO 0505438
Year of Release:2011
Time:52:16
Info:Beardfish
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: The Platform (8:06), And The Stone Said “If I Could Speak” (15:07), Tightrope (4:33), Green Waves(8:53), Outside/Inside (1:43), Akakabotu (5:41), Without Saying Anything [feat. Ventriloquist] (8:10)

Hector Gomez's Review

Only four years ago, Beardfish were an(other) unknown band from (again) Sweden. Flash forward to 2011, and now they’re one of the hottest acts in the (retro)prog scene, with some endorsement from big names such as Mike Portnoy, openly declaring their unconditional love for them; fact is they have mostly everything you’d want from a band: great vocals, a powerful and warm sound, and a set of tunes both complex and infectious.

They’re also a prolific act, approaching the album-a-year rate, but as with other artists (The Flower Kings are the obvious choice), this can be a double-edged sword; we the listeners (or fans, you decide) don’t care too much if a band releases two albums per year or takes a decade to present a new recording: we’ll always be expecting (wanting) a masterpiece.

Beardfish managed to produce their masterwork with Sleeping In Traffic: Part Two. This was 2008; by 2009 they’d already delivered Destined Solitaire, a strong follow up although not quite on par with its magnificent predecessor. There were excellent moments to be found on Destined Solitaire (Until You Comply, Abigail’s Questions), but the album was also too long for its own good and the band got occasionally lost in themselves (if that makes any sense…).

Outstaying its welcome is not one of Mammoth’s flaws, as its 52 minutes aren’t particularly generous in this age of 70+ minute albums, and this certainly helps it to be a focused and fairly balanced musical piece. Also, though still retaining their trademark old fashioned, warm sound, this time the music is more of a harder edged, guitar driven nature (not a bad thing at all if your guitarist is the ever tasteful David Zackrisson), so there’s more Deep Purple (or Pain Of Salvation… even a tiny bit of Opeth) than Genesis in the recipe.

This is evident on opening number The Platform, effectively a hard rock song peppered with some quirky lyrics wonderfully sung by the increasingly confident Rikard Sjöblom, a much better singer this time than he was on previous releases. In two words: loud and charming.

And The Stone Said "If I Could Speak" is the center-piece of the CD with its 15 minutes of traditional and much appreciated Beardfish brand of progressive rock, complete with some narrative, surreal lyrics. The first four minutes are simply fantastic, and keyboards regain some of their usual prominence, but the winner here is Johan Holm with his lovely saxophone flourishes, adding some extra jazziness to the proceedings. There are even some growls (courtesy of Jimmy Jönsson) thrown in for good measure, but the overall impression is that this is Until You Comply Part II, if only a bit less inspired.

Tightrope, on the other hand, is a pleasant, short and sweet love song in the vein of Without You, and is a welcome break between And The Stone Said… and Green Leaves, the longest pieces on the album. Green Leaves is also the heaviest song on Mammoth, and may well probably be the heaviest Beardfish song to date. The first few bars are pure Opeth, and there’s even a section featuring some double bass drum patterns by the otherwise exquisite and elegant Magnus Östgren. Don’t panic though, this is classic BF, only with an extra dose of, well… balls, and the last three minutes are pure 70’s instrumental heaven, complete with groovy wah-wahs and Robert Hansen’s funky bass.

Outside/Inside continues the BF tradition of including a short instrumental piece, this time in the shape of an evocative, gentle piano interlude, which leads us to another instrumental piece, the oddly titled Akakabotu. Things are not too far from previous lyric-less pieces such as Cashflow, but sexy saxophones are again a prominent feature, so jazz is the word here. I believe this is a side of the band that should be explored on future releases, and might help them to stay away from stagnation and repetition.

Without Saying Anything sees Mammoth off in some Supertramp-ish fashion, not too far from BF’s classic Roulette, but sadly not as memorable; maybe the best part of it is Ventriloquist, a nice keyboard coda ending in an excellent, beautiful piano outro.

This is a solid release (you have to love Spencer Keala Bowden’s artwork), and a very enjoyable listen throughout (and watch; the Special Edition comes with a funny and insightful DVD including both candid interviews and decent live footage), but I feel the song writing is not as memorable as on previous efforts, and maybe it’s time for this otherwise wonderful group to take a little break.

And now, for something completely different… What’s with their obsession with The Shining?

Gert Hulshof's Review

The whole Beardfish story started about ten years ago when the two Swedes, Rikard Sjöblom and David Zackrisson, started their own band and with this latest release Mammoth have gone on to produce another fine album. Ever since the band's early beginnings their followers have been growing steadily, but as with all progressive rock bands and especially the ones in the more eclectic corner, every new album sees new fans joining and older fans leaving this group of followers. It's not particularly difficult to understand why this would happen, especially as each and every Beardfish album has been so different from the one before. It is always hard to digest their albums from the first few times through the speakers.

A lot of influences have been mentioned for the band, reigning from bands from late 60’s early 70’s such as King Crimson and Gentle Giant, to more modern bands as such as Ritual and Simon Says. But what is it about Swedish bands that makes them so grand in this genre? Well in general its progressive bands from Scandinavian countries - unbelievable isn't it! I have often written that I do not like comparisons, as I believe this doesn’t do justice to the musicians in the bands reviewed. Sure people are always influenced by other people and the things happening around them but in this case I really want to make an exception to my own rule. I really honestly think that the best comparison band for Beardfish are the American band Echolyn. Both bands are eclectic, write great lyrics and have no problems with the longer epic titles as well as the shorter songs, but most of all the twists and turns in the music have some kind of resemblance, yet aren’t the same. Enough of these musings though as I need to concentrate on the album in question.

