Reviews in this issue:
Aztec Jade - Paradise Lost
New York based group Aztec Jade now presents its new album through the Italian label Adrenaline records. Aztec Jade is not new on the scene (the bands first album dates from 1994) and it shows that they have recording experience. The album is well produced with a good vocalist.
Based in the firm roots of prog metal artists like Dream Theater and Queensrÿche (with respect to the vocals) and
bands like Rush in terms of some of the compositions and tempo changes, the band produce a nice, but too lengthy album.
Due to the fact that the album contains 17 tracks, of which the longest one is 6:31, I will not put you, distinguished reader,
through the ordeal of a track-to-track walk-through. Let me just pick out some highlights and setbacks of the album.
The first highlight is the first track, Regatta Fugue Part I, which starts very Dream Theater-like, but later reminds me strongly of some other prog (metal) band, I think it may be Everon, but am not sure. A track like Mad Not Crazy, is quite ambiguous. On the one hand it presents itself as pure power rock, nothing special, but then the second 2 minutes are filled with intricate rhythm changes, melodic tricks, solo's and haunting keyboard work alá Threshold.
Finally, a ballad to break the power with Nosferatu, and quite a good one, a bit in the vein of the Scorpions (with respect to the guitar) and Queensrÿche (Mindcrime). Well, actually 'ballad' is an incorrect description of this track. Let's just say it's not as uptempo as the rest....
Some of the tracks are overdone, for example Atlantis features an intro that is too obviously engineered with respect to the rhythm, and the same goes for some other tracks as well (e.g. Stained).
The major drawback of this album to me is that even after 10 listenings, there is still no song or melody that stuck in my mind, since most of the tracks, although individually none of them have obvious flaws, are so similar in style. Combined with the sheer length of the album, I had the impression of constantly hearing the same track (or variation on it). That also made it a difficult album to review (not much to tell about) and to grade (no bad tracks, but nothing spectacular either).
If you really like prog metal and can listen to it for over an hour, maybe give it a try. The vocals are quite good (something I do not often find) and the instruments are played well. The compositions, on the other hand, lack originality, I have heard this style many many times before. That is why I always wonder with bands like these why they present themselves as "highly innovative".
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
P.S. Aztec Jade also appear on Adrenaline Record's Queen tribute album Attack of the Dragons with their version of The Show Must Go On.
Sebastian Hardie - Four Moments
'Four Moments' is the album that brought symphonic rock as a genre to Australia. The quartet Sebastian Hardie bring a highly melodic Camel/Caravan-like progressive rock on this 1975 re-release of the Musea label.
This highly melodic content becomes obvious from the first bars onwards. With excellent keyboard (well, Mellotron and I think even Moog) work, a fascinating landscape of intertwining melodies is presented to the listener. The album is recorded live in the studio (in 6 days time) and it adds an uncomplicated, bit harsher feeling to this still complex music. I like this album better than their other recent re-release Windchase or the band Windchase (Symphinity), that consists of a couple of ex-Sebastian Hardie members - which I reviewed before - due to this rawness.
Now don't think the music itself is raw, it's still sweet and lovely, as more bands did around that time
(perhaps as a final death-twist before the era of punk that was coming soon?). The abundant use of flute and melody
reminds of Camel's The Snowgoose, whereas the Mellotron parts are strongly remniscent of early Genesis. The guitar
is unfortunately not as strong as Latimer's, but the vocals are well digestible.
Journey Though Our Dreams sounds even a bit Floydian (Obscured by Clouds, around that time), moving towards Focus when the guitar-and-Hammond solo starts. The main theme circling around the 20+ minute track is Yes-like (Awaken, you know the genre).
The second track is very Focus like, a bit like Questions?Awnsers!Awnsers?Questions!, very guitar dominated. The last track, a 13 minute work, is quite laid-back with a good melody again and is nice background music, featuring swirling Hammond organ solo's and other show-off style instrumental interludes.
