Reviews in this issue:
Ozric Tentacles - The Hidden Step
Ever since doing the Ozric Tentacle Special early last year, the band's catalogue has had a special place in my collection. I've always found it a rather difficult to describe their instrumental music, which is unique in its style and sound. The biography that came with their new CD The Hidden Step put the finger right on it when describing it as follows: 'inspired by a myriad of music and musicians from Kraut-rockers Kraan to guitar maestro Steve Vai, from ethnic Arabic to electronic techno, from Hendrix to Hillage, Ozric Tentacles' music is a fusion of sounds, styles and genres that cannot be categorised nor plagiarised, such is its complexity.'
In their 17 years of existance the band has played to a diverse audience ranging from lovers of space-rock, dub and psychedelica to house and techno ravers. That should already give you quite a good idea of their music. Personally I don't care much for contemporary techno/trance music, but the Ozrics offer what most of these bands are missing: great guitar playing, real drums and fascinating compositions.
The Hidden Step is the band's 16th (!) studio album in their 17 years of existance. A stunning accomplishement,
especially considering the fact that the band went 'independant' again on their own 'Stretchy'
label after a seemingly bad experience with Snapper Music, who released two CDs with Ozric music
which are not endorsed by the band.
The current line-up conists of founder Ed Wynne (guitars, synths and samples), synth player Seaweed, Rad (drums and percussion), Jumping John Egan (flute) and bassist Zia Geelani.
So ... is it very original ? Well ... yes and no. Yes if compared to others, because Ozric Tentacles have their
very own style which stands apart from every other band and type of music. But no if compared
to themselves; the Ozrics have created their own style years ago and have sticked to it ever
since. As I've said before, if you've heard one Ozric album,
you've heard them all. When hearing the average Ozric song I wouldn't be able to tell you from which album
it came, let alone what the title is.
Nevertheless, what makes this album special is the fact that, in contrast some of the earlier albums, this album contains all of the best sides of the band; splendid compositions that combine the best elements of old classics. Whereas other albums like the recent Waterfall Cities had their ups and downs, this new album never gets boring. No unnecessary long ambient dabblings but mainly highly energetic uptempo stuff with lots of rhythm and mood changes. The album especially works very well when played loud in the car while your in a very 'up' mood (if you know what I mean).
Even more so than previous albums, this new one has a very Middle-Eastern, Arabian vibe. Not only
the artwork with the pyramids, Egyptian cat, pictograms and camels breaths this atmospehere, the
music of most of the songs does as well.
The album is a perfect mixture between guitar dominated (Holohedron, The Hidden Step and Pixel Dream) and synth dominated tracks (Ashlandi Bol, Aramanu and Tight Spin) plus a 'the spaciest track Ozric Tentacles have ever recorded', Ta Khut.
Holohedron is an uptemp track that incorporates elements from such classics as Sploosh and
Dissolution. The first half contains berserk guitar playing, while after a break with
atmospheric keyboards a pumping bass and weird synth effects continue.
The Hidden Step starts as hypnotically as Eternal Wheel and once the energetic basis has been laid down, guitar and a very heavy bass line are added. More atmospeheric keyboards in the second half.
Ashlandi Bol has a very Eastern-sounding string synth and flute sounds. The only guitar in this track is some supporting acoustic playing. The track also features a drum break with weird sound samples.
Armanu is a synth-only track including sound effect that create the atmosphere of an Arabian bazaar, while Pixel Dream brings us back to Ed's amazing guitar play. This track also features a rather Porcupine Tree-like bass line and develops a very funky feel towards the end.
Tight Spin starts as an uptempo trance piece until heavy bass drum kick in during a
break halfway. The track gets more powerful from there onwards with an acoustic guitar playing
an Eastern melody and some great percussion.
