ISSUE 2016-062

Reviews in this issue:

The Aurora Project - World Of Grey
The Aurora Project - World Of Grey
Country of Origin: The Netherlands
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 55:38
Links:
Track List:
Expect Us (5:37), Warmongers (8:18), Stone Eagle (7:02), A Deadly Embrace (6:26), Media Puppets (4:47), World Of Grey (6:33), Circles In The Water (9:03), Dronewars (7:51)
After the passing of guitar player Marc Vooijs in 2014 The Aurora Project took a year off. They decided to continue as a five-piece band and in the booklet of the new album, Marc is honoured with a beautiful picture. World Of Grey is the fourth album by The Aurora Project and a concept album, which is in line with the 2013 album Selling The Aggression, dealing with topics of privacy in the internet era, anonymous, NSA, propaganda and so on.

When I played World Of Grey for the first time I was surprised by the new sound of The Aurora Project. The sound is now a bit more melodic progressive rock and just a notch less progressive metal. The Dream Theater influences are placed more in the background, and I hear a lot more Arena, Pendragon and Pink Floyd. They are still on the heavy side of progressive rock, but there is a lot more room for melodies on World Of Grey than on previous albums. I believe this will bring them in contact with new fans, yet I do not think the metal fans will lose interest, as there is still enough to enjoy in that respect.

The start of Expect Us, a direct reference to the activist group Anonymous, immediately shows the change in sound. On Warmongers the influences of Rush can be added to the list, with more room for the bass parts, and as in the first song, I hear the progressive keyboard layers I usually hear in the Arena and Pendragon sound.

Stone Eagle is a ballad with a bombastic start that then slowly pounds forward to a heavy ending. After these three songs I can easily say that The Aurora Project has made a huge step forward in their sound and also in their songwriting, as both are in balance on World Of Grey.

The centre part of the album, with Deadly Embrace and Media Puppets, is a bit more accessible, with *Saga being added to the list of influencing bands. Then with the title track, the technical progressive metal elements return. This is a more heavy and dramatic song, with a small return to the Dream Theater influences.

I thought the title track would be the biggest song on the album, but that honour goes to Circles In the Water. It is a return to the mellow sound of Stone Eagle, with a very Pink Floyd like feel to it. The relaxed song writing results in nicely stretched passages and a very natural feel. And then the band has saved the best for last. I really love Dronewars. Its powerful start, with orchestral sounds mixed in perfectly, helps to make it the best song on the album.

Overall, World Of Grey is a very good album that really surprised me. The sound is more melodic and I believe it will attract new fans to the band. Also they will certainly not lose any old fans, as they still keep true to their known sound. Woith World of Grey, think I have found my album of the year and I believe this will be so for many more people. The album will be released on December 10th with a launch show at Cultuurpodium Boerderij in Zoetermeer.
Conclusion:
Edwin Roosjen: 9 out of 10

Ayreon - The Theater Equation [2CD/DVD]
Ayreon - The Theater Equation
Country of Origin: The Netherlands
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 53:09, 55:29, 1:48:36, 1:18:17
Links:
Track List:
CD 1 (ACT 1): Day one: Vigil (1:43), Day two: Isolation (8:12), Day three: Pain (4:51), Day four: Mystery (6:05), Day five: Voices (6:53), Reprise Pain 1 (0:35), Day six: Childhood (5:10), Day seven: Hope (2:22), Day eight: School (4:28), Reprise Childhood (1:09), Day Nine: Playground (2:07), Day ten: Memories (3:52), Reprise Pain 2 (1:39), Day eleven: Love (4:07)
CD 2 (ACT 2): Day twelve: Trauma (9:40), Day thirteen: Sign (5:06), Day fourteen: Pride (4:46), Reprise Vigil (1:09), Day fifteen: Betrayal (5:10), Reprise School (1:24), Day sixteen: Loser (4:15), Day seventeen: Accident? (5:17), Reprise Pain 3 (0:53), Day eighteen: Realization (3:05), Reprise: Trauma (2:14), Day nineteen: Disclosure (3:50), Day twenty: Confrontation (7:27), Dream Sequencer System offline (1:16)
It is safe to say that The Human Equation, the 2004 breakthrough album of dutch multi-instrumentalist Arjen Lucassen under the moniker of his rock opera outlet Ayreon, is widely regarded as a milestone album throughout the genre, and is arguably his best work to date. So when a big theater production of this emotional roller coaster ride was announced, it made a huge stir within the worldwide prog scene. The few dates were sold out in no time, with people from all over the world making the pilgrimage to Rotterdam to witness this once-in-a-lifetime event.

