Strangers on a Train -
The Key Part 2 : The Labyrinth
It's there, the re-issue of 'The Key, part II', the second part of the triptych. Part II is titled The Labyrinth. On this CD Strangers on a Train consist once again of Clive Nolan (keyboards), Karl Groom (guitars) and Tracy Hitchings (vocals). This trio has been enlarged by Alan Reed, who created a furore as the singer of the British group Pallas in the mid-eighties.
This record, that originally saw the light of day in 1993, has been recorded in the 'first' Thin Ice Studios, at that time located in London. I was told that the word 'studios' is an exaggeration for the room in which the recording sessions took place. The walls of this room were draped with blankets in order to create the right acoustics. On top of that, the space was so limited that, after Clive had set up his full rig, there was not enough room for a proper set of drums. This, in combination with the classical influences in the music, has lead tot the description of the Strangers' music as 'Chamber Rock. Despite this circumscription of the limited means by which this record was made, you can't draw any conclusions on the quality of the sound of it. The production by Clive and Karl is good. Clive lays down a comfortable 'tapestry' of sound, that, in combination with the polyphonic vocal-parts, result in a full and sometimes orchestral sound. The variation of massive parts with church-organ and strings on the one hand, and quiet parts including piano and acoustic guitars on the other, that was characteristic for the first album, is back again on this one.
Of course there are also differences betweenThe Prophecy (part I) and The Labyrinth (part II). Whereas The Prophecy counts many short songs, this album is made up of only five very long compositions, forming a total of over 73 minutes of music. Naturally these long compositions do consist of different parts. Another difference is the fact that there has been made use of the sound of violins and other 'classical' instruments even more often than on the first album. The voice of Alan Reed also adds something special to the sound. Since we're talking of a re-release, several differences between this release and the original version can be mentioned. Originally this album (as many of Clive's other projects) was released on the now defunct SI-label.
New artwork has been designed for this re-release. The original artwork by Peter Nicholls had to make way for the new atmospheric cover by Rainer Kalwitz, who also did the new cover-art for The Prophecy. While the cover of The Prophecy was coloured brown and red, this one has been designed in moody purple and blue. The cover shows us a mountainous country including (what else could be expected) a labyrinth. It's funny to discover (by comparing the booklets) that the population of cats in Clive's household has grown over the years. Holly and Silk are also mentioned now.
To the music now: the first song, Darkworld, presents us the band. After an overture on church-organ, the theme starts that will return at several points. After this, the howling guitar of Karl is introduced with a typical solo. Then, Tracy and Alan have their own parts in this 'epic'. Highlight of the songs is, without any doubt, the beautiful duet in the last van part of this 20 minute composition.
The second song, Hijrah, is not only the shortest one (still 6:40), it's also the only text-less song of the album. Which doesn't mean there's no singing at all. With polyphonic sounds Tracy charms the listener. A fast piano-part follows, accompanied by bass and strings. Impressive music, like you're watching a movie. The finale has been 'stolen' from Van Beethoven.
The title-song The Labyrinth consists of three parts, of which the first is a fast piece including acoustic guitars. The second part is a short text, recited by Alan. An exiting part follows, with heavy guitars and threatening 'footsteps'. The medieval closing section of the song is very unexpected, but nice..
The last song, Endzone, brings us back to the main theme of the album. Clive and Karl both take their time for the instrumental introduction of this 23-minute epic. Once again Alan and Tracy have their own parts in the song. It's nice to hear two 'cites' of The Prophecy here. As a result of this (and of the many solos of the gentlemen musicians) this composition is a long ride. Nevertheless, the harmony of voices is very beautiful. It's a pity that the real firework doesn't start until one minute before end.
Altogether, The Labyrinth is a beautiful, mystical, but very long album. 'Patience is a beautiful thing' a Dutch proverb says. And sometimes, beautiful things ask for a little patience. But if you have it, there's much to enjoy.
7 out of 10review by Jan-Jaap de Haan.
Wappa Gappa - A Myth
Wappa Gappa is a band of Mongolian musicians, founded in 1992. Their first album was released in 1996 and this year Musea released their second effort, a CD which got the translated title A Myth.
The Lion Hearted King (Shishi-Oh) (8.41) is a wonderful piece in which energetic parts and quieter parts with vocals and fretless bass alternate. The vocals are very good on this one and the track also features some wonderful guitar solo's. Great melodies as well as various tempo changes.
The Banquet (Utage) (6.02) is less accessible than the previous track and has rather weird vocals. The vocal melody is clearly Asian on this one and less enjoyable (to be honest, it annoys the hell out of me). Clearly not one of my favourites. The music itself is fine though.
