Reviews in this issue:
Thought Sphere - Vague Horizons
This is the second CD of the German prog-metal band Thought Sphere that I have the pleasure to review. Their first one, Eden's Shore, held the promise of a great sucessor. They don't really live up to this expectation, as they chose to turn into a rather different direction (although still maintaining their original musical identity). The result can be considered a second debut album, where the Gothic of the first album has made way for more mainstream rock.
The album opens with a melancholic keyboard piece, featuring a cheap string setting and a real violin (to compensate),
serving as an intro to both the album and the second piece, the prog metal track Like An Angels´ Choir, best
comparable to Queensrÿche during the Empire era. This is basically the style in which most of the
tracks on the album are written, deviating from their previous album Eden's Shore. This track contains some nice breaks
and is generally entertaining, with relatively good vocals and instruments. The guitar melodies are somewhat simplistic at
times, though, but the solo's are of sufficient level. The next track, Ascending, continues this style, but is less
interesting than the previous track. The track flows into Clouds Beneath , which starts with a splendid uptempo
saxophone solo (which returns in several places in the track).
These little extra accents give the album something special, which is also reflected in my final grade. Without these instrumental tricks, it would have been just an average prog metal album.
Edenquest has a catchy chorus, as do most of the songs. In that respect, they did not deviate much of their previous efforts, the chorusses still stick in your mind after a couple of listenings. The rest of the song is not too interesting. The title track is more interesting, fortunately. Still maintaning this Empire style, it is a good rock track, with a nice guitar middle section.
Pinions Ablaze is a bit heavier and more theatrical. This is more truly prog metal than the previous tracks and I like it better, therefore. Shadowweaver´s Realm is calmer, ballad-like, but also more proggy, with a heavy middle section. Now the album gains momentum: Tragic Kingdom has a funky bass line, and features different rhythms during the track (ehh, wasn't that what prog is about ;-) and many interesting gliding chord changes, giving it finally the feel of true prog. The album then quitens down on A New Beginning, which reminded me of the rather obcure U2 track Bass Trap (featured as a B-side of, I think, one of the Unforgettable Fire singles). It is a calm, melodic piece, where bass and guitar play together to create a calm moody atmosphere. The subtle saxophone and the jazzy melody only adds to this mood. It's a good thing they play the track through like this and not give in to the temptation of suddenly breaking into some heavy piece. They wait for that until the next track, Thoughtsphere 2000, a nice hard rock track, a bit Maiden-like, but with Dream Theater-like interludes (although not as complex). Then a short, quasi-classical piece follows to end the album.
In conclusion: as with the first album, it is in general entertaining, but although there is no bad track on it, there is also not a real highlight. Again diversity is lacking somewhat. Still, if you are looking for an album to play while reading or working, not too heavy and/or complex, this may be a good choice.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Alias Eye - Beyond The Mirror
Alias Eye was founded in late 1998 in Mannheim, Germany. Philip Griffiths
(vocals), Matthias Richter (guitar), Frank Fischer (bass) and Ludwig Benedek
(drums), who had together been playing covers, among which songs of Jimi Hendrix,
in a cover band for nearly four years, teamed up with keyboard player
Vytas Lemke. With joined interest in progressive bands like Spock's
Beard, Pink Floyd and Beatles, and a classical interest
in composers such as Beethoven and Bach, they decided to
go for a progressive approach of creating their own material.
Beyond The Mirror is the first result of this band, which was recorded throughout July 2000.
The album exists of only three tracks and opens with River Running.
A track which on first listening reminds me a lot of the Rousseau
material, which was featured on their 1988 album Square The Circle (recently
re-released through Musea). A light but very melodic keyboard sound, strong
rhythm section and a guitar part which is reduced to supporting chords. The
vocals are very good, even great to my surprise and remind me of Chuck
Dick (Tristan Park) and Dieter Müller (Rousseau). About
2:40 into the song a piano takes over the complete song and after a few
nice short runs on piano accompanied by bass and drums, the music changes
into a Beethovian piano concerto, which last for nearly two minutes. In
the end the music returns to the original melodic line.