Naturally, not everyone who wanted to go was able to make it, including myself. And then with every guest singer and instrumentalist announced by the production company, led by Arjen's former manager Yvette Boertje, those who couldn't go, for whatever reason, felt a growing sadness. Luckily for all of us, the last performance was recorded for this DVD/BluRay/2CD release.

For all those who are unfamiliar with The Human Equation, the album tells the story of a businessman (simply called 'Me') in a coma, struggling with his past, to come to terms with the present and future. Fighting with, against and inside him are the emotions Reason, Love, Fear, Pride, Passion, Agony and Rage, all portrayed by different singers. Holding vigil by his hospital bed are his wife and his best friend. Will he come back to life? Will the mystery be unveiled as to why he crashed his car 'on the brightest hour of day, no car in sight' or will the secret die with him?

The story is told in 20 songs, each one standing for one day of the coma. After five albums of elaborate science-fiction/fantasy concepts, this was Arjen's first attempt to delve into the world of human emotions (with a slight twist at the end that I am not going to give away). And he did it to stunning effect, creating one of the finest prog albums of the decade. A desert island disc. A modern classic.

To save you having to wait until the end for my conclusion: this live rendition is every bit as awesome as I hoped it would be and more!

The cast is absolutely brimming and shining with talent, every single person putting up stellar performances. Many of them were returning to the roles they played/sang on the initial studio album 11 years previously. Those artists replacing original players, mostly fit right in too. If you have listened to the original recording a thousand times, it is of course very strange to hear Anneke van Giersbergen (The Gentle Storm, ex-The Gathering) picking up the role of Fear, originally sung by Opeth mastermind Mikael Åkerfeldt, or Mike Mills (Toehider) replacing both Devin Townsend and the late Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery) for the roles of Rage and Father.

Both the new "actors" are incredibly talented singers in their own right, but their respective timbres are just so different from the original, that it's quite irritating when you hear it for the first time. Australian madman Mike Mills passes his challenge with flying colors. With the help of the Epic Rock Choir, he manages to render the Devin Townsend parts just as creepy as on record, if not even more scary. His high squeal sits perfect with the maniacal impetus he puts into the Rage persona, but he is equally impressive and convincing as the drunk, abusive father, paying great respect to Shadow Gallery's Mike Baker, who left us far too soon.

Anneke van Giersbergen, a long time Ayreon-alumni, on the other hand is trying her best to make her voice fit the role, and at first it seemed to fail. As much as I love Anneke's voice, I always expect Mikael's deep, velvety, bluesy timbre, and I thought I would most probably continue to miss him whenever I listen to The Theater Equation. After repeated listens however, Anneke's performance keeps growing and growing. I have got as far as to love her performance in Day five: Voices ('Their guilty sighs...') for what it is: truly heartbreaking. Time will tell if I will come to love the other parts as much, but I am now more confident that I will.

The few growls were taken care of by two members of the Epic Rock Choir, who deserve an entire paragraph later in the review. As for the role of "Best Friend", originally sung by the master Arjen himself, it was clear that he wouldn't agree to do it due to his well-known reluctancy to go on stage, but they found a worthy replacement with Jermain 'Wudstik' van der Bogt (ForAllWeKnow). Being no stranger to the Ayreon universe (he sang on 01011001, the 2008 follow up to The Human Equation), Wudstik was an obvious choice and delivers a solid performance, despite his more technical approach to singing (compared to Arjen).

