Shooting Star (10:10), Get Out Alive (7:32), If It All Comes down to You (5:52), Writing on the Wall (9:03), Until All the Ghosts Are Gone Direct (5:07), Our Days Are Numbered (8:36)
Marcel Hartenberg's Review
It has been a mere eight years since we last heard of Anekdoten. That is not even quite the full decade and plenty of time in which we could all have a dive deep into the band's back catalogue. Eight years to thoroughly enjoy what those in-the-know had already come to explore and love. Eight more years of not knowing that Anekdoten even existed, for those who were unaware. Eight years. My, that is quite some time. So is this album worth the wait?
Well, without any further ado, it most certainly is. I must admit, I didn't yet count myself amongst the Anekdoten aficionados, as I didn't get to listen to Anekdoten until about a year ago. Only then did I purchase Chapters.
This newest album is a true prog feast. What is fascinating about the album is that it moves both in classic prog fields and in very modern prog spheres. In that way, the album has a certain resemblance to Steven Wilson's Hand. Cannot. Erase.. Both albums manage very successfully to combine the ever-ancient palette and yet paint the music with a very youthful attitude.
Still, the music on the two albums differs quite a lot. Or does it? Well, there are passages that might be written by either Wilson or Anekdoten, just have a listen to the opening track, music that wouldn't have sounded at odds with Steven Wilson's material at all. With King Crimson being part of the greater prog legacy, it is not strange to notice that some bands and artists might share some of their influences. Yet not ignoring Nick Beggs' great bass playing on the Wilson opus, the bass on this album is even more in your face and we get loads and loads of Mellotron. Both elements add to Anekdoten's sound a lot.
That is not saying that Nicklas Barker's guitar sounds subdued on this album, not at all. We get to hear some awesome guitar playing on the whole of the album. We find traces of the fact that Nicklas holds Robert Fripp and his guitar playing in high esteem. However, if the influence might be there, it still requires skill and emotion to move people in the way that Nicklas' playing does. He can play both majestically, soaring on top of the music, or just a bit plainly, wandering away, as you can hear in Writing on the Wall. His playing also reminds me of the way Big Big Train's Dave Gregory sometimes wanders away. It's like saying: "Get on board this musical magic carpet, we're ready for take off". All of a sudden you find yourself floating in mid-air, with no thought other than being aware of the music that is taking you there.
But there is more than bass, Mellotron and guitar. We get vocals that are just a perfect fit to the music, and drums that form the perfect backdrop, yet never, never go over the top. Even in the last track, where things are sped up and the music gets to sound somewhat chaotic, Peter Nordin remains ever-the-steadfast backdrop.
We do have guests on this album too. Shooting Star features Per Wiberg (of Opeth fame, that doesn't go without notice) on keyboards. There is Theo Travis adding flute to two tracks, Marty Wilson-Piper (of The Church and All About Eve fame) adding lead guitar and acoustic 12-string to the title track, and Gustav Nygren adding sax to the closing number.
I've had this album on repeat again and again, and never a dull moment so far. Just before the first time I listened to it, I came back from holiday in Canada. There I enjoyed wandering in the Rockies very much. It did really take me out of everyday life and made me very much aware of "being in the moment". Well, ladies and gents, this album has a quality that evokes that feeling too.
This, like the aforementioned Hand. Cannot. Erase. is an album that demands exploration. You don't just scan it in a fleeting, passing way of listening. This is one to savour, to sit back, to relish and to return to. It's like a visit to a forest, deep and wide, where each and every turn shows you another perspective, a different way in which the light touches you. There are endless paths that have you wandering and wondering, just being there in the moment. Where Steven Wilson might have added more pop influences, here the sound remains a bit nearer to the origins of prog. It is up to you to decide which you like more. I can only say that both albums are to be treasured as outstanding releases; both the musical contents and the absolutely brilliant artwork.
Alan Weston's Review
My first reaction to listening to this disc was 'brilliant'; at last an album that has a decent 70s length of just over 45 minutes,
which means you're more likely to listen to the whole album uninterruptedl. I am a sucker (as I suspect many others are) for
the rich waves of Mellotron-saturated music which happily features throughout Anekdoten's latest album Until All the Ghosts are
Gone. Well, it is their trademark!
The only previous album I have of Anekdoten is the excellent A Time of Day, which was their last studio album eight
years ago. I love the very distinctive tones of Jan Erik Liljestrom's voice that adds to Anekdoten's unique sound.
The passage of time has not in anyway had any detrimental affect on his vocal chords.
The opening track Shooting Star is an absolute cracker on all levels. It includes great organ runs that are answered by some
lovely guitar work, while the rhythm section pounds away, giving an infectious vibe to the music, with of course spellbinding
Mellotron sounds to boot. Over 10 minutes worth of excellent rocking music.
