Reviews in this issue:
Pallas - The Cross And The Crucible
In the terms of British prog rocker Pallas, there has not been a lot of time between two albums. There were two years and three months between the releases of The Sentinel and The Wedge. Now it's been two years and five months since the release of Beat The Drum, and here we are presented the new album, The Cross And The Crucible. I was looking forward to it with great expectations. Could it live up to them? The band spread the word they were writing songs that had both classic Pallas elements and things they had never done before. Great expectations, but I didn't know what to expect!
Hearing the album the first time. Hearing the album for the first time was a strange experience. A long intro song for the first couple of songs dealing with the same issue, lyrically. The classic Pallas elements were easily spotted, of course. But the new stuff was a bit of a surprise. Of course, I didn't know what to expect, so anything not classic Pallas would surprise me in some degree. I was paying attention to the influences, the structures, the way the band play and sing, the elements of the songs, etc. After the first run-through, I was unable to make up my mind. I was so busy trying to hear everything! The second time around, it seemed I remembered only parts of what I had just heard! So many things are going on... Let me try and describe as many as I can.
The Big Bang. Could you find a better title to open an album? Unlike you would probably expect, it doesn't start with a loud bang. Keyboards and sound effects build up slowly to a loud but slow explosion of sound. After that it gets very quiet for a while, but then slowly it starts to live. It evolves, tells of the story of life on earth. It is the opening section of a group of songs about religion and what it does to people.
The Cross And The Crucible. The title track. Besides it's a great title, within the first two minutes you hear why the album is named after this song. Classic Pallas sound opens this track with, after the intro, a powerful section that tells you what you will be hearing for the next hour: sometimes slightly agressive, powerful progressive rock, alternated with warm and sensitive parts, not too complex, but always played from the heart. Especially when the bass joins in, you hear the results of a good production.
I have always like Alan Reed's voice a lot. How great it is to hear this man sing! Such power from such a small man... He can sing in many different styles. The beginning of the song is quiet, but two verses are building up to a powerful outcry "you must not question why!". Great vocal lines in the part "in the here (in the here) and the now (and the now)... in the afterlife!". The part that follows is mysterious and haunting, with religious-sounding chanting joining in - a real choir. You feel like running around in a dungeon, chased after in the name of something big. During the last phrases of the choir, the song gets back into its groove slowly, and the two opponents, chanting and powerful rock, are integrated. Sharp and fierce guitar lines emphesize the haunting.
Then it almost seems the song is over, but a synth choir builds up and we're back at regular speed for a great guitar solo and the end section. The first time I was amazed the song was nine minutes long - it felt shorter than that. The second time I was amazed it was only nine minutes long - so many things I heard...
For The Greater Glory. Already my current favourite: For The Greater Glory. Oh man, what an opening. I can't wait to hear this live! Pumping bass and keyboards. There's so much energy! The verses are very Pallas. The short chorus is less heavy than the verse, as a bridge to the next verse, but not before that powerful pumping from the beginning is repeated. This is going to be a live favourite!
The middle section is quiet and haunting. A bang follows and then... urban rhythms and noises and dances! Surprising to say the least. Is this war?
Another chorus, but a heavy version this time, to finish off the main part of the song. But it's not over yet. Niall ends this song with scary guitar lines, doubled by the keyboards. It gives the feeling of a battlefield right after battle. War is over? I won't have to explain this has to do with what the results can be if people start doing things "for the greater glory".
Who's To Blame?. The next track starts off quite unlike what I expected of Pallas. Quiet guitar with a seemingly simple but very nice melody line.
When Alan joins in, the atmosphere reminded me of the first part of the song Beat The Drum. The lyrics continue to deal with the way people try and explain their existance.
The chorus is too catchy it's difficult not to start singing along. Don't expect a happy tune, though - the title should say enough. It's nice to see that one can question serious things without getting agressive. Before the last chorus there's a quiet middle piece with a female voice - I don't remember this has ever happened in Pallas' recorded history.
The Blinding Darkness. The opening reminds me a bit of Dance Through The Fire. Not as fast as that, but powerful nonetheless. Maybe more like The Wilderness Years. This is a good example of how things can be effective without getting too complex. Effect is caused by powerful choruses and sharp guitar melodies, but also by quieter movements, giving you no rest but just some time to catch your breath.
