Reviews in this issue:
Mike Oldfield - The Best of Tubular Bells
The best of Tubular Bells? You've got to be absolutely joking right? Unfortunately I'm not. I'm dead-serious. I'm as serious as can be... The latest sprig in the Tubular Family is yet another compilation of already released material, wrapped in yet another piece of cut-and-paste artwork of the original cover.
But at least with a compilation, you know the music can't be that bad. It is just that the tracklist itself can be read as a pathetic statement of what is the Best. Because of the 12 tracks that form The Best of Tubular Bells, no less than 8 are derived from the original first album (see Counting Out Time for a more uplifting article on that album) and the remaining three Bell albums are represented with two, one and one track respectively.
And it's not that the music in itself is bad or anything, far from it -I still rate Tubular Bells as one of the best albums ever made- it is just that all tracks on this compilation are already widely available on many other formats and albums. While this compilation could have been a great opportunity to rerelease some rare recordings and edits, like the edit of the great finale of Tubular Bells on the Exposed album (but no, we're presented with an edit of the middle section of the track) or the excellent live rendition of Tattoo, off the Tubular Bells II album, which was only released as a limited edition single. But no, that would have been too much work, as the objective of this album was to make a quick and easy buck, or to put it in the words of Mike Oldfield "To be able to introduce a younger generation to Tubular Bells". So quick and easy means: no remastering of hard to find tracks, no new artwork and definitely, seeing this is a Virgin release, not too many tracks that were released on the WEA label as that would of course become too costly.
And as for remastering, the tracks that form Tubular Bells part 1 and 2, have already been remastered in 2000 for the rereleases of those albums, and the tracks from the WEA albums haven't even been remastered at all.
Now the only remotely interesting thing of the album is that the excerpts of the various incarnations of Tubular Bells part 1 are mixed together in a way that they still form the complete composition. So the excerpt of the orchestral versions follows exactly from the point where the first original edit ends, and the second original edit follows from the point where the orchestral edit finishes, and so on. A nice touch, but of course this alone can't save the album.
And like I said before, had this compilation had anything previously unreleased on it, it would have been at least a bit more interesting. There certainly was enough room for it on the disc. But no, as I read on the official website, options are being kept open for yet another release, this time on a double album, with unreleased outtakes. This compilation would be released in about two years time to mark the 30th anniversary of Tubular Bells - go figure...
The liner notes in the four-page booklet focus mainly on the release of the original Tubular Bells album and include a Virgin-only discography, the WEA albums are not mentioned at all (apart from the credits, where is stated that the four non TBI tracks are used "courtesy of WEA records".
The booklet is embellished with a handful of photos which are all had already been included in the Elements Box set (speaking of decent compilations...)
Of course I agree that the album could serve as an introduction to people who aren't familiar with the Tubular Bells material. But wouldn't the best introduction be the Tubular Bells album itself? And for the price they're charging for this compilation you could buy both Tubular Bells and Tubular Bells II.
All in all, it's disgusting. I have no other words for it. You must be really stupid to pay any money for this. Well, if you do insist on buying it, because you're a collector or something (these people exist) then do yourself a favour and check CD-WOW, which charges only £8.99 incl. p&p for it, which is still too much, but at least cheaper than most record stores.
For me personally, since I was already familiar with all the material, one spin at a listening stand in a record store and some research on the Internet were enough for this review. You've been warned.
Conclusion: the music itself is worth 8 points, yet it's zero point for the compilation, so that leaves us with a final conclusion of 4 out of 10.
DFA - Work In progress Live
Recorded at the NEARFest 2000 festival, Works In Progress Live is a recording of the first ever American performance that this Italian band had given and on hearing this album one can immediately appreciate why and how the audience present was won over by this band. The band have released two albums in their career to date, Duty Free Area in 1999 and their debut album Lavori In Corso in 1997, which is Italian for Works In Progress.
The band consists of Silvio Minella (guitars), Luca Baldassari (bass), Alberto De Grandis (drums, vocals) and Alberto Bonomi (keyboards, vocals) and together they have come up with a musical style that manages to fuse both virtuosistic performances from each of the band members as well as a healthy dose of melody. On this album the band have managed to integrate tracks from both of their studio albums creating a musical palette that should provide the listener with a broad view of what their first two albums were all about.