Mammoth is the sixth album of Beardfish, and it grows stronger every time I listen to it. After the first spin the album didn't grab me, apart from the short piano interlude on Outside/Inside, which I immediately thought brilliant. But with just one spin you can’t review an album so I played it again and again. I must say it it has been in the CD player of my car now ever since last Monday and I have listened to the album on all my journeys. I haven’t had an experience like this since yeah, OK not that long ago, it was with Gazpacho’s Missa Atropos, but I cannot play that in my car as I wander off too much.

Now from the first notes of The Platform until the last notes of Without Saying Anything [featuring Ventriloguist], I find the album brilliant. The whole entourage and atmosphere of the album breathes ‘70’s prog. The ever present strong melodies, there is not one boring second from start to finish and what’s more you can listen to the whole album in under an hour. The sheer excitement at which the Beardfish play and the fantastic sound of the album give me goose bumps.

I really need to mention that for the first time we now can listen to Akakabotu as an actual release, this song has been present in the Beardfish repertoire from 2003 or 2004 I believe and what a song this is, an instrumental extravaganza for nearly six minutes.

The only real question here remains is how could they top this brilliant album? Everyone knowing Beardfish knows they can expect great songs, catchy melodies, strong lyrics and a good mix between hard and heavy, and softer more ballad like works but always very eclectic - almost Art rock.

I can only leave with recommending this album to everyone as I believe it to be, a must have.

Conclusions:

HECTOR GOMEZ : 7.5 out of 10
GERT HULSHOF : 9 out of 10



...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Tao Of The Dead
...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead – Tao Of The Dead
Country of Origin:USA
Format:CD
Record Label:Superball Music
Catalogue #:0504552
Year of Release:2011
Time:52:21
Info:...And You Will
Know Us By The
Trail Of Dead
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Introduction: Let's Experiment (2:23), Pure Radio Cosplay (5:26), Summer Of All Dead Souls (4:17), Cover The Days Like A Tidal Wave (2:51), Fall Of The Empire (2:27), The Wasteland (2:33), The Spiral Jetty (1:48), Weight Of The Sun [or the Post-Modern Prometheus] (2:19), Pure Radio Cosplay [Reprise] (3:18), Ebb Away (2:41), The Fairlight Pendant (5:43), Tao Of The Dead Part II: Strange News From Another Planet [Know Your Honor / Rule by Being Just / The Ship Impossible / Strange Epiphany / Racing and Hunting] (16:32)

After seventeen years of activity Texas’ ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead arrive with their seventh album, Tao Of The Dead, and quite a collection it is. Despite having been aware of the band for some years, mainly as a result of their brilliant name, I have come to this review as a newbie to their music and have no point of reference to how it fits within their back catalogue. Suffice to say I will be checking them out further as this is a very enjoyable slice of Indie/Alt Rock and Punk influenced “Noise Prog” that I wish I’d discovered years ago. There is a consistency to the music which flows through many different facets and forms with palpable enthusiasm and energy.

The core of the band remains Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, both providing guitar, voice and drums with piano from Keely who also pens the lyrics. Here they are augmented by new recruits Autry Fulbright II (bass & vocals) and Jamie Miller (drums & guitar). That’s a lot of guitar and drums but rather than swamping the sound they are deployed to maximum effect with wonderful melodies emerging from ‘Wall of Noise’ squalling guitars and surfing along on power driven waves. Reece and Keely are well versed in their art and know exactly when to crank it up to 11 or reign it in and keep it relatively minimal.

In his DPRP review of their 2008 EP Festival Thyme Jim Corcoran hoped that future releases from the band would see them create longer epics in the vein Tool and The Mars Volta. Well maybe they were listening as Tao Of The Dead comprises 16 tracks split into two distinct parts. Part One features the first 11 tracks with Part Two taking in another 5 grouped together under the title Strange News From Another Planet. From the low-key opening of Introduction: Let’s Experiment that erupts into melodic noise through to the finale of Strange News From Another Planet there is some great music that alternates through light and shade, whooshing spaciness, brooding, ominous passages and primal noise while keeping an optimistic and positive outlook brimming with energy.

There is almost a Beatles meets Hawkwind feel to Pure Radio Cosplay while Summer Of All Dead Souls is shouty, aggressive and packed with punk energy. A spoken vocal suggests a Sixties feel to Cover The Days Like A Tidal Wave which builds, as the title suggests, to a massive crescendo, Fall Of Empires detailing the aftermath. There is a definite flow through the album, particularly on the sequence from the jangly and summery The Wasteland through to Ebb Away, the 5 tracks forming a mini-suite at the heart of the album which seeps into the Hawkwind influenced The Fairlight Pendant. Strange News From Another Planet is distinct yet nicely distils the feel of what preceded it in Part One.