Things don't really let up on the second track, Get Out Alive, that has an opening wall of sound with excellent guitar rifts,
accompanied by rich Mellotron strings. There's a nice atmospheric guitar solo about the halfway mark supported by rhythmic patterns
on the toms. Things slow down towards the end, with acoustic guitar arpeggios along with a cello-sounding, sad melody and of course
plenty of Mellotron!
The rest of the album stacks up extremely well. We get some great influential flute playing from the formidable
musician Theo Travis on If it all Comes Down to You. Travis, who's also worked with bands like King Crimson and The Tangent, also has his own solo output.
A superb, yearning guitar solo in Writing on the Wall, with the ever-present lushness of the Mellotron
sound plus changes in mood and texture, produces yet another great track. The title track is slow in tempo with
beautifully-delivered angelic vocals, simple but effective acoustic accompaniment, and another fine guitar solo.
The instrumental Our Days Are Numbered is an absorbing and fitting finale to the album, with driving bass and drums and
discordant guitar chords plus plenty of guitar riffs and licks. This track also features some wonderful eerie and wild sax playing
from Gustav Nygren that crescendos to a climax along with the rest of the band. Stupendous.
One slight criticism, on the back of my Riverside review and comparing audio between these albums, is that I felt the Anekdoten
mix was slightly muddy in places, with some of the sharpness lost. Having said that, the music is great and this is definitely
one of the albums of the year and worth checking out and buying.
Messenger Of All's Right (6:24), Warjazz (5:16), Different Days (7:47), Empyrean Views (9:18), Carried Home (5:10), Once I Get Mine (5:40), Sound Of Bees (6:58), All This Time We're Given (7:59), Vanishing Sun (7:34)
Roger Trenwith's Review
Twenty years ago, that was the first time I came across this American band, and then only by accident. They happened to have three tracks on a compilation entitled Progfest '94, taken from the Stateside festival of the same name. The reason I bought that double CD was that Anekdoten and Änglagård were both on it, the two bands responsible for rekindling the prog flame in yours truly. Echolyn contributed three tracks. I had to dig the CD out to look that up, it's been gathering dust for years!
At the time they were signed to Sony, a very rare case of a 90s prog band being signed to a major label. Sadly their relationship with the major label was fraught with problems, as Sony had no idea how to promote a prog band. Makes you wonder if they had listened to them, before offering a deal! Echolyn's short tenure on Sony ended in an acrimonious parting of ways, the fallout ultimately leading to the band breaking up in 1995. They eventually reformed in 2000, and have been going ever since. Remarkably, given the nature of the band's demise in 1995, the line-up has remained pretty much constant since day one.
Those three songs on Progfest '94 cannot have made much of an impression on me, as until their eighth but perversely self-titled album they had passed well below my increasingly bizarre radar. That 2012 album however, comprising four traditional "side-long" pieces, certainly piqued my interest, containing as it did 80 or so minutes of finely crafted modern prog. As some of you may know, "long uns" in the trad-prog field are not my cup of tea these days, so I was not completely sold, but I'm pleased to say that with I Heard You Listening the band has returned to more concise but nonetheless highly intricate song writing.
The late 60s and early 70s underground music scene in the UK that gave birth to the original prog rock was initially peculiarly confined to the shores of Blighty, before spreading to mainland Europe. With one or two exceptions, it never really caught on in the States, although the Brit bands drew large crowds when they toured there. Clever and highly skilled artists like Zappa and Todd Rundgren appropriated some of the tropes of the era, to fashion their own highly individual takes on the prog beast, and you can certainly hear Todd's Utopian influence in the grooves of I Heard You Listening. However Echolyn are their own collective man, and their signature sound from the last album is present and correct.
If ever there was a band who have journeyed far from their obvious influences to become nothing but themselves, Echolyn are it. Even more than the last "Window Pane" album as it is sometimes known by virtue of its cover art, I Heard You Listening is the sound of a band set free from the constraints of pleasing a conservative prog audience, to make the music they want to make. I have read some comments of disgruntlement that the band has not continued with the epic prog template, but if you can't appreciate this almost radio friendly, but still decidedly prog album for what it is, then there is little hope for you! While there was a seven-year gap between "Window Pane" and its predecessor, this one follows a mere three years later. The more compact time frame transmits a renewed energy and vitality that leaps out at you through the marvellously titled Warjazz and many others.
A band comfortable in their own skin, they open the album with an atypically downbeat song entitled Messenger Of All's Right, a sad tale of being buried in an avalanche of cares and woes, unable to cope, but redemption is on hand, "delivered by a dead man's voice". Following that, the aforementioned energy of Warjazz is a lyrical statement of ambitions realised, and nervous anticipation of what lies ahead.
