Reviews in this issue:
Nick & Neal - Two Separate Gorillas Live in Europe
('From The Vaults' Volume 2)
Tracklist Disc 2: Mein Kleiner Grüner Kaktus (2:00), Strange World (4:30), June (5:30), Papa Was A Rolling Stone (12:50) (with Dream Theater), Strawberry Fields (3:30) (with Mike Portnoy on vocals), Baba O'Riley (5:40) (with Dream Theater), We All Need Some Light (4:30), Carpet Crawlers (4:30), Can't Get It Wrong (4:30), Lay It Down / The Healing Colors of Sound (7:40).
In July 1999 and July 2000 Neal Morse and Nick D'Virgillio of Spock's Beard went on a tour along some Irish pubs in Holland and Germany. At these concerts they played acoustic versions of songs by The Beard, as well as some covers of other artists and bands. The performances of these gigs - referred to as 'the Hairy Butt Tour' by Neal because the two had to share one bedroom - are very informal and tongue-in-cheek. Some of the songs played have been collected on Two Separate Gorillas, a title taken from the Spock's Beard song The Time Has Come. Neal plays acoustic guitar and keyboard, Nick plays percussion and acoustic guitar and both of them share the vocals.
The recordings come from three sources. Most of the songs come from a soundboard recording in Oldenburg. As you can imagine the sound quality is very good. Neverthless, almost all tracks suffer from 'skips' in the recording (little jumps in the music of less than a second) and because of the lack of audience noise the atmosphere is lacking a bit. The other tracks are relatively decent audience recordings (read: bootleg quality) where the music is of lower recording quality, but there is more atmosphere because the audience is audible. Because of the quality of the recordings the double CD has been released as part of Spock's Beard's 'From The Vault' series.
While listening to the Spock's Beard songs on the album it's very obvious what makes this CD special; the normally bombastic and full-blown Beard songs have been turned into more intimate, scaled down versions. Sometimes this works extremely well (e.g. Lay It Down/Healing Colours of Sound, Skin) while others take some time to get used to (e.g. the two parts of The Water). The only Spock's Beard song that sounds a bit disappointing is The Doorway because it contains quite a few playing errors. Then again, this is one of my favourite Beard songs so I might be a bit more critical here. The other songs range from good to great, with Can't Get It Wrong even sounding much better than its dull version on the Day for Night album.
The other half of the album consists of covers and spontaneous outburst like the Irish
Folk Song that Neal often sings for his kids and the German 'hollari, hollari, hollaro'-
filled Mein Kleiner Grüner Kaktus.
Among the covers on this album you'll find Nick D'Virgilio doing a splendid version of Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes (a highlight of the album), The Beatles' We Can Work It Out, and a U2 medley with Where The Streets Have No Name and Pride. Neal on the other hand treats us to a nice version of Marc Cohn's Ghost Train and a hilarious version of Genesis' Carpet Crawlers, while also playing We All Need Some Light of his own Transatlantic project.
A special treat for Dream Theater fans is the presence of that band on the long jammin' versions of The Temptations' Papa Was A Rolling Stone and The Who's Baby O'Riley. Unfortunately these tracks are all audience recordings. Another disappointment is the version of Stawberry Fields Forever with Mike Portnoy on vocals, which must be the most awful version I ever heard of that song. Portnoy is either drunk as a duck or a very bad singer. Guess you had to be there to appreciate it.
Although the CD comes with just a 4-page inlay booklet, it does contain some funny liner notes and live pictures by DPRP's very own JJ de Hann [sic]. Closer study of the packaging and CD prints reveals how Nick and Neal 'seemingly' arrived; by parachuting out of a WW II bomber plane and landing in the Dutch landscape which is of course filled with windmills.
If you are ... A) a Spock's Beard fan that ... B) can live with far from perfect sound quality combined with an informal and sometimes far from serious approach of the material played and if you ... C) like acoustic prog albums ... than this is a must have for you !
Conclusion: 8- out of 10.
