Stupid 7 (3:53), Jack's Back (6:06), Texas Crazypants (5:20), ZZ Top (5:15), Pig's Day Off (6:04), Smuggler's Corridor (8:11), Pressure Relief (6:56), The Kentucky Meat Shower (4:49), Through the Flower (11:26)
There was a Briton, a German and an American. One says 'Let's start a jam!' And the others followed him forming The Aristocrats!
I hope there's no need to introduce you to these three guys, as I hope all of you know who the following musicians are. I will introduce them just because I want to try being professional. The Aristocrats are Bryan Beller, Marco Minnemann and Guthrie Govan. Just to mention some big names, you heard the bass guitar of Beller with Steve Vai, Joe Satriani and James LaBrie's solo projects. You may appreciate Minnemann's drums and Govan's guitar together on the last two Steven Wilson records (The Raven That Refused To Sing And Other Stories and Hand. Cannot. Erase.),as well as in his upcoming album (4½). Marco also collaborated, among others, with Tony Levin, Jordan Rudess and Paul Gilbert, while Guthrie Govan has played with Asia and other artists. In nowadays parlance, these three 'caballeros' are for sure in the Olympus of the best musicians.
Tres Caballeros is the third studio album released by this crazy band, following the first eponymous album (2011) and Culture Clash (2013). As with the previous ones, it is a purely instrumental record where you can find only guitar, bass and drums. But don't worry! It does not feel like there's a lack of any other instrument at all. According to the booklet, every song is mainly written by a single musician, with the three contributors equally distributed along the album.
Minnemann, Govan and Beller are such great musicians that, if you listen to The Aristocrats' albums, playing music seems to be so easy that you immediately want to imitate them. You're possessed with a sense of excitement and you'd like to start jamming as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the cruel reality soon reminds you that you're totally inept compared with them.
Concerning styles and influences, on this album you can really taste a bite of everything. From funky to hard rock, from metal riffs to delicate atmospheres, from prog rock to western movies soundtracks. You never know what to expect around the next corner. The only granted thing is that you'll find virtuosity and incredible solos along your way.
Of course, this is not an album you want to listen in its entirety from the first to the last track. Not because it's not good, but just because it's not that kind of music. My personal opinion, is that you've got three different ways to listen to and fully appreciate this album (as well as the previous Aristocrats' works). First option: you can taste a bit of it, listening to some tracks here and there. You look for crazy skills and you can analyse weird passages and composition solutions. It seems like they're not even trying to play seriously, but at the same time they're incredibly good at that! You laugh. As a second possibility, you can play the whole album (or discography) while you're doing something else. You feel the groove possessing you and you start waving your head without even noticing. Last but not least, you MUST listen to The Aristocrats' albums because you WANT to get ready for their live concert. And I want to stress the importance of this point! Listening and watching The Aristocrats playing live is an experience that anyone with a little interest in music won't want to miss!
A Letter From Sue (4:32), Distorted Mirror (7:16), Chosen One (5:01), Cannot Resist (4:17), Cold Embrace (5:19), Through the Valley of Death (7:43)
Dutch progressive metal band Evenstate released their debut EP this past year, entitled Inside. Citing Dream Theater and Symphony X as influences, Evenstate's music is distinctly heavy, yet progressive. Keyboard riffs abound, just as in Dream Theater's music. The six member band features Moniek Smids on vocals, Erwin Rog on lead guitar, David Macro on keyboards, Nicky Walraven on bass guitar, Mark Rog on rhythm guitar, and Sascha Grutterink on drums. Musically, the listener might be tempted to think that they are listening to some Dream Theater B-sides. The time signatures are complex and ever changing, and the musicians are quite good on their respective instruments.
The music on this EP is song oriented, meaning the songs all seem to be built around the lyrics. The lyrics vary in topic from themes of family drama and rejection, to what could easily be interpreted as Jesus talking to Himself about his death prior to his trial and crucifixion, on Chosen One. The lyrics all maintain a common theme of emotions bottled up inside, and the narrator of the songs is always talking to himself. The title of the EP, Inside is, therefore, quite fitting.
While the music is wonderfully aggressive and complex, the vocals leave me dissatisfied. Oftentimes, the vocal lines seem to fall just a bit flat. Sometimes the vocals fail to match the beat of the music, as well, which is common enough in progressive rock, but it does not really work here. The few times Moniek goes high, it does not seem to have the desired effect.