The success of this album stems from its wholeness and the fact that every piece adds something to a larger entity in the way that all great concept albums do. Not for everyone as some may be put off by the raging delivery and intentional distortion and lack of polish but this is an album that doesn’t flatter to deceive and just does exactly what it sets out to do. As leading lights of Post-Punk ...AYWKUBTTOD use their prog influences to extend their sound and make their music a more interesting proposition than it may have been. There is imagination and attention to detail and barely a note out of place making this is a glorious recording, even more so considering it was recorded in 10 days, from a band that knows how to get what it wants, their confidence and ambition at a high-point. A recording that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Conclusion: 9 out of 10

JEZ ROWDEN



Leap Day – Skylge’s Lair
Leap Day – Skylge’s Lair
Country of Origin:Netherlands
Format:CD
Record Label:OSKAR
Catalogue #:1052 CD
Year of Release:2010
Time:55:40
Info:Leap Day
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: The Messenger (7:33), Road To Yourself (7:10), Home At Last (8:22), Humble Origin (1:39), Walls (9:11), The Willow Tree (4:23), Skylge's Lair (6:20), Time Passing By (7:25)

An album that caught my attention (and ears) in the latter part of 2009 was Awakening The Muse by Leap Day. My initial interest was sparked by the impressive collective CV of the Dutch musicians involved whose background included Flamborough Head, Trion, King Eider, Nice Beaver and Pink Floyd Project. This was Leap Day’s debut release following the recording of a three-track demo CD in 2008 and their formation earlier that same year.

18 months on from their debut album comes the follow-up Skylge’s Lair which sees little in the way of change either musically and personnel wise. Fronted by lead vocalist Jos Harteveld, they remain Gert van Engelenburg (keyboards, backing vocals), Eddie Mulder (guitars, backing vocals), Koen Roozen (drums), Peter Stel (bass) and Derk Evert Waalkens (keyboards, backing vocals). They also retain the services of visionary digital artist Henny Van Veenendaal (probably best known for his work with The Flower Kings) for the cover and booklet artwork.

In 2009 I likened the band’s refined and melodic neo-prog sound to Camel, Genesis, Alan Parsons Project, Marillion, Spock’s Beard and Yes amongst others. Whilst I wouldn’t subtract from any of those names, this time around the music is probably more in keeping with the first two bands in the list with the addition of IQ as further point of reference.

The intro to The Messenger for example has a real vintage Camel vibe thanks to Mulder’s energetic guitar melody. The main song section that follows is perhaps just a tad too laidback to provide a truly compelling opener despite some engaging synth work. It only fully comes alive again when it races towards the guitar driven climax. Road To Yourself is for the most part a relaxed ballad in Wind And Wuthering period Genesis fashion. Again, despite some atmospheric keyboard textures it’s the soaring guitar break at the midway point and the majestic slide effects (in the style of Magenta’s mighty Chris Fry) at the end that prove to be the most memorable parts.

Home At Last composed by keyboardist Engelenburg is graced with one of the album’s most striking melodies, in its lengthy instrumental introduction at least. Again it’s the vocal section that sounds flat in my opinion, lacking the ear friendly hooks found in the instrumental work. It’s becoming clear that the vocal arrangements are the band’s Achilles heel. To my ears Harteveld’s voice lacks weight and presence and he’s not helped by the lack of distinguishable harmonies even though Engelenburg, Mulder and Waalkens are all credited with backing vocals. But then again I’ve never been convinced that IQ’s Peter Nicholls has a particularly strong voice and he was voted best vocalist of 2010 by the CRS so perhaps I’m missing something. It may also be the reason why I found the instrumental Humble Origin featuring delicate classical guitar and a hint of synth-strings to be one of the most rewarding (if all too brief) tracks.

The album’s longest piece Walls is not the Yes song of the same name although the lyrical theme of breaking free is very similar. The Camelesque instrumental interlude and searing guitar coda both demonstrate that (like Tony Banks) Engelenburg is a keyboardist that has a flair for writing strong guitar parts. The Willow Tree sees Harteveld adopting a falsetto delivery for this gentlest of songs with strummed acoustic guitar and symphonic keys hovering inconspicuously in the background.

The penultimate and title track Skylge's Lair is another richly melodic instrumental with guitar dominating the opening two minutes. Synth takes over in restrained, ambient fashion before letting fly with one of the albums most exhilarating sequences where Stel’s bass work in particular distinguishes itself. The principle guitar melody during Time Passing By (written by Mulder) is very reminiscent of one of the themes from Rick Wakeman’s Journey To Centre Of The Earth. The vocal section is again a tad languid but fortunately a good deal of its length is given over to superb instrumental interplay with synth this time providing the suitably upbeat coda.

The fact that the CD counter continues long after the music has finished is a clear indicator that there is a hidden track on its way. Sure enough after two minute of silence the album’s ‘joke’ is revealed in the form of a demo style recording featuring uncharacteristic and histrionic guitar wailing from Mulder before a dissenting voice (portraying Mulder’s dad) stops him in his tracks.