Premortal Dance takes off like a piano/vocal ballad, with scrambled voice in the first couplet and normal in the second. After the second chorus the whole band joins in and follows in a part-singing chorus. A church organ with nice bass runs introduces the listener to a nice melodic guitar solo, a mixed style of Steve Rothery and Steve Hackett, which breaks the song.
The closing track An End In Itself takes off with low string samples and dark vocals of Philip Griffith. The string samples are soon replaced by the piano conduction, which leads into a nicely balanced guitarsolo. The overall approach of this song is that of a ballad with well chosen lyrics like:
It didn't make a sound; didn't have a story to tell
His story is proven wrong again"
The nice picture, designed by Jurate Batura Lemke, on the sleeve referes to this track, and is mentioned in the first couplet: "The image in the mirror and the I align"
The overall judgement of this album is that of a dominated keyboard - (strings ensembles, hammond samplers) and grand piano orientated progressive sound. The lover of relaxed progressive rock will be pleased with the approach of Alias Eye and will enjoy the three tracks. A surprising approach, because they don't sound like the bands they name as their influences. It's an album which grows on you. With it's sublayered music and thrifty guitar solos these tracks contain a certain charm, in which the echo of the German band Rousseau can be heard. Now and than supported by Marillion alike guitar stirs.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Various Artists - Un Voyage En Progressif
Musea Records have done it again! With this compilation, the fourth in the series, they have managed to fuse together a variety of styles and cultures from various bands that come from all over the world from afar as Venezuela to Luxembourg. Some names might be familiar but a couple of the bands are relatively unknown at least here in Europe and this sampler is an excellent hors d'oeuvre to what the bands offer as individuals.
The opening track is from French band Fugu with the track X-Fly which originally appeared on their debut album Harmonia Maudit. The group are composed of Philippe TroDsi (guitars) and Thierry Masse (keyboards), both originally with Eclat, and L. Bencini (bass) and Fred Pasqua (drums). This track as is their album is instrumental featuring some nice guitar interplay with keyboards. The guitar has hints of Steve Hackett at times though the basic rhythm of the whole album has a jazz-rock approach somewhat similar to Brand X.
Windchase take us back to the seventies with Horsemen to Symphinity, a track culled from their only studio album, Symphinity, released in 1977. The group is an offshoot of another classic progressive band from Down Under, Sebastian Hardie, due to presence of Mario Millo and Tovio Pitt. There is a sense of seventies when you listen to the mellotron and organ sound which is present throughout the track. Vocals are kept to the bare minimum and even when present are just a backdrop to the musical structure. On the other hand the track, as is the music of Windchase, is a very melodic softer vein of progressive rock somewhat similar to Camel. Originally a collector's item, this album was re-released by Musea in 1998 with this track present as a live bonus track.
From Europe to Australia to South America. Tempano are a well known band in their native Venezuela with their music bordering on the melodic jazz. At times I felt as if I was listening to a Pat Metheny Group track with the vocals singing along with guitar. Extremely interesting and soothing music.
Mario Millo has already been mentioned above due to his work with Windchase. Two years after recording Symphinity with the group (1979), he released his first solo album, Epic III. As with Windchase and Sebastian Hardie, the track features melodic progressive rock in the Camel and Yes vein. This track is one of the most relaxed on the album and could easily have been culled from the soundtrack of a film. In fact, at times I felt as if I was hearing a Mark Knopfler soundtrack!
Social Tension give us an insight to the Japanese progressive scene with Bolero. The group released two albums, Macbethia in 1989 and It Reminds Me Of Those Days in 1990. Musea have released the two albums on one CD under the name of It Reminds Me Of Macbethia. The group is effectively a trio of musicians playing a keyboard-driven style of progressive rock in the ELP vein. The group is led by Nobuo "Kodomo" Endoh, who has also played on the King's Board's album, and he plays all types of keyboards from piano to Hammond to Mellotron. In fact this track features an array of sounds yet its bombasticity is definitely a throwback to ELP.