Ah, another guitar solo. How I love his guitar playing - I simply cannot hear Niall Mathewson play enough! And is that Graeme joining on vocals again?
The lyrics deal with the balance of emotion and logic. It's a quest for answers, looking at both sides to find out the middle road is probably best.
Towers Of Babble. The intro leads into a powerful section that is less heavy but even more haunting than the beginning of For The Greater Glory. A choir! Also apart from the choir, this is going to be a difficult one to do live. Just like The Wilderness Years or Insomniac, I think. Great drumming by Colin Fraser here. Well, actually everywhere. Derek Forman was a great drummer, but with Colin the band might go even further.
Pumping guitars and keyboards, slow but very powerful. After the first verses, there's a rough part with bombastic melodic keyboard playing. Church organ sounds follow, with difficult keyboard melodies.
Alan's weird singing of the next verse is building to another guitar solo. At the middle, lyrics are sung over the guitar solo, and then it's time for one of Ronnie's solos. Short but effective, and very good. I don't think I can hear one of Ronnie's solos without getting goosebumps. How I love that man's playing! Singing joines in again, then the choir returns for a short while, and the song is back at its difficult part, another verse, and a grand finale á la Atlantis. This is Pallas!
Generations. Besides a few lines on the Beat The Drum album, it's been a while since bass player Graeme has sung. He sang most of Imagination, which is on the 1986 album The Wedge. This is no doubt his song. It's a ballad, which is not unique, but unusual in the band's history. Graeme has a very nice voice. Very warm and emotional. You know he really means what he's singing. The song is about and for his child(ren). It's obvious this band can't or won't write a meaningless love song, and I am very glad about that!
A lot of acoustic guitar in the main part of the song. At the end, there's another very moving guitar solo, fitting the song perfectly. Shame the song is faded out - I wouldn't mind having a longer solo at the end!
Midas Touch. A voice not unlike Orson Welles' opens the story of this song. This can only be the beginning of something big. And big it is... Some people among us have been lucky enough to have witnessed the band playing this song in Barcelona recently. If you just listen to the lyrical parts, it would be a very good song. The song structure is building up to powerful second chorus. This is very Pallas, with Alan's wonderful voice and the pumping beats and sounds.
But it's not only the lyrical parts, and not only a very good song. It's so much more. After 4 minutes most of the lyrics have been sung. There's a short guitar solo, a quiet middle piece follows with the rest of the lyrics with Graeme joining in again.
The last five mins are instrumental, beginning with a fierce guitar solo. The same sound as the guitar solo in Sanctuary, but slower and more melodic.
At 7:05 there's a one minute tour de force by the amazing Ronnie Brown. The solo consists of four parts with the last part being the one where I lose consciousness... What a wall of sound, what divine melodies!
08:30 is Niall's cue for a guitar solo that is another ten minutes too short.
The last two minutes of the song consist of piano and a few spoken lines. To get you accustomed to the fact that the song is almost over, you can start breathing again. This is a close second favourite, although at the time I write this paragraph, For The Greater Glory and Midas Touch have swapped places.
Celebration! By the title and already the beginning of the song you know this is going to be a happy song. However, the first verse sounds quite difficult, as in Towers Of Babble, especially the vocal lines. In fact, it contains lyrical references to that song, too. After the serious issues dealt with in the first couple of songs, this is a lighter note, the band's optimistic view towards life here on earth, but without becoming moralistic.
Again, Graeme's voice can be enjoyed. He's joining Alan in at a section that could be a replacement for the "all the world now join hands as one" from Atlantis. I can hear the audience join in already. This is Pallas as you know it. But be prepared to learn a lot of Pallas you don't know yet. And still you know it's them, which is a great achievement.
This song is like a happy ending. What a way to finish an album or a concert! Well, before the encore, that is! :-) In that respect, the album has something The Sentinel album also has. Containing dark and gloomy or at least serious lyrics, but in the end there is always hope.
Booklet. The artwork is done by graphical artist and sixth band member Mike Bentley. Great artwork and logos! The band's official website is re-designed accordingly. The CD will be available in a regular version (CD jewel case) and a limited digipack edition that I have been told contains extra artwork.
