Reviews in this issue:
Violet District - Terminal Breath
Tracklist Bonus CD (Live at Feierwerk): Necessary Goodbyes (5.39), Capillary Action (10.20), Lustreless Fright (5.57), Ego (The Hiddened One) (0.54), Hommage to the Irretrievably Lost (9.19), Principles of Alternation (12.51), Down and Away (9.30).
After playing under the name of Incubus (no relation to Marillion) for a while after 1988,
the band from Freising (near Munich) changed their name to Violet District. The band sought a style
that paid tribute to bands like Pink Floyd, Marillion and Yes. This eventually resulted in the
recording and release of their debut album Terminal Breath in 1992. This self-financed concept
album about the life of a human being from birth till death - not very original I might add -
received very positive reviews in publications like SymInfo, Paperlate and Rock Hard.
While the band underwent several line-up changes, a second album and potential record deal with BMG Ariola never came to be because the enthusiasm of the two leading musicians (Karlheinz Wallner & Mischa Schleypen) suffered under these circumstances. The band split up in 1997.
Three of the band members have since joined two other musicians in a band called RWPL, which is currently finishing a new album.
Now, eight years after the original release, the German Tempus Fugit label re-released the album on double CD. Not only does the original Terminal Breath album feature two outtakes that had not been on the original version (Anguishes of a Scoundrel and Together We Fall), but the bonus CD also features live versions of 5 tracks from Terminal Breath plus two 'new' 10+ minutes new tracks (Capillary Action and Principles of Alternation), all recorded at a gig in Munich in 1996. These interesting extra's should make this remastered re-release also interesting for those who already have the original.
The studio album features the follow musicians: Mischa Schleypen (vocals & keyboards), Karlheinz Wallner (guitars & backing vocals), Giselher Richter (keyboards), Chris Postl (bass) and Christian Brenninger (drums).
The vocals of Schleypen lie somewhere between those of the singer of The Scorpions and
the vocalist of Dilemma. It takes a while to get used to his powerful and raw approach,
but eventually I found myself enjoying the vocals. The infamous German accent is never extremely
present or annoying either.
After a Floydian start with changing radio channels Lustreless Fright turns into a
nice emotional ballad. The song features some nice guitar an keyboard solos and the second half is
a more dark and menacing piece that includes eerie panting and whispering. This nice opening of the
album flows into the short Ego, which is an atmospheric mood piece not unlike some of the
short songs on the second half of Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime.
Anguishes of a Scoundrel wasn't on the original album, which really surprises me because I find it one of the highlights of the album. Great vocal melodies, powerful and bombastic arrangements, nice tempo and melody changes and very emotional.
The album continues with the marching drums and guitars of Hommage to the Irretrievably Lost.
The first part (The Lost) is formed by a guitar solo in which the instrument is unfortunately
rather low in the mix. A vocal section follows (Here and There). The song features some
great (Rickenbacker ?) bass playing and a lot of drawn out vocals. The third section (Hommage)
is another great guitar solo. It eventually ends with the marching drums & melody again. Nice stuff !
Assurance starts out as another ballad with acoustic guitar. After nearly two minutes the second part (Incomplete Tableaux) follows, which is another highlight on the album. A repeating two-note piano melody and synth effects are accompanied by some delicious fretless bass playing, later joined by drums. This would not have been out of place on Nolan & Mann's Casino album. After a false climax the song picks up again with an added guitar solo (again, unfortunately low in the mix). The third part of the song (A Certain Sequel) continues the ballad of the first section.
For some reason there's an annoying 20 second silence before the next song kicks in. Maybe this is
done to make the impact of that song more powerful, because it hits you quite unexpected.
Together We Fall is another track that wasn't on the original album, and again this is
another highlight. It is a very well mixed, energetic rock instrumental. Great keyboard and
guitar solo's; imagine Mark Kelly and David Gilmour getting it on together. The main melody of the song
is just brilliant ! What were they thinking when they left this off the album !?
Necessary Goodbyes reminds me of Jadis a bit. It's a wonderful atmospheric mid-tempo song.
