Reviews in this issue:
Porcupine Tree - Shesmovedon
Shesmovedon is the second single that has been released from Porcupine Tree's splendid new album Lightbulb Sun. The single was released in tree formats: a CD single (SMASCD 120), a 7" vinyl single (SMAS7 120) and a limited edition second CD single (SMAXCD 120) in another attempt by the band and Snapper Music to get into the charts with multiple sales to fans (see my 'I come in value packs of ten (in five varieties)' rant for my opinion about this dubious practice).
Once again, I couldn't help myself from submitting to the temptation to get my hands on the rare tracks on these releases. I bought the rare CD single and 7" via Ebay auctions (not that they were any cheaper after adding postage) and the tracks from the regular CD single in a less legal way (read: Napster). Below you'll find a review of these releases and rare tracks.
The first CD single contains a skilfully shortened version of the title track, Shemovedon (edit) (3.52),
which is only interesting for DJs and Porcupine Tree completists. The other two track are new.
Cure for Optimism (6.14) is a track that starts with synth soundscapes (think of a bare
windy desert plane) while vocals, piano with heavy echo effect and acoustic guitar come in after
2 minutes. Bass and drums are completey absent. The style sounds more like the Sky Moves
Sideways/Signify period than that of the last two albums. The vocal melodies are quite
enchanting but still the whole thing sounds a bit like an unfinished work in progress.
The same thing applies even more to Untitled (8.54), which basically is just a 9 minute jam. It starts with some psychedelic early Floydian noises and a chello sound (synths ?). After almost 2 minutes a contrabass starts playing and a quiet rhythm on the cymbals comes in, while the psychedelic guitar noises increase in volume. Drums are added and halfway down the track it has reached it's full 'volume'. In the second half, Wilson's random guitar noises move into a free formed guitar solo. After slightly more than 7 minutes the drums and bass fade out and the track ends with another psychedelic synth/guitar section.
The limited edition (2000 copies) CD single features the album version (5.19) of Shemovedon, which - if you have
the album - is basically only interesting because the ending is less abrupt (on the album it immediately
goes into Last Chance to Evacuate Planet Earth ...) and therefore the track stands a bit better on its
The other track on this CD is the demo version of Russia on Ice (13.10), the epic from Lightbulb Sun. I was amazed by how close this demo version resembled the finished version. The demo version, which was performed by Steve Wilson and bass player Edwin, has almost identical lyrics and the close harmony vocal sections are also present. The main difference with the finished version is the absence of Barbieri's keyboard noises and Maitland's powerful drumming (Edwin plays quite standard drum patterns on this version). Normally demo versions are interesting if they differ a lot from the final version. That isn't the case with this version of Russia on Ice.
Finally, the (limited edition, 1000 copies) 7" consists of the edited version of Shemovedon (with occassional
crackle pop) and plus the new track Novak (3.50). Novak sounds like another work in progress;
an instrumental track from which the lyrics seem to be missing. The style is comparable to that
of This Is No Rehearsal with dreamy 'verse' sections and more heavy energetic 'chorus'
sections featuring acoustic guitar. Interesting, but not essential.
All in all, compared to the previous CD single by Porcupine Tree Four Chords That Made A Million, I don't consider any of the formats of this new single to be an essential purchase. The tracks range from interesting to nice, but not nice enough to cough up an out-of-proportion amount of money for a few minutes of music.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Happy The Man - Crafty Hands
Most people interested in progressive rock will know Happy The Man (at least from name). This American symphonic rock group from the 70's was one of the prime bands of its era. Heavily rooted in Camel and Caravan, a sophisticated and melodic music comes from their instruments. This album, a re-release by Musea of their 1978 classic Crafty Hands, digitally remasted by Kit Watkins himself, is probably the finest example of their style.
The first track, Service With A Smile, was already composed in 1973, but only recorded for this album. It features a Camelesque, tremendously powerful 11/8 rhythm and is probably the shortest sympho-track pur sang. This is a timeless track, which every sympho-lover should have heard (or better: own a copy of). The original sleeve depicted a man looking through a peephole, carrying a basket of chicken and saying "Service With A Smile!" Fortunately the band could persuade the record compagny not to use this sleeve....
Morning Sun is a less interesting track, with lots of Watkins keyboards and a jazzy
undertone. Whitackers guitar is excellent, though.