Conclusion. Pallas have grown, taken another step. Falsely labeled as neo-prog once, there are hardly any elements of that in any of their albums. (Not that I don't like neo-prog, by the way.) Some influences are from earlier days of prog and rock, and other kinds of music as well. The record label have put a label "file under progressive metal" on the back of the cover. I don't think that is entirely honest to their music, either. Overall, the music is heavier than on their other albums, and many parts will indeed appeal to prog metal fans. But the prog metal label has, at least to me, this cold feel to it, music of the brain, too complex. It's a more unique thing, and I think the overall banner of "progressive rock" should be enough.
Maybe "modern prog" or something is a better word. The Pallas sound contains influences and elements from the early days of prog; from blues, which is the foundation of modern rock; and also new and modern elements, taking it all a leap forward. To me, there are too many bands playing that progressive metal thing - it's OK, it's simply another way of making music. But this is more to my liking - music from the heart, powerful, moving, very melodic, with great playing and wonderful singing.
The 1998 album Beat The Drum contained some tracks that were written years before, like Ghosts, Hide And Seek, Call To Arms, Man Of Principles. It's like the band just had to record the Beat The Drum album to move on. Because of this, Pallas were much more able to grow with this album than with the previous one, which I now recognize as a bridge between Pallas of the 1980s and Pallas 2K.
I did see growth on Beat The Drum, though, by comparing the album versions of the old songs to their first recorded versions. Songs like Hide And Seek and Call To Arms show the band had grown tighter as a unit of musicians, and I simply can't resist mentioning that amazing new keyboard solo at the end of Ghosts again. With this new album, the band has grown as composers as well.
It's obvious the band put an awful lot of work in this album. The sound and production are great, which is especially audible through the sound of the drums and bass. There's a high contrast between quiet and heavy parts, and both come out of the mix very good. If this album doesn't put their name on the map of important prog bands, then there's something wrong with the ears of the world.
I don't rate this album this high because I am a fan. I am a fan because this music is so good.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10.
Ozric Tentacles - Pyramidion
Last year, the Ozrics released their latest studio album The Hidden Step, a splendid follow-up to the less interesting Waterfall Cities. Now, after an extensive tour the masters of instrumental rock that defies definition return with a mini-album CD. Well, it might be an EP, but the CD clocks in at more then 41 minutes. Considering that Pyramidion sells for 3 pounds off the price of a regular CD, this seems like quite a good deal to me.
The album is a bit a of strange mixture since it features one new studio track and 4 live tracks. The studio track, Pyramidion, is one of those typical uptempo Ozric compositions full of synths, sequencers and great guitar work.
The other four tracks were recorded live during the Hidden Step Tour 2000 at a gig in Sheffield. These live performances once again prove how incredibly tight the band play, as a well adjusted unity. We are treated to 2 tracks of The Hidden Step and 2 of the better compositions of Waterfall Cities. Xingu is a very groovy track with lots of synth patterns, while Pixel Dream focusses more on the guitar work. Pixel Dream also features an extended second half in which the band jams away for about 6 minutes. Fans of Porcupine Tree will probably enjoy this one a lot.
Sultana Detrii is one of those Ozric tunes that find their origin in reggae/dub music. Imagine a cocktail of early UB40 and Pink Floyd. Finally there's the ambient Aramanu with its synth & flute soundscapes and sound effects creating the atmosphere of an Arabian bazaar.
The whole album breathes the Middle Eastern/Arabian atmosphere that has always been present in the music of Ozric Tentacles, but has been a major theme running through their latest studio album. This makes this mini EP a worthy extension of The Hidden Step.
The CD comes with a simple 4 page booklet, but does feature some nice artwork, among which a nice parody on Egyptian murals. A minor complaint: the tracklisting on the inlay has the timings of track 4 and 5 mixed up.
Although the album is hardly an essential buy because it only features one new track, I'm sure that Ozric fans will enjoy it very much. At the same time, it's a great way for curious prog fans to sample the music of the band because it features a nice representative set of compositions showcasing the many sides of their music; the uptempo danceable stuff, the guitar frenzies, the ambient synth soundscapes and the reggae/dub stuff. Try it if you dare.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Clear Blue Sky - Mirror Of The Stars
Clear Blue Sky are celebrating the thirtieth anniversary release of their debut album, Clear Blue Sky, this year with the release of a new studio album, Mirror Of the Stars. However this is only the fourth studio album that the band is releasing, a shame when one considers that for a time they were being placed on the pedestal with bands such as Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. Musically the band play a style that is very much in the hard rock vein, verging on the space rock that bands such as Hawkwind have toyed with.