Age Theme is a short instrumental with a guitar solo again mixed in the background.
The Age is a very accessible, almost radio-friendly tune that reminds me a lot of
Marillion's No One Can because it uses roughly the same guitar line.
Down and Away sounds more IQ-like. It starts with a rather Holmes-like solo followed by a vocal section. Next up is a rather Camel-ish section with great fretless bass and guitar, while a new vocal section with interesting drum patterns that could easily have been part of a song like The Narrow Margin closes the first section of this epic.
The song continues with a rather Marillion-like section including samples of what sounds like TV presenters and a screaming eagle (like in Jeff Wayne's Spartacus), while a killer guitar solo is played. A lot of other amazing things happen in this section, too much to describe here.
Another quiet section with washes of keyboard chords follows, still accompanied by the eagle-like sound, ending the track in a Shine on You Crazy Daimond part 9-like way.
What a marvellous track ! Magnificent is the right word.
The lyrics are quite poetic and sometimes very vague not unlike the early lyrics by Fish. I'm not 100% sure
if they really make sense or not, but they certainly flow well with the music. If you want to
study them, they're all printed in the colourful 12-page booklet.
Taking into account that this is a self-financed debut album the whole production and sound quality is remarkably well. Sometimes the balance between instruments could have been slightly better, but this never becomes a major problem.
To hear for yourself, visit the Violet District Homepage for some sound samples.
The bonus disc features great live versions of Necessary Goodbyes, Lustreless Fright, Ego,
Hommage to the Irretrievable Lost and Down and Away from the Terminal Breath
album. They are played very well, but one or two song may sound a bit bare compared to the studio versions
(especially the Here and There section of Hommage ...). The reason for this probably lies
in the fact that by this time the band didn't only have a new drummer (Thomas Rockemann) and
bass player (Thomas Flakner), but where also missing the second keybaord player they had in
the original line-up.
The Hommage section of Hommage to the Irretrievably Lost features a nice extended section, while the instrumental end section of Down and Away has been shortened by almost four minutes (a shame !).
Although Principles of Alternation is listed as being almost 13 minutes long, the last two minutes are actually filled by an intro tape featuring a ticking clock, the 'eagle sound' and some keyboard chords that eventually burst into Down and Away.
The sound quality and playing by all of the musicians is splendid.
The two extra tracks on the live album, Capillary Action and Principles of Alternation, are interesting as well. Full of power and splendid musicianship. It's a shame the band got disbanded and a second album never saw the light of day. Especially Capillary Actions amazes me; what a powerful song and how flawlessly played ! Principles of Alternation still sounds a bit like a 'work in progress' though.
The music of Violet District reminds me of a lot of bands. There's an occassional bit of Pink Floyd,
but the references to bands like Marillion and IQ seem more obvious. Other bits remind
me of specific tracks by Arena, Jadis, Shadowland and Casino. If you
like these bands and are intruiged by the above review, go and get your copy of Terminal Breath
now ! You won't be disappointed. This album has all the rights to sit next to the other classics
of the nineties.
If you already own the original version of Terminal Breath there's more than enough extra stuff on this 2CD set to justify a re-purchase !
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
I come in value packs of ten (in five varieties)
... a line from the lyrics of Porcupine Tree's Piano Lessons ...
Although it's rather rare, some prog rock bands do release CD singles. As you can imagine, this often comes as an attempt to get a specific song in the hit charts. As history has told us many times, this is normally bound to fail. So sometime in the early nineties the record companies thought of a new trick. Let's release two or even three versions of the CD single, each with previously unreleased songs or special versions of well-known songs. The fans will go out and buy all of this stuff because they want to have the rare stuff and each purchased CD counts once as a sold item. Get it ? All you need is a couple of fans and multiple versions of a CD single to sell a lot of the same song and (maybe) get it in the charts. Once it's in the charts the radio stations will have to play it and more people will get to know the band's music. Brilliant, isn't it ?
No it isn't.