A feature of Echolyn is the interplay between the two lead vocalists, bassist Ray Weston and guitarist Brett Kull. Brett wrote the lyrics to Distant Days and Empyrean Views, Ray wrote the words to the rest. The duo's skill in making their voices instruments in their own right is stamped through the delightfully lyrically-labyrinthine Different Days. For once, the lyrics on a prog album go beyond the fantastical, to tell some very human stories, tales that are not of the all-too-prevalent navel-gazing "woe is me" variety. Despite what some may tell you, lyrics are important and the incisive nature of the writing here illustrates the point. I suppose with so many examples of trite and/or badly sung prog lyrics out there, it's no surprise that some folk don't listen to the words too closely. Echolyn's lyrics deserve a bit more than a cursory listen, which is no doubt why you can find them all on the group's website.
Instrumentation...let's not forget that! The tune-smithery on this album is not given to the long excursions into complexity or soloing to be found on 'Window Pane', but relies more on ensemble playing, by a band who have lived with each other's idiosyncrasies for so long now, it sounds like it all flowed naturally without much fannying about. We get everything on this album; a touch of Beatles influence here, some lovely melancholic ballad-eering there, and the effervescent flavours added by Chris Buzby's many and varied keyboards, make for a delightful concoction that never sits too heavy, nor does it ever become saccharine. Occasional and interesting guitar breaks add another texture, and the whole is of a very high quality indeed.
The longest song on the album is Empyrean Views, which lyrically, as the title may suggest, is striving for something "beyond". There may or may not be a hint of the religious to the lyric, but it is sufficiently couched in metaphor to be merely impressionistic. Musically, the tune develops a kind of art-rock symphonic feel, and 10CC and The Beatles are in there, somewhere.
Deep, almost funky languid grooves transport Carried Home back to the source with an effortless grace. A more complex and rockier side to band is revealed on Once I Get Mine, which charges relentlessly through its time changes, the guitars and keys entwining and careering along.
There is a very high level of musical accomplishment evident on this album, and it feels like the group have reached a state of grace. Does there comes a point where progression reaches its goal? I do not know, but I Heard You Listening sounds like that album to me. Glissando guitars twinkle on the laid back Sound Of Bees, and the relaxed groove continues into All This Time We're Given, an impressionistic tale of battles with demons and drugs, and again a hint of a religious past. Almost Floydian in places, but somehow more epic, these last two tracks are the only point in the album where proceedings meander a tad. However that is merely a small murmur from me, have no fear!
And so we arrive at the last song, a vehement "woe is me" tale of all things. Whereas some bands in our overcrowded pool delight in the misery wallow, much as a hippo likes rolling in mud, thankfully it is the exception with Echolyn. "What an empty life, fucking kill me now. What a lonely life, fucking kill me now" is sung with perhaps not the venom you might expect, but it is there, bubbling under the surface. Our hero is redeemed by his anger and an attack of pyromania, to a soundtrack that could have done with being a bit more stridently mixed, given the subject matter.
As Vanishing Sun has it: "All he ever wanted was to disappear, all he ever wanted was to take his life back", which sums up how Echolyn must have felt when they split up 20 years ago. If they carry on like this, there is no reason why they can't make the popular breakthrough (if they want to of course). For now let's be content with the large fish that this fine American band has become, as they make a big splash in our small pool. It seems I've found a modern prog album I like, whodathunkit?
Perhaps a shade too long, the album loses a bit of focus towards the end and it is for that reason alone that I give this otherwise exemplary chunk of modern prog an 8 and not a 9. Suffice to say, if you're a prog fan - and if you're not, what on Earth are you doing reading this? - you need to give I Heard You Listening a hearing, at the very least.
Patrick McAfee's Review
In the 24 years since their debut, Echolyn has released some masterful prog albums. They long ago established themselves as one of prog rock's finest, and each album is eagerly awaited by their faithful fanbase. So does I Heard You Listening meet the usual lofty expectations? Well, in some ways the album plays a bit like a smorgasbord of Echolyn's history. Every element that has made the band so popular and respected, can be found here.
The album starts out in a fairly low key way with Messenger of All's Right. It is by no means a bad song, but somewhat lacks any element of surprise. It definitely has that classic Echolyn sound, but for some reason the song seems better suited for placement later in the album. Perhaps, I just expect an opening track to make more of an impression. Warjazz, on the other hand, is everything that the opener isn't. The song is a diverse and entertaining rocker with a memorable ending. These first two tracks essentially sum up the flow of the album for me. There are some songs on I Heard You Listening that are amongst the best that the band has ever recorded. There are others though that are good, but also marginally underwhelming.