On the songs Cold Embrace and Through the Valley of Death, there are a few lines that are shouted for extra emphasis, with the vocals also growled in the background by another member of the band. In my opinion, these lines would have had much greater effect if they had been done solely with growling/screaming from the backup growler, much like in the Canadian band, Unleash the Archers. This change would make the anger and rage in the lines much more apparent. At the end of the day, these issues boil down to a matter of production.
Overall, Evenstate have a lot of potential, particularly musically. My favourite parts of the EP were the instrumental solos, although the same can often be said of my enjoyment of Dream Theater's music. The lyrics are thoughtful and well written, demonstrating a solid grasp of the English language.
Writing lyrics, like poetry, is difficult enough in your native language, much less in a second language.
Fans of Dream Theater should give Evenstate a listen, because many of Dream Theater's strong points, like musicality and lyrical content, are strengths for these Dutch rockers. With a good production engineer, I see Evenstate doing very well in the coming years.
Crossroads of Time (5:06), Never Care (3:23), I'll Be Your Friend (3:54), 7 + 7 Is (2:37), Prodigal Son (5:33), Largo (3:19), Love Is The Law (5:21), Yesterday (4:27), I Wonder Why? (3:19), World Of Emotion (2:54), Inspiration For A New Day (3:15), Bonus Track: Q III (2:35)
Eyes of Blue were a Welsh band that were, in many ways, rather ahead of their time. The line-up featured a wealth of Welsh talent who, although not gaining fame via Eyes of Blue, went on to have a significant impact on the progressive music scene.
Gary Pickford-Hopkins (vocals) went on to join Wild Turkey, took main vocal duties on some classic Rick Wakeman albums and narrowly missed being chosen as replacement for Ian Gillan in Deep Purple; Phil Ryan (keyboards) regularly joined and left the Man band as well as recording numerous albums with Cream's lyricist Pete Brown; Ray "Taff" Williams (guitar) also played with Man (although on bass) and contributed to albums by, amongst others, Bonnie Tyler; John "Pugwash" Weathers (drums) went onto prog acclaim in Gentle Giant and then also Man; Wyndham Rees (vocals) who recorded a solitary and extremely rare album as vocalist for Faded Glory, who also featured Ryan and Weathers; and finally Ritchie Francis (bass) who ironically was the only member who actually recorded a solo album, the rather nice 'Songbird'. The whole band also featured on the sole album by Buzzy Linhart, which was released prior to their first album and various members have also shared credits on numerous other albums.
In the early days of the band, gigs were mainly around the Swansea area of Wales, where they were considered to be the foremost musical talent of the area, The Iveys, who went on to become Badfinger, certainly looked up to them for their vocal and musical attributes. They were also the 'go-to' support band for visiting English groups, despite regularly blowing the main act off stage.
Through acquaintance with Chris Squire, who they knew from performing alongside The Syn, they were instrumental in helping to define the early sound of Yes who, according to John Weathers, would regularly attend gigs by Eyes of Blue, stand at the back and make notes! This may be quite an extravagant claim but there is some evidence of this in the music, particularly in the way that Williams, in particular, was in the habit of inserting riffs from other songs into his solos, something Peter Banks adopted on the first couple of Yes albums.
The band first got together when The Mustangs, featuring Francis, Williams and Wyndham Rees co-opted Ryan and Pickford-Hopkins from a rival Swansea group, The Smokestacks, developing a live show that mixed rock, R&B and blues before incorporating more soul-style material into their repertoire. As winners of the 1966 Melody Maker 'Beat Contest', they were awarded a recording contract with the just-launched Deram label. The new label wanted to dictate what material the band would record and even insisted on the use of a session guitarist, which was somewhat ridiculous given that Williams was highly lauded as one of the best players in the area. The contract only survived a couple of singles, the best of which was their final release on the label, the excellent Supermarket Full Of Cans.
A chance encounter with American Lou Reizner, an A&R rep for Mercury Records, resulted in the band signing a licensing deal with the label and also an introduction to keyboardist Graham Bond. Which is really where the story of the album starts. The group had several rehearsal sessions with Bond, who wanted to use them on his forthcoming album. Although nothing came of that, the band did borrow two of the songs they had been rehearsing for their album, the title track and Love Is The Law. Unsurprisingly, the arrangements of both tracks are very close to the Bond versions, even down to the vocal style.