If nothing else, the bonus track is a final reminder (not that it was necessary) that Skylge's Lair is a particularly fine showcase for Mulder’s guitar talents. That said Leap Day are by no means a one trick pony with some superb instrumental work that fits neatly into the melodic neo-prog category. On balance however I have a sneaking feeling that we are yet to hear the best from this fine Dutch sextet.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10

GEOFF FEAKES



Soup – Children Of E.L.B.
Soup – Children Of E.L.B.
Country of Origin:Norway
Format:2CD
Record Label:How Is Annie
Records
Catalogue #:HIA033
Year of Release:2010
Time:CD 1 43:38
CD 2 35:45
Info:Soup
Samples:Click here

Tracklist:

CD 1: We Share The Same Breath (5:22), Leaving The Harbour (4:31), In Memory Of Richard Wright (8:41), Streams (2:08), The Roots Are Decaying (7:13), Utopia (4:20), The Roots Are Decaying Pt. 2 (4:14), Playground Memories (7:49)

CD 2: She Had Set Out To Find The Sun (8:42), Surrounded By Ghosts (3:52), Children Of E.L.B. Pt. 1&2 (7:39), Glaciers (2:10), Northern Patriarch (3:33), 0805 (5:19), We Share The Same Breath Pt. 2 (5:50)

Soup is, in effect, Trondheim native Erlend Aastad Viken. And Soup should, I’m told, be written with a small ‘s’. Also, if you want to avoid embarrassment in polite company, here’s a tip. Don’t send the gazpacho back because it’s cold. A media and communication student Erlend is, as you might have guessed, a massively talented, highly creative lad. He’s not short of ambition, either, as this current album (his second as soup) is a double CD, in a beautiful double gatefold sleeve with striking artwork by Lasse Hoile. He self-financed his first soup album, Come On Pioneers and as a result got a record deal with the wonderfully named label How Is Annie Records, who re-released Pioneers in 2008 to some good reviews.

Soup live is Erlend plus drummer Sverre Leraand, bass player Rune Leraand, and guitarist Ørjan W Saur and all three players played on this record.

If you’re into labels then I’d guess post-rock and/or electro-rock hits the mark in describing the soup sound.

In terms of his single-handed creative vision, parallels could, I guess be drawn with Steven Wilson, who like Erlend started out in his bedroom. Sound-wise, fans of Sigur Ros, Mogwai, Explosions In The Sky et al will find much to like here. Erlend’s voice is a delicate, fragile thing of beauty, no better exemplified than on disc one closer Playground Memories that pushes all the right symphonic buttons and is, if I’m being frank, a beautiful song. Elsewhere he has more than a touch of the Steve Hogarths about him. Which is no bad thing.

He can do the a-ha thing too, and Utopia wouldn’t sound out of place on the wireless. In fact, if there was any justice this jaunty and in places incredibly uplifting electro-pop/rock tune would sell by the cartload.

What sets this record apart to these ears is the variety of music on offer, within the overall chill-out framework. I’ve listened to some stuff that starts, meanders around for forty minutes or so, then finishes with not even a whimper. Disc two opener, She Had Set Out To Find The Sun starts, for example, with a bit of Tangerine Dream electronica, before a hypnotic electro pulse will have you reaching for the glow sticks and there’s an ever so slightly unexpected, Floydy rock out bit near the end.

Children Of E.L.B. Pt. 1&2 is quite reminiscent of the electro direction Pure Reason Revolution have taken on recent records, and it’s a much heavier piece yet with more than a modicum of Scandinavian restraint – think Mogwai in kaftans.

Don’t, though, be expecting any major guitar histrionics, Hammond frenzy or growling. Across both discs the overall mood is, well, moody, and the soundscapes created are ethereal. I love, though, how the last track, We Share The Same Breath Pt. 2 (what is it about the ‘fashion’ of lower case lettering I wonder? Not sure Brian - but I've made it all case sensitive ;0) is truly symphonic – it builds to a rousing climax. And ends. No follow-up noodling, no afterthought add-ons. Nice.

For a sophomore effort it’s a triumph, and comes heartily recommended to all those of you who like the artistes referenced above. Particularly worthy of note is the sound quality – crisp and expansive. As the sleeve notes read, what we have here is 1000 hours of planning, playing, recording, editing, mixing and mastering. Now, that must be worth your support.

All in all then, this is a very good album, that I’ll definitely come back to, with top-notch production and striking artwork.

Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10

BRIAN WATSON



Magnum – The Visitation
Magnum – The Visitation
Country of Origin:UK
Format:CD
Record Label:SPV
Catalogue #:SPV 308392
Year of Release:2011
Time:57:01
Info:Magnum
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Black Skies (5:33), Doors To Nowhere (5:43), The Visitation (5:48), Wild Angels (5:41), Spin Like A Wheel (7:21), The Last Frontier (5:29), Freedom Day (6:21), Mother Nature’s Final Dance (5:04), Midnight Kings (4:48), Tonight’s The Night (4:53)

Much-loved UK rockers Magnum’s renaissance since their 2002 reformation shows no sign of slowing down, with The Visitation being their 5th studio effort since then (and 16th overall). Having started their comeback rather shakily with the patchy Breath Of Life, they settled in to comfortable groove with the higher-quality efforts Brand New Morning (2004) and Princess Alice And The Broken Arrow (2007). Both of these albums were criticised by many fans for being rather one-paced, and it was therefore refreshing to see the band vary the tempo on Into The Valley Of The Moonking (2009), probably the strongest album the band have penned since 1993’s underrated Sleepwalking. The Visitation perhaps falls back a little towards more mid-tempo fare, but generally the quality is still there, as is a much more polished and effective production than has graced recent Magnum albums.

The album kicks off strongly with Black Skies, one of the album’s highlights; the slightly ominous build up, with rumbling bass, gives way to a crunchy lead riff from songwriter and guitarist Tony Clarkin, backed by Mark Stanway’s symphonic keyboard work. Vocalist Bob Catley sounds in good voice as ever, his warm, commanding tones leading us through the verse before delivering powerfully on the chorus.

