Reviews in this issue:
KBB - Lost And Found
Admittedly I am not too much of a great fan of Japanese progressive rock bands, mainly due to the fact that the ones that I have been exposed to tend to be a re-hash of neo-progressive eighties bands while the vocals do have a tendency to be slightly on the shrill side of the scale. Having said this, I was half expecting more of the same from this band's debut album, but I was very very wrong in assuming so. In plain simple language this album is one of the highlights of the year and I was blown away by the musicianship of this quartet.
KBB is composed of the following members, band leader Akihisa Tsuboy (violins, guitars), Gregory Suzuki (keyboards, theremin), Dani (bass) and Shirou Sugano (drums). As you might have noticed, the first instrument mentioned is the violin and as can be expected when a violin is included within a progressive rock group, the music tends to follow along the lines of classically influenced progressive rock much like groups such as Curved Air and UK did with violinists as Darryl Way and Eddie Jobson. Having said that there are various other styles infused onto this seven track CD as well as it by no means declared that the only solo instrument on the album is the violin as all members get there chance to show off their musical prowess.
With Hatenaki Shoudou, the group immediately take the listener into a musical territory which moulds the entire album. The melody is instantly accessible and pleasant though this does not detract from the musical complexity. Almost instantly Dani runs off into a bass run closely followed by keyboards and it is only halfway through that the violin enters the fray, but boy is it worth the wait. Dexterity and speed together with total clarity, something not too common on such an instrument when amplified.
Catastrophe has that convoluted feel to it as everything seems to be rushed and cranked together, as the name of the track insinuates. The brief piano interlude serves as a breather as well as to slow down events, though this is lost again towards the end as the pace once again picks up to relaunch the initial theme. The rhythm section on this track really get going and must be heard to believe.
Antarctica, the longest track on the album, is also possibly the weakest of the seven. Not that it is in anyway one to be discarded, but after hearing what the group are capable of when rushing headlong, then this acts as a form of a downer. On the other hand, it allows the group prove that pace is not an essential part of their repertoire though I must admit the lack of change in time signature (the track gets progressively slower and mellower) to a faster pace makes the thirteen plus minutes a little bit tedious. Saving grace comes in the central four minutes when the group show hints of picking up while the classical overtones really come through.
The Desert Of Desire opens with a delightful keyboard/organ introduction and this time round Tsuboy trades his four-string for a six-string and shows to all that his prowess on the guitar is as good as the violin. Musically this track, possibly due to lack of violin, leans towards the neo-progressive style of rock as well as this being the first track where the keyboards seem to have a prominent role within the structure and solos.
Another Episode retains that charm and flavour that the group have managed to exude throughout the album as they continue to belt out that classical symphonic rock together with doses of jazz-fusion reminiscent of Mahavishnu Orchestra. Nessa No Kiouku is one of those tracks that demands the listener's full attention, violin and keyboards duet but not without drums and bass creating an impressive rhythmic backdrop. Effects (both synthesized and utilizing the violin) are used to good measure as brief interludes between the ongoing adrenaline rush that these musicians create.
The album comes to an end with Divine Design which has Tsuboy utilizing both guitar and violin to create his solos. The pace is somewhat slower as are the solos which focus more on the single note rather than a flurry of notes, at least till mid-section. Suddenly it is as if the group realize that this is their last chance to "show-off" and all hell breaks loose with every instrument performing a solo, yet always in a composed and tight manner.
Hearing this album leaves one with the impression that this group have been around for a very long while and it is very hard to believe that this is only their debut! I find it hard to imagine what their next opus will be like, but I can't wait for that to happen. This is one of those essential instrumental albums.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Hermetic Science - Prophesies
If I had to ask any music lover about vibraphone and marimba players, the first names to come to mind would be Mike Manieri and Gary Burton with the associated musical style being that of jazz. This instrument has hit the prog-world and the musician as well as leader of this eclectic band is none other than Ed Macan. For those who feel that this name rings a distinctive bell, Ed Macan is also author of 'Rocking The Classics: English Progressive Rock And The Counterculture', one of progressive rock's most in depth study to ever be printed. Also contributing to this fine album are Nate Perry (bass guitar on track 1), Matt McClimon (drums and percussion) and Andy Durham (bass guitar).