The album included two other covers, the first of which, Love's 7 + 7 Is was a reflection of the group's increasing interest in the music emerging from the West Coast of America, and is a fairly wild take of the song. More interesting, is the cover of Yesterday, which is a re-imagined as if had been recorded by Vanilla Fudge! It actually works very well, slowing the song right down, adding lots of organ and guitar, and playing around with vocal harmonies really brings a new dimension to the song.
The original material on the album, all written by Francis, was culled from material that had been written over the previous few years and so was not really representative of what the band currently sounded like. This is not to say the songs were bad, some are quite excellent, but they would have fared better if they had been released a year or so earlier. Never Care is quite psychedelic, particularly with the impressive vocal interludes; I'll Be Your Friend is very much in the style of Graham Bond songs of the era and again the layered harmony vocals impresses - it was handy having six musicians in the band who could sing! Prodigal Son expounds on the West Coast sound, particularly that of Love, and offers scope for the song to be extended and jammed around with in live performance.
Largo, as the name implies, is classically inspired and is an interesting idea that doesn't quite come off, being too much a mishmash of styles. I imagine the sitar guitar would have even sounded dated at the time of release. Better are the trio of closing tracks. I Wonder Why is quite delightful, its more simplistic approach providing a nice contrast to the preceding Yesterday; World Of Emotion is more psychedelic pop while Inspiration For A New Day ends the original album on a high with lots of interaction between guitars and keys. In contrast to a lot of the album, it is actually ahead of its time, bearing some resemblance to the sound that Deep Purple would develop over the coming years.
Bonus track Q III, credited to the whole band, is the B-side of a 1969 US single, and is certainly not a throw-away number, again showing that Eyes of Blue were quite pioneering. Indeed, one wished that the proggy instrumental continued rather than fading out after 150 seconds! Although an eclectic and interesting album, the album was not pushed by EMI, who handled Mercury releases in the UK, and the album was not a commercial success. However, faith was maintained in the band, as they were given the opportunity to record a follow-up album.
Merry Go Round (9:12), The Light We See (2:16), Souvenirs (Tribute to Django) (2:46), Ardath (2:39), Spanish Blues (4:04), Door (the Child Is Born on the Sabbath Day) (6:51), Little Bird (2:34), After the War (3:34), Extra Hours (2:33), Chances (3:01), Bonus Track: Apache '69 (2:59)
The second album by Eyes of Blue saw considerable development in the band's sound over their debut album, Crossroads of Time. Again, the impetus of the album kicked off through a collaboration with an established artist, this time the famed artist and produced Quincey Jones. The introduction to Jones was also thanks to the band's A&R representative at Mercury Records, producer and de facto manager Lou Reizner, who had been at the same school as Jones and film producer Don Joslyn, who was working on a film called, depending on which part of the world you were living, The Toy Grabbers, Up Your Teddy Bear, or Seduction of a Nerd! The apparently atrociously bad film featured Julie Newmar (Catwoman in the Batman TV series) and 45 minutes of music from Eyes of Blue (although credited to Jones). Most of the music was previously unrecorded stuff that had been written over the previous couple of years, although one piece was written specially for the film, the nine-minute Merry Go Round. A delightfully progressive romp through a mixture of styles, it again emphasised the vocal strength of the band.
The album, In Fields of Ardath was recorded simultaneously with the film soundtrack and meant the band having a schedule that puts modern artists to shame. Rehearsing took up all morning, then it was straight into the studio to work on the film soundtrack then immediately dashing across London to put in another long recording stint working on their own album. The film soundtrack was mostly performed live with the band, conducted by drummer John Weathers, playing along to scenes from the film screened in the studio while Quincey Jones manned the recording console. In contrast, the band's own recording sessions, with Reizner at the production helm, involved the band having a lot more input.
There were a couple of significant changes from the first album: The band were now down to a five-piece following the sacking of vocalist Wyndham Rees who hadn't kept pace in terms of musical development and whose vocals didn't really suit the newer material the band were coming up with. Secondly, whereas all the original material on the debut had been written by bassist Francis, the new album featured contributions from all of the band, except guitarist Ray Williams. Finally, the band were more confident about the recording process and were more involved in making suggestions to Reizner relating to how the album should be produced.
Song wise, only two covers were included, a tribute to Django Reinhardt with a version of his Souvenirs and a nod to the first album with another Graham Bond number, Spanish Blues, which naturally features plenty of organ work from Phil Ryan and a great vocal from Gary Pickford-Hopkins.