The major drawback of this album is its sheer age, as I also argued with the Taurus album and the other Hardie albums: it sounds outdated. However, for prog lovers of that period, who are not put off by extremely lovely sweet melodies, this is an album worth having. Of course it's also a part of prog history and in that respect, it also deserves to be re-released.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
North Star - Tempest
Personally, I had not heard of the American band North Star before, but when I checked out their website, I discovered that they have actually been around since 1976. Since the release of their self-titled EP in 1982, North Star appear to have put out four studio albums: Triskelion (1984), Feel The Cold (1985), Power (1992), and now Tempest. However, in contrast to their earlier releases, their latest album is entirely instrumental and mainly recorded by only three of the four members. The most important reason for this is that vocalist Joe Newnam is living on the West Coast of the United States, whereas the other three live relatively close to each other on the East Coast. Apart from that, the band wanted to enable their fans to purchase a "hard copy" of their latest musical achievements during their performance at NEARFest 2000 and the three piece line-up was the quickest method to achieve that. According to the band, however, the next CD will definitely feature Newnam's voice again.
9 of the 10 tracks on Tempest were recorded by the line-up consisting of Dave Johnson (guitar, guitar synthesiser, bass, and electronic drums on Bathroom By The Bongos), Glenn Leonard (drums, doumbek & keyboards on Opus V, keyboards on Prelude In C) and Kevin Leonard (keyboards, bass on Tempest, Bathroom By The Bongos, organ on Opus V). The tenth track is a sitar track, recorded by Newnam.
The album kicks off with the title track, Tempest. This is a very nice neo-prog style track, featuring melodic undistorted electric guitar (reminding me a bit of Jadis), washes of strings from the keyboard, slightly damped sounding drums and an aggressive guitar solo (sounding slightly like those by Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson). Funnily enough, every time I played this song, I caught myself thinking that I would soon hear vocals coming in, but that was obviously not the case. However, the ripping guitar solo makes up nicely for the lack of vocals. After it has reached a climax, the music suddenly calms down a bit, only to have the solo guitar return even more aggressively a few moments later. The track concludes with a less interesting repetitive keyboard bit, which ends in a fade-out. Nice track, even though I found the end to be a bit of an anti-climax.
Yes, I Know starts with a pretty cheesy keyboard sound, which after two minutes changes pace with a nice guitar solo doubled by organ (probably played on a guitar synthesiser). The piece has a jazzy atmosphere, caused mainly by the jazzy way the bass is played, and the hammond organ sound. This effect is even reinforced when the music slows down and a very cheesy saxophone and trumpet (both very obviously not genuine ones) come in. It ends with all instruments chaotically playing different things at the same time. Quite frankly, I could have done without both intro and ending, since the middle part is much better than both of them.
The beginning of the next track, with the interesting title Bathroom By The Bongos, is filled with African rhythms, some weird computer game-like keyboard sound and the bongos mentioned in the title. Then a section comes consisting only of different kinds of drums, which reinforces the "African" sound. After three minutes, however, a soundtrack-like guitar/keys/bass/drums part with a very sinister atmosphere starts - and no, strangely enough there are no bongos in this section at all. They only return (slightly) in the fade-out. Why the different parts were connected is a complete mystery to me, since they do not seem to have anything to do with each other.
Prelude In C was originally written by classical composer Johan Sebastian Bach. On Tempest, it is played on keyboards by Glenn Leonard, using a sound which I find to be somewhat annoying (it actually makes me think of the music used by Belgian kiddie television programme Tiktak).
Opus V has a completely different atmosphere than the previous track. It is played in a style which I would call "progressive fusion". The structure of the song is very much like an average fusion track (even featuring a drum solo at 5:00 minutes), but played with a guitar and keyboard sound which is more or less typical for neo-prog. Throughout the entire track, guitar and keyboard take turns to play some very nice solos.
Track 6, Raudra, is the only track written and played by Joe Newnam. Normally, I can appreciate the use of sitar in rock music, but Raudra is not really a rock track. There are no other instruments on it but the sitar and I guess that one has to be a really big fan of the sound of the sitar to stay interested the entire 9:09 (!) minutes long. Sorry, but this is not my cup of tea.
Gettin' Gigué Wit It is another classical piece played with modern instruments. In this case, it is the Gigué from the French Suite No. 5, again by Johan Sebastian Bach. Its new title is obviously a wink at Will Smith's hit Gettin' Jiggy Wit It, but all similarities end there. The keyboard sound used for the main theme reminds me very much of A.C.T's "happy sound". Only, in my opinion, North Star have gone a bit too far with the amount of different happy sounds used in the track. Now it seems as if one person is playing the keyboard, while someone else is pushing the buttons to get a different sound every few seconds. This could, of course, also have been done on purpose, to make even more of a pastiche out of the track and to make it fit the silly title better; but it does not work for me.