The lineup on this album features three members who have been in (and out) of the band since the seventies, namely founder members John Simms (guitars, vocals) and Ken White (drums), together with bassist Ted Landon. Also forming part of the band is John Simms' wife, Maxine Marten (backing vocals, percussion) and guest musicians Adam Lewis (keyboards on Hello Earth and Lucidra) and Lee Limerick (backing vocals on Fly and Lucidra).
The album opens with the title track, Mirror Of The Stars, which acts as an indicator that with time the band has mellowed out somewhat with the abrasive and raw sound that was so apparent on the early recordings, conspicuously absent. Furthermore the band seem to moving further and further towards the space-rock style, especially with the addition of keyboards and effects into their musical structure. Further evidence that the band have veered into a space rock direction can also be seen in the titles of most of the tracks on the album.
The Passage Of Time also utilises a similar musical style as Mirror Of The Stars with the keyboards creating that cosmic effect. From the first two tracks one can also note that the band seem to be making the best of the presence of a backing vocalist as much of the vocals are in harmony, a great effect. Vexdre, seems to be one of the tracks that has a similar feel to the early Clear Blue Sky tracks. The guitar, and music, has a seventies feel to it with a similarity to Alice Cooper's early work. Indeed it is also the first track that lacks the augmentation of keyboards.
With Hello Earth the band turn acoustic, and what a great effect this has on the overall feel of the album. The group still manage to maintain a powerful grip on their music in this mode and John Simms shows what a great guitar player he is, ably belting out another great guitar solo equally effectively as on the electric guitar. Fly has the band returning to the classic hard rock style with that running guitar that characterised bands such Judas Priest during their early days on albums such as Sin After Sin and Sad Wings Of Destiny.
Marari (For Your Love) brings us back to that Hawkwind touch as the music seems to float around the vocals as does Lucidra, City Of Light, though the latter is much more placid and spacey in feel. The utilisation of Adam Lewis' keyboards on this track give it that extra cosmic touch, and is probably something the band should try to expand on, even if it means engaging the services of a keyboardist for more than two tracks on an album!
Say has the band moving in a different musical direction. The track could be taken as a progression of the sound that had been used for the previous two tracks. The overall feel is one that is laid back as Simms' guitar assumes an almost funky feel to it, something also utlised to great effect on Stargaze 777. It seems that as the album progressed, so did the music. The first couple of tracks are only marginally progressive in feel, but with the reduction in distortion and more frequent use of the keyboards as well as guitar effects, the band have managed to capture a sound that should appeal to fans of cosmic/space rock.
The Eye Of The Cosmos sees the re-introduction of distorted guitars, but this is only temporary as Timelords Speak and Into The Night readdress the musical setting, recreating the scene for what Clear Blue Sky seem to be doing best. Strange how a band can change with the times. With their first album the band sounded magnificent in their raw power, yet the pass sage of time has seen them excel more in the delicate pieces rather than in the more aggressive ones.
All in all, this album marks a welcome return to the musical scene by Clear Blue Sky. Apart from their classic debut album, this is the only album that really leans towards a progressive rock style. The album should appeal to all those who like space-rock and/or appreciate good guitar work. Hopefully we do not have to wait for the next anniversary for another Clear Blue Sky album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Darkstar - Marching Into Oblivion
Last year I had the pleasure to review the second album of Darkstar (a collaboration between Psychotic Waltz's Dan Rock and German musician Siggi Blasey), Heart of Darkness. A couple of weeks ago I received an e-mail from Dan, thanking me for the review. Since I was most impressed by the dark instrumental tracks on the album and less by the vocal tracks, he told me I should check out their first album and offered me a copy for reviewing.
Listening to their debut album Marching Into Oblivion I was blown away. Whereas the
second album was very good, this first one was just brilliant. Just as the second album,
Marching Into Oblivion contains a mixture of dark synth sounds, growling guitar
playing, lots of weird effects and many spoken samples from movies.