The band's own material was also quite a departure from what had appeared some eight months earlier. The more adventurous nature of tracks like Merry Go Round and the excellent Door (the Child Is Born on the Sabbath Day) saw the band firmly knocking at prog's door with the latter track in particular being completely original in its arrangement. Although these two songs were the obvious standouts of the album, the rest of the material, all about three minutes or under, was an interesting eclectic mixture. The Light We See features some backwards tapes, double tracked lead vocals and even a brief drum solo! Ardath, written by drummer Weathers, has a rather strange arrangement and probably the weakest lead vocal performance but it does include a nice instrumental break.
Little Bird is also pretty much a non-entity of a song, sounding more like an unfulfilled demo recording than a finished number, a fact emphasised by the rather poor production. In contrast, After The War is a quite frantic blues-based romp with a persistent harmonica, a great vocal and all of the band contributing throughout. Again, the instrumental section is an impressive highlight.
I have a great fondness for Extra Hour, in its rather off-kilter instrumental glory, and wished that it carried on for a lot longer. Rather strangely, the original album closes with the somewhat downbeat Chances, which sounds like a contribution to a Western film soundtrack by The Hollies! It leaves the album hanging, punctuated by a big question mark. The bonus track is the A-side of the US-only single (which was actually released under the name of The Imposters) ,being a version of Apache the song made famous by The Shadows in 1960. This version is miles away from the more famous rendition (which, apparently, composer Jerry Lordon hated) and hence has been retitled Apache '69. A nice rarity to have appended to the album.
Unfortunately, In the Fields of Ardath, like Crossroads of Time, failed to achieve commercial success, again suffering from lack of promotion or push from the label, who then decided to drop the band from their roster. However, it wasn't the end of the band who managed one more album under the name The Big Sleep before finally going their separate ways.
Displacement (6:12), Seventh Hymn to Nibiru (4:57), Elysian (5:31), Bolshevikian Mythological Creature (8:43), Galaxy Mechanics (7:15), Conversation Piece (7:57), Tsunami of Suns (7:00), A Passage for Zoe (3:54), The Inevitable Fall (5:48)
American instrumental band, The Fractured Dimension masterfully blend progressive metal with jazz fusion on their latest album, Galaxy Mechanics. This band is more of a large project, with 16 musicians, or "mechanics," contributing to the sound.
The group centres around Jimmy Pitts, a wonderful keyboardist. The other two main musicians are Jerry Twyford on bass and Hannes Grossmann on drums. While the group is based in the US, The Fractured Dimension is much more of an international project, with contributions from guest musicians from all over the world. The guests add a lot of diversity.
A highlight of Galaxy Mechanics is the beautiful violin work of Joe Deninzon. At times, it sounds a bit like Robby Steinhardt's work with Kansas, particularly on Bolshevikian Mythological Creature. More often, his violin features a strictly classical sound.
The music is very fast paced. A lot of instrumental music can tend towards the slower side, likely due to classical influences. Not so here. Grossmann's drums keep things moving with a distinct metal heaviness, and his progressive complexity adds excellent depth to the music. Twyford's bass is similar to bass virtuoso Antoine Fafard's, especially on Tsunami of Suns. In fact, Galaxy Mechanics as a whole has much in common with Fafard's excellent solo work.
The long list of guest guitarists shred their way through the album, with some lip-ripping solos on the fifth song, Galaxy Mechanics. The song makes a great centrepiece for the album.
A major low point on the album is the third song, Elysian. Interestingly, this is the only one not written solely by Pitts. The song just feels completely out of place. It begins with female Middle Eastern wailing, which pops up again elsewhere in the song. It really does not work with the rest of the music on the album. I understand the desire to mix up the sound a bit, but what they did on Elysian just does not fit. It draws you out of the groove established by the first two songs. It seems Pitts should do all of the writing himself, since the rest of the songs have a cohesive sound.
The names of the songs are interestingly bizarre. The only reason I can see in having such wild song names for an instrumental album is the difficulty in naming songs that do not have lyrics. I assume Pitts and company were just being goofy when penning titles such as Seventh Hymn to Nibiru and Bolshevikian Mythological Creature. Concerning the latter, the only connection to the music that I can see is Pitts' use of a Theremin throughout the album. A Theremin is an electric instrument that uses sensors to pick up hand movements.
I must add that the album artwork is perfect for the music. There is so much depth to the picture, with industrial gears and parts backdropped by space. The picture accurately reflects the depth of the music, which combines classical overtones through keyboards with solid metal riffs from the bass, drums, and guitars.