All the other roles were performed by the original cast members. And what an impressive cast that was. I'm sure that everyone who knows and loves The Human Equation has their own favorites, but mine are most certainly Devon Graves (Psychotic Waltz, Deadsoul Tribe, The Shadow Theory) as Agony, and Eric Clayton (Saviour Machine) as Reason. But that doesn't mean the performance of the other singers are any less amazing. Marcela Bovio (Stream of Passion) as Wife, Irene Janssen as Passion, Magnus Ekwall as Pride and Heather Findlay as Love, all shine in their respective roles. There is just so many emotions going on throughout the entire album, and way too many parts where you find yourself listening in awe, that it would take ages to point all of them out. Basically I would end up mentioning every single second of the whole almost two hours, such is the quality at hand.

The biggest surprise however is James LaBrie's performance of the main character. Not only was he able to fill the role with all the contradicting emotions, he also managed to sing and scream parts, that many thought him unable to do anymore.

His performance would be worth the price of admission alone, but alas there is so much more, starting from the brilliant compositions courtesy of Mr. Lucassen himself, fantastic arrangements by Joost van den Broek, breathtaking performances by each and every singer and musician involved, and last, but certainly not least, the powerful voices of the Epic Rock Choir, elevating the whole experience to a whole new level. From the goosebumps-inducing ending to Day two: Isolation, to an incredible a capella part in Day four: Mystery; from the creepy Devin Townsend mode in Day eight: School, to a spine-tingling a capella Reprise of Pain towards the end of Disc 1, these 18 handpicked singers act as a stunning, pitch-perfect unity and simply cannot be overlooked when praising The Theater Equation.

After all this talk about vocalists, it would be unfair not to mention the incredible musicians of the band who provide the perfect musical foundation for the singers to shine. The rhythm section consists of Ed Warby, the closest you can get to an actual Ayreon band member apart from Arjen himself. Joining his thunderous drums in the lower register, is his Gentle Storm colleague Johan van Stratum (also Stream of Passion) on bass. The manifold keyboard sounds are expertly handled by Erik van Ittersum and Ruben Wijga, whilst Freek Gielen and Sun Caged guitar wizard Marcel Coenen rock electric and acoustic guitars. This phenomenal band is joined by Jeroen Goossens (all kinds of flutes and woodwinds), Ben Mathot (violin) and Maaike Peterse (cello); all three no strangers in the Ayreon universe.

Now before the length of this review gets way out of hand and I end up writing a novel nobody wants to read, I will conclude with a simple equation (you could say now comes the TL/DR part). A masterpiece brought to life (or is it live here?), is still a masterpiece. So the only logical conclusion here, is a perfect 10 out of 10.
Conclusion:
Dario Albrecht: 10 out of 10

Duo Review
Leprous - Live at Rockefeller Music Hall [DVD/CD]
Leprous - Live at Rockefeller Music Hall
Country of Origin: Norway
Year of Release: 2016
Time: 1:43:42
Links:
Track List:
The Flood (8:28), Foe (3:08), Third Law (6:13), Rewind (7:16), The Cloak (4:11), Acquired Taste (6:52), Red (6:39), Slave (9:05), The Price (5:18), Moon (8:02), Down (6:25), The Valley (9:31), Forced Entry (10:43), Contaminate me (11:39). DVD Bonus material: Behind The Scenes (5:23), Slave (Lyric Video) (6:37), Restless (Video Clip) (3:43), The Cloak (Video Clip) (4:15), The Price (Video Clip) (5:22), Leprous At Rockefeller 13 Years Earlier (8:55)
Raimond Fischbach's Review of the DVD
It might be a little courageous to ask your fans to collect for a full production of a live DVD via crowd-funding, but in the case of Leprous it turned out to be a very good move, with the funding goal achieved at 130 percent. With more than 25,000 Euros of fan money, the order was clear and the band understood that the second leg of their The Congregation tour was to be an ongoing rehearsal marathon. They recorded many of their concerts to analyse their performances and to make fine changes wherever they thought it might bring an improvement.

One month after the last date of that tour, there was one stand-alone gig: for the recording of the DVD. Almost all tickets for this one special night were sold via the pledge campaign, and thus fans from all over Europe came to Oslo to celebrate a prog metal show that would become very much a night to remember. I was one of those fans.

My first impression of the Rockefeller Music Hall was quite amazing. It is a very wonderful venue, and while we were chatting with other fans from all corners of the continent, it became clear that it is a venue designed for maximum audio fidelity. When Leprous began to play, we were instantly amazed by a live sound of a quality you rarely ever get to hear at a metal concert. On top of that Leprous somehow impressed us one more time, with a their performance that was even better than those during the tour.