Empyream Views, Different Days, Carried Home and Once I Get Mine all have that signature and unique style that Echolyn is famous for, but that extra something is just missing. That being said, even middle of the road Echolyn is quite engaging. The absolute saving grace of the album is the quality of the last three tracks. Sound of Bees, All This Time We're Given and Vanishing Sun are classics, and some of the strongest moments of this band's impressive career. Whereas, Messenger of All's Right, opens the album inauspiciously, Vanishing Sun, closes it perfectly. This enthusiastically performed and emotionally charged song is a perfect example of why Echolyn has made such a mark on the prog scene.
All things considered, I don't rank I Heard You Listening in the same space as albums like Mei or Cowboy Poems Free. It is certainly recommendable nonetheless, and in its strongest moments it is a very solid work. The album's inconsistencies are a bit of a detriment though and keep it from reaching the great heights of some of the band's previous work.
The challenge for a band that has released such great work, is that it is impossible to keep topping yourself. The fact is that Echolyn keeps recording quality albums and I Heard You Listening_ continues that streak. Ultimately, it is half a good album and half a great album. The good moments will entertain you and the great moments will remind you of why Echolyn is such an important prog band.
CD 1: The Land of Beginning Again (3:51), Overture No. 1 (6:01), California Nights (6:02), Colder in the Sun (6:14), Sleeping Jesus (5:32), Interlude (1:55), The Prince of the Power of the Air (2:57), The Promise (2:39), Wasted Life (7:33), Overture No. 2 (2:26), Break of Day (6:35), Power in the Air (4:47), Somber Days (5:56), Long Story (4:29), It's All I Can Do (8:10)
CD 2: Transformation (3:08), Ready to Try (4:04), Sing it high (7:42), Moving in my Heart (3:15), I Am Willing (6:23), In the Middle (2:27), The Storm Before the Calm (8:03), Oh, to Feel Him (7:34), God's Theme (3:59), Overture No. 3 (1:31), Rejoice (2:23), Oh Lord My God (3:42), God's Theme 2 (2:24), The Land of Beginning Again (4:21), Jayda (4:37), Time Has Come (3:05), Jesus' Blood (5:48)
CD 3: The Creation (18:47), The Man's Gone (3:25), Nothing To Believe (3:30), Author Of Confusion (10:51), The Separated Man (20:36), Cradle to the Grave (5:45), Help Me / Spirit and the Flesh (10:40), King Jesus (5:23)
CD 4: Father Of Forgiveness (7:13), Reunion (9:58), It's For You (4:38), Wind At My Back (5:13), The Light (17:53), Stranger In Your Soul (33:30)
DVD 1: Night One: _Testimony_ Live - The Land of Beginning Again, Overture No. 1, California Nights, Colder in the Sun, Sleeping Jesus, Interlude, The Prince of the Power of the Air, The Promise, Wasted Life, Overture No. 2,Break of Day, Power in the Air,Somber Days, Long Story, It's All I Can Do, Transformation, Ready to Try, Sing it High, Moving in My Heart, I Am Willing, In the Middle, The Storm Before the Calm, Oh, to Feel Him, God's Theme, Overture No. 3, Rejoice, Oh Lord My God, God's Theme 2,The Land of Beginning Again, Oh Lord My God, God's Theme 2, The Land of Beginning Again, Encores- Jayda, Time has Come, Jesus' Blood.
DVD 2: Night Two: _One_ Live - The Creation, The Man's Gone, Nothing To Believe, Author Of Confusion, The Separated Man, Cradle to the Grave, Help Me/Spirit and the Flesh, King Jesus, Father Of Forgiveness, Reunion, Encores –It's For You, Wind At My Back, The Light, Stranger In Your Soul
Joris Donkel's Review: the CDs
I hate Neal Morse! Well, not in a way that I want him to burn in hell for eternity or want him to suffer all the diseases mentioned in the Bible. No, just like the man himself, I really can't have such an anger at someone to wish them such evil things. But Neal Morse is a disaster for my purse and my time planning!
Does the man really need to release a box with live recordings from one of the many projects he's involved in, again and again? And then not just release a simple double CD. No, I can already fill a complete shelf with all these lush boxes he has released either as a solo artist or as a member of one of his many projects. This man always has to do things in a big way. This time we have a special edition with 4 CDs and 2 DVDs! Still I must admit that in most cases the pricing of these boxes is very modest. You usually get a lot of music for a very reasonable price, and I hope this is the case too with this box.