Other highlights include the catchy Doors To Nowhere, which has some great, gritty guitar solos from Clarkin; Wild Angels, which has a big chorus reminiscent of their mid-to-late eighties heyday (there’s even some ‘woo-oah-oahh-oah’s going on there!); Freedom Day, which builds well and has a dramatic feel, boasts a busy chorus by Magnum standards and again has good, contrasting solo’s from Clarkin (languid in the intro, more dextrous later on), and an effective ‘lighters in the air’ power ballad in Tonight’s The Night. The strongest cut is possibly the dramatic title track, which will certainly go down well in concert and features Catley’s strongest vocal performance on the album.

There are some lesser songs, such as the maudlin The Last Frontier, whilst the likes of Spin Like A Wheel drag on for longer than they should. I also feel the rhythm section is a bit plodding in places – twas always thus, I guess, but some of these songs could do with a more vibrant backbone.

Overall, though, this is a decent addition to Magnum’s catalogue, and crucially long-time fans should lap it up – and this is what’s important, at this stage of Magnum’s career.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10

TOM DE VAL



Slaves To Fashion - Artistic Differences
Slaves To Fashion - Artistic Differences
Country of Origin:Norway
Format:CD
Record Label:Hands Of Blue
Catalogue #:HOB002
Year of Release:2011
Time:44:05
Info:Slaves To
Fashion
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Love You Back (3:51), Mrs. Hero (2:58), Made To Meet The Eyes (4:40), Superstar [I Want Out] (4:41), Empty Chairs (4:17), Hands (4:01), Left Out In The Cold (3:33), Out Of Here (3:08), Libido Ride (2:50), Facts On The Ground (10:05)

I just love this album and the story behind it.

Hopefully a few of you will have read my glowing review of Crossing Over, the debut album by a Norwegian band called Pedestrians Of Blue in 2007. Maybe some of you even got a copy? Despite many other positive reviews, no record label could be found to publish this excellent progressive hard rock album to a wider audience. Three years later a German journalist decided to take matters into his own hands. Frank Jaeger founded Hands Of Blue Records with one specific goal, to publish the band’s next album. So thanks to Frank I now hold the second album from this quartet, now known as Slaves To Fashion.

The songs may be a little shorter and more direct than on the debut but in every other respect this is as good if not even better. Mrs Hero is the initial radio single and is one many darn songs you just can’t get out of your head. Superstar [I Want Out] is equally as catchy. So is Out In The Cold. So is Love You Back … you get the idea.

The moods of the songs ebb and flow. Out of Here is more melancholic, whilst Facts On The Ground pushes the 10-minute mark as a reminder of the progressive tendencies of the musicians. Throughout there are some clever little musical details that enrich one’s listening pleasure. As on Crossing Over, the vocals of Johannes Stole are exemplary.

If you want to discover a young underground band with songs that were made to play out loud and sing aloud to but that have a depth that prevent them from being disposed of like bubble gum, then this is an album you dare not miss.

If like me you are a sucker for heavily melodic hard rock with great vocals, hooks to die for and a touch of progression in the song writing, then Slaves to Fashion (with the help of Frank) may have produced your top album of 2011. Addictively recommended.

Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10

ANDY READ



Jean Lapouge & Christian Pabœuf - Atlas
Jean Lapouge & Christian Pabœuf - Atlas
Country of Origin:France
Format:CD
Record Label:Musea Records
Catalogue #:GW3129
Year of Release:2010
Time:56:38
Info:Jean Lapouge
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Tourbillon (7:42), Delta (5:47), Marécage (7:31), Gothique (7:12), P.F (6:48), Sombre (6:58), Solo (6:02), Atlas (8:34)

Duo Jean Lapouge (guitar) and Christian Pabœuf (bass, oboe, recorders and voice) have finally seen their beautiful album Atlas being released. The first time I came across these guys was with Noëtra Live 83 which received a healthy 8 out of 10. Musically, Atlas doesn’t move in the same circles as Noëtra, it takes a more serene and peaceful approach, which doesn’t make it any less of an album, it just confirms how adept, in tune and at ease these guys are with each other.

Here we are offered eight beautiful and emotional jazz pieces that tonally call to mind Pat Metheny and the French guitarist Jean-Pascal Boffo. Lapouge has definitely managed not to drop into the homage arena, cleverly keeping his own unique imprint stamped on his creations. The whole feel is just perfectly married with the laid back tones that complement each other, Lapouge’s acoustic and electric arpeggios interact perfectly whilst the addition of Pabœuf’s oboe and recorder work and some slight inclusions of percussions just put the icing on the cake. You can tell that these two guys that have been played together for a long time, (approximately thirty five years), in varying forms, this is something that is conveyed in the music.

The first thing that struck me about the album was the whole production value; it is second to none, crystal clear, precise and elegant, which is quite fitting, humbling to some degree, allowing you to hear every nuance. This is obviously where these two gentlemen are most at ease. There is no distraction from other instrumentation or band members which has allowed them to focus on the job ahead. The have breathed life into their music, a life that has been allowed to mature, being given a voice, a voice that needs to be heard.