Marillion/EMI tried it in the mid nineties and Porcupine Tree/Snapper are trying it now. The attempts normally fail and the fans end up coughing up a lot of cash to buy all the CD singles. Let's compare: normally a CD would cost 18 - 19 Euro (in Holland) and you would get at least 45 minutes of music, lets say 40 Euro cents per minute at most. A CD single normally lasts 10-20 minutes and costs about 7 Euro. But wait, you've already got the title track on the album ! That leaves you 5 - 15 minutes of new music, say 70 Euro cents per minute. So, is that rare material worth almost double the price of the normal CD ? Most of the times it isn't. You'll get a live version that's almost similar to the studio version or a track that did not make it to the album because it wasn't good enough. But strange enough you end up paying more for a lower quality track.
All in all a rather dubious practice at the expense of the fans.
In this issue of the CD reviews column we will review three CD singles that were released in the past year and will tell you if they are worth chasing. We will try to do more of these in the future, if we get the chance.
Porcupine Tree - Pure Narcotic
The version of Pure Narcotic is an edited version of the one that appears on Stupid Dream and has been shortened from five to three and a half minutes. Probably more compact and therefore more appropriate for radio play, but certainly not an improvement since the characteristic build-up of the original has been completely destroyed.
The live version of the instrumental Tinto Brass was recorded in Southampton in April 1999. The most interesting thing about this version is the great freaky stuff on the wah-wah guitar pedal in the first half of the song. The rest of the song is quite similar to the album version. Unfortunately there is less contrast between the more peaceful sections of the song and the heavy guitar riffs than on the album version. Nice but not essential if you already have Stupid Dream.
Door to the River is probably the result of a free formed jam session or improvisation like the band also used to do a lot during the Signify period (Light Mass Prayers on that album originated from some of these sessions). The track appeared on the Insignificance limited edition cassette that was given away with a subscription on the Porcupine Tree Newsletter. The track was originally improvised in the studio in 1996 and later re-composed with added piano, lead guitar and processed bass. I personally don't care much for these melodyless tracks that don't seem to go anywhere. Door to the River is no exception. Imagine drummer Maitland playing some random drum patterns while Richard Barbieri makes some of his characteristic weird synth noises. Some of the bass playing and lead guitar are nice but the track just drags on slowly without ever getting exciting.
All in all, the CD single of Pure Narcotic has - unlike the one for Stranger by the Minute (another single release from Stupid Dream) - nothing interesting to add for those who already own the album. Unless you're a Porcupine Tree completist, this release does not come recommended.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
Porcupine Tree - 4 Chords That Made A Million
4 Chords That Made A Million is exactly the same version as the one on the Lightbulb Sun album. Although the single charted in the UK at no. 84 in the singles chart, the song didn't get much air play because the radio stations didn't consider it to be as melodic as previous Porcupine Tree singles. I have to agree with them that songs like Stranger by The Minute, Pure Narcotic and Paino Lessons are a lot easier to 'digest' for the untrained ear than this in-your-face rock track.
What should make this CD single interesting though are the two additional tracks. And this time they're damn fine ! Disappear starts as a nice acoustic ballad in the vein as Nine Cats. After about a minute organ joins in. In the chorus guitar chords and additional backing vocals by Steve Wilson are added, soon followed by some fine jazzy drumming. After this build-up the song continues and more great close harmonies and backing vocals follow. After two and a half minutes the drums go into a more straightforward pattern, bass joins in and the track gains power until it suddenly ends after slightly more than 3 and a half minutes.
In Formaldehyde is a more dreamy tune that also reminds me of some of the tunes on Signify. Vocals alternate between up-front modest vocals and slightly distorted, more powerful vocals. At times the two can also be heard simultaneously. The last one and a half minute are filled with one of those delicious Wilson guitar solos. Only disappointment: the song fades out !
Both songs follow the same themes as the songs on Lightbulb Sun. And as far as I'm concerned they are good enough to have been included on that album. They certainly fit very well with the style of the last two Porcupine Tree albums. If you come across this CD single or can still order a copy from Delerium's Freak Emporium and if you didn't mind paying an extra buck for these nine minutes of music, do make sure you get it !