The album opens with Jacob's Ladder, originally a Rush tune on 1980's 'Permanent Waves', but covered in an incredibly imaginative way. The strength and power the original track had conveyed by the now legendary Canadian trio is diluted by the group into an almost mellow track. However this does not in any way diminish the strength of this track. I feel that this is the perfect way of interpreting and covering another persons music, by overhauling it completely. Featured instruments also include the soprano and recorder as well as the Micro Moog together with vibraphone and marimba.
Intrigue In The House Of Panorama has Macan showing all that he is well versed in jazz as well as progressive rock music with this track having hints of Modern Jazz Quartet and Lionel Hampton while at the same time betraying his age as the track itself features a pastiche of tunes from sixties spy movies.
The title track on this album is a suite in six movements which acts as a showcase for the versatility of this artists as well as stands out as a clear documentation between the relationship that jazz and progressive rock most definitely share. The whole suite deals with the prophecies made by the Biblical Prophets regarding the fall of Jerusalem and its eventual restoration to former glory. From the opening notes of Barbarians At The Gate, one immediately senses that this is not going to be any ordinary ride. Accompanied by text from the book of Jeremiah, this track deals with the siege of Jerusalem by the barbarians (the Babylonians) and the music conveys that feeling of siege as the music adopts an army style rhythm.
Hope Against Hope has Macan using the soprano recorder to great effect while the second half of the track is dominated by Durham's bass guitar playing which practically takes over as the main instrument whilst accompanied by a rich string ensemble. Last Stand is all about the fall of Jerusalem to Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzer and here the music seems to pick up in rhythm as that final surge coupled with the fall of the city occurs. Lament has Macan showing his prowess on the Steinway piano, something he would later do with even greater effect on Tarkus. As the title insinuates, this is a sad piece of music as the piano is solo instrument during the initial Prelude. The Fugue also brings with it the rhythmic backbone giving the track that added progressive touch much like many of the seventies progressive rock trios did (Eg: E.L.P, Egg).
Leviathan And Behemoth is the highlight of the suite featuring a mixture of both progressive rock and jazz together with secular music as Macan switches from one instrument to another, each instrument conveying a particular and different mood. State of Grace possesses the same traits as the previous track though the feeling is of a greater grandiosity as well as a feeling of optimism.
The concluding track on the album, which is a bonus rack, is a cover version of the title track from the 1971 Emerson Lake & Palmer album, Tarkus. Any attempt to cover this epic track is in itself no mean feat. However, Macan manages to do so and in a totally unconventional way. The whole piece is played solo (and live) on a Steinway Grand Piano. Though there is a risk that the end result would be a monochromatic rendition of the original tune, in fact Macan manages to highlight the intricacies and harmonics that the track involves. This must certainly go down as being one of the best cover versions of Tarkus!
On the whole this is no an album for the faint of heart or one for those who are not willing to experiment. There is absolutely nothing commercial about this album and this is what should make it so endearing to the lover of progressive rock, especially the intelligent and stimulating variant of this eclectic musical style.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
How We Live - Dry Land
This latest outing in the seemingly endless string of re-releases from the Marillion stable is quite an interesting feat. Before joining Marillion, vocalist Steve Hogarth had played in two other bands: the moderately successful Europeans and the unnoticed How We Live, which was basically a duo of Hogarth and Europeans guitarist Colin Woore.
They managed to sign a record deal with Sony, recorded this very one album, failed to breakthrough and got shown the door while the recordings ended up on some shelf in the Sony archives. For the last decade, after Hogarth had become "that bloke who used to be Fish" (as Hogarth himself jests in the new liner notes of this re-release), this was a very much sought-after item within the Marillion fanbase, a goldmine Sony always failed to recognise and they refused to re-release the album, or to license it back to Hogarth and Woore.