Ibby It Is is a really complex track in terms of melody lines and rhythmic changes and as such has probably modelled for modern bands like Fineus Gauge or Echolyn. Here too, the structure edges towards jazz, but also to some of Steve Hackett's solo works. The weird title refers to a roady friend of the band named Izzy, and the song tells the musical story of a surrealistic cartoon character trying to become a real person. Well, at least according to the (excellent) sleeve notes, which tell in 7 pages the musical history of the band and the album. The track features some magnificent guitar work again.
Steaming Pipes continues this complex style, where all
the instruments seem to blend in to a rhythmic orgasm, all instruments contribute to the rhythm, and the melody that comes
out of it seems to be pure chance. But beware: it's no chaos, it is all very well within bounds of harmonic theory, even though
the end becomes mildly dissonant.
Wind Up Doll Day Wind is much sweeter and melodic, and features vocals (the first track on the album). In fact the vocals of Whitacker are quite fine, reminding of early Collins or even Gabriel, and it is a shame no more tracks feature vocals. The track itself is very Genesis-like too, Lamb era or even earlier (Foxtrot) with its marching rhythm and powerchords.
The next track Open Book continues this early Genesis style, a pastorale featuring
flute and stuff, but also reminds a bit of Camel's The Snow Goose with the use of the keyboards and guitars.
I Forgot To Push It is back to jazz, with even a saxophone in it, a bit too jazzy for my taste. Finally, the last track The Moon, I Sing (Nossuri) is easy listening with electric piano twinkling a melody, a bit in the style that these French prog/jazz/fusion bands used to do (not really my cup of tea therefore).
Like I stated in the intro: a classic album of a classic band. How do you rate such a thing? I think I will just recommend it and let everyone decide for themselves. I think that most people will enjoy it, but some of the '70s prog lovers will like it much better than your average Dream Theater fan, I think (so be warned!).
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
John Young - N.C.V.
In the short liner notes of this CD John wrote "Thans to Messrs Moraz, Sakamoto and Vangelis for pointing me in this direction ...". That pretty much sums up what you should expect from this CD. Instrumental electronic tunes with a tendency towards ambience and new age.
John Young began studying piano at the age of five and shortly after became the head chorister
of the Liverpool Cathedral Choir. Since the mid eighties John has worked with the likes
of Uli John Roth (ex-Scorpions guitarist), Bon Jovi, Mammoth, Asia, The Law [featuring Paul
Rogers (ex-Free & Bad Company) and Kenney Jones (ex The Who and The Small Faces)], Steeleye Span,
Max Bacon and Bonnie Tyler. John co-wrote a large part of John Wetton's Arkangel
album and toured with the John Wetton Band and Quango. Besides all of this session work,
John has also played in his own bands like Cathedral, Greenslade, Oblivious and Youngwolf.
Most recently John has joined Fish to help write and play on his forthcoming album, as well as touring with the big Scot later this year.
In 1999 John released his first solo album Life Underground (the demos),
which he still plans to re-recorded with a full band. Two albums with his work for television
soundtracks followed (Scientific Breakthrough and Political Agenda) and recently
John released this new instrumental compilation which he - with a healthy dosis of self-mockery -
called N.C.V., meaning 'No Commercial Value'.
Those who went to see Jadis earlier this year will have seen John play a solo set as support act, his face hidden behind a curtain of hair, as shown on the cover of N.C.V..
As mentioned, the CD consists of instrumental electronic music. With the exception of four songs that feature computer drums (A Clearer Day, Bible White,Araindi and Air Miles) none of the tracks have percussion or drum sounds. The music John composed for this CD has obviously been highly influenced by the three keyboard players that are mentioned in the liner notes. Most of the tracks are very soothing ambient music, coming quite close to New Age (like in Whirl or Sapporo).
Asteroid starts in typical Vangelis style with Spiral-like effects. Most
interestingly, the track features a very sad sounding synthesized violin melody. This melody later
returns in the Gabriel-esque Voyager on piano and in a different variation on
sytnth-violin in Corpus again.
One or two songs, like A Clearer Day with it's Tubular Bells like melody and Voyager and Air Miles, would not have been out of place on one of Mike Oldfield's more electronic albums, while other tracks like Chance Encounter sound like karaoke versions of some mediocre Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey ballad. Some of the other tracks would have been perfect for a rendition with vocals (like Corpus) and therefore sound a bit out-of-place.
Besides synths the album also features the occassional appearance of acoustic guitar (Ascent) and piano (Daybreak).
One of the songs that intruiged me most (because of the possible Starless reference
in the title) was Bible White. It turned out to be one of the most energetic tracks on
the album, featuring computer drums, several quiet breaks and synthesized acoustic guitar.