So should you buy this box when you already have several Neal Morse (Band) and Transatlantic boxes on your shelf like me? The answer is simple: yes you should. Where all the previous boxes were a recording of some gig during some tour, this live performance is the documentation of the Morsefest weekend; Neal's very own special double gig fan weekend.
The idea for this festival was actually born as a result of a conversation Neal had several years ago with his pastor, Steve Farmer. The pastor asked him if he would consider doing a gig in Neal's home church. At that time Neal was not ready for that, but the pastor was very persistent (aren't most pastors?), so Neal really started to consider this as a realistic possibility. It was Neal's wife who came up with the idea to make it a full weekend event, to persuade people to drive all the way to Nashville.
During one of the couple's regular walks, the whole basic concept for the festival was born, like for instance playing the whole One album live, which Morse never had done before and also the Testimony album. Neal got many people on board to help prepare the whole event (Chris Thompson has to be mentioned here) and of course also the whole band and even extra percussionists, sax and trumpet players and six female backing singers.
The event was also a family affair; Neal's brother Alan also joined the stage, just as did his son Wil ("he's a little bigger now" Neal commented on his appearance) singing Cradle to the Grave, whilst Neal's daughter Jayda performed as a dancer along with Joanna Pippin. Apparently some other family members of Neal's were in the audience.
The event was such a success that this year, on September 4th and 5th, the second edition took place, this time Neal and band played the entire albums ? (Question Mark) and Sola Scriptura.
So what about the music on this four-CD collection? Well, need I mention that Neal Morse always delivers a quality performance? But this time it was special and that can be heard on the discs.
The first two CDs feature the concert on the first night when the whole Testimony album was played plus some encores. Mike Portnoy had his short moment in the spotlights too which he used among others to confess to being the biggest Neal Morse fan. Another fine moment of the gig was Randy George's attempt to play a certain lick faster and faster. Neal introduced the encore by saying that he had thought of what to play and decided to play something that didn't make it to that album in the end.
A very moving moment then came when Neal told the story of his daughter Jayda, who was born with a hole in her heart, which miraculously disappeared when Neal's wife had accepted to let her daughter go to God. Naturally this gig was sprinkled with several religious-tainted remarks; some hallelujah's, amen and praise the Lords and loads of mentions of Jesus and God, which makes sense since the concert took place in a church and the Testimony albumis a clear declaration of Neal's faith in God.
Despite having a strong aversion to organised religion myself, I must admit that all these expressions of faith-related remarks don't disturb me. What Neal tried to bring over with that album was the joy and happiness that his faith in God had brought about within him, and what's wrong with that? I think everybody needs something to believe in, something that can give you support, a strong faith in something that offers you stability and strength. That could be a religion, but also something else.
Anyway, let's not start a discussion about religion here; we're talking music.
The third and fourth CD contain the second gig of the weekend when the One album was played in full for the first time. It doesn't differ a bit from the first two discs when it comes to the quality of the music and the pleasure with which it's played. On Father of Forgiveness violin player Kenny Barnd from the National Symphony adds some extra flavour to the song, just as do the two dancers. The third song of the encores features Alan Morse on the Spock's Beard song The Light.
What comes over very strong listening to these four CD's is that the whole band, and especially Neal, are giving everything to make these concerts extra special. The joy of playing and being over-excited about doing these gigs can be felt in your own home when listening to these CDs. Isn't that the ultimate way of playing and enjoying music?
And that is exactly what makes this release just a bit better than all these other live concert releases by Neal and co. This six-disc box set is a testimony of that very special weekend when a dream came true, when fans shared some magnificent hours with their much-admired idol and some fabulous music was made.
What more can I say? Hallelujah? Okay, I'll admit it: I love Neal Morse!
Patrick McAfee's Review: the DVDs
From a commercial and perhaps artistic perspective, progressive rock will probably always be best remembered for the music of the 70s. Though it is true that a significant number of the legendary prog albums came from that decade, the years of greatness for many of the bands offrom that era was relatively short-lived. Even classic bands like Yes and ELP have spent their careers living in the shadow of albums like Close to the Edge and Brain Salad Surgery. Interestingly, in that respect, the best artists and bands of the modern prog scene have in some ways trumped the musicians who inspired them. Many of the current prog artists have shown the longevity and the consistent quality that the classic bands could not maintain. Quite possibly, nobody in the current progressive rock scene is as prolific as Neal Morse. The amount of quality material that he has created over the last 20 years in Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, Flying Colors and as a solo artist is astounding. His talent has earned him many fans, and ultimately paved the way for the introduction of Morsefest in September of 2014.