Hogarth himself actually once said in a stage-interview in Germany that anyone who owned or found a copy of the album should bootleg the hell out of it.
But that was 1998 and all of a sudden, two years later, Hogarth did manage to get the rights of the recordings back and re-release the album. And with two bonus tracks, full lyrics (including the bonus tracks) and new "Y2K" liner notes, this is one of the better Racket releases.
The album shows clearly what most fans have long suspected, and what Marillion have always denied: Holidays in Eden was really Steve Hogarth's album, as this is almost a blueprint of Marillion's 1991 album, not in the least case of course for title track Dry Land, which Marillion covered on that album. But other tracks also sound naggingly familiar and songs like India or Playing Games in Germany wouldn't be out of place on Holidays in Eden either.
But more obvious are the two bonustracks. The first of which, You Don't Need Anyone, has also been tried by Marillion during the recording sessions of Holidays in Eden (and can be found on the second disc of its 1998 remaster), and the second one, Simon's Car, formed the basis of Cover my Eyes.
But more so this album shows where Marillion's drive to copy the styles of popular bands (which was most evident on This Strange Engine, and Radiation) came from, as Dry Land unashamedly (and admitted by Hogarth in the liner notes) borrows from successful eighties' bands like Duran Duran (All the Time in the World), early Simple Minds and Spandau Ballet (The Rainbow Room, A Beat in the Heart), Eurythmics (In the City) and even A-ha (Lost at Sea and Working Town).
But whereas the two mentioned Marillion albums still have to prove how they will stand the test of time, Dry Land in fact sounds remarkably fresh and fun after 13 years of confinement, and you know what? The compositions aren't half as bad as you might expect. If you grew up with the music of the eighties (like yours truly) then this albums just sounds familiar and new at the same time.
In conclusion, this is definitely no prog so if you are not into Marillion then forget about this album. Also, if you are a Marillion fan, but still sobbing for Fish' departure with the band, then this might not be the best buy for you either - however, if you are a fan of Marillion, and think that Holidays in Eden is their best album ever, then this is of course a must-buy for you. In any case, if you appreciate Hogarth's work with the band, and don't mind the occasional fix of eighties' pop rock, then this can be a highly enjoyable addition to your collection.Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Acumen - Diversity
Following their impressive Out Of Balance album, Acumen are back with another release, their third, which further reaffirms their venture into the world of progressive rock or as they themselves term it, progressive-pop. The line-up for this album includes band leader, multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Dimitrious James together with Cyndy Teseniar (vocals), Tim O'Neil (drums, vocals), Pam Beaty (guitar, vocals), Jared Manker (bass) and Justin Toddhuntere (lead guitar). Once again the group show that their real musical roots lie within what could be termed as the alternative musical scene but they have managed to introduce a variety of influences as well as create a certain amount of complexity within their tunes to move and possibly appeal more to a progressive rock audience.
Following an introductory cacophony of voices the band leap into the first proper track of the album, Drowning In The Backwash which is a superb rocker of a tune with a rhythm somewhat like Rush having a mixture of acoustic and electric guitars going at the same time. Actually this is something that persists for the majority of the album together with almost folksy approach. Both Drowning In The Backwash and No Surprise have that happy feel associated with them, something which seemed to be lacking on the previous release. Furthermore the group seem to have matured both in sense of musical tightness as well as in the sharing and duetting of vocal duties.
Too Many Choices reaffirms their folk-roots starting off with a sound and style similar to what Mark Knopfler was using on his solo albums. This then shifts gear to move into a more bluegrass/southern rock vein as the track rarely ventures from the acoustic with solos involving slide and bottleneck guitar. Hearts once again features some nice vocal duetting between James and Teseniar and is one of the few rather straight forward tracks on this release.
One Thousand Miles has the group finding their rock roots once again, similar to the opening two tracks. This track does not have the same kind of kick found on the other tracks but is slightly more laid back allowing one to appreciate the use of unconventional chord changes that the group uses as well as some great time changes. This notwithstanding, the group still retain that American flair about them unlike You're On your Own which introduces a Mediterranean touch with the introduction of Greek Bouzouki and Mandolin as well as a typically Mediterranean styled ballad structure to the track. This then shifts balance during the guitar solo which also involves an increase in pace to then fall back into the ballad structure once more.