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Dream Theater - Through Her Eyes
Any 40 minute single release by Dream Theater is enough to grab the attention of any DT addict, but when the disc is known to include live versions of one of their latest and best songs and a compilation of tracks from the first two albums, you know some money is going to be drained from your wallet.
I'm not even going into the reasons for DT (or their record company!) choosing a ballad as a commercial single release, but I don't think this was the most logical song to choose when you consider the lyrics, as it is too closely tied to the storyline of the album. The Spirit Carries On would probably have been a better choice, as it stands better on its own. I do consider Through Her Eyes to be the better song overall, with it's obvious references to Roger Waters with the female vocal intro and it's style of guitar play.
The two alternate versions of Through Her Eyes this disc contains are disappointing. The intro has been cut from the radio edit which thus misses the wonderful vocals of Theresa Thomason. The remainder is a exact copy of the album version. The alternate album mix adds half a minute to the song, retains Thomason's intro and adds alto sax by Jay Beckenstein, which replaces guitar and vocals in the last part of the track. An interesting variation, because of the alto sax, but it doesn't quite live up to the original album track, which I have to rate the definitive version.
The two live tracks were recorded at Ancienne Belgique in Brussels, Belgium on November 12th 1999. The live version of Home starts off splendidly, but it soon becomes obvious that James LaBrie's vocals weren't top notch that evening. He manages to struggle trough. Great perfomances on instruments, most notably by Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci.
The second live track, When Images And Words Unite is a medley of five songs from DT's first two albums, which are of course When Dream And Day Unite and Images And Words. It features the songs Pull Me Under, Under A Glass Moon, A Fortune In Lies, Only A Matter Of Time and Take The Time. Of these the first and last were also on DT's 1998 live album Once In A Live Time.
From the very first guitar chords this track lives up to its promise. LaBrie's vocals are fine at the start, then deteriorate throughout. At one point he actually has to ask the crowd to "help him out." And though it's great to hear him perform tracks originally sung by Charlie Dominici, it's telling that in these parts of the medley he has the most difficulty. But if, like me, you can't help but scream along with the lyrics, this should hardly be an inconvience. Nothing remains to be added about the performance of the other band members. This isn't THE prog metal band of the nineties for no reason!
In summary, this over 40 minutes long release has enough appeal to make it a must have for die hard DT fans, if only for the live tracks. The alternate versions of the title track remain to close to the original or deviate from it in ways that do not improve upon it to have made it interesting enough without the live material. A Japanese version of this single has also been released and it contains yet another track, a radio edit of Home, as well as photos from live performances. I recommend you'll keep an eye out for this set. Unfortunately I always seem to find out about these things after I've bought the standard version...
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Ironware - Return Of The King
Return Of The King is a demo CD by a Swedish power metal band consisting of Pasi Humppi (vocals), Niklas Möller (guitar), Stefan Andersson (guitar), Freddy Zielinsky (bass) and Håkan Strind (drums). Although the band has some potential it seems far too conventional and far too often goes for speed rather than strong melody lines.
Man Of Hope, which opens the demo, has a promising (if not very new) beginning and Humppi's vocals are quite good, though a times a bit too much like screeching. It is classic heavy metal, but not really innovative, and even at their best the vocals do not really get to me. It is not bad, but I have heard it all before. I also think that it is a big minus that the track ends with a fade out.
Sanctuary is a definite show off in speed, which in the long run I find pretty boring. It is possible to use speed to build up a good song, but Ironware does not really manage to pull it off. I do really like the small Iron Maiden-like guitar intro to the chorus. However, when the best part of a song is something which sounds as if it comes from someone else, I believe that a certain scepticism is in order. In spite of the fast tempo and the fact that it is a pretty short song it seems very long. Humppi's vocals are not at all impressive on this track and I think he has a potential for much more than this.