Supper's Ready hail from Luxembourg and theirs is the first track on this compilation to feature true vocals, in that what is sung consists of lyrics! The music is smooth and delicate with a style in line with the soft-prog groups as Camel and early King Crimson at times, especially due to the flute solo which is reminiscent of Ian McDonald. The diction suffers a bit as the song is sung in English, which is obviously no their native tongue, but on the whole a pleasant unobtrusive track.
The Rising is taken from a 1992 album called The Rise And Fall Of Passional Sanity by Blezqi Zatsaz. Blezqi Zatsaz is basically the working title that Brazilian keyboardist Fabio Ribeiro gives to his collection of compositions. His is all the keyboard work together with a group of guest musicians. The music has a large amount of classical influences especially during the organ solo extracts, while at other times there is a hint of Neo-Prog. A nice fusion of classical and neo-prog which gives this track a modern sound, though the production could have been beefed up to give the track more of a kick as the bass and drums sound rather lame.
Next up is my favorite track of the album both in terms of melody as well as musicianship. Gerard are a Japanese band active since the mid-eighties that play a neo-progressive style of rock yet there is a certain touch to their music, maybe due to the double-bass drum effect, that also brings them in line with harder and heavier acts such as Dream Theater. The interplay between all musicians is fantastic yet they never veer into an overdose of individualism, keeping the momentum of this track going on and on. I'll be buying their albums! Recommended.
Compared to Catharina Parr, The Sight by Tempus Fugit is slow and mellow. This Brazilian band play in a very relaxed way with the keyboards creating that filler effect so much so that the music seems to be coming from all around you. Interesting and should appeal to Eloy fans.
Teknikolor are a French group led by keyboardist/bassist Patrick Chartol. The track presented here is probably not too indicative of what the group are really about. The music that they are known for portraying is progressive rock mixed with samples of classical music together with two female vocalists and a flute player. Unfortunately on this track, we only have a short keyboard instrumental which verges on the New Age, in that the track just creates an atmosphere and nothing else. A bit disappointing because I do not think that this track gives an insight into the work of this seemingly interesting group.
Chance is the work of French composer, Laurent Simonnet who practically plays and composes everything using his computer except for the guitars. for that he enlists the help of guests as Ronnie Stolt (The Flower Kings) and J.L.Payssan (Minimum Vital) to mention a few. This track is purely instrumental with hints of Camel, Yes and Pink Floyd. Never overpretentious, this track makes good and easy listening.
Kamen No Egao was the title of the Japanese Pageant's, second album released in 1987 and was a collection of E.P.'s that they had released earlier in the eighties. The version presented here is a flute version of the title track. One of the drawback's to the foreign listener is that he has to put up with Japanese vocals. On the other hand we are regaled with a Kate Bush-style female vocalist, Hiroko Nagai, accompanied by a symphonic type of progressive rock. There are hints of Renaissance especially due to the fact that apart from female vocals, the accompaniment is with a piano-led group.
On the whole this album features an excellent selection of musicians/groups from diverse cultures yet all unified under the banner of progressive rock. This sampler makes an excellent start for the buyer who is willing to delve into unknown territory yet is unsure where to start. What is definitely striking is the wealth of musicians that this genre of music has created, yet unfortunately due to the corporate running of the musical business are most are unlikely to make it big.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Various Artists - Le Meilleur Du Rock Progressif Japonais
It's funny but when I listen to music especially progressive rock, rarely do I consider the fact that this music is being played and appreciated all over the world. This sampler has opened a whole new world of progressive rock for me! I was aware of certain groups that hailed from Japan, but admittedly my collection is limited to very few albums and this compilation was an eye-opener with regard to certain groups. The tracks present here are taken from two distinctive eras in prog-history. The first half of the album has tracks penned and recorded in the late nineties whilst the second half of the album has tracks that were written in the mid-eighties when one could say prog was suffering a recession, though this does not seem to be the case with the Japanese!