Sarah's Dance could easily be described as the closest the band get to being described as progressive. The tempo as well as the sound are cranked up while the rhythm is continuously changed at an awkward pace and rate. Queen Of Denial retains that air of complexity though not as visible as Sarah's Dance. The tempo is slowed down considerably though this is upped for a fantastic guitar solo which creates a great contrast to the laid back mellow retinue of the track.
One Eye Closed has the band returning to some great rock with once again the rhythm reminding me of Rush as they combine the acoustic with electric. Nevertheless it remains a great rocker of a tune as is Tonight, though not as upbeat as One Eye Closed. Over Done With Gone retains that rock edge though this time there seem to be some of the glorious American psychadelic influences most notably The Grateful Dead. What You Believe brings the album to a close with a piece of sublime music. Once again it is the acoustic nature of the group that stands out as guitar solos compete with relaxed vocals.
On the whole this is a very enjoyable album. Progressively speaking there is little to write home about apart from the time changes the group occasionally indulges itself in. On the other hand this group is at the crossroads between the alternative and the progressive rock scene and has a bit too much of both worlds to possibly be accepted by either one of them. If you appreciate the alternative rock scene, especially that which has more of an acoustic rather than punk edge, you would appreciate this group. With each album the group seem to mature considerably as well as delve into the more complicated nether regions of music, thus augering well for the future of this group.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Decadence - Dreams Of Nekton
This debut of Russian Decadence is not half bad, featuring a type of music halfway between progressive metal and progressive rock, but most of the time leaning towards the prog rock side. The whole style of the band is something that reminds me of a lot of other prog bands, but not a single one in particular. This goes for all tracks on the album, Decadence is not similar to any existing band, but blends and mixes styles and ideas from all over the genre. That makes it also quite hard to do a track by track review, so I will just highlight some of the more remarkable pieces on the album.
The atmospheric opening of the prelude promises beautiful things to come, but unfortunately the vocals of the female singer are a bit insecure and therefore edge towards being out of tune, especially in the complexer parts of the verses. The lyrics, by the way, are sung completely in Russian but are translated in the nice booklet (too bad about the printing error on the cover where the last 'e' of the band's name is omitted...). A rather complex track all in all, where harmonic parts are intertwined with more dissonant melodies. The second track (the first of Nekton's Dreams...) is a long instrumental, with a musical direction almost edging to prog-ballet (you can almost visualise skeletons dancing here, it's a kind of Peer Gynt suite idea !). By the way, that is a genre not really explored before, prog-ballet....Dream Theater in tutu's ;-), although one of the Abraxas gigs I attended where one of the dancing girls accidentally set fire to her hear came close... But I am drifting off here, back to Decadence. The track in itself is a bit too long for my taste, since there is not very much going on, apart from some strong rhythmic changes.
Dream 3: Beyond The Edge Of Time is a nice song, with a good wave-like melody. The second 10+ minute track on the album is Fairytales of Stars, subdivided into The Last Song of Sun and Red Giants and Blue Dwarfs. The vocals are particularly annoying here, in my opinion completely off. This screws up the otherwise well played music. The keyboard player shows off in a piano solo a bit later and a superb screaming guitar solo presents the highlight of this track. The remainder of the track is a bit Crimsonesque. The other songs remaining on the album are basically in the same style, and it is not necessary to discuss them any further.
The compositions are the strongest point of the album, the actual rendering of those compositions could have been stronger. Especially the vocals are a bit too timid, they could have used more power. The background guitar work in most songs is also quite simple and could have used a bit more variations. Now, it is often two or three bars, repeated a couple of times, then a new idea is introduced and that is again repeated a couple of times. This makes the songs a bit like loose sand, not quite an entity. Apart from these criticisms, it is a good debut album and promises a lot if they can overcome these difficulties.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.