Dan Rock (guitars & sequencing), Siggi Blasey (keyboards, programming & sampling), Oliver Werner (drums) and Martin Iordanidis (bass) treat the listener to 9 splendid instrumental tracks.
The album kicks of with the title track, a track with a heavy bass & drums rhythm on top of which great guitar playing. The track is also the first that contains samples on religious topics. This turns out to be a theme running through the whole album. Weird religious folks abound on the album, like the mad preacher in Confusion on a Grand Scale, probably my favourite track on the album. It starts out as a heavy prog metal instrumental, but the samples, which serve as the verses and choruses of the track, add a lot of atmosphere and mood.
After these two guitar-heavy tracks, the next track has more focus on keyboards. The keyboard
lines of Darkstar sound like something Vangelis or Jarre
could have written on a dark and moody day, but the real drums and heavy guitar riffs make these tracks unmistakable
Darkstar material. The same goes for Gateway.
The sound effects of whales and the sea hitting the shore at the end of Darkstar set the right mood for the relatively quiet Waiting, which starts with beautiful acoustic guitar, which is later joined by a 'crying' electric guitar and warm synth chords.
Out There brings more marvellous guitar work while A New Beginning is definitely the
spookiest track on the album. It doesn't only feature eery noises and scary samples, but the music
could have come straight from a horror movie. A great mood piece.
Alone is another guitar-heavy piece, while Alien Christ closes the album with noises of chanting and more movie samples accompanied by dark keyboard melodies.
Dan seems to be very proud of the artwork in the booklet, and he has the right to be so. Every page of the 20-page booklet is filled woth beautiful sci-fi collage-like paintings by Travis Smith.
If you like dark and atmospheric music with lots of keyboards and great guitar work, every now and then edging on progressive metal (but without the annoying continuous double bass drum that seems to be the trademark of that genre) this is something that will definitely appeal to you. Normally, instrumental music tends to lose my attention after one or two quaters of a hour. Darkstar's music however manages to grab you by the throat and hold you transfixed for the full 47 minutes !
Dan Rock is currently looking for a label/distributor to re-release his two Darkstar albums. If anybody would be interested, he can be contacted through the Darkstar Homepage. In the meantime, Dan sells homemade copies including the full artwork for $12.
Conclusion: 9- out of 10.
Tony Garone - The Epic Of Gilgamesh
Progressive rock has long been associated with literature, especially classical works such as Lord Of The Rings by Tolkien. Classical literature has also had a profound influence on both the music and the musicians such as The Tibetan Book Of The Dead. The Epic Of Gilgamesh is another work that has been an inspiration to many progressive rock musicians both in terms of writing music woven around this tale as well as the band being named after the tale such as in the case of Canterbury band, Gilgamesh.
Before discussing the musical merits of this album, one must also mention the methods employed in recording this album. The whole of the album is based on the concept of the Gilgamesh tale and involved the work of a variety of musicians from all over the world. Using Tony Garone's description, the album is a musical quilt with the music having travelled across three countries via MP3 and Internet technology culminating in this fantastic album.
The location of this six thousand year old tale lies in Mesopotamia (now Iraq) between the rivers Tigris and Euphrates and is the story of the king Gilgamesh, part human and part deity and his quest for immortality. Thus Middle Eastern musical influences constantly permeate through the music, though I would have expected the vocals to have been influenced to a greater extent. The original tale/poem was written on clay tablets and thus exists as a series of tablets, followed faithfully on the album.
Thus the story of Gilgamesh opens with a track dedicated to this mighty king who is described as having been a cruel ruler, suppressing his subjects who in turn cry out to the god Aruru to put an end to Gilgamesh. Utilising various instruments, including Mesopotamian stomp and African voices, Garone creates a track that is slow-paced and powerful, very much like what Peter Gabriel created on US while his voice is extremely clear and pleasant to listen to, creating a series of vocal harmonies, almost Crosby, Stills and Nash-like.
Uruk is the name of the kingdom that Gilgamesh ruled and this is the first track that includes a definite Middle Eastern theme. The utilisation of Celtic harp amidst these influences reminded me somewhat of Loreena McKennit's musical style. We Are All One retains the Middle Eastern flavour, this time by introducing an Arabian percussion loop while Tony Garone seems to sound more and more like Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull) as the album progresses.