As mentioned, Ta Khut is a very 'spacy' piece. It starts with some hypnotic flute playing and windchimes that could have come straight from Peter Gabriel's Passion. In the second half the flute is joined by percussion and acoustic guitar. The track ends with two minutes of tranquile keyboard soundscapes.
While the booklet is a disappointing 4 page thingy - then again, what did you expect ? lyrics ? - the CD itself is a wonderful picture disc with a guitar and keybaord shaped into a Yin & Yang sign.
All in all one of the best albums the Ozrics have ever released and recommended to both Ozric fans and people that want to check out their music for the first time. For some Samples, check out their homepage.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Tunnelvision - While the World Awaits
I was introduced to the music of Tunnelvision whilst writing a review of the sampler CD Progressive DisDURPance vol. 3 a few weeks ago. It featured the Tunnelvision song Reach the Moon which I thought one of the highlights of the album. Now for a look at the boys' debut album While the World Awaits.
Tunnelvision was formed in 1995 and from those earliest days only drummer Mirka Rantanen has been left. The search for a vocalist ended when Timo Kotipelto (Stratovarius) suggested Marko Waara (who has appeared on Stratovarius albums as backing vocalist). Soon after, Kari Tornack joined on keyboards. With a new guitar and bass player Tunnelvision released a three-song demo. But the shakiness of the line-up persisted. Again it was the guitar and bass players who needed to be replaced. Lauri Porra soon provided bass and Juhani Malmberg completed the present line-up on guitar. In the spring of 1999 Tunnelvision could finally start the recording of a debut album.
Before turning to the tracks, let's consider the bandmembers first. Marko Waara has a deep,
powerful voice, but he doesn't shy away from the higher notes, though this is where he at times
seems a bit pressed. In connection with this stands an at times unfortunate distortion of vocals,
that is usually most prominent in the choruses. This effect is also brought on by the use of a
sometimes far too overbearing backing choir. Interesting detail is that Timo Kotipelto
provides some of the (additional) backing vocals. Juhani Malmberg proves a very accomplished
guitar player, with some good solos and powerful riffs. Lauri Porra on bass also fares well,
but is often overpowered by guitar and drums kicking up a row. Nevertheless he provides the
solid backbone of the band and has some more personal moments, for instant going at it slap-bass
Mirka Ratanen's drums attain a pounding quality and while there's often not much glory to be gained by drummers in prog metal beyond making a hell of a racket, he succeeds in adding some interesting rhythms to various songs. At times drums do seem a bit overbearing, even more than usual in the genre. But in no way do drums rival keyboards in dominating tracks. Kari Tornack is without a doubt the busiest of this bunch, bringing so many alternating sounds to the fore it's at times hard to keep track of all the simultaneous melodies. It does tend to become a bit much at times, though never to the point of irritation.
As I stated in the earlier referred to review, Reach the Moon is a wonderful song, that may sound commercial because of its catchy melody and chorus, but at the same time it's powerful, with sweeping keyboard passages. Remains a favourite for me. The second track, Rebel, I find dissapointing. It's the kind of heavy metal anthem that's been much better done by other bands (with heavier bass this wouldn't be out of place on a Hammerfall CD). Here for the first time the weird distorted vocals appear and quickly become a blur, notably in the, in my view, rather awful chorus.
The next song, Masquerade, is much better. It has a nice Industrial intro and ending, the afore-mentioned slap-bass, and lots and lots of variation on keyboards, featuring both Hammond organ, high synths and Kevin Moore-ish background pastiches. Another Dream Theater comparison concerns the fast guitar play, that resembles John Petrucci. After the weak vocal performance in track two, Waara seems back on track. Not surprising, this track reminds me a lot of a DT song, namely Just Let Me Breathe. A fast rolling and catching song with a good chorus and some venomous lyrics.