The album kicks off with possibly one of the better known Japanese progressive outfits, Ars Nova and a track taken from their 1998 album, The Book of The Dead. Not only is the group impressive musically but are somewhat of a rarity in prog-circles in that the members are all female. The classical influences are clearly present as are those of groups like Triumvirat and ELP, yet, on the whole they make interesting and very good listening especially for those who have a leaning towards classical symphonic-prog instrumentals.
Whereas with Ars Nova, you might never have realized that the group is Japanese, the same cannot be said of Teru's Symphonia as here we have the first taste of Japanese vocals. The vocalist is a female by the name of Megumi Tokuhisa and possesses a rich Kate Bush-like voice which she has totally under control and manages to vary in power as well as dynamism. The music has a classical leaning with at times the group showing influences such as The Enid while at others they verge into neo-prog territory.
Motoi Sakuraba is also known as being the keyboardist for Deja Vu, who are featured later on in this compilation. There are no guitars involved in his compositions but just a trio of keyboards, bass and drums (ELP style). Though not as bombastic and lacking the Hammond sound that characterized many of Keith Emerson's compositions, there is a strong classical influence in his music with choir and string effects added in making this track an interesting listen.
Wappa Gappa are up next with Floating Ice taken from their 1998 album, A Myth. Theirs is the longest track on the whole compilation clocking in at over 10 minutes. Once again we have a female vocalist with an extremely soft voice, rather unusual for a Japanese vocalist, and the style is in the neo-prog vein with the track picking up tempo when there is a break in the vocals. A nice change but nothing to write home about.
Gerard are Japan's answer to progressive metal bands such as Dream Theater. A heavy sound complete with pounding double-bass drum, while the instrumental section are very tight, pacy and full of unexpected breaks in tempo giving the track that unexpected twist. A recommendation for those who like progressive rock with a metal edge.
On the other end of the spectrum we have Side Steps. Where Gerard displayed a quasi metal edge to their music, Side Steps are on the softer end of the musical spectrum. An ambient surrounding with soft delicate touches, this is the kind of music you'd want to hear when relaxing. There are no innovative techniques or ideas. Rock bordering on the easy-listening jazz.
Makoto Kitayama together with Shimatsu Project remains within the same musical sphere as Side Steps, in that the music is relaxing complete with string section. I have my reserves on whether this style actually falls within what you could call progressive, yet again the term progressive is a subject of contention, but this is more of a crooning song in Japanese.
Magdalena pose the same style of music as Makoto Kitayama. A bit perplexing as the first 5 tracks on the compilation were great but suddenly these last two have been disappointing. Nothing in terms of musicianship. Of course it is a bit difficult to judge a group or artist on one song only, but so far these last two have left me unimpressed.
Bellaphon at least show a distinctive progressive influence. Their music is instrumental and based on the Camel approach to progressive rock though the second half of the track has a lot of fusion influence. Nice interplay between keyboards and guitars but very little virtuosism. This track was re-recorded with the original version appearing on their 1987 album Firefly.
The track from Mugen, Venezia, was recorded on their debut album Sinfonia Della Luna in 1984 and features a classical based style of progressive rock somewhat similar to what you'd expect from groups such as Renaissance and The Moody Blues, or even the Enid, though nothing as complex. The group is based on keyboardist Katsuhiko Hayashi and vocalist Takashi Nakamura, who when recording utilize the services of various session musicians to augment the group's sound. If you can get through Japanese singing this track is very interesting especially the instrumental sections which are very keyboard based.
As its name implies Spanish Labyrinth courtesy of Outer Limits is full of Spanish influences. Spanish guitar, castanetas, and a flamenco rhythm immediately set the scene. The group are one of Japan's better progressive bands and come complete with violin which lends to a sound that is reminiscent of groups such as Kansas and UK. The whole setting of the song never varies from its titular influence. Extremely interesting, and a track which has aroused my curiosity sufficiently to make me want to try out some of the group's other material.