Return Of The King starts off promising with a quiet piano and really good vocals. After roughly a minute the strong melody is thrown out and replaced by speed. The chorus makes me think that I have accidentally gone back to the previous track and I cannot help but wondering where Humppi's promising vocals went. Some parts are still good, especially the beginning as stated, but on the whole the track simply never really gets that interesting.
From Deep Inside shows some more potential. There are some nice keyboards and a lot of the track is leaning towards a calmer and heavier rather than speeded sound, even though some pretty fast parts are in it, and they are the most unoriginal ones in the song. This could be the best track on the demo even though there are some better parts in other songs.
On the whole, I do not feel that Ironware is truly ready to step up from the demo stage to a proper album release. Sure, there is potential, I will not deny that, but the material is simply too much of a boring rehash of what we have already heard before. The band still needs to find the Ironware sound and also a way to make better use of Humppi's vocals. At the moment they show some promising glimpses, but it takes more than glimpses to convince me. As for the musicians, there is nothing wrong with their performance as such. The band only needs to create some more innovative material and, at least to some extent, go more for stronger melody lines instead of speed. Speed will inevitably bore the listener if it isn't backed up by a strong melody.
Conclusion: 4,5 out of 10.
Riot Act - Live At Suma
The last review update featured a selection of albums by Rick Ray, the Ohio based musician. Ray releases all solo CDs on his own Neurosis Records label, but the catalogue also includes two albums by his (former) band Riot Act: Live At Suma and Maniacal Disathrope Tour.
The life span of Riot Act covers the years 1990 until 1996. Originally founded as a collaboration between Rick Ray (guitar, guitar synth and vocals), Jack Ambrose (bass and vocals) and Gregg Davidson (drums), different contributors came and went through the years. The most important change in the line up saw Davidson replaced by John Cek on drums; Cek also added his vocals to those of Ray and Ambrose. Ambrose did not participate in the band in a period between 1991 and 1993, so Ray seems to have been the only permanent member.
Rick Ray released Live At Suma on the Neurosis Records label earlier this year, but it is labelled a re-release. An earlier release date appears to have been 1996, but I'm not sure about the format of that release. The songs were recorded 'live' at the Suma recording studio in Painesville, Ohio in December 1995 with the most familiar line up: Ray, Ambrose and Cek.
The Riot Act albums show a lot more variation than Ray's solo releases. Let's state right here that the music can hardly be called progressive rock by anyone's standards. Basically these albums are included in this review section because of the participation of Rick Ray in Riot Act. The earlier Rick Ray release Looking Into The Past featured a very good version of Fanfare For The Common Man by Riot Act, but Ray's solo work is closer to ELP material than this band's material.
Live At Suma includes several good rock songs. In Time For Another Plan the band members interchange lead vocals to good effect. Out of Hand has some good melody shifts (although the vocal rhythm remains the same throughout) and eases from heavy guitar rock to subtler bass and drums oriented pieces with a knock-out guitar solo to boot. There's also a good deal of variation between tracks, with knock-out (almost punk) rockers like The Voices, the more melodious Time Forgotten and the mellow Cut Yourself Loose. Live At Suma includes no exclusively instrumental tracks, which are much more favoured by Ray in his solo projects.
I cannot blow the trumpet of praise exclusively; there are some reservations. First of all, the sound quality isn't good; there's an awful lot of white noise. This must partly be the result of the album being a 'live' studio recording. This in turn does add to the genuine character of the performance, and admittedtly, the handling of instruments in these sessions seems near flawless. But in the end some tracks turn out as somewhat of a mess dominated by heavy bass and guitar chords floating in and out of focus. As to the character of these tracks it is best to refer to a quote from Ray himself concerning Riot Act: "A 3 piece that could make more racket then a hunderd." Indeed.
The rerelease of Live At Suma led to the recording of a new album, Maniacal Disatrophe Tour, from Januari to March 2000. It wasn't the first reunion of Ray with Ambrose and Cek. Both appeared on his 1999 release Clone Man, though only vocally. The already mentioned Rick Ray release Looking Into The Past, also from 1999, featured some Riot Act tracks, recorded from 1992 to 1994.