Apart from the musical departure in Elysian, Galaxy Mechanics is a solid progressive metal/jazz instrumental album. The music never really gets boring, and it is heavy without being overbearing. Fans of Atropos Project or Antoine Fafard should take note of The Fractured Dimension.
At the Shore of the Ammonia Sea (10:02), Machine Horizon (13:31), Remember Sequoia Forest (03:54), The Dark Dunes of Titan (15:45), Machine Horizon (Radio Edit) (05:40)
The Dark Dunes of Titan is the second album by German progressive death metal band Odetosun. In simple terms, for lovers of progressive death metal, this is a gift from the gods.
The album starts out with a chilled out and Porcupine Tree sounding track, At The Shore of The Amomnia Sea, a 10-minute track of groovy bass lines, melodic guitars and a general laid back and easy going feeling about it. Solos, bass lines to remember, and an overall feel of a kind of song you would have some wine or good cider with, late at night with some friends.
Machine Horizon, the second track on the album, rolls along at a fairly steady pace, with drummer Gunther Rehmer doing a stellar job of keeping the same beat going for a full four-and-a-half minutes without letting slip at any point, while Benny Stuchly adds the textures of some heavy guitars, a blistering solo, and some beautiful acoustic work to bring you back to Earth after being launched off your feet. Luke Stuchly throws his lot into the mix with a vocal styling reminiscent of early Opeth mixed with Insomnium. From the four-minute mark onwards, the track builds up from the mellow middle into a heavy chugging affair to remind you who you are listening to. A textbook prog metal song, but done to absolute perfection and executed in the finest way possible.
Remember Sequoia Forest is the shortest track, clocking in at just under four minutes. However, what it lacks in length is made up for in sheer beauty. Mellow and relaxed, light enough to allow for a breather in between the two main tracks of the album. Featuring acoustics and a fantastic solo weaving over the atmospheric synths and almost Portishead sounding drums.
The Dark Dunes of Titan is the title track: The big one. A very progressive metal riff starts it off, reminiscent of bands like Kontinuum or Solstafir and it continues throughout the song. The vocals on this number take a slightly harsher form of growl, sounding almost black metal-esque, but it matches with the tone of the music. The drums again come in to add some extra force as and when required, always placing the right emphasis on the right parts, creating a track that is heavy, progressive, certainly metal, but not too extreme. It is a spectacular piece of song writing that combines the best elements of the component parts to create a masterpiece of metal.
The album isn't a fast-paced death metal album. It is a progressive metal album, which just happens to have some death metal elements (such as the vocals) added in. Heavy and soft, chilled out and harsh. It does all this and more at once and never, at any point, does it sound strained or forced or overburdened.
As I said at the start, this album is a gift from the gods. If you are a fan of Opeth, Beílakor, Insomnium, Kontinuum or Porcupine Tree then pick this up, you will not be disappointed.
To sum it up in one sentence: This album is an absolute must for any fan of progressive death, it is simply brilliant.
Snow (7:58), Another World (12:36), Behold (5:50), '86 (7:21), Then and Here (5:23), Motion (10:32), Space Wanderer (5:34)
Quorum is another band from Russia that fits nicely into the eclectic neo-prog niche.
There are influences galore on Another World, from Pendragon and Marillion of the latter-day greats, all the way back to Camel and Genesis.
The playing, from the entire band, is top notch. The guitar work is stellar, and the drumming fast and furious, with some inventive fills, albeit it a little snare-happy. But it's nice to hear inventive snare as opposed to overblown double kick.
There are occasional vocals, in Russian, which neither spoil nor enhance the album. Both of the first two tracks start slowly and acoustically before bursting into life. The instrumental sections certainly overshadow those with vocals. The interplay between the wonderful, soaring guitar and the phrenetic keyboards on the first track remind of the Rabin-led 90125 era Yes.
In spite of all of the stellar playing, it's the keyboards that take centre stage and steal the show, even if the comparisons to Genesis are a little too close at times. Indeed, on the long second track, which gives the album its name, you'd swear you were listening to out-takes from Selling England By the Pound, and the track Battle of Epping Forest in particular.
Indeed, the closeness is, at times, a bit much, and it's sad that the best moments are overshadowed by sounds that are too similar to those on Selling England or A Trick of the Tail, and being reminded of other bands. Also, Genesis excelled at melody. While the playing here is excellent, and there are some great moments, it's very difficult to approach Genesis in their heyday.