No Mercy (Mujou) (5.57) is a beautiful gentle ballad.
The Underground (Chikatetsu) (6.46) is another energetic tune with more rock oriented vocals. It's got a great catchy riff as well. One of my favourites on the album.
A Myth (Shinwa) (12.43) starts with a vocal part with a lyricless melody followed by a slightly Yes-like sequence. After the first lyrical part a keyboard solo and another vocal part with string keyboards follow. The vocals in this part are more opera-like, tending towards a Kate Bush style. The next part is has a completely different style again and is dominated by a bluesy guitar solo. The song ends with something which is either a children's choir (what else did you expect ?) or a lot of vacal overdubs. Very interesting track with lots of variations.
Pilgrimage of Water (Mizu No Junrei) (5.44) is a very quiet, laid back song which gets a bit more 'body' later on when more prominent keyboards are added. This song again features lyricless vocal melodies. To top it off, a Floydian guitar solo is present as well.
The One and Only (Yui Itsu) (7.03) starts with acoustic guitar and quiet vocals in once again a new vocal style. It's very impressive to hear the variations in Tamami Yamamoto's voice throughout the album. Later on the song gets more heavy with a complicated rhythm, opera-like vocals and a ripping guitar solo. This track is less accessible than most of the other tracks on the album. Not one of my favourites.
The intro of the last track, Floating Ice (Ryuhyo) (7.34), can easily be compared to the intro of Marillion's King of Sunset Town. The song proceeds as a ballad and also features a keyboard solo in Don Airey-like style. The melody of the chorus is very good.
Wappa Gappa is a very impressive band with very talented musicians, good melodies, many tempo changes and tight rhythms. The female vocalist has a whole range of styles and although not all if them really match my taste, they are no less impressive.
Don't be misleaded by the English song titles and lyrics in the booklet; the actual singing is in Japanese. These Japanese vocals don't disturb me at all (except for those on the second track) since the melodies are so well. As far as that's concerned, I like this band in the same way I like Quidam, and some of the songs wouldn't have been out of place on one of their albums.
The album is very well produced. The 12 page booklet contains translated lyrics, an introduction to Wappa Gappa and pictures of all band members.
Definitely an album to check out !
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10.
New Sun - Affects
New Sun, from the US, is a rather strange band. Although there are four members - Kley (bass), Trujillo (drums & vocals), Erickson (guitars & keyboards) and Scott (guitars, vocals, keyboards) - in the band and their biography claims that they've been playing as a 'sonic unit' for five years, only two out of eight songs on the album feature all these musicians. Guitarist/Keyboard player Erickson only appears on two songs with the other three and drummer/singer Trujillo even gets replaced by another drummer on two songs. Affects is the 'band's second album.
Prometheus (6.25) starts with a long guitar solo, combined with a menacing bass line. The music gets slightly similar to Queensryche, especially the guitar. The pace is rather low, as is the voice of Trujillo, whom I wouldn't call a very good singer. The vocals are rather emotionless and after the interesting intro the track just gets weaker with every minute.
Cyrus Gore (9.47) starts rather quietly with whispered vocals by Scott. The first part of the song sounds a bit like Fish's remake of Favourite Strangers for his Yin/Yang album. The rest of the song is very different though. There's also a break with an electric guitar playing chords. Some bits of this song are quite enjoyable (especially the instrumental bits), but overall the song misses a certain quality.
Cause & Effect (4.35) has a more up-tempo rhythm and also features good use of a violin. This is probably one of the best moments on the CD, which might have been the reason to chose this song for an Internet sample at the label's web page. Scott, who sings this track, sounds slightly like Tom Robinson (Listen to the Radio).
FYB (The Deceptionist) (8.41) starts with roaring guitar, after which the band joins in for a rather agressive song with frustrated lyrics. The vocals by Scott are not very good. After a break in which guitar and bass continue the base riff, a rather pathetic guitar solo follows. Then all instruments disappear except for the drums, which is a rather nice variation. Strange enough this stops rather bluntly and the next song starts.
Question (7.34) is the last song on the album which starts with acoustic guitar. This is one of the better songs on the album, in which heavy refrains with distorted vocals and catchy guitar riffs are alternated by a chorus with acoustic guitar.
Besides these songs, the album contains about 7 minutes of 'filler music', anyway that's
the best reason I can find for inclusion of these three pieces.
The album opens with Dark the Azure Sky (1.18), a short piece with slightly Eastern sounding percussion combined with guitar effects in the background. After little more than a minute the music just stops. Rather pointless, if you ask me.
Second 'filler' is the strangely titled Acquired Muscle Memory (3.55), a solo piece by Scott in which he uses keyboards, samples and guitar to create a rather Floydian soundscape. Nice, but not very original.