The main showcase of this festival was the full performances over two nights of Neal's first two solo albums after leaving Spock's Beard, Testimony and One. (Ed - The two DVDs here each take one of the albums/shows.) Both are very entertaining albums that fully established Morse's prog solo career. Testimony in particular was very personal for Neal, and that shows in the performance on this DVD collection. Filmed in the church he attends, with family, friends and fans from all over the world, Neal quite often shows his emotions. There is also a celebratory feel to the entire event that comes across well on this offering. In both the Testimony concert and the Morsefest documentary included, Neal speaks of needing to be convinced to do the festival. Watching the performances, it is apparent that the event was very special for him, as well as for the talented musicians who shared the stage.
Along with Morse band regulars, Mike Portnoy, Randy George, Bill Hubauer and Eric Gillette, the line-up also includes a horn section, backing vocalists, string and orchestral percussion and even dancers. The stage looks to be quite crowded at times, but the performances throughout are stellar. The two showcased albums are played with great skill, and the enthusiasm displayed by the band is quite infectious. Morsefest proves to be a family affair, as Neal is joined by his son on a performance of Cradle to the Grave from the One album and his daughter, Jayda is one of the dancers. Alan Morse joins the band for the festival's closing encores, Spock's Beard's, The Light and Transatlantic's Stranger in your Soul. Both are played with great energy and the event ends with Neal introducing each musician. No small task indeed.
There is no faulting the musical performances on this DVD collection and the event is filmed and edited well. There are many camera angles and the editing sometimes moves at the same energetic pace as the music. It never proves to be distracting though and helps to capture the feel of the performances. The audio of the performances is well mixed with no significant issues to be found.
Overall, the entire festival is captured very effectively and the enthusiasm and emotion of the weekend is very clearly documented. The behind the scenes bonus feature on DVD 2, contains an entertaining acoustic performance that was performed for members of Neal's Inner Circle fanclub. There have been a number of Neal Morse live DVD's released over the years, but this one feels just a bit more special. It is apparant that a significant amount of care was put into the festival and the filmed record of it. The inaugural Morsefest was notable enough to warrant a second one in September of this year. As presented on this DVD collection, Morsefest 2 has a hard act to follow.
Overture (2:13), Nevermore (5:30), Underworld (5:48), Without You (5:51), Kiss Of Fire (5:09), Charon (6:06), To Hell And Back (9:23), In My Darkest Hour (4:22), Run With The Devil (5:38), Swan Song (7:29), Legend (6:29)
Calum Gibson's Review
Having heard the name Symphony X mentioned many times in discussions with friends regarding progressive music, I had recently started listening to them. However this was my first foray into a full album by the band. I was not disappointed.
The album opens with a very ominous intro, which for me evokes thoughts of castles and dark forests, before the drums and guitars kick into dark symphonic metal, reminiscent of the "epic final bosses" of old Japanese role playing computer games, such as Final Fantasy.
After this dark and heavy build up, Nevermore slaps you hard with its instant face-melting prog metal riffs, snarling vocals and unstoppable drums. The chorus itself is catchy, with the song taking on an overall Dream Theater-on-steroids feel to it. It continues at this fast pace until breaking into a heavy, technical, head banging bridge, before the blistering guitar solo shreds its way into your ears.
Underworld is another fast-paced solid wall of progressive metal. This is the kind of song that has it all for any progressive metal fan. Verses to bang your head to, fist-pumping bridges and powerful, singalong choruses, all mixed with a heavy dose of interesting and technical riffs before the band blind-sides you with a shredding solo.
Run With The Devil sounds like a song suitable for driving down the motorway on your way to Sonisphere, Ramblin' Man or the Bloodstock Festival with its catchy, almost 80s-sounding chorus mixed perfectly with the punch-in-theface of technicality that makes its presence felt particularly in this song.
The album's closer Legend starts off with some fun, interesting riffs, at a nice pace to nod along to while Russel Allan sings along like an American Bruce Dickinson at points. Shortly before the end, the track launches into an epic trade-off between Michael Pinella's keyboards and the guitar of Michael Romeo as they compete for who can do the best solo. It doesn't get over the top, or go on for too long, and is a perfect bridge to the final chorus and therefore the end of the album.
Vocally, Russell Allen is on top form on this album, sometimes sounding like Tommy Karevik, with similarities to his band Seventh Wonder in both vocal style and musically. Both clean and snarled vocals are used throughout the CD, giving aggression but never going over the top.
The album is a fast-paced, quick, powerful, melodic metal, progressive masterpiece, slipping seamlessly from technical prog goodness to catchy, simple chorus riffs. Fans of Kamelot, Seventh Wonder, Dream Theater and Iron Maiden should have a listen if they haven't already.
Karel Witte's Review
Symphony X's development over the course of their career has been interesting. Starting out in the 90s as a relatively unremarkable neo-classical metal act, the band gradually transformed into a band that was capable of creating ambitious, mythology-driven progressive gems such as 2000's V.