Deja Vu are a trio led by the already mentioned Maotoi Sakuraba. The intro is already bombastic enough complete with choral backdrop to make one realize that this group are ELP devotees while at times due to the use of the piano there are hints of Renaissance. On the whole a symphonic style of progressive rock.
Pageant close this compilation with a track from their 1986 debut La Mosaique De La Reverie. Once again the classical influence can be felt throughout with Hiroko Nagai's piano gives that Renaissance touch to the track, while her vocals are uncannily similar to Kate Bush. Their music features a pleasant balance of power and subtleness, on the whole a good track to close the compilation.
Hearing these groups I am left with a mixed feeling. Apart from two or three tracks present I was impressed by the Japanese scene of Progressive Rock, yet on the other hand very little in terms of novelty has been offered. True, I cannot generalize a whole musical scene by just listening to a compilation. Yet on the other hand I would have expected a collection of progressive rock from a totally different continent and culture to offer something completely different than what their European counterparts have.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Saga De Ragnar Lodbrock - Saga De Ragnar Lodbrock
Bonus tracks (16:33): Réveillez Vous Picards (1:56), En Regardant Vers Le Pays De France (2:24), Ballade Des Menus Propos (1:46), Lai Ou Rondo À La Mort (1:32), Ballade Pour Prier Notre Dame (2:57), Ballade Des Pendus (2:46), Ballade Finale (2:52)
Ooh, a highly remarkable album for me to review here... Originally released in 1979, this is a
French concept album on Northern mythology. No less than fifteen musicians contributed to the
recordings, which took place between 1975 and 1977 for one side (track 5) and in late 1978 for
the other side (tracks 1 - 5); the line-up had already changed by that time. According to the
Musea press info, I should pay attention to the lyrics, or poetry. First, my French is quite
bad. A translation would have been very nice. Second and more importantly, the lyrics to tracks
1 and 6 (and the bonus tracks, for that matter) are not included! I really think this could
have been produced a little bit better.
But the most remarkable thing about this album is the music itself. With musicians inspired, influenced and trained by jazz, classical, rock, and experimental music and some of them working for theatre, it's destined to result in something remarkable, don't you think?
The songs are like poems put to music. It's not that the music is in service of the lyrics,
it's the combination that counts. It creates a mysterious atmosphere, and not only because I
don't understand the lyrics. Listening to this CD is like attending a storytellers night. The
music is very open. Sensitive playing on bass, drums, and trombone for the deep sounds, provide
a fragile foundation for flute, guitar, synths, and mainly vocals. The music sounds classical
at first, but it's definitely more than that. It's not jazz either. It's a weird combination,
that sounds new, experimental.
The vocals are deep and mysterious, great for its purpose. At times, like in track 5, it's almost opera or choir-like. Very dramatic. It not only adds to the songs' atmosphere, it defines the songs' atmosphere. Narrator Oliver Proust has an even deeper voice, a stereotypical, cracking French voice, telling a story.
There's quite a difference between the first five tracks and track 6. As I said before, track 6 was recorded earlier and with a different line-up. And besides the obvious length, the music is somewhat different as well. It's more dramatic, grander. There's more time to let the music increase in power and decrease again, and it's definitely a lot more bombastic than all preceding songs together. I don't know why, but the word "baroque" comes to mind. The music on track 6 is less delicate, it has more power. There are very quiet passages as well, but after hearing the first five tracks, this is a bit of a thunderstorm at times. But when this was the first track, the others would not have been as interesting to listen to as they are now. It's simple: nothing could follow track 6.
The bonus tracks are some pieces François Proust performed for theatre. He played all instruments (mainly guitar and flute, but also bouzouki, drums, and keyboards) himself, so it's got nothing to do with the larger line-up of the band that recorded the original album. But I don't get the idea that band ever recorded something else together. The style of these bonus tracks do fit with the first six tracks, and that's why they make great bonus tracks. Like I said, mainly guitar and flute, and vocals. Less dark and mysterious, and nowhere as bombastic as pieces in track 6, but the feeling is the same.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.