The short instrumental Eternity serves as introduction to the ballad Empress. It's basically a solo performance by Tornack on keyboards. Start with synths, piano is used for the main theme, then high pitched synths return, before a fade out and the start of Empress. Though I called this a ballad, there's a big difference between verse and chorus. The verses are accompanied by sweet piano, while the chorus brings violent drums and guitar. The blurring of vocals in the chorus works better in this setting, but guitar is a too overbearing in these parts. All in all another good outing though. The alternate melody and rhythm of a middle section is very resemblant of Queensrÿche, both vocally and instrumental.
Days of Joy and Bliss is one of the three tracks that featured on Tunnelvision's demo release (with Rebel and Dive Down). Synths open, then fast drums and guitar intercept. Keyboards are more in the line of Derek Petrucci here, while the boys deliver another catchy chorus. Fine solo, first on keys, then on guitar. The warbled vocals return in Shapeless Visions, but this time around in the verses. Powerful riffs, but a bit dissapointing guitar solo. After some of the previous tracks Tornack seems a bit tame on keyboards. In the emotional After the Storm the vocals are fortunately especially good, because there's a lot of finely written lyrics. Waara's performance here brings to mind the vocal qualities of Geoff Tate. I've noticed I've been referring to Queensrÿche's vocalist quite a lot in recent prog metal reviews. Could this be a new trend where singers try to match Tate's accomplishments, now that the boys from the U.S. seem to have dropped the ball? Then again it may just be a personal thing.
Dive Down is another track with a catchy chorus. In Tears of Goodbye Tornack again puts in a show as he displays lots of different keyboard melodies and sounds, varying from Hammond and piano to high-pitched synths. Malmberg joins in the fun with a fractured solo, that'll have you do the old air-guitar bit. The limited edition bonus track Fractured Dreams is the real ballad on this CD, focusing on Waara's vocals and piano. A very good track, but a bit out of tune with the rest of the album. Not a bad idea to include it as bonus track! This is also the song where Waara gives us the best indication of the quality of his voice.
I find it's the talented keyboard player that sets this band apart from the main. Tornack is a self-proclaimed fan of Rick Wakeman, but his style is really more in line with other prog metal bands, notably the various DT keyboardists. All in all While the World Awaits is a good debut, but it has a few flaws that keep me from given it a solid recommendation. The warbled vocals, the crowded instrumentalisation or overbearing individual performances occur only at times, but do distract from the overall quality. Besides that it's a well produced album (self-produced and mixed by Mikko Karmila, who has also done work on Stratovarius albums) and the CD comes in a original package with fine artwork.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Natural Tension - Haitian Holiday
Haitian Holiday is the first album from this Atlanta, Georgia based band led by the Crocker brothers Jeff (lead vocals, keyboards) and Glenn (drums). The rest of the band consists of John Mays (Guitars) and Rus Moor (Bass). Moor has since left the band which is also intending to add another guitarist to the line up.
Describing their style of music is rather difficult as they show a variety of influences as well as play a varied number of styles. The foundations on which their sound is based is one of hard rock, however, the tracks show a complexity in both sound and structure to betray their progressive rock influences.
New Year's Eve immediately takes one back to the much missed Faith No More. Vocalist Jeff Crocker manages to mix both rap and rock styles when singing as well as in possession of a rich powerful voice. To add to dynamics he also introduces grunts and wails which further enhance the potency of this and other tracks on the album. Though the first track is purely hard rock Premature Speculation is extremely progressive starting off with a staccato riff of both keyboards and guitar accompanied by Crocker's screams. The chorus allows for Rus Moor to do his bass runs as he also does on Westernrise.
Slower and more melodic, Westernrise gives away the group's home base - Atlanta, Georgia. Collective Soul is but one of the groups to have come out of this state and it seems that groups from here have a penchant for writing good melodic rock tunes. Haitian Holiday displays the progressive influences with the group changing tempo on numerous occasions. At times they sound like Live yet then suddenly move in a completely different direction sounding sometimes like Echolyn.