The band's last few albums have been getting increasingly heavier, while toning down the progressive/neo-classical elements. This resulted in a more streamlined, modern metal sound that contrasted heavily with the sound they were usually known for. Nonetheless, Symphony X's unique selling points have always remained firmly in place. I'm talking, of course, about the exquisite guitar riffs and solos of primary composer Michael Romeo, and the soaring vocals of Russell Allen.
With Underworld, the band presents some of the most focused and catchy song writing of their career. The modern, heavy sound is still there, but the band is more comfortable in their own skin, compared to 2011's uncharacteristically heavy Iconoclast. According to Michael Romeo, the band actually care about what their fans want. As such, this album is supposed to offer something for both old and new fans. And yes, there are a few twists to the musical formula that validate his statement.
We finally get to hear much more clean vocals again from Russell, reminiscent of the singing style he employed in the earlier days. He successfully mixes that with his powerful, gravel-pit roar and several in-between modes, applying each approach to where he sees it fits best. There's no better example of this than the album's title track Underworld. He raises hell during the verses, but sings like an angel in the chorus and bridge. All perfect in tone and execution, but those standards are maintained throughout the record. This album certainly makes a strong case for being his best and most tasteful performance yet.
I could go on to praise every member's performance on this album, but needless to say they're up to the usual standards for Symphony X, which are Dream Theater-level high. However, this album's biggest quality is the song writing. The band has written eleven hook-heavy tracks with an increased attention to melody. I do feel the band overdoes it sometimes, like on the otherwise stellar To Hell and Back. The chorus feels a bit too easy for a Symphony X song, and it doesn't capitalise on the exciting build-up that the song has got going on.
Without You is essentially a pop rock ballad and again doesn't feel like Symphony X, but I have to give the band credit for trying something new, and it is not a bad song by any means. On the other hand, a song like Kiss of Fire shows how confident the band has become with their status as a metal band. Quite possibly their heaviest track yet, and it's a real winner. How the band has managed to fit blast-beats into a Symphony X song is remarkable, but they have done it and it sounds great.
As a whole, the album flows nicely from song to song, revealing a sense of development in the song writing as the album progresses. At the beginning of the album, the tracks are to-the-point and heavy. Around the middle, the band takes the time to slow down and let its progressive side shine a bit more. Charon feels like a modern fusion of Rainbow and Led Zeppelin, with Russell sounding like both Ronnie James Dio and Robert Plant within a single song. Swan Song and Legend are not very subtle with their references to older tracks like The Accolade and Through the Looking Glass, but they will please the band's older fans because of Michael Pinella's increased presence on keyboards.
I haven't gone into the production yet. Well, that's a double-edged sword. While the album sounds crisper and more professional than its predecessors, Michael Romeo's guitar still dominates the mix entirely. Adding to that, his guitar sounds exactly the same as it did ten years ago, and it sounds that way all over the album. Some more variation would've been nice. The overall engineering feels a bit sterile, even when taking this style of music into consideration. The mastering is insanely hot, and that's not something to be excited about. In the last couple of years, other metal bands have been willing to back-off on the dynamic range compression, with stunning results. This album unfortunately suffers from this evil, as it sucks out some of the liveliness. The album misses the punch a good metal recording should have, and the ballads get robbed of their dynamics.
But to end on a positive note, the production doesn't keep the music from getting the point across. Underworld is the band's strongest effort since The Odyssey, and it portrays a fully realised vision of what Symphony X is all about these days. It's a fun listen, and the self-confidence and identity at play here is undeniable. It may be a bit of a safe album, but at least the band knows where its strengths lie and how to play on them. While it's not the highly adventurous, progressive metal of old, even without all that jazz, Symphony X remains one of the finest bands within the genre.
Chapter One - Anisotropic Dances: A Sky-High Pile of Anarchy (14:07), Brand New Mornings (13:04), Chapter Two - The Politics of Entropy: Uncertainty (7:17), Entanglement (16:39), Eigenstates (6:38), Chapter Three - The Art of Double Binding: The Black of White (9:16), Shades of Silver (8:21)
Gert Hulshof's Review
Fragmentropy is Thomas Thielen's fifth album as T. A couple of years ago I was fortunate to be able to talk to the man in person. That conversation took place on his home ground in Germany, and during my visit he gave me a preview of what he was working on at the time. Right now I am listening to what has developed out of those snippets of music and it is clear that with every album, T's music becomes more interesting and complex, more eclectic if you will.