... But For The Gleam In Her Eye (1.41) is a solo piece by Erickson where keyboards and sequencers are used to create another pointless soundscape with all kinds of effects.
Owing to the dominance of the guitar and the way it's played, New Sun's music often sounds more like Seattle grunge than prog, something not uncommon in prog from the US. Besides the soundscapes in the 'fillers' most of the songs lack keyboards and even when they are used their role is very inferior. Every now and than they sound like a rather energyless version of another US prog band we recently reviewed, All Too Human.
Although New Sun claims to push the boundries musically by utilizing the foundations of the '70's, and listening to bands of the '90's I can't really find much originality in their songs. The album features two or three enjoyable songs but even those could have been much better if they would have been more 'energetic'. Better compositions, good vocals and a higher tempo in certain songs would certainly do the music some good.
The CD booklet is just one of those folded 4-page things with lyrics and credits. If you count out the 7 minutes of 'filler music' you'll be left with 37 minutes of music, which isn't very impressive either as far as quantity is concerned.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Steve Hackett - Genesis Revisited
Imagine taking some of your favourite Genesis songs, asking people like John Wetton, Tony Levin, Bill Bruford, Chester Thompson, Paul Carrack, Colin Blunstone and many others to perform on the tracks, re-arranging some songs instead of just playing a nineties cover version and throwing the Royal Philharmonic Orchastra in as an extra treat. Sounds like a project which can't fail. Or can it .... ?
Watcher of the Skies (8.40) is the song on the album which comes
closest to the original. The original Mellotron intro has been replaced by
the strings of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the vocals are done
by John Wetton. Although vocal overdubs on Wetton's vocals are once
again clearly present, his voice is less raw than on the Martin
Darvill album The Greatest Show on Earth. The track also features Tony Levin on bass and
as well as Bill Bruford, who's hacking way of drumming on this
track fails to impress me.
After a sounscape of one and a half minute Dance on a Volcano (7.28)
opens stunningly with the most bombastic intro of this song I've ever heard !
Chester Thompson immediately makes you forget the dubious drumming on
the previous track. Unfortunately the fun is spoilt rather quickly by the
distorted vocals/whisperings of Mr. Hackett who sounds like he just got out
of bed. What a waiste, this could have been such a good version. The otherwise
interesting slap bass break can't save the track.
Maybe it takes a while to get used to, but this definitely won't become my 'favourite Volcano ever'.
Valley of the Kings (6.29) is a bombastic instrumental track (a new composition by Hackett). It features heavy but straightforward drumming and besides the dominant guitar of Hackett, the only other instruments used are keyboards with a definite Egyptian feel. Nice but not essential.
Deja Vu (5.53) is a song that Peter Gabriel started and rehearsed with Genesis during the 'Selling England' period. Hackett finished it for this album. It's a beautiful ballad with a very nice melody sung by Carrack. The only problem with Paul Carrack is that every song he sings immediately turns into a Carrack song, owing to his very distinct vocals. This song would therefore not have been out of place on a Carrack solo album or Mike and the Mechanics CD. Deja Vu also features the Royal Philharmonic, as well as some samples of film dialogue and both acoustic and electric guitar solo's.
Firth of Fifth (9.39) once again features John Wetton and Bill Bruford. The original piano intro has been replaced by an instrument which sounds like a clockenspiel, which is soon joined by the orchestra, a piano and strings. The first part of the original guitar solo is played by acoustic guitar after which the song moves into a completely new improvisation with the main focus on the orchestra. In this interesting part Bruford's playing is quite impressive, as opposed to elsewhere on the CD. A new guitar melody eventually flows into the original solo and the second vocal part continues. One of the most interesting re-arrangements on the album !
For Absent Friends (3.02) is not a Genesis track I play very often, but the version on this CD with ex-Zombie singer Colin 'Old and Wise' Blunstone with just the orchestra as a backing band is very interesting and beautiful.
Your Own Special Way (4.18) is another ballad which has been given the 'Carrack-treatment'. I don't really care for the 'Whitney Houston'-like keyboards (you'll recognise them when you'll hear them) and the 'easy listening' arrangement of this track but Paul does a very nice job and the orchestra and backing singers add extra dimension to the tune. This one might do well during Christmas.
Fountain of Salmacis (9.53) has Thompson back behind the drum kit and vocals by Hackett. Fountain has never been a real favourite of mine (though others seem to adore it), so I can't really elaborate on the difference with the original. One thing I do know is that Hackett's vocals certainly are no improvement compared to the original. I wonder why he wanted to sing on this album at all.