Then and Here is another highlight that shows the musicians' virtuosity, and inevitably brings more comparisons to 70s prog. In all of the tracks, there's a hint of other artists, with a touch of Pink Floyd or a splash of Focus. These influences are sincere forms of flattery, and for the most part they don't overshadow proceedings.
Penultimate track Motion, another 10-minute-plus piece, has a gorgeous outré guitar solo that strongly reminds of the Pendragon piece Am I Really Losing You. The closer, Space Wanderer, even has a bit of a 60s feel to it.
While they never quite reach the heights of their predecessors, it's definitely a worthy album for the playing and those nods to the gods.
CD1: Live at Grona Lund Sweden 1998 (Stockholm, Sweden) The Circle of St. Giles (1:30), Heat of the Moment (5:45), Book of Saturday (3:22), Battle Lines (5:16), Arkangel (4:50), The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (4:50), Easy Money (7:37), Emma (3:52), 30 Years (3:08), Hold Me Now (5:59), Rendezvous 6:02 (5:11), The Night Watch (6:57), You're Not the Only One (3:40), Starless (4:35)
CD2: Live at Xm Radio Studio One 2002 (Washington DC, US) Introduction (0:48), The Circle of St. Giles (2:11), Heat of the Moment (4:25), Mondrago / Book of Saturday (5:00), The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (3:16), 30 Years (3:53), Hold Me Now (5:22), Arkangel (4:18), Emma (3:11), Sole Survivor (3:52), Rendezvous 6:02 (4:20), The Water Is Wide (3:00), Starless (4:08), Battle Lines (5:15), The Celtic Cross (1:32)
John Wetton long ago established himself as one of the greats of the progressive rock genre through his work with bands such as UK, King Crimson and Asia. Somewhat lost in the mix, though, is much of the excellent music he has recorded as a solo artist. Caught in the Crossfire, Arkangel and Battle Lines are a few of the strong solo albums that John has released. Along with music from the bands mentioned above, Live via Satellite includes acoustic versions of songs from his solo career. In fact, the two performances, recorded four years apart, play a bit like a retrospective of John's career. Classics like Book of Saturday, Easy Money, 30 Years, Starless and Heat of the Moment are performed effectively alongside lessor known, but nonetheless exceptional, solo tracks such as Hold Me Now, Emma and You're Not the Only One.
The first CD consists of an acoustic performance from 1998 in Sweden, and CD 2 was recorded in 2002 at the XM radio studios in Washington, DC. The first was in front of a larger audience, the second in an intimate radio studio with a much smaller crowd. The show from Sweden is definitely the better of the two shows included here. The recording, from a radio broadcast, was thought to be lost in a fire until a duplicate of the master tapes was recently found. Though the XM studios recording was released several years ago through John's website, both performances were unavailable commercially until now.
In some ways, this is a tough release to properly grade. On one hand, John's performances, as well as the acoustic arrangements of each song, are all superb. The introductions that John provides before each track are also interesting. If there is a criticism to be made with Live via Satellite, it is with the redundancy that exists in the setlists of the two performances. That's not the fault of the performances themselves, but more with each being included on the same collection.
I certainly wouldn't recommend this album as an introduction to John's solo career or his work with the previously mentioned bands. I would classify this more as an entertaining release for existing fans. There is a raw quality to these recordings that is quite appealing. At times, particularly on the 2002 performance, John's voice shows flaws. No issues beyond the standard solo acoustic performance, but amazingly, I would say that his voice has actually improved since then. Live via Satellite certainly warrants a recommendation, but I wouldn't call it essential. It is a very pleasant listen, if you are looking for an acoustic retrospective of John's career.
My Book of Regrets (9:35), Year of the Plague (4:19), Happiness III (4:32), Sunday Rain Sets In (3:54), Vermillioncore (5:13), Don't Hate Me (9:35)
Ale Dunzie's Review
Waiting for the fifth album along his solo journey, Steven Wilson has released what he defines an 'interim album', collecting orphan songs written for The Raven That Refused To Sing (2013) and Hand. Cannot. Erase. (2015).
With a bonus track added at the end of an album, this 'bridge' work can be easily considered a 'bonus disc' at the end of the 'Raven and Hand. Cannot. Erase.' period. Listening to these newly-released old songs, is somehow a nostalgic way to wait for the next Wilson compositions. Our ears will be busy for a while, but we're still looking at the horizon. In this sense, 4 ½ is, definitely, the best title possible.