The guys from North Star must be overly fond of fake horns sounds... Plastic Bombastic is another song which features blaring trumpets coming from a box. And bombastic it is! Especially the first part of the track is really huge; it could easily be the theme music for some kind of talk show. After three minutes the rhythm slows down to reveal some nice flanged keyboard sounds, even though the horns (which I suspect to come from the guitar synth) keep blaring over it rather irritatingly. Just when you think the track is over, some spacey guitar stuff fades in, much less structured than the music up until that point. This part, again, has this feel which I can only describe as "progressive fusion".
Goodbye Mom is dedicated to Dave Johnson's sister Cindy Johnson who cared for their mother until she died. Contrary to what one might expect, this is not an overly sad track. It features some very atmospherical playing (again with that aura of progressive fusion around it). The lead guitar sound is huge, mainly caused by the amount of reverb used (Steve Wilson's sound springs to mind for the second time). After one and a half minutes the lead guitar timbre temporarily changes into a Stevie Ray Vaughan kind of bluesy flavour, which returns for a few bars at around three and a half minutes. Very nice track; in my opinion a worthy tribute to Johnson's late Mom.
Colossus is the final track of the album and could easily be part of a soundtrack of a film set in the roman empire (the booklet says it is a rearrangement of a track called March Of The Centurions from 1995). Horns (yes, the "plastic" ones again) play a prominent role, adding to the bombast of the piece, while the strings make it all sound even more soundtrack-like. I think this track would have worked well on a concept album, but here it seems to be no more than another loose idea (which does, in a way make it fit in again, since this CD basically seems to be a collection of unrelated ideas).
North Star's music is very eclectic, but, contrary to countrymen Spock's Beard,
their changes between the different styles within one track are not always as smooth or
logical. The tracks on this album range from straightforward neo-prog to oriental sitar
music, and from classical pieces "dressed up" in modern "clothes" to a style which is a
blend of progressive rock and fusion. The fact that there are no vocals on this CD makes
some tracks seem very much like film music. All in all, the choice of songs seems very
random, but this might have been caused by the band's wish to present their audience
with a CD during their performance at NEARFest.
Although I do like some songs or part of them very much, the very fact that it all seems so random tends to put me off somewhat. Maybe their songs will be more structured with vocalist Newnam present, but I guess we will have to wait till the release of their next album to find that out. However, I am sure that people who like a bit of experimentation in prog every now and then will be able to appreciate Tempest. Those who have become curious, can download MP3 sound samples from the Kinesis website.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Chaneton - Questions Inside The Picture
Questions Inside The Picture is the debut album by Argentinean progressive rock band Chaneton. The band is named after its founder, guitarist Alex Chaneton, who is also the former guitarist of Argentinean art-rock band Mandragora. Since he wanted to focus more on progressive rock than they were doing, he left that group to found his own.
On Questions Inside The Picture, one can easily hear which bands are Chaneton's main influences: early Genesis (Gabriel and Hackett-era), Camel, Rush and, most importantly, Marillion (Fish-era). The band consists of Alex Chaneton (electric, acoustic and classical guitar and backing vocals), Adrián Marqués Gómez (bass, bass pedals and electric guitar), Carlos Kleppe (piano, synthesiser, organ and backing vocals), Jano Pérez Sermenti (drums and percussion on tracks 1, 8, 9 and 11), Patricio Villanueva (vocals) and Kike Gentile (drums and percussion on tracks 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 12). Guest musician on this CD is Germán Lami (keyboard, piano and synthesiser on tracks 5, 9 and 11).
Heroes' Graves is a short instrumental track and the first of three songs which
are interconnected. It very clearly states that this band is part of the neo-progressive
movement. The electric guitar plays a very prominent role on this track, filling almost
its entire length with a long, emotional solo. A very nice opener.