White Willow - Sacrament
Sacrament is the third album from the White Willow repertoire, two years after the critically acclaimed Ex Tenebris. In two years there has been a total shake-up within the ranks of this group with only White Willow leader and guitarist Jacob Holm-lupo together with vocalist Sylvia Erichsen retaining their positions and Lupo being the only original member left. In come Brynjar Dambo on keyboards, Aage Moltke Schou on drums, Johannes Sæebøe on bass and Ketil Vestrum Einarsen on flutes. In fact in Lupo's words this is the first stable lineup that White Willow have had in their history so far.
What should one expect to hear on this new release? First of all the fact that there is a permanent flutist within the lineup is already suggestive of an acoustic sound. There is a heavy leaning towards the progressive folk style that is symbolized by Jethro Tull, with many neo-prog influences, especially as regards utilization of the keyboards, as well as pure folk. A quick run through of the band's biographies as well as their major influences quickly confirms this with artists like Nick Drake and Joni Mitchell being mentioned alongside prog-greats such as King Crimson and Soft Machine. In fact what we get on this album is a fusion of all the styles that these musicians represent.
Anamnesis kicks of this album and my first impression was that here was a Scandinavian band doing its best to emulate British folk-rock bands such as Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. In fact Sylvia Erichsen's voice is both rich and smooth; at times sounding uncannily like Sandy Denny or Maddy Prior. Only half way into the track does a certain momentum pick up with more of a prog-influence seemingly present. Erichsen's voice rises to a wail while the rest of the band are content to act as filler's in creating a backdrop for her voice. Even the instrumental passages remain soft and are interplays between the various instruments with neither musician overdoing it.
When seeing the title Paper Moon, I wondered if it was a form of tribute to the late Nick Drake, one of the major influences on the musicians in this group. Indeed Nick Drake must be the "Paper moon who came, and left too soon." On the other hand this track is much more intricate and features more than just a singer-songwriter and his guitar! In fact there is much less of the acoustic folky feel; we had been regaled to on the first track, with a sound bordering on the neo-progressive.
The Crucible is a true instrumental with the initial segments of the track having that medieval feeling courtesy of Einarsen's flute which takes over the reins of this track sounding somewhat like Gryphon or more lately Blackmore's Night. There is a dance-like touch to the rhythm here until half way through when the mood changes with the track picking up in dynamism to give a Jethro Tull feel to it.
Last Rose Of Summer, and I thought to myself that this was an album full of tributes (in this case Judas Priest), but I was wrong. What we have here is pure folk music. Sylvia Erichsen's voice is up there to compete with the best of British female folk vocalists, and here we even have a duet between Erichsen and Jacob Holm-Lupo.
Gnostalgia starts of in a similar vein to Last Rose with Erichsen sounding so
much like Sandy Denny that I got gooseflesh. What seems to be a White
Willow characteristic also applies here. Most if not all their tracks start off
in a soft gentle acoustic manner to suddenly break into a rhythm-driven
instrumental. The flute dominates this track during the instrumental section
giving that air of melancholy.
The Reach is in my opinion the best track that we have on the album. The introduction is dark and foreboding with a feeling of impending disaster or tragedy. Nursery rhymes are sung in a tragic manner until this is picked up by the musicians. King Crimson meets Jethro Tull is what we have here on offer. The vocals are kept slightly in the background making them hard to discern creating more of an air of uneasiness. With a mixture of styles and tempos this track is the masterpiece of the album.
With this album it seems that White Willow have set their course. This is one for the lovers of the softer side of progressive rock and/or those who like folk-prog. It makes a very interesting listen and augers well for the future. I can understand why The Billboard Guide To Progressive Rock has hailed White Willow as "one of the most significant groups of the progressive era".
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Maximum Indifference - The Transmutations Of Supposed Angels Or Beings That Were Once Girls
It's been a long time since I have heard a power trio managing to combine heavy metal guitar with progressive overtones. Finally my wish has been granted. Hailing from the Bay Area of San Francisco, The Transmutations of Supposed Angels Or Beings That Were Once Angels (abbreviated as Transmutations from now on) is the group's second album, a full four years after their debut. The trio consists of Mark Bladek (guitars), Rich Duarte (drums) and Gustaf Fjelstrom (bass guitars) who also is the producer resulting in a beefy sound rich in bass.