Focusing on this new release, basically what we've got in the basket is three Hand. Cannot. Erase. orphans, one leftover from The Raven, a track exhumed in 2014 during the Hand.Cannot.Erase sessions, and finally a revisited Porcupine Tree song from the album Stupid Dream (1999).
However, just because these songs were not included on previous albums, does not necessarily mean that they were not good enough. So enjoy this album full of good music, which is only 37-minutes long.
4 ½ opens with My Book Of Regrets, a nine-minutes-plus track clearly belonging to the Hand. Cannot. Erase. collection. As usual, we can appreciate Wilson's incredible attention for details, sounds and effects.
For example, the opening funky guitar riff is accompanied by a peculiar electronic drums effect, before Craig Blundell's drums and Nick Beggs' bass take control of the groove. Interestingly, and contrary to my expectations, the composition evolves from a funky-style verse into a punk-style refrain, before calming down to a more intimate feel.
But there's no time for pausing to thinking about it, because here we are with the cool funky riff again! As my personal opinion, you must wait for the end of the second chorus in order to listen to the most interesting part of the track. In fact, we have a second beginning, introduced by a guitar riff closer to Porcupine Tree, immediately joined by an amazing bass line. it seems that in later years, Wilson has started loving these kind of powerful bass solos, using a pick to confer sounds similar to Yes and Rush (or to any other band who used a Rickenbacker). And I love it too!
Furthermore, Holtzman's keyboards break into the scene with Genesis-like sounds before Dave Kilminster's guitar solo. There's also room enough for a moment of introspection, with simple and effective atmospheres wisely built, as Professor Pink Floyd taught us. Finally, we experience a third and final 'beginning' before the song is definitely over.
Considering the nature of the other songs in this album, this is certainly the most representative track. It constitutes the core of this short and otherwise difficult-to-release collection. The fact that this song didn't contribute to the final shape of the previous album does not mean that it was not good enough. And honestly, I cannot imagine myself deciding where to embed this song within Hand. Cannot. Erase. The album is long enough, and the only solution that would probably come to my mind is to use it as a bonus track. But, with hindsight, the idea of including this song in a 'bonus album' seems much better.
The second song, Year Of The Plague, is an instrumental song fully recorded by a multi-tasking Wilson. Despite the creepy name, it is a very enjoyable and relaxing piece where melodies intersect perfectly, building an introspective and evocative ambient track. By chance, I listened to it for the first time while I was visiting a modern art museum and for four minutes and 19 seconds I felt projected into a parallel universe, alone with my thoughts and my imagination. Amazing!
Unfortunately, the spell was broken by the following song: Happiness III. This song was written in 2003, which corresponds to the Deadwing period of Porcupine Tree, and it was finally recorded during the Hand. Cannot. Erase. session. Luckily, it was not included on either of them.
Wilson is no newcomer to pop songs, and I usually appreciate them because of them being easy listening as well as elegant and with a complex structure. Just think about Lazarus' arpeggio or about Hand. Cannot. Erase.'s polyrhythm, in which drums are playing a 4/4 whereas every other instrument follows a 9/8. On the other hand, Happiness III is the first Wilson song where I really cannot spot any peculiarity nor anything interesting. It's just a pop song like many others and if you listen to it at least 20 times as I did, then you'll like it for sure and you'll start singing it in the shower. I can describe this song as a more pop and less intimate version of Postcard (from Grace For Drowning).
As soon as the pop rock fades out, the real Steven Wilson comes back with Sunday Rain Sets In, another interesting ambient track able to relax your mind allowing travels through time and space, before unpredictably exploding into a strong riff. I apologise for the spoiler.
You can also appreciate Vermillioncore, a strong bass-dominated track with an amazing riff running throughout the song. I really love it, even if for some reason I can't stop thinking about Wilson composing this track just at the end of Mission: Impossible.
If 4 ½ opens with the most emblematic song, it definitely closes with my favourite. Don't Hate Me is originally a Porcupine Tree song released in 1999 on the album Stupid Dream. Wilson took a recording of this song performed during the last tour, smoothed the edges and added the icing on the cake. Wonderful!
The song was not revisited in its structure. It's exactly the same. But at the same time it's markedly different because it is played after 16 years, with different musicians. I find interesting to spot the differences between the styles of different musicians and between their (and Wilson's) sound choices. However, the major innovation is by far introduced by Ninet Tayeb's vocals on the main chorus. I love it!
It's also curious because I'd say that the first part of the song is inspired by bands like Anathema. However, I know that it is exactly the opposite.