The band is already known as one of the tightest live bands on the planet, but what its new rhythm section can pull off, stands without comparison. Drummer Baard Kolstad is an absolutely amazing shredder but he never does anything that would spoil a song. He had tweaked his breaks and fills to new highs, and performs arrangements as elegant as those of Gavin Harrison. The newest entry to the band, bassist Simen Daniel Børven, actually began the tour as session bassist, and ended it as a band member. He is in no way inferior, and manages not only to stick to Baard's partly-insane drum patterns like glue, but has also added his own style to Leprous' great music by creating many wonderful licks and fills, that push the band's music to even higher levels.

But for that Oslo night, the rhythm section consisted of three artists. Tobias Ørnes Andersen, the band's former drummer, was invited to join the show and thus had a great opportunity to finalise his amazing work with Leprous at this great live recording.

"He was here, and he had time, so it was only logical", was all that Einar Solberg would humbly state about his motivation for this invitation later on.

Now everybody would think that Tobias would play the older songs and Baard the new ones, but that was not what they did. The two re-arranged the drums for a couple of songs, with Tobias playing the base rhythm part and Baard shredding the hell out of his set. On other songs they just played in perfect synchronicity to create a better punch. And that they really did, because these two guys co-ordinate down to the milli-second, and when they stroke their drums at the same time, you can only hear one stroke; and that sounds mighty! Thus Tobias was part of the show during about half of the set, and helped Leprous to create a night with a great arc of dynamics that had an intense impact with the audience.

I had seen the band with this set list already four times, but this night really got me exhausted. The musical perfection was unbelievable and after so much touring their stage appearance had reached sheer perfection too. Yes, that adds to the experience. Usually I don't care, but in this case I enjoyed it very much.

Thus we were all rather exhausted when the set was done and the band went off-stage for the usual "Encore! Encore!" ritual. But the boys managed to take the night up one more level with the arrival of Isahn as special guest, performing as third guitarist and vocalist on Contaminate Me, alongside Håkon Aase on violin.

Now that I am watching the DVD of this show on a heavily compressed promo stream for the third time, I am still impressed about this outstanding performance of the band, especially Einar Solberg's unbelievable vocal performance, which I never really experienced in this form. The video production manages to bring the smelly sweat of that night into one's living room. I still find myself couch-banging at numerous moments.

At the very beginning of my first screening, I found the editing, camera movement and focus pulling a bit too hectic, but that feeling was gone after half an hour, and I began to think that the editor has done a very good job. And if you consider the production issues that had to be overcome, then the result is stunning.

That is because there occurred an immense problem. Although as a production concept it sounds quite easy, having "the stage belonging to the musicians, and the musicians only", implies that no camera operators are visible. Due to that fact, a dry-run of the show was planned prior to the concert, to shoot all the close-ups that one would want to see. During that dry-run camera operators could be on the stage, close to the musicians.

Unfortunately setting up all the gear took much longer than expected, and the extra dry-run through had to be cancelled. So the decision was made to improvise as many close-ups as possible during the concert, which of course always turns out to be not as good as one hopes. But despite all that, there was enough good material to edit from, and the editor did a great job in staying with the band rhythmically and providing a good, up-tempo edit, without things becoming too hectic, yet providing as much of an oversight as possible.

Also the audio recording and mixing quality sets a new standard. It is stunning how a metal band with two very fat sounding guitars (and even two drummers) can sound so crystal clear, especially when one considers that both guitarists (three at times) play only rhythm guitar. I mean, there was only one guitar solo played during the entire concert, with the drummer being the one shredder of the night. The band's sound has been brought to perfection by David Castillo, who recorded and mixed the whole concert, and Tony Lindgren who mastered it at Fascination Street Studios. It's the same studio where Jens Bogren usually does his mixes, and where he also was responsible for the recording of The Congregation. But compared to this live recording, Bogren's studio version sounds quite bland.