Beware The Glabyglop opens this terrifying album and is a synthesis of what the group is all about. Hard, heavy-kicking riffs accompanied by a roving bass and drums together with the occasional midi-synth effect. The riffs present on this album would make many a Heavy Metal band blush and pale in comparison to what we have on offering here. Comparisons are varied and difficult to attribute. At times there is the cutting edge of metal groups such as Prong whilst at other times the sound is reminiscent of early Rush.
What is definite is that the group posses a strong rhythm section that few bands can boast of. In fact the beauty of this group is their ability to convey virtuosism without any amount of self-indulgence. Yes, there are times when we get the occasional solo, but it is never too long to bore the listener yet long enough to impress!
Guitar riffs introduced Beware Of The Glabyglop while a tremendous bass line introduces Kuan Grade Mark Eleven Pennetration Program. Its hard to believe that all this is created by just three musicians and though I might be wrong, live they might tend to suffer a bit in that they could be unable to deliver the sheer power and force that they do in studio.
Jack Palance The Ninja has a lot in common with early Rush though the catchy riff is out of a Terrorvision tune, My Best Friend. Something that is also striking about this group is their ability to break from their hard hitting riffs and change melody and style within the same track almost effortlessly. Wedge Of Spite is a showcase for Gustaf Fjelstrom's bass playing which quite frankly is almost impossible to describe and HAS to be listened to to believe. Suffice to say that his idols are Geddy Lee and Stuart Hamm and his resume also includes playing with Enchant on their last tour.
Aura And Armament takes on a more relaxed style, just enough time to recover from the fury that we have witnessed in the first four tracks of this album. Swynchro immediately kicks off with some extricate drumming from Rich Duarte, who at times manages to sound like a cross between Neil Pearth (Rush) and Mike Portney (Dream Theater). Overall this track still maintains a Floydian approach to it, in that the emphasis is not so much on the rhythm but more on the ambient it is set in.
And Your Point Is? is more up-tempo yet still does not reach the heavy sound that the album started off with. Not that I am disappointed as it is on this track, as well as on the following track Client Weasel Tactics, that the group come closest to resembling the Rush of La Villa Strangiato. With the tempo steadily increasing from track to track so does the riffage presented to us by Mark Bladek as well as the intricacy of the interplay between all three of these musicians. Sleep Hammer slows down the pace once again, only to break into the fast moving Bad Mind Does Does Not which is similar in style and pace to what we were presented with in the initial tracks of the album, progressive metal.
The closing two numbers of this album are essentially one track. Halation is basically narration with the instruments and sound effects forming a backdrop to enhance the story that is unfolding. Apparatus closes off the album as well as the story and is a showcase for Mark Bladek's guitar. Extremely interesting, this track is a most excellent curtain closer for this album.
As I said initially, it has been a long time since I came across a totally instrumental album that has managed to grip me in such a manner. It should appeal to all those who love to hear instrumentals by groups such as Dream Theater and Djam Karet and is a must for all those who are in agony waiting for the new Rush album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Rick Ray - Mind Control Inc.
Have you ever experienced that sinking feeling Michael Corleone expressed so well in The
Godfather III? "Just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in!" If so, you
can imagine my sentiments when I recently recieved in the mail two new CDs from the American
musician and prophet Rick Ray.
Since joining the DPRP team in January, I've had the dubious pleasure of reviewing 11 Rick Ray CDs and two releases of Rick's (former) band Riot Act, none of which I gave a rating above 6 points out of 10. You can check out these reviews through these links: Atomic Soldiers, The Key to the Bottomless Pit, Rick's back-catalogue overview and Riot Act.