The album comes in a very cool package which certainly suits the taste of any album collector, while the artwork as well as the lyrics are in line with the main _Hand. Cannot. Erase. motif.
This is a highly enjoyable piece of music gifted by the major progressive rock artist of the current scene. But be aware! Do not take this as the fifth Steven Wilson album. Take it and listen to it for what it is: a collection between the fourth and the fifth albums.
I'm sure both Wilson's fan and newcomers will be able to find something interesting in this work. And what's more, there's now a good excuse to be present at the upcoming live tour (if the reason 'amazing concerts' was not enough).
Kevin Heckeler's Review
My journey with Mr. Wilson started, like so many others, with Porcupine Tree (just after the release of Deadwing to be exact). It was my obsession for the next couple years to absorb as much Porcupine Tree as possible.
Then, Steven Wilson went solo, and naturally I followed. Initially I labeled his debut solo release, Insurgentes, an oddity, something to merely pass the time and listen to once in a while. However, with each new solo release, he continued to push the envelope of what he was doing, both in terms of scope and musicianship. There was the hit-and-miss Grace For Drowning, with the epic 23-minute long Raider II, which set the stage for the stunning instant-classic concept album The Raven That Refused to Sing, to his most recent critically acclaimed Hand Cannot Erase.
And so we have this 'EP,' with four tracks taken from the Hand. Cannot. Erase sessions, another from The Raven sessions, and the last track, Don't Hate Me, is a live recording of a 1998 Porcupine Tree song with studio overdubs added later.
My Book of Regrets starts the album and songs from the HCE sessions. It's similar to what's found on HCE and it's easy to hear the fit with the other tracks. I have to wonder if the extended jam (lending to its bloated more than nine-minute track length) had something to do with it being left off the final release. While I enjoy the song, the Time Flies flavoured acoustic guitar and other PT patented stylistic touches have me longing for the real thing. When are we going to get some more Porcupine Tree?!
Year of the Plague is a pleasant instrumental with emotive strings and a tasty arpeggiated acoustic. Unfortunately, it fails to go anywhere and there's no payoff, so by the end of the track I'm content with the fact it was cut.
Happiness III is my favourite of the new tracks. It's musically upbeat, which succeeds when juxtaposed to the darker lyrics (similar to the title track from Hand. Cannot. Erase.). This is a common songwriting device when trying to cleverly inject some irony, and Mr. Wilson does this as well as any musician I've heard.
When trying to find a fit for this on HCE, there just doesn't seem to be an obvious place for it. With the HCE title track already occupying the one-an-album-happy-song criterion, and most of the remaining tracks being solemn, this would have stuck out like a smiley face painted thumb. Fortunately, it works fine on its own.
Sunday Rain Sets In is another of the HCE session tracks, and is perhaps the darkest of the four new songs from those sessions. As an instrumental it works better than Year of the Plague. There's a few sections of lead instrumentation and more (sometimes drastic) changes, which will help hold the listener's interest. Exactly where this would fit is anyone's guess, but it certainly could have worked just about anywhere in the second half of the album.
Vermillioncore has a very recognisable In Absentia era Porcupine Tree attitude. It's a great rocker, and for PT fans longing for some new material, this could be a worthy surrogate.
Don't Hate Me is an older Porcupine Tree cover from their 1999 album Stupid Dream. The new version retains the core elements of the original while improving the performance and modernising its sound. Ninet Tayeb's vocals are perfectly suited for the chorus. This has gone from being a song I liked only enough to not skip, to one I like enough to skip other songs to hear. This would be my close second favourite.
It's clear that HCE's running time was the foremost consideration when he was deciding which tracks would end up on the final album. None of the excluded four tracks would have elevated HCE's impact on the listener or help to further the story's narrative. And since there were already plenty of instrumental sections within the songs (plus two dedicated instrumentals Regret #9 and Ascendant Here On...), the omission of two more instrumentals appears, in hindsight, to be a prudent decision. Lucky for us he released them anyway as they're all worthy of being shared with the music world. It will be interesting to see what the fans will come up with when trying to inject these songs into the original HCE tracklist.
I read an early review that suggested Steven Wilson's leftovers are still better than the main course from other bands. And I would have to agree.
I wouldn't rate these six tracks as instant classics, but they're not far off the mark. Although this would be considered B material when compared to his recent output, we're working on a curve here when comparing him to other progressive artist on a prog review site. In that case, his B becomes an A-minus.