The only thing that really bothers me with this production, is that the final product is a downsample to an outdated low-resolution format, a DVD. Talking about that, Einar shrugged and said it was a label decision, but I find even that a bit strange because everybody but the label payed for the production, so why would the label decide? Despite that, this DVD is a very much enjoyable and a worthwhile document about the stage performance of the most unique band that prog metal today has to offer. The band's performance is beyond perfection musically and also in terms of its stage presence. The performance is one-of-a-kind and well worthy of being documented. The video production is nearly perfect, and the audio production is a shining example of perfection.

I haven't had the possibility to watch the bonus content, because prior to the release we reviewers have only a video stream of the DVD at hand. So I take this as an opportunity for an extra mention of drummer Baard Kolstad, because I think that the prog metal community has not yet figured out what a shooting star this young man is.

While all people involved did a perfect job, Baard made the most inhuman effort one could think of. That is because at the same time as preparing for this recording, he also had to prepare himself for the tour with his own band, Rendezvous Point, plus the festival season, where he would be on stage with his prog-mates in Leprous and Borknagar, plus his shows with Gaahl's Wyrd and Solefad. Think about it: Full sets for five different bands. That means six to eight hours of musical material in his brain, all ready to be played! Under those conditions, he even found time (and a brain) to create and rehearse this special show-arrangement for two drummers. Considering this, plus his overall broad variety of styles, his technical prowess and intuition; and I think he is ready to take drum-god Mike Portnoy's throne by-storm.
Andy Read's Review of the CD
Putting my cards upright on the table: In terms of Leprous, I would describe myself as an admirer, rather than a fan. A wavering fan if you like.

Their debut album, Tall Poppy Syndrome was a muddled affair. As many misses as hits, but helped by showing ambition and promise aplenty. Bilateral will always be an album that I will consider to be a classic of the progressive metal genre. Ground-breakingly perfect. Coal on the other hand was bold in treading different ground, but lost me in its tone and with tracks too reluctant to move from their starting point. The Congregation may have fared better with me as a follow-up to Bilateral, but not every song matches the heights achieved on its four standout moments.

I have seen the band in a live setting twice. Both times at the wonderful ProgPower Europe festival. As an opening-night warm up back in 2010, that promise again shone through. However it was their amazing show (and it was a real show) as headliners at last year's festival that reignited my enthusiasm to catch this, the band's first foray into a live recording. And I am glad that I did.

Two negative points for me. The first is (and will probably always be) the band's use of death vox. It is one of those love-it or loathe-it sounds. Thankfully they are not overdone here, apart from on the closing song which features Isahn, for whom Leprous previously formed his backing band. However, as it is the closing song, it tends to leave a rather nasty final taste in the ear. As it is not really representative of the band's sound, it seems a strange song to close with and leave as the final impression. I find Contaminate Me unlistenable, so now always stop at the glorious Forced Entry (where I can survive its brief growly moments).

Secondly, I am of the school-of-live-concert-goers that likes to hear a band's best moments. Only two songs from the wonderful Bilateral feature here, with a couple of other obvious favourites also missing. While I can understand a desire to create an atmosphere or mood across a show in the live setting, I also want to hear those songs, riffs, melodies and mood changes that send the hairs on the back of the neck standing to attention in the sweat and heat of the concert hall. I feel robbed of quite a few of those moments with this set list.

That said, there is no problem in admiring Leprous as an exceptionally tight, energetic and focused live band. The years of tough touring have paid dividends big time. The use of two drummers offers an incredible dynamic, the sound quality if great and the performance of vocalist Einar Solberg verifies his place as one of the best frontmen around.

Having watched the DVD and listened to the 2CD (same track lists), I would recommend getting both versions as that offers both existing fans and the curious, two very different experiences. As ever with DVDs, the visuals tend to overwhelm the audio experience. In the case of Leprous at the Rockefeller, that is very much the case. This hometown show is a visual feast, with a flood of stage presences backed up by vibrant light moods and a constant buzz of background imagery. Just having the CD, allows one to concentrate solely on the music.

And if that is not enough choice, in addition to the standalone DVD and 2CD jewelcase, then this is also available as a limited DVD+2CD Digipak, gatefold 3LP + 2CD, and as a digital download audio.
Conclusion:
Raimond Fischbach: 9.5 out of 10
Andy Read: 8.5 out of 10

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Published Sunday 4 December 2016

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