Tourbillon the opening piece which really emulates its name, spinning and rotating, turbulent but fluidic, spiralling interactions between Lapouge and Pabœuf. A musical movement that is moody, almost conversational, Lapouge being lead by Pabœuf, creating atmospherics which chop and change, finding that perfect balance of harmony as the two weave in and out of each other. Delta flows beautifully, peacefully and calmly viewing the world around, absorbing the whole ambiance, the tone of the guitar work here I think more than at any other part of the album emanates that Metheny sentiment, one that just builds musical imagery. Marécage features some very interesting guitar work that has been manipulated. It is an instrumental piece that brings Lapouge into his own, excited melodic interactions built around some very effective bass intonation, which allows the whole piece to ebb and flow.

Gothique has a darker structure than that of the Marécage, which at times has a sense of urgency about it, punctuated interjection, the meter and timber working in collusion, arrogantly stating their points, yet retaining an air of majestic semblance.

P.F’s approach is rather interesting to say the least, Pabœuf’s interaction both wind and percussive, masters the whole soundstage. Lapouge’s guitar tones meander, subservient at times, venturing into a less jazz orientated phrasing, but never travelling to far astray. It’s the dynamics that are presented here that make this so interesting. Sombre again see the music meanderings emulating the title in some form, it may be dark in approach but it is never dull, the musical shading may not be the brightest, but be under no illusion, this has quality written right through it, stunning interactions that are so complimentary, giving the impression that one can’t exist without the other. The guitar playing in Solo is inspiring, its structures and passages undulate and caress the listeners ears. The sound is captivating and mesmerising at the same time, allowing the notes to flow, their subtle differences and distinction in expression adding to the whole effect. Atlas the longest piece and album closer does not disappoint, it is a collection of musical phrasings, an emotionally journey that for me is a statement of intent of what Lapouge and Pabœuf are about. It’s just a beautiful atmospheric map of their musical prowess; the energy of the piece creates its own momentum that just carries it, proving that you don’t have to be flash to produce quality.

Jean Lapouge and Christian Pabœuf have produced a rather excellent and stunning album, which is full of atmospheric and quality music that may have originally been recorded in 1987. Even today the quality of what is presented here has lost none of its impact, being as relevant today as it was then. This is definitely one to consider adding to your collection.

Conclusion: 8 out of 10

JOHN O'BOYLE



Dreyelands - Rooms Of Revelation
Dreyelands - Rooms Of Revelation
Country of Origin:Hungary
Format:MP3
Record Label:Lion Music
Catalogue #:LMC283
Year of Release:2010
Time:51:47
Info:Dreyelands
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Entering (1:29), Room 1 - Seek For Salvation (5:40), Room 2 - Can't Hide Away (5:45), Room 3 - Pretending (6:36), Room 4 - Fragments (6:28), Room 5 - Way To You (7:38), Room 6 - Blossoms O Decay (3:12), Room 7 - Vain (8:35), Room 8 - Leaving Grace (6:24)

Rooms Of Revelation is the debut album from the Hungarian band Dreyelands. The band was formed in 2003 and just after their EP Can't Hide Away in 2007 they started writing for Rooms Of Revelation. On the info sheet they state that their style is best described as melodic progressive metal, powerful metal with a touch of 80's AOR music - and this is one of those times where the bands own description is spot on, no reason for me to come up with "in a style like this or that", they know it perfectly themselves. Personally I hear a lot of influences from Vanden Plas and Threshold. The metal music of Dreyelands is accessible and the progressive influences come from all the Dream Theater like time changes. All musicians are unknown to me, so no famous names as guest artist on this album, however vocalist Nikola Mijic really stands out here.

The opener Entering is a piece with sound effects of a man walking into a room, not really surprising if you look at the song title, whilst the first real song, Seek For Salvation, proves all points about the music of Dreyelands mentioned above in the introduction. Without any doubt this can also be said for the rest of the songs and I do not dare say this album lacks diversity, but there is no song that sticks out, in a good way nor in a bad way. Each song has a slight distinctive mark, be it a keyboard solo or a catchy tune, but all songs stay within the same range of style. So the song Can't Hide Away has a very good keyboard solo. Best part for me is the transition from Vain to Leaving Grace as some circus tunes slowly gain in volume and then the same tune continues with rock instruments. The melody, at times, returns in Leaving Grace, brilliantly done.

Rooms Of Revelation is a very descent album and people who like progressive metal will have a good addition to their catalogue with this album. The music of Dreyelands is of a constant good quality. The style of the music is also a constant factor, apart from small aspects the songs sound alike but this is no punishent. The vocals of Nikola Mijic are very good, also worth mentioning is the good production of this album. Dreyelands is not as complex as Dream Theater but certainly worth giving a try.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10

EDWIN ROOSJEN



Nine Stones Close – Traces
Nine Stones Close – Traces
Country of Origin:Netherlands/UK
Format:CD
Record Label:ProgRock Records
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2010
Time:43:50
Info:Nine Stones Close
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Reality Check (4:56), Threads (10:30), Falling To Pieces (6:16), Traces (7:19), Thicker Than Water (14:49)

Nine Stones Close – Re-Traced
Country of Origin:UK
Format:CD
Record Label:ProgRock Records
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2010
Time:43:50
Info:Nine Stones Close
Samples:Click here
Nine Stones Close – Re-Traced

Tracklist: Innersense [Acoustic] (4:30), Threads [Rewoven] (5:41), Traces [Reconstructed] (4:51), Thicker Than Water [Instrumental] (15:02), Untitled (3:56)

To quote the biographical information about Nine Stones Close on the website for ProgRock records:

“Nine Stones Close was begun in 2008 as a solo project to exorcise some personal demons. Adrian Jones (Numb, Lie Big) recorded the first CD, St Lo, independently in the Netherlands. It took less than five months, with Adrian taking on all roles, from writing and playing to mixing and marketing... In 2009, fate led Adrian to meet up with Brendan Eyre (Riversea), Marc Atkinson (Mandalaband, Riversea) and Neil Quarrell, and the project really grew wings. The chemistry was immediate and tangible; Nine Stones Close became a working band for the Traces album.”