The Art Song could be described of the last commercial FM friendly tune on the album. From then on we are regaled to good hard rock complete with changes in tempo with some excellent interplay between keyboards and guitar while the bass also veers off occasionally to give some interesting licks. Terminal is more up tempo with a nice instrumental introduction whilst Under Turnstiles and Most Likely To... are likeable rock tunes.
Half Of Nothing could be considered to be the best track on the album. The introduction has a delightful piano lick interplaying between the band's staccato riffs until leading into the main theme. The solo on this track features a guitar lick continuously played with the piano answering the whole band. A most enjoyable track and probably the direction that the band such strive to achieve.
Unfortunately this album is not available in most stores but can be bought from the Natural Tension Homepage. The group can be best described as a hard rock group with progressive tendencies which are not as prominent as in groups as Dream Theater, but like to indulge in various styles. I would advise those of you who are into groups such as Faith No More to give them a listen as they are interesting and with a bit of time and investment the future looks promising for Natural Tension. I look forward to their second album which will hopefully define the direction that they intend taking be it that of a radio-friendly hard rock outfit or of a progressive rock band. We'll have to wait and see!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Cross - Secrets
The progressive rock scene in Sweden seems to be pretty strong with groups like The Flower Kings, Galleon and A.C.T. One of the main men behind all this is Hansi Cross who together with his outfit has now released his seventh album under the moniker Cross. This group is difficult to categorize as they show influences of various genres of progressive rock. That they are progressive is never in any doubt yet they manage to fuse the classical progressive (70's) with the neo-progressive (80's).
Hansi Cross' intention when first getting together this band in the mid-eighties was to record three albums that would make up the Uncovered Heart Trilogy. From the original line up only Hansi Cross remains playing guitars, synthesizers and vocals. The remaining members of the trio are Tomas Hjort (drums, percussion), who had joined Cross for the 1994 tour of "III-Changing Poison Into Magic", and Lollo Andersson (bass, taurus), who had joined in 1997 and played on the 1999 album "Visionary Fools".
Bleeding In Silence opens the album and is probably the best track on the album. The song in itself takes its cue from the neo-progressive era with brief interludes of King Crimson sounding guitar. Hansi Cross' vocals sound too strained in certain areas of the track yet in the instrumental areas the group actually sounds quite good. Little One is just a moody intro leading into The Core which takes a lot from King Crimson with the guitar giving that abrasive sound accompanied by a persistent off-beat that is until the chorus is reached when we are back to run-of-the-mill neo-prog. Once again the instrumental section proves interesting with a nice keyboard interlude.
Awakening is an instrumental track. Interesting but probably due to the fact that both guitars and keyboards are played by one and the same person (Hansi Cross) there are no duets or responses between the two instruments. Instead we get a lengthy guitar solo followed by a lengthy keyboard solo to return to the guitar at the end. Changed Reality is once again a case of neo-prog based melody as is Pall Of Illusion.
The lengthy Welcome To Utopia closes the album. Due to its increased length we are regaled with a large amount of instrumental sections. Once again we have no ground-breaking material but the music in itself is pleasant to the ear.
It is always easy to criticize from afar but I feel that I should add that there are certain aspects which lack on this album which could have improved the outcome. First there is monotonous drone to the album because the keyboards seem to maintain the same sound and are used more as a filler to create a sort of atmospheric feel to the tracks. Any keyboard solos are in fact quite basic material. Vocals seem to be strained and sometimes lack that necessary verve to add dynamics to a song. Many of the ideas on this album are interesting and with a bit more expansion and work something good can be achieved. The expansion of the group beyond a trio of musicians could be an idea. As it is this album sounds like a half-baked affair, more like a demo-recording by a musician before the band decides to work on the ideas he has laid down.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Rockenfield/Speer - Hell's Canyon
Hells Canyon, Idaho. The deepest gorge in North America. The name alone seems food for the mind of the imaginative. And so it was for the duo Rockenfield/Speer, who have used the inspiration gained from this rocky crevice and the river that flows through it in writing their album Hells Canyon. An album with eleven progressive and ambient compositions, distinguishing themselves through fine guitar playing, luscious percussion, new-age style keyboard variations and extensive use of sampled vocal textures.