Track 2 consists of two parts, the very short instrumental Bridge and the much longer Tears In The Rain. In the latter part of the track, we hear Villanueva's voice for the first time. Not surprisingly, it basically sounds like a mixture between Fish and Peter Gabriel, but (and this sadly seems to be exemplary for most prog singers) lacking much of their ability to really get across various emotions. The first time I heard the vocals, I had not yet leafed through the booklet and believed Chaneton to be a German or Luxembourg band (No-Name sprung to mind), judging by the strange accent on the English words. When I listened more closely, I started to notice that much of what was being sung did not make very much sense; it sounded like heavily accented English but appeared to be much worse than that: some words were absolutely incomprehensible. Both the pronunciation of the words and the stress on the different syllables were wrong most of the time and the booklet appeared to contain many grammatical and spelling errors. I was really starting to wonder whether the guys had written the lyrics first in Spanish and then literally translated them, while occasionally checking the dictionary; after which they had told the singer just to try to make it sound English. Really, was there no one in Argentina who could have helped these guys out? Definitely a missed opportunity!
But that is enough about the vocals for now. The music of this song is very nice at any rate. Some nice arpeggiated guitar is played over a solid foundation of bass and drums and backed up by waves of hammond organ. A guitar solo in the vein of Marillion's Steve Rothery is taken over by the keyboard which in turn is taken over by the guitar again. The end reminds me strongly of Pink Floyd's later work.
A Long Time Past starts with some acoustic piano, which after a few bars is joined by acoustic guitar, keyboard (strings) and bass. Again, Marillion and Floyd come to mind several times during this song, the latter, especially when the drums come in. Villanueva's voice, on the other hand, reminds me very much of Herbert Grönemeyer in this track, oddly enough. As appears to be the case with other songs as well, some parts of the lyrics are not in the booklet; a bit sloppy.
Dolphin's Song is an up-tempo track with a great bass rhythm and a very pleasant guitar riff. The slower middle part has a strong early Genesis/early Marillion-feel (twelve-string guitars?) and is followed by a ripping guitar solo over a piano riff which strikingly resembles the one in Genesis' Carpet Crawlers. But that is not all; the keyboard player succeeds to draw attention by delivering a lovely Mark Kelly-like solo, which is very nicely backed up by the other instruments (most notably the drums). Great track!
The fifth track, The Last Dream, starts very quietly, but increases in both volume and intensity mostly thanks to the steaming guitar solo, which is played over another Carpet Crawlers-like piano riff. What I do find slightly annoying however, is the fact that Villanueva sometimes lashes into a whimpering kind of voice, whereas the lyrics do not really give reason to do so. This happens more than once in other songs as well and does give reason to believe that he is not always aware of exactly what he is singing.
Track 6 is a fast version of A Long Time Past and even though the atmosphere in the two versions is very different and therefore hard to compare, I do prefer this quicker one. Nice acoustic piano and undistorted chorused guitar underneath it all, some good work by the rhythm section, another pair of Rothery-like guitar solos and a keyboard bit in the style of Tony Banks's late-Genesis improvisations pretty much sums it all up.
The acoustic piano melody on Soul's Shapes reminds me of Elton John's Your Song for some reason. Again the Herbert Grönemeyer comparison surfaces for the singing (I actually thought Villanueva was singing "so schön" in stead of "soul's shapes" at first...), although it seems all band members are really trying hard to sound as much as Marillion as possible.
If you do not listen too carefully to the lyrics of The Frontier, you hear a very nice track. The music is really good and the vocals once more seem to be a cross between Fish in his early Marillion years (the ends of some sentences sound very much like Fish sung them in Grendel) and Peter Gabriel (the "aaah"s). Whenever there is some "space" in the music, Alex Chaneton makes his guitar howl in the way we know so well from Steve Rothery, while warm washes of strings flow from the keyboard.
The Secret Box starts with a section in which the tension is built up musically and then relaxes in a part which has a guitar riff in the vein of the one in Marillion's Warm Wet Circles from Clutching At Straws. The end section also causes some bells to ring in my head, but I cannot quite put my finger on where I have heard it before.
Just like the first three tracks, the last three songs form a continuous piece of music.
Heaven's Sound is a piece played on an unaccompanied classical guitar and therefore
brings Steve Hackett's solo track on Foxtrot, Horizons, to mind. Very subtle.
The end notes of Heaven's Sound flow into Aquatic Dreams, again a more up-tempo track. Here Villanueva's accent and his tendency to stress words wrongly are very prominent. This is sad since the music is quite enjoyable. The guitar riff in the intro is pretty much like the one in the beginning of Here Comes The Supernatural Anaesthetist from Genesis's The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway album. Also, there is some fitting "watery" keyboard playing on this track and some interesting bass work.