For this review, Traces came with an independently released (and now sold out) limited edition CD entitled Re-Traced, featuring re-workings of the main album tracks. On Traces, Eyre plays keyboards, Jones plays additional keyboards and bass on one track, guitars and programming (there’s no drummer); Atkinson is the vocalist, and Quarrell holds it down on the bass.

The style of music the band plays is classic-leaning prog with lots of dark and pastoral elements. As there are just five tracks on Traces, for this review I shall touch upon them all along with what Re-Traced counterparts there are.

The CD opens with Reality Check, an instrumental showcasing melodic guitar from Jones evoking Steve Rothery and some droning guitar layers recalling The Resonance Association. Jones’ guitar gets heavier and some drum programming works its way into the picture with accents of light, wispy keyboards from Eyre gesturing towards Rick Wright as a commonality.

Next up is Threads, an epic which alternates from some sections orchestral in their flavour via Jones’ programming and Eyre’s organ style keys to other sections recalling Queensrÿche. Quarrell’s bass is thick and Atkinson’s vocals are plaintive. These elements along with the orchestral touches notwithstanding, Threads to me came off as a weak track. Things improved though later on as I continued to listen to the CD. On the bonus CD, Threads [Rewoven] if anything is not so much rewoven as stripped down. Here the bass and programming levers of the graphic equalizer are turned all the way down, making Jones' electric guitar solo more prominent. Threads also shows up as a bare-to-the-bones version on the bonus CD as an unlisted “hidden track” (a clichéd, gimmicky effect I have encountered on CDs too many times).

Falling To Pieces, with lyrics courtesy of the pen of Atkinson, has some IQ commonalities I detected in Jones’ guitar and Eyre’s keyboards. Sunlit acoustic guitar from Jones and soaring, emotive symphonic style keyboards from Eyre give the tune a Floydian hue.

Next up we have the title track, which starts with a slow Chicago blues shuffle via Jones’ programming giving way to a crisp, progressive style. Some plaintive keyboarding from Eyre sees things again pointing to Wright as a reference, with the song sounding pastoral yet up-tempo all at the same time. The track then stumbles for a bit, but picks itself up and carries on with a groove perhaps appropriately leaning to Brave-era Marillion. This similarity is found as well on its Re-Traced cousin, Traces [Reconstructed], via piano style keyboards from Eyre. Traces [Reconstructed] in fact does not sound reconstructed at all, but rather played live.

More Marillion pointers, specifically those of Season’s End, filter over closing three-part epic Thicker Than Water. Heavy exhales of bass from Quarrell bring to mind some of the bass heard on Floyd’s The Wall. Eyre throws in some electric piano style keyboards and then the song travels through stark vocals from Atkinson into Marbles-era Marillion territory. Heavy guitar from Jones and some organ style keyboards from Eyre signal Deep Purple as an influence. The track seems to stumble toward the end and regrettably does not pick itself up. On Re-Traced, Innersense [Acoustic] (the first part of Thicker Than Water on the main CD) is devoid of its bass and programming rhythm section but nonetheless is not unlike its album counterpart. On the bonus CD we are also treated to Thicker Than Water [Instrumental]. The title is self-explanatory.

The main CD is housed in a digipack with colourful artwork from the noted Ed Unitsky (The Flower Kings, the Tangent, Unitopia, and many more). The CD I received for this review appears to have been released before ProgRock Records picked the band up, as there is no label branding or catalogue number. The bonus CD came modestly inserted in a generic white envelope.

Nine Stones Close will most likely appeal to those fans of symphonic influenced prog, with purveyors of Marillion in particular perhaps grooving to it. If you are seeking something tighter and a little more perky, you won’t find it here.

Some patchier moments on Traces and Re-Traced prompt me to assign ratings to them under our “recommended” rating. For their next release I see an opportunity for the band to expand their musical palette or spectrum of arrangements and instrumentation further, to avoid the somewhat predictability of the abundant Marillion references. And I would skip a bonus CD next time unless it has original music, as I did not feel that Re-Traced provided anything of additional substance along with Traces.

Conclusions:

Traces: 6 out of 10
Re-Traced: 5.5 out of 10

JIM CORCORAN



Acorn Project - Generation Debt
Acorn Project - Generation Debt
Country of Origin:USA
Format:CD
Record Label:Acorn Productions
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2010
Time:52:19
Info:Acorn Project
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Reflection (6:07), Limits (5:56), Escape (5:26), Bank Robbery (4:01), Noise (5:27), Melting (7:04), Blueprint (6:51), Dose (9:13), Tom Selleck (7:21)

Acorn Project hail from Washington state, USA and Generation Debt is their third full-length studio recording. Originally formed in 2002 from a disparate collection of local Bellingham musicians who had never even played in a band before, they evolved by 2010 into a six-piece ensemble with extensive Pacific Coast touring and several live and studio releases. Everything they’ve done is independent and self-governed – an approach I will always stand and applaud for. This line-up consists of two guitarists, who front the sound of the band, supported by a range of keyboard voices but largely piano and organ. Standard drums and bass comprise the rhythm section and this is all coloured by a throaty saxophone. Robert Pritiken comes across as a kind of band-leader with his angular, clean guitar as well as handling lead vocals. Tristan Currin supplements Pritiken with his high sustain, big vibrato lead and slide guitar work. Oskar Kollen plays keyboards and proves to have a substantial role in the band’s overall style and sound, often lifting the energy whilst providing the bulk of the midrange tone of the songs. The rhythm section is Kale McGuinness on bass and Todd Benedict on drums, accompanied by three guest percussionists in the form of Kevin Chryst, Karl Olsen and Jeremy Frasard.