It will come as no surprise that yI am a huge fan of the music which T and other one man bands create - another example of the fine art of composer/arrangers/musicians being The Psychedelic Ensemble. The comparison to TPE isn't a strange one if you listen to the music on this album more closely. Both these artists make use of concepts for their albums, and whilst TPE has resorted to employ other musicians,T has only dug deeper into his music and compositions.
Making an album and music all by yourself has advantages as well as disadvantages. One of the biggest disadvantages of course is the fact that, as a creative artist you will never be satisfied with the outcome. Everything can be done better, improvements made and such and so forth. Digging into Fragmentropy brings me to the fast conclusion that it is by far the most complex album of T I have heard.
Getting into the music was not easy. Fragmentropy is a journey in three chapters, Anisotropic Dances, The Politics of Entropy, and The Art of Double Binding. The sheer complexity of the music, the seemingly endless twists turns and musical intonation, make it hard to divine or characterise the music on Fragmentropy. T sure has an ability to create a wonderful atmosphere and ambiance in his music, one that will capture the heart of the true aficionado of eclectic music. Fragmentropy really showcases what we all call progressive rock music.
Be aware before you start listening though; you are in for a musical journey you have never experienced before. Take your time to listen to this album. The complexity in the music will probably not be instantly appealing. After a couple of spins I am sure you will be addicted to the musicality of Fragmentropy. For me, music doesn't come much more complete than what is brought to my ears by T on this album.
The use of all those different instruments, as well as using the computer for the use of sampling, not DJ-wise but to create sounds. I also love his use of a traditional way of reading out poetry, the piano play, and the harmonic voices. Needless to say I love the music.
The CD arrived in a lovely digpack with the traditional type of cover picture of a posing girl. The artwork has been created by Katia Tangian as always. Have a listen; whether you like it or don't, you will have experienced a musical extravaganza.
Andy Read's Review
Let's get straight to the point.
This reviewing lark is a very personal thing. One can be as objective as one likes in describing the music and the artist, but when it comes down to awarding a score (and let's be honest, that's the bit of the review most readers and most artists look at first), then it can only ever be a subjective conclusion. One man's meat, is another man's poison.
Fragmentropy is a very personal album. It is as close to an-album-as-a-piece-of-art as you are likely to get, without it becoming totally inaccessible to all but an honoured few.
It is not an easy listen. Not because it is unpleasant. This epic avant-garde-meets-art-rock-poem-in-seven-parts is beautifully constructed and performed, and holds the warmth and love of something created with passion, belief and a big heart. Even more so when you consider that it is the work of self-styled 'control freak' and one-man-band Thomas Thielan (former front-man of German art rockers Scythe).
The difficulty will come for people seeking to connect with the music, its concepts and the intricate melodies and musical themes which have been woven with an oft schizophrenic ambition.
T's melodic, lyrical and harmonic sensibilities can never be described as instant. On this, his fifth solo album, we have a complex and imaginative concept told through ethereal and densely-packed lyrics, above an ever-changing and multi-layered musical landscape. As with walking through a tall, dense forest, travelling through this album, and retaining a sense of direction, will be an elusive goal for some.
There is an incredible diversity to the music here, with a depth of detail I have yet to fully gauge, despite repeated listens. One moment we are playful, the next reflective, then excitedly aggressive, then mournful. The vocals move from a whisper, to semi-spoken, to theatrical, to richly sung - often within the same track. Yet there is a unity, a flow that keeps it cohesive and carries a listener's attention. One will recognise many of the progressive rock, art-rock and avant-garde blueprints here, yet probably never re-arranged in a way such as they are on this album.
A speed date with Fragmentropy is probably the best suggestion I can make. I think that from a first listen, most people will know if T's musical and compositional style is one that will reward the effort they need to invest to get to know this album better. For those who sign up for a second date, the musical nuggets to be discovered will probably make this a solid contender for Album of the Year. Those who see themselves as the Chief Inspector Jacques Clouseaus of progressive rock will certainly adore the many musical foxholes spread throughout this album.
For me (and this is the subjective part) Fragmentropy has been a fascinating, challenging, somewhat frustrating, yet incredibly enjoyable album to review. There are many stretches that I can wholeheartedly engage with. There are some parts that do not connect with me at all, and moments where I am resigned to eternal bafflement.
The hardest aspect of this album for me, has been the lyrics, and connecting the lyrics with the music. Whilst the syllabic timing of the word-play always flows extremely well with the music, I find the actual words too abstract, to enable me to connect with the 'story' being told. The layout in the booklet, with a font I find hard to read and being presented as one big slab of text, with no use of lineage or punctuation to help the reading of said text, is not helpful.
Thus my score is for an album that I will definitely come back to from time to time, by an artist who deserves respect and a close following of his future works. However for those whose interest is piqued and who can connect to this album, it is one that could become a lifelong friend.