The album opens with the instrumental Escher which is a definitive benchmark by which one can gauge the band's musical influences. Initially the keyboards have an Alan Parsons Project feel to them, though as the track progresses one can feel that the band as a whole unit is stepped in progressive rock influences and one can pick out hints of classic groups such as Genesis and Yes as well as the occasional kraut-rock reference. At times the track also verges onto a similar vein to the Ozric Tentacles, possibly because of the whirring spacey keyboard sound. With Caleidoscopio (Kaleidoscope), things are quietened down a bit in comparison to Escher. Furthermore this track also features vocals, in Italian which admittedly is one of the most beautiful languages to hear vocals sung in. Just as the placid nature of the track starts to seep in, the structure is turned upside down with a sudden change in rhythm. For most of the track we are regaled with these rapid fluctuations between a relaxed feel and a more jazz-like touch in the instrumental sections. The fact that what we are hearing is a live rendition makes the tightness of the band even more impressive especially within the rhythm section.
Trip On Metró is the first track on this album that originally appeared on the band's debut album. When one looks at the history of progressive rock, one notes that Italy was always receptive to the genre and indeed most bands achieved most of their early popularity in this country. Subsequently the influences of many relatively obscure bands also percolated into the musical nature of Italy's progressive rock musicians. With this track one can easily note that one of the band to leave an impression on DFA is Gentle Giant. The use of not too ear friendly chords coupled with complex time signatures that are rapidly evolving and changing on this track are very similar to the Portsmouth band's style of playing especially around the Octopus album.
La Via (The Way) is a conglomeration of what the band aspire to produce and in my opinion is the highlight of the live album. Musically it manages to bring the jazz influences together with the quirkiness passed on to them via their GG influences. To add further intrigue the track also has some inspired vocals. The band does not posses great vocalists but the intonation blends in magnificently with the overall musical nature of the band allowing the vocals to become just another instrument rather than stealing the limelight away from the other instruments.
Pantera (Panther) is yet another chance for the band to demonstrate the tight approach to their music. Though their studio, and live, output may have a feeling of improvisation, after careful comparisons one realises that every beat and note is carefully calculated and planned. At times this track has hints of influences from Close To The Edge (Yes) especially with the keyboard and guitar interplay at around the two minute mark which demonstrates that it is not only the abstract that influences this band but also the classical prog-rock. The album comes to an end with the lengthy Ragno (Spider) which as its name implies has the band crawling all over the track in a style rather similar to Trip On Metró. The keyboard and guitar runs are a definite feature of this track but one must definitely omit the tight rhythm section that manages to to hold everything together.
After having read the reports on how DFA's performance at the NEARFest was one of the better moments on all of the three days, this album acts as a confirmation of what was written. This album is not for those who like their music rather straight forward, but should appeal to those who like a healthy dose of instrumental music coupled with complex arrangements. A definite hit for those who like Gentle Giant!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Finisterre - Storybook
First of all one must remark that is not an entirely new album released by Finisterre. In fact the album is a live recording of the band's appearance at the 1997 ProgDay Festival and was originally released as LIVE AT PROGDAY ’97 (Proglodite PDAY003). This time round the album has been repackaged and a bonus track (Altaloma) has been added to make the album that bit more attractive for prospective buyers.
This Italian band has been around since the early nineties and by the time this concert had come up, the band had already released two albums (Finisterre and In Limine), the highlights of which are represented on this live album. This album should be of interest to Finisterre fans as it portrays the band playing in a slightly different mode to what they are normally accustomed to. The band on the day of the concert had some problems with their equipment and had to play with borrowed instruments. Thus this concert is a rare instance when one can hear the band playing with a Fender Rhodes piano.
The lineup for the concert was as follows; Fabio Zuffanti (bass, vocals), Stefano Marelli (guitars, vocals), Boris Valle (keyboards), Sergio Garzia (flutes) and Andrea Orlando (drums). The gig meant a temporary return to the fold for flautist Sergio Garzia.
The first three tracks were culled from the band's second album with the final four tracks taken from their debut, both sections having the PFM cover version Altaloma in between. The album kicks off with the instrumental In Limine, which starts off with a delightful flute piece that reminded me of a section from Fabrizio de Andre's, Le Nuvole. The track itself allows the main soloists to get their spots and flits between a commercial vein of prog-rock and a rather more jazzed up style, both of which are complemented in admirable fashion by the band. The flute sections have the band playing a light music which is on the go while the remainder of the music is rather laborious, verging on the rock. The mellotron sections are a throwback to the early seventies and the band demonstrate throughout that their musical indoctrination lies well within the classical progressive genre with a nod of the head towards bands such as early King Crimson and Genesis.