They describe themselves as an electro-funk rock outfit, which immediately causes a raised and sceptical eyebrow. Best not to judge a book by its cover – even though I always buy books by authors I’ve never read on the strength of their covers and I’ve bought no end of CDs, just because I like the cover. On which note, my first impression is enhanced by George Sarlos’ striking artwork on the rather flimsy, but ecologically sound, card digipack. “This should be interesting if nothing else,” I mentally remark, and to some extent, it is.

What Acorn Project play is a fusion of funky, ever-so-slightly-jazzy, soul-rock. It’s way too light to really warrant any serious consideration of ‘jazz’ but there’s a hint of a ‘smooth’ inflection, especially in the closing track, Tom Selleck which would go almost unnoticed in any of the Blaxploitation movies of the ‘70s, almost. Another reviewer described this particular track as ‘Yacht rock’, which is genius and I wish I’d thought of it. The other element of their sound is from a distinctly ‘Indie’ idiom with all of its inherent mood swings and affectations: from zesty and fun via impotently angry and rebellious in a middle-class kind of way, to morose, forlorn and shuffling. These are strange bedfellows, but it almost works. It’s certainly a bit different.

Part of the problem that prevents it coming together effectively for this reviewers ears lies in the production. The mix is flat and lifeless; the soundstage indistinct and mono-dimensional. The engineering is eccentric with plenty of warm bottom-end but totally lacking in brilliance. There’s a distinctly ‘live’ presence about the recording, almost as if it were done with the band playing live and, using strategic mike placement to gather room ambience as well as more direct means, capture them in full swing, so to speak. The guitars especially have an attractive unpretentious, clean tone. However, the artificial reverb on everything is excessive and ham-fisted, which seems an odd choice. As I listen, my imagination is drawn to the assumption that this band is probably great in a live setting, but it’s really not coming across in a studio environment. To be frank, it sounds like a good demo rather than a polished studio product.

Another significant shortcoming is revealed by the track lengths. With four of the songs clocking in at seven minutes or more, what becomes apparent is that there is not enough development in the musical ideas to sustain interest. What’s perhaps more telling is that a lot of the musical ideas are so insubstantial, so lacking in raw material, that they don’t really warrant much development in the first place. These are ditties posing as extended jams. Take Blueprint, for example. Granted, it has an interesting blend of styles – marrying the funky soul of James Brown with the uptempo, skanking reggae vibe of The Specials and, like so many of the other tracks, it kind of works. After about three and a half minutes, it appears to have ended but then develops into an oddly formless and drab instrumental section that lasts another three and a half minutes. It’s incongruous and odd. Similarly, Dose has a funky intro with an almost acid-jazz kind of groove until the chorus which could be a Billy Joel song. I actually quite like this one, it has a swing that the others lack but again overstays its welcome by flogging its limited idea to death for four instrumental minutes.

Compounding these overlong excursions is some clumsy, untidy playing that is so prevalent, I’ve decided it’s a part of their style. Nevertheless, it constantly interferes with my potential enjoyment of the album. Limits is very simple, unsubtle pop-rock in the vein of The Steve Gibbons Band and the opener, Reflection, is a jaunty, indie-rock, piano/drums driven piece, but both are blighted by this clunky, awkward playing I’m alluding to. Noise is a better track with multi-tracked brass adding an interesting dimension to the sound. Yet it’s predictable, repetitive and obvious in its melodic choices and stilted rhythms. Bank Robbery has a country/skiffle, almost bluegrass vibe, slightly reminiscent of Squeeze in some of their more cheeky moments, but without the chutzpah. Melting has a nice live sound and a laid-back, fluid, funky groove that touches its cap at The Stone Roses, but the drumming is (and this is a universal observation), shall we say, primitive? Think Ringo Starr and you’ll get my point. The feel of the song is appealing, but its details don’t stand up to scrutiny (the guitar melody is milquetoast). This is another song that simply cannot sustain its seven minute length.

All in all, I find Generation Debt to be thinly expressed and poorly executed. It’s a kind of ersatz reimagining of the early catalogue of War jamming with Dire Straits while The Smiths offer executive guidance. It’s a curious idea that can be considered as progressive in nature. However, it would need an extremely clever producer to harness the songwriting potential that’s in evidence here and turn it into a coherent and dynamic recording. What we’ve actually got here lacks spark and fire and charisma, coming across as both drab and naïve. Seemingly unaware of its slightly gauche shortcomings, it instead seems rather pleased and a little surprised that it has come into existence at all. Whilst I remain unconvinced, I’m sure it has an enthusiastic audience somewhere, it’s just not here.

Conclusion: 5 out of 10

JON BRADSHAW


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