Air Miles sounds eerily familiar, I seem to have heard the melody before with a vocal choir, but can't really put my finger on it.
Personally, I'd rather listen to John's album Life Underground (the demos). But I just don't care that much for electronic instrumental stuff. I have to admit though that John does it very well and would therefore recommend it to anybody that's 'into' that genre.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10.
Fragile - Live at the Half Moon
Fragile was founded in the summer of 1998 by vocalist Steve Carney and bass player John Bastable. After getting the rest of the band together and a time of preperations they played their first live gig at the Half Moon in London in January 1999. In March 1999 Peter Banks joined the band on stage and June 2000 found them returning to The Half Moon for the recording of this live CD.
The band went through a few line-up changes and currently consists of Steve (vocals), John (bass), Mitch Hardwood (drums, vocals), Tom Dawne (guitar, vocals), Gonzalo Carreras (keyboards) and Robert Illes (lead guitar).
I was lucky enough to see Fragile perform twice in January 1999 and March 1999 and really enjoyed these two shows. Since then they have changed keyboard and lead guitar players. I was therefore really looking forward to review this CD, and also anxious to hear the band play in their new line-up.
The CD starts with Roundabout and it immediately becomes clear what the big strengths and
weaknesses of this CD are. Some of the more quirky bits of the song are not played 100% in time,
although the band is great in the straightforward bits and really pull themselves together before
long. One of the band members however turns out to be a really disturbing factor: Carreras on the
keyboards. Throughout most of the disc I find his performance well below par, and certainly
not up to the standards of the rest of the band. He either plays out of time, out of tune, cannot
keep up with the fast and quirky keyboard lines and shows lack of variation during some of the
more free formed sections. The fact that the keybaords fully drown out the acoustic guitar in the
quiet break halfway through Roundabout only emphasises this.
Fortunatly the problem mainly occurs during keyboard solos, and is not so much present during the more supporting keyboad work.
The rest of the band is playing amazingly well with some great guitar and drum work and
Steve doing very well on vocals too, although he has some slight problems with a couple of very
high notes and occassionally sounds a tiny bit shaky. The star of the band however has to
be Bastable on bass. He is absolutely amazing, rarely misses a note and produces that chunky
'Rick' sound as if Chris Squire himself was on stage with the band. This makes up a lot for the
mediocre keyboard work.
All of this results in great versions of tracks like Heart of the Sunrise (probably the highlight of the CD), Long Distance Runaround, Yours is No Disgrace and Starship Trooper. Unfortunately the version of the latter does not feature the tempo increase Fragile used to play in Wurm in 1999.
I've Seen All Good People starts nicely, although the bass is too low in the mix and the
vocals are a bit shakey (nerves because of the recording ?). However, when the bands arrives at
the second section they really start rocking !
Owner of a Lonely Heart has been reworked into a slow and very laid-back version with various bits of percussion and atmospheric guitar and keyboard, which is actually quite nice. For some reason however, Steve has not adapted his vocal style to the new mood of the song and the loud keyboard solo destroys some of the atmosphere. Still an interesting experiment though.
The Yes Medley starts with a great Long Distance Runaround, after which a delicious
version of The Fish with lots of chunky metalic (almost New Order-like) bass follows. The
vocal choir lines have been replaced by bass playing as well and the only setback in the song is the unnecessary intrusion of
Carreras with a short but annoyingly penetrating keyboard twiddle. He seemingly couldn't wait for his Gates of Delerium keyboard solo, which follows and
actually isn't too bad, before it flows into Soon, which again suffers from unstable
keyboard playing in the intro.
More Carreras in the Six Wives Wakeman keyboard solo. Now I have to admit that I have never been a great fan of those long, egocentric Wakeman solos. Having them performed by a semi-amateur that doesn't find it necessary to switch keyboard sounds and plays the whole thing in an annoying monotonous Moog-like sound certainly doesn't help.
The medley continues with the completely misplaced Hearts, which doesn't only seem a rather strange choice but also doesn't really sound convincing, especially in the first half without drums. Fortunately we quickly move towards a splendid version of medley closer Yours is No Disgrace via two snippets of Tales From Topographic Oceans; the choir section of The Revealing Science of God (with more chaotic keyboard) and the drum solo from Ritual.
It might seem like I have quite a lot of criticism regaring this Fragile disc. Maybe its because I
think they can do better than this and could have chosen some different material from their
setlists (the choices for the medley sometimes seem rather strange). Nevertheless, keeping in mind
that the recording doesn't feature any overdubs, I
really think that - besides the keyboards - they have done a great job and I really enjoy
playing the album.