Orizzonte Degli Eventi starts off with a mellow flute introduction coupled with some delightful vocals. The music here is almost Canterbury-like in nature, similar to what Caravan would have come up with. However, on a track running at over fifteen minutes in duration, it would be inconceivable in a prog-sense to even dream of the track remaining within the same vein. Close to the three minute mark the music picks up in rhythm and the style slowly starts to shift until the flute is phased out and the mellotron-like sound takes over. Even the vocals become slightly harsher and the mood suddenly becomes darker. Certain cues seem to be taken from Marillion (or should I say Genesis!) numbers, and the music does tend to become a tad bit repetitive and it is the flute that comes to the rescue once again. Hispanica, the last of the In Limine tracks, is very much based on a similar style to Orizzonte Degli Eventi. The style is replete in classical progressive overtones, though the track possesses a quirkiness that the other tracks so far did not have. Once again the instrument that features the most positive moments is the flute, though the acoustic guitar work is also something worth noting as it gives the track that certain Latin flavour.
The bonus track on this album is Altaloma, originally a Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) track. One must admit that this track is somewhat of a strange choice as it is definitely not one of PFM's better numbers, so much so that it rarely features in their live repertoire. Hearing the Finisterre version, the track sounds more like a jam session and fails to impart a lasting impression. Possibly that was why this track was not included on the original release!
The remaining four tracks originally appeared on the Finisterre album, with Macinaaqua, Macinaluna being the fist number performed. The introduction has a lengthy delightful drum roll that shows the band playing in a much heavier yet freer groove. The disparity between the first two albums that the band released is immediately evident. This time round the band seem more intent in adding in a hefty dose of fusion though there is the odd touch of Mozart. Even the vocals are abstract, almost Gentle Giant-esque, making this track one of the more complex and challenging tracks on the album. Asia on the other hand is a more straight forward piece of music with some exquisite runs. The guitar takes on a more distorted aspect while the drums seem to come to life assuming more of a hard rock stance.
Much as Asia had it's classical progressive influences, Phaedra is full to the brim with these
references. In fact I must admit to being slightly miffed at not seeing the names of
Collins/Banks/Hackett/Gabriel/Rutherford, Fripp/McDonald or Anderson/Wakeman/Howe in the songwriting credits!
Calling this track one of their own is somewhat of a blatant rip-off. The track is also utilised starts off in a
style that picks up where Asia left off, in a nice rock vein. You And I (Yes) makes a brief
appearance, but the first lengthy cover comes from In the Court Of The Crimson King (King Crimson).
In between one section of covers and another the band indulge in some pleasant runs that mainly feature duets
between keyboards and guitars. The most obvious cover is the guitar solo from Genesis' Firth Of Fifth
though I am sure that there are a number of references that I missed out on such as Marillion bass lines.
One could have this track used in quiz shows with participants having to mention as many musical references as
possible. On the whole the track itself makes a great medley, but as I already mentioned, the lack of credits where
due bothered me somewhat!
The album comes to a a close with Canto Antico, this time an original track. This is one of the finest tracks on the album bringing together many of the musical ideas that the band possesses.
In conclusion, the album makes a very pleasant listen and a worthy introduction to the band's early work. On the downside the music lacks a certain amount of imagination and musically does sound a bit stale over the course of a whole album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Greenwall - Elektropuzzles
A while ago I wrote about the first album of the one-man project Greenwall "The problem I had was first of all the vocals that often are quite well, but sometimes are over-stretched. Secondly, it all sounds quite dated due to the old keyboards that were used. The lack of a powerful guitar now and then, as Camel knows how to do, made me decide I was not going to recommend this CD as one of the better ones of 2000." Well, Andrea Pavoni has listened to me well, since he has made a completely instrumental album, using the most modern techniques (a lot of it is done via hard disk recording, which seems an excellent technique) and with obviously state of the art instruments! Immediately in the first track he takes revenge for my words by producing a hybrid between a Camel and David Gilmour solo track. Great composition, and very fine guitar playing. I bow my head. However, he is quoted to have only used keyboards. If he indeed has managed to get this guitar out of a keyboard, I bow my head so deep my nose touches my toes.
But after he has proven to me that he can produce some fine melodic rock music, Andrea goes on