The Fallen Star is about a dream that Gilgamesh has about a falling star which is interpreted by his mother Ninsun as the imminent arrival of a friend to her son. Here the music takes on a more Westernised slant leaving the rhythm and percussion that prevailed on the previous tracks with instead the track taking on a keyboard based structure, almost AOR-like in nature. Enkidu was the answer from the gods to the people's call to end Gilgamesh's reign. Half-man and half-beast he clashed with Gilgamesh, but the two were equal and instead they formed an alliance. Here is the perfect example of the musical quilt that Garone mentions. Three musicians participated on this track with Garone providing vocals, keyboards and guitars, Philip Griffin playing the Turkish saz and Caset Carney playing the d'jambé and bell tree. All three musicians worked in different studios with the music transmitted to each other in MP3 format and via the Internet. Interestingly this is the only track that utilises the original language the poem was written in for the vocals.
In his desire to become a hero to his subjects, Gilgamesh teamed up with Enkidu to destroy Huwawa The Terrible, a god feared by all. The two clashed with this dangerous god and defeated him, aided by the god Shamash. The track alternates with strong percussive sections and guitar licks with a Middle Eastern slant accompanying Garone' vocals. The use of musical accentuation especially when the god Shamash is invoked create quite a fiery atmosphere in the track.
After his feat, the goddess Inanna wanted to seduce Gilgamesh, but he knew that she disposed of her conquests and did not fall for her advances and thus sent forth The Bull Of Heaven. Innana/Ishtar features the delightful vocals of Marcie Schreier as the goddess Inanna and the theme of seduction also brings about a shift in music as the style become acoustic and mellow, almost ballad-like. As can be imagined the unleashing of The Bull From Heaven means the introduction of percussive loops accompanied by some furious guitar work. This is the first time that the music on the album comes close to resembling a fully fledged rock track, though the occasional introduction of Middle Eastern traits still occurs.
Gilgamesh, with the help of Enkidu defeated The Bull, but Enkidu was cursed by the angry Inanna and he was struck with fever and died. Thus Gilgamesh Laments For Enkidu sees a return to a mellow, placid style with an emphasis placed on the keyboards. On this track Garone's vocal style reminded me somewhat of Chris De Burgh. The distraught Gilgamesh decided to seek out immortality and went on a Journey that led him to Siduri, the owner of an inn. The Journey is a pleasant instrumental featuring classical guitar that leads into the sixties tinged Siduri. At times the track sounds almost child-like whilst at others there is a flower power feel to the music here, reminding me slightly of the Ramases And Sel music.
Siduri led Gilgamesh to Utnapishtim, once a mortal who managed to become immortal. This person is similar to the Moses of the Bible having survived the Great Flood. Here Garone reverts to the acoustic guitar accompanied by tin whistle. Utnapishtim showed Gilgamesh that to become immortal he had to go beyond The Far Away and seek The Flower Of Life. Having found the Flower, Gilgamesh was scared of its powers and decided to test it on one of his elders, but before this could happen it was eaten by a snake and the Flower Of Life was lost forever. The Far away has a bombastic sound, a sharp contrast to the previous tracks that were acoustic. However it is on this track that a here seemed to be a similarity in both style and presentation that I felt between Tony Garone's presentation and that of British folk-progressive bands such as Fairport Convention. Admittedly there is very little in terms of folk on The Far Away, and possibly it was the vocals that led me to such a comparison. Mike Carr assumes vocal duties as The Flower Of Life, and with this track there is a return to Middle Eastern flavours coupled with percussion loops though the keyboards still retain a dominant role.
Thus the story ends with Gilgamesh returning to The Temple Of Anu, still a mortal but a much wiser king. Lost In the Temple Of Anu is rather lame and it is a pity that the last vocal track on the album should be possibly the weakest track present.
Musically this album should appeal to all those who appreciate the fusion of ethnic music with traditional rock music. On the other hand do not expect to hear lengthy solos or complex musical elements. Most of the music is played utilising acoustic instruments and each individual track features little or no variety within itself. On the other hand the presentation of this album coupled with the Gilgamesh Web Companion, make this album intriguing and should entice the listener to seek more information on The Epic of Gilgamesh.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.