Visit the Fragile sound samples page for some fragments of the CD.
This CD comes recommended to all Yes fans. Actually, I would recommend to go see these guys play live even more! It's well worth your time and money.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Vanden Plas - Spirit of Live
Spirit of Live is the first Vanden Plas live album. All songs were recorded during the Elysée Montmartre concert in Paris on February 13 this year during the Far Off Grace Tour. The show included two special guest appearances on which more below. Two songs from the debut album Colour Temple (1994), one song from The God Thing (1997), six from last year's Far Off Grace and two new tracks: Journey to Paris and Spirit of Life. People will always miss some of their personal favourites during live performances or on live albums. Personally I would have liked to hear a live rendition of I'm in You, one of my favourites from last year's album. As this is Vanden Plas' first live album, I also wouldn't have minded if a few more older tracks had been included. Then again, I'm hooked on Far Off Grace, so you won't hear too many complaints from me.
Spirit of Live opens with two songs from the Far Off Grace album, I Can See
and Into the Sun, both pounding prog metal tracks. During Soul Survives the
quality of this recording really shows itself, as through quieter and more powerful sections
each instrument is clearly audible and, most importantly, the keyboards stand their own in the
mix. Singer Andy Kurtz shows himself to be in especially good form.
Then follows a long version of How Many Tears, which is surely THE classic Vanden Plas song. It includes a alternative start with different tempo and the central section is sung in French, while it retains the mindblowing ending of the original, which carries even more energy played live. The French version of this song was included on the single I Don't Miss You (2000).The ballad I Don't Miss You still has a very personal effect on me concerning love never gained, thus never lost. It reached the number 1 spot on a German radio chart, so I guess I'm not the only one with whom it evokes strong emotions.
Journey to Paris is basically a one man show from Günther Werno on keyboards and piano,
remeniscent of the intro of Soul Survives. Though there's a short break, this slips
comfortably to Spirit of Live, where first guitar and then the other instruments join in
and it becomes very powerful, energetic.
Then it's back to Far Off Grace country with Iodic Rain in a good, straight-forward rendition. Another favourite of mine, Far Off Grace, holds an unexpected surprise. Halfway through, after Stephan Lill's guitar solo, Andy suddenly starts to sing the classic Jacques Brel ballad Ne Me Quittes Pas ! Who would have seen that one coming? He performs it with true emotion to the accompaniment of Werno on piano.
The last two tracks feature the two guest performances.The guest appearance of Don Dokken on his own song Kiss of Death, which Vanden Plas covered on Far Off Grace as a bonus track, turns this into a enjoyable metal duet. Dokken's appearance gives this rendition a special edge, which I found lacking on the Far Off Grace track. For the concluding track Rainmaker, Patrick Rondat (Elegy, ex-Jean Michel Jarre) takes lead guitar. Günter Werno has since returned the favour with a guest performance on Elegy's new album Forbidden Fruit. Besides that, the popular Rainmaker seems the logical choice to close the album with.
Off course this is an absolute must for all Vanden Plas fans, in particular the French speaking fans, who are bound to get a kick from the French vocal sections. I myself thought the inclusion of the Jacques Brel song absolutely brilliant. There's great rapport with the Paris audience. Andy Kurtz has proven before his control of the French language and uses it to maximum effect here.
It didn't take long for Vanden Plas to become one of my favourite bands, since I first discovered them at the start of this year, as can be concluded from the Vanden Plas Special I wrote in February. In that respect it shouldn't surprise you I highly recommend this album. Though I've tried to be extra critical about the technical aspects of the bands performance and the quality of recording, I honestly can't come up with any qualms in these regards. All band members put in an equally good performance, so much so that I can't even really single one out for particular praise. Vanden Plas shows itself a band that performs as a solid whole, without one or two band members claiming the spotlight for themselves. This unity in my view makes for the best concerts.
The European version of Spirit of Live has been released on the 18th of September. The U.S. version will be released on the 10th of October. It doesn't include Kiss of Death and I Don't Miss You, but instead features You Fly, originally of The God Thing. I wouldn't have minded if Journey to Paris and Spirit of Life, good though they may be, had been substituted for this track in the European version. As for future plans, the recording of a second AcCult acoustic album has regretfully been put aside for the moment. Oh well, this splendid live album will help tide things over for now.
Excerpts from Spirit of Live and Into the Sun can be found on the Vanden Plas Homepage The Web Thing, while the official U.S. website lists a couple of other tracks in MP3 format.
Conclusion: 9- out of 10.