Rick has recentely cancelled his self imposed retirement from live performance and consequentely will be too busy to release any more albums in the near future. He has also joined the internet community and on his webpage you can read the following line: "Whether it's with the band Riot Act or solo Rick Ray material you can always expect something new from him." And this hits the heart of the problem with Rick's releases spot on. Because you can not expect anything new from Mr. Ray. Just more of the same! Granted, Rick does introduce a few new elements on these two latest CDs, but basically he keeps on repeating himself. Question is if it is really necessary that I too repeat myself with the same criticism over and over. I don't think so. Therefore I refer you to the earlier reviews for remarks concerning Ricks music in its totality. All points made there still stand. But lets get into the slight things Rick does differentely on these new releases.
Both CDs are a combination of purely instrumental and lyrics-driven tracks as on most Rick Ray CDs. Mind Control Inc. shows Rick experimenting with keyboards on a few tracks, and he makes interesting use of them on Looking All The Time. Clever use is also made of distorted vocals on the title track and Rick Schultz on Clarinet manages to add something here, instead of messing things up. Including its message of the dangers of psychiatric drugs, all this makes Mind Control Incorporated one of the best tracks on the album. Other tracks deal with a schoolboy ('Little Zomby') receiving messages in his head to kill his classmates (something Rick has written about before) and the Anti-Christ makes a brief appearance at the end of The Delusion. Some of the vintage Rick Ray guitar solos (here including the use of acoustic guitar) are quite good, but at times Rick regresses into showing off his talents instead of producing an interesting whole. Bass is handled more than adequately and Rick also seems to have progressed in his drumming.
Compared to the few pleasant surprises Mind Control Inc. had to offer, Guitarsenal is a huge let-down. Again we find Rick trying to incorporate keyboards more fully into his material, which does make his more recent material more interesting to those who favor progressive music. This album also has quite a few good guitar solos. But the tracks with lyrics are almost all rather weak love songs and Rick's vocals are just not up to the challenge. Schultz is again a major factor of annoyance. Some tracks just seem to go on and on without any real goal. Sound quality of this second CD is also a lot worse than on Mind Control Inc.. The track Taken Control sounds very familiar, but I can't be bothered to listen through all of Ricks earlier work to come to a comparison.
All in all Mind Control Inc. is one of Rick Ray's better releases, though it is inconsequential if you already own some of his earlier material. I never quite figured out if Rick is serious about the topics he writes about, but this CD features some hilarious phrases like: "Mind Control is the spiritual warfare that the biblical prophecy speaks of. Anyone who believes the lies from the media has already lost a major battle! Anyone taking psychiatric drugs is almost a casualty!" Guitarsenal, on the other hand, is a dissapointing CD and should be overlooked by all but the most avid Rick Ray fan.
I did notice that some websites on progressive rock were far more sympathetic to Rick than I have been and am, some going as far as to praise his musicianship or recommend his albums. So it occured to me that maybe I was missing something. But when I asked several of my friends, varying from more die-hard prog fans to country and jazz afficianados, to sample Rick's albums, it turned out they all shared my negative view or were even more critical, to put it mildly. Their attitude was consistent with my own first impression of Rick Ray, back in February, when I ridiculed the first album of his I reviewed. When the entire backcatalogue arrived and I had to sit through a small dozen of Ray's albums, my attitude softened somewhat and I sorted what I thought were the mediocre songs from the downright awful. Who knows, I may have been victim to some sort of sensory overload. I still enjoy some of Rick's work, but with these two albums he shows hardly any innovation or imagination, continueing on the road he has tred for years. That's his choice, but I personally hope getting back on the road will result in some new input to his music.
The year 2000 has seen a lot of good releases in progressive music. But for me, this past year will always in some respects remain the year of Rick Ray.
You can order all Rick Ray and Riot Act CDs at the Of Sound Mind on-line catalogue for $9.00 each or for $7.00 from Neurosis Records by cash check or Money order made payable to Rick Ray 20301 Ball Ave., Euclid, OH 44123 U.S.A.
Conclusion Mind Control Inc.: 5 out of 10.
Conclusion Guitarsenal : 4 out of 10.