Waiting Room Only (6.53) was inspired by the weird track on The
Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, a track I've always hated. This one follows
the same principle, a lot of sound effects and freaky stuff now played by a complete orchestra and a choir. As Hackett wrote in the liner notes: "don't attempt to play this at dinner parties ....".
After three and a half minutes of this waste of disk space a bombastic section with the full band follows. This part does feature clear melodies and some of them are quite enjoyable. There's even a very Mike Oldfield-ish bit on the guitar.
I Know What I Like (5.37) has been turned into a jazzy version with
Hackett singing the lyrics. It's slower than the original and very
sleep-inducing. This version is even worse than the one Fish once did.
After the main part of the song there's a section where someone announces some instruments after which they play several bars of music. This sounds like a very bad parody on Mike Oldfields Tubular Bells to me.
Los Endos (8.51) is perhaps the absolute highlight on the album. Hackett took the original and worked it into a Latin American version, based on the song title. There's lots of drums and percussion and even a snippet of Dancing With The Moonlit Knight thrown in. When the Squonk bit starts a whole drum band joins in. Just when the repeating melody starts to get annoying the track fades out.
The booklets features all lyrics and band line-ups for each track, as well as liner notes by Hackett. I don't really like the black and white cover with Adam and Eve and the UFOs. I don't think it fits the music on the disc very well.
Some of Hackett's experiments worked out quite well or are at least interesting variations. Certain tracks are definitely no improvements on the originals and others are downright annoying. Fortunatey, the CD is filled to the rim, so there's enough good stuff to choose from. Nevetheless, I could have been so much better than it became.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Egdon Heath - Nebula
Egdon Heath is a Dutch symphonic rock band that has been
around for quite some years now (16, I believe). The band produced the
albums In the City, The Killing Silence and Him, the Snake and
I. Their "newest" (1996) product is the album Nebula. It contains eight
tracks of pure sympho.
The cover is also in the sympho tradition: weird kitsch. A painting of a blindfolded naked women with large bat-like wings on a cliff over a burning city. But well, apparently I have to learn to live with these covers, since I like Pendragon as well...
Fortunately, the music is very good. I always have had a weak spot for Egdon Heath music and this CD has not disappointed me. The fact that their lead vocalist Maurits Kalsbeek has a really great voice, with which he can do a lot (also live!), makes this album better than average. The opening track Hail to your heart (8.04) is a piece of music in the true sympho-style, uptempo and bombastic, remniscent of Collage, with a more quiet middle part. But soon the boys have their instruments talking again.
Head in the Sand (5.20) is a song based on a long guitar line, that is repeated and varied, with some breaks in between, some weirder than others (they have been playing with sound-effect gadgets all over the album...).
The third track Peace of the Brave (7.00) is a "pumping bass" kind of song, where the rhythm is dominated by a repeated bass note, although the song also has some nice breaks in it and a "mysterious" middle part, soft and with sound effects.
Telepathic (5.39) is a mellow piece, more like a lullaby with piano and synths, with a bombastic climax once in a while. The last part of the song has some drums and a more screaming type of singing, to end finally with the soft synth sounds of the opening and a repetition of the middle part. An interesting slow song, all in all.
The song Buried Inside (8.20) is more uptempo, with a catching intro, and an equally catching chorus, Pendragon style. In the middle part, there is an orchestra playing a piece of "modern music" for orchestra. The variations of atmosphere in this song is enormous. A nice piece of work!
Little Human (5.51) is a slow guitar/synth/voice song, where the intro reminded me a bit of Apathetic and here I... of Geoff Mann. Obviously this song was written for one of the band member's kid. It is a bit too "sweet" for my taste.
As Ripley would say... (12.30) is yet another "This UFO that crashed at Roswell is real and the US Government conceals all" song (e.g. Room 801 by Galahad). Maybe due to the boring X-Files subject, the song is overcomplicated where they should have made a more straightforeward song. The final part is nice, with a melody that reminds of this The spiderman is having me for dinner tonight song of The Cure, but with a nice slow guitar line added. All in all, this song is not my favorite.
The final song, Dead Meat (7.23) is more of an IQ type song, complex yet catching. Oh, by the way, leave your CD-player running after the final note of the last song. There is a little bit of piano still on it. A cheap trick to make a long CD!
If you want to buy a CD of a band that you don't know yet and want to be sure that you like at least most of it (if you like bands like Collage and Pendragon), this CD is a good one. Maybe they will get a bit more visitors at their concerts. The last time I saw them in Groningen, where about 30 people attended their concert, which despite the lack of a crowd, was an impressive display of skill and love of music. They deserve better!
Final ranking: 8.5 out of 10.