The title track of the album, Questions Inside The Picture, starts quite heavily (and very Arena-like), but - regrettably, in my opinion - that changes rather soon, although the part concerned does return. Surprisingly, this track contains a flute solo - probably played on the keyboard though, since there is no flute player listed in the booklet - which is taken over by another ripping guitar solo. After the music has decreased in volume for a few bars, the track - and with it the CD - ends a bit bombastic with horns (probably also played on the keyboard), making the overall sound more massive, before it fades out.
I think that Chaneton would be better off to write their lyrics in their native language
next time. But if they do indeed want to keep working with English lyrics, I would strongly
advice them to get some help at writing them from someone who is more fluent at the language
than they are. Apart from that, the singer would do well to take some English lessons. Maybe
this all sounds a bit harsh, but Chaneton's music is good and does deserve a wider audience.
It would be sad if that would fail only because of their poor knowledge of English.
If you are in for some very nice, though not very original, Marillion-esque music, and do not mind a language error or two (or three...), then you should definitely check this CD out. Especially those people who are into Pendragon, No-Name and, of course, (early) Marillion and Genesis might like this CD.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10 (mainly because of the music).
Moondaze - Seek After Venus
Seek after Venus is the first official release of the Swiss band Moondaze. While Switzerland is not a country usually associated with progressive music, this is undeniably one of the best mixtures of elements of progressive metal with prog and art rock I've heard this year. The band's line up is made known only by their first names: Manu (vocals, keys), Mac (guitar), Reichi (bass) and Dave (drums). Music is credited to the band as a whole, Manu has written the words. Seek after Venus contains three previously unreleased tracks.
Singer Manu's vocal intonation and melody lines in the brooding song Got Used To It are at times very close to Geoff Tate, like in Suite Sister Mary. This track has splendid guitar work by Mac, both subtle chords and harsher strokes, and two lamentful guitar solos as centre pieces. Sound fragments from a railway station are used to create a setting to the lyrics, the thoughts of a man becrying his fate on a train. When the song seems to have reached a powerful climax, subtle guitar chords return, after an anticlimax's momentary silence invoking the sadness of this individual.
The eleven minute song 3rd November packs so much material and diverse themes, that it could easily have been stretched into a short concept album. It starts with a wallop with double bass drums, guitar riffing. Manu comes to grips splendidly with some difficult vocal parts. Guitar does tend to get a bit overbearing at times. In the last third of the track the complex interplay of instruments yields to a spine-tingling melodic arrangement. Much attention has again been given to lyrics, which tell the tale of a man murdering his family in cold blood, after his wife has decided to leave him. This is also an attack on modern journalism, displayed with a dark sense of humour; after a news report on the family tragedy, the reporter continues: "Other than that, the weather today was warm and sunny"!
Like the first track Un-Coming is a melancholic song ("We seek after Venus while the world turns without us"), but it has its share of venom. This most straightforward of the three tracks still manages to surprise with a sudden mood shift halfway through, rivalling the melody of 3rd November's last section, but then edges its way back to the central theme towards the end.
Moondaze's music reminds me somewhat of German band Scenes in instrumentation, vocal melodies and the mixture of heavy prog metal with subtler progressive music, though the Swiss compositions harbour far more complexity. In this respect Queensryche's Suite Sister Mary again comes to mind as a good comparison. The greatest advantage Moondaze has over Scenes is the quality of singer Manu's vocals in comparison with Scenes frontman Hubi Meisel.
Thoughtful lyrics, great musicianship and a fair share of melodic and atmospheric rhythm and style changes. With these three tracks Moondaze show themselves to be a band that's set to reach a greater audience than they've so far attained. Production value is good and all band members come off equally well in arrangement. The artwork by Swiss photographer Pascal Richard doesn't really impress me, but fits the mood of the music.
One of the few minor points is that Seek after Venus is an EP with only 26 minutes of music. Enough to wet my appetite, but it left me wanting more! Let's hope a full-length album is in the making. An earlier release in 1997, the demo CD Life Will Live On, self-produced and self-mixed, did feature other material, so this shouldn't be to far-fetched a thought. Although Moondaze has been around since 1997, this 1999 album is the band's first official release, which makes it my belated pick for last year's best newcomer.
You can order this CD over the internet at CDBaby.com or directly from Dazed Music at this address: Kilchbergsteig 2, 8038 Zürich, Switzerland.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.