Overall the sound quality of Mainiacal Disathrope Tour is better than on the previous album. Hardly any white noise. But vocals and guitar come of too overbearing in end production and Ambrose's bass doesn't carry the same weight as on Live At Suma. Instead the guitar solos (sometimes very good, as on Bonnie The Clyde) come off best. And guitar synths are used to good effect on some tracks too.
Again some fine variation between songs, with the quieter compositions She Could Win A Reward, Good To Be Here and Thinking About You are the stand-out compositions. The best may well be They're Only Words, which shifts from a typical Riot Act 'ballad' to a groovy instrumental with bass, percussion and guitar in perfect unison.
It may be due to a recent overload of Rick Ray CDs, but most of my favoured tracks feature the vocals of Cek or Ambrose. As on the previous album I remain in the dark as to which of these two sings a specific track. A lot of the songs, for instance One More Lie and The K.G.B. Is After Me could easily have appeared on Ray's solo albums, which to me seems to indicate that his influence in the writing process has grown. The added focus on guitar solos adds to this assumption. Strangely, there's no direct mention of Ray's old nemesis Satan though. Incidentally, Rick Schultz, everbody's favorite clarinet player of The Euclid Orchestra and Rick Ray fame, has a guest appearance on Maniacal Disathrope Tour.
If you like Rick Ray's solo work, you should get these CDs, which in my view have stronger, though even less 'progressive' material. If you don't know any of Ray's solo material but are interested, I'd still recommend purchasing one of these cds first, or you could have a go at Ray's album Clone Man, which has guest performances by Ambrose and Cek, sadly only vocally. If you are looking exclusively for good progressive rock, skip this band and it's former front man all together.
Live At Suma: 6.5 out of 10.
Maniacal Disatrophe Tour: 6 out of 10.
Victor Smolski - The Heretic
Victor Smolski comes from White Russia and is currently the guitar player in the German metal band Rage. The Heretic is his solo debut and as such it is a most impressive piece. Smolski here teams up with the White Russian Symphonic Orchestra to create an album mixing heavy rock with classical music in the line of bands like Deep Purple (John Lord's Concerto For Group & Orchestra) and Rick Wakeman's Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and Return To The Centre Of The Earth. The rock element in Smolski's case is however slightly more metal in its flavour which of course brings a metal musician like Yngwie Malmsteen to mind. But in contrast to Malmsteen, Smolski does not really seem to need to go into the really bad fits of speedy orgiastic guitar playing (even though some fast guitar parts are worked into the music).
Smolski has written all of the music which has been arranged for the orchestra by his father Dimitri Smolski, one of White Russia's most renowned composers.
Although the album contains seven different tracks, I find it very hard to judge it by its parts and pieces. The Heretic is very reminiscent of a movie soundtrack and the way it is built up to narrate its topic, the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, is very dramatic. In a sense the music itself forms a film in the mind of the listener. There are no real vocals until the title track The Heretic which ends the album. Instead Smolski uses three narrators reading historical documents in English, German and Russian. Smolski himself narrates the Russian text whereas his band members from Rage, Mike Terrana and Peter "Peavy" Wagner read the English and German texts respectively. Terrana and Wagner have also contributed to the album in writing the lyrics for the title track on which Terrana is playing drums and Wagner is doing the vocals and playing bass.
So... who would be interested in getting this album? Personally I would say that it is an album highly recommended to anyone interested in what can happen when rock/metal merges with classical music, but also for people who can enjoy good soundtracks such as Braveheart, The Star Wars Trilogy and Bram Stoker's Dracula. It is at times bombastic and at others small and tender. It is music with passion and emotion and it is excellently executed by the musicians. The merger between modern band instrumentation and orchestra works enormously well, and in some sense I cannot help feeling that maybe this is the album Rick Wakeman should have made when making Return To The Centre Of The Earth (though still with an emphasis on keyboards rather than guitar of course).
In short, this is well worth listening to, and I am quite confident that this CD will find its way into my CD player many times in future.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.