Hells Canyon is the result of a collaboration between two American artists: drummer Scott Rockenfield and instrumentalist and producer Paul Speer. What can we expect from this remarkable team up? I must confess I wasn't quite sure. The two have collaborated before, but I'm not personally familiar with these prior releases. They worked on the computer-animation video TeleVoid, for which they received a Grammy Nomination in 1998 for "Long Form Music Video." Prior to this, Rockenfield guest performed on the album Bridge of Dreams by Speer and David Lanz.
Scott Rockenfield is off course well known in progressive circles as the drummer of Queensryche, the once immensely succesful Seattle prog metal band, that in recent years has chosen a musical course that cost them quite a few fans. Paul Speer, on the other hand, was unknown to me before receiving this release. Upon inquiry it turns out this two times Emmy Award winner has released nine albums, mostly New Age or Ambient oriented music, some in collaboration with the aforementioned Lanz. Also he is a prolific producer, with over ninety albums to his name. Both Rockenfield and Speer hail from Seattle, but Speer grew up in Idaho, near Hells Canyon. Yet all this still doesn't reveal much about the project Hells Canyon. The music must therefore speak for itself. And what delightful compositions does this duo indeed have to offer.
Scott Rockenfield is credited with drums, percussion and keyboards (and upon inquiry I noticed he has done some keyboard work on Queensryche releases). There's an old joke that reads: "What do you call a guy who hangs out with musicians?" Answer: "A Drummer." With this album Scott Rockenfiels shows the fallacy of this with a performance that surprises, considering it's alternative nature compared to his usual hard edged work. Paul Speer plays guitar, bass guitar and keyboards. Speer shows himself not only to be an accomplished musician, but also delivers an excellently engineered package, with the help of Steve Carter. Extensive and excellent use is made of Spectratonics Symphony of Voices CD-ROM product; a four CD collection of multisampled male and female voice textures, described by the producing company as "Enya-esque".
Paul Speer's guitar work is a mixture of different styles, fast and metallic in tracks like Seven Devils and Coyote, smooth and hypnotic in Chant of the Fathers and Snake Dance, and mixing the two styles in China's Last Stand. Fans of Mike Oldfield and David Rhodes (best known for work with Peter Gabriel) take note! Rockenfield provides the rhythmic backbone with controlled drums and percussion with stylish use of cymbals. His top-notch acoustic performance is miles ahead of the usual new-age/ambient drum-computer generated percussion, which often spoils those musical styles in my book. A bit more work might have been put into the bass parts, which haven't come off too well in final engineering. They sound somewhat unclear, an effect that becomes truly audible when fiddling with the bass and trebble.
In many ways this is a concept album, the music depicting the atmosphere of Hells Canyon and some historical occurences in its vicinity. Paul Speer has written liner notes to accompany the tracks, describing the mood or event the duo seeks to convey. Crossing to Freedom was inspired by the fate of a Native American tribe, which crossed the canyon, seeking security across the Canadian border, but was taken captive before reaching their destination. In China's Last Stand the scene depicted concerns the massacre of Chinese gold miners, who were robbed and shot by horse thieves. Yes, the name of the canyon seems indeed well chosen!
While I've heard some good instrumental albums this year and have been introduced to plenty of heretofore unknown prog bands, this release seems likely to the top the charts this year as far as instrumentals go. It's really no use to elaborate further on individual tracks. This album has to be experienced as a whole entity, not as a collection of lone musical sequences. Highly recommended if you like the instrumental pieces of The Alan Parsons Project or some of Mike Oldfield's work, notably Oldfield's The Songs of Distant Earth (which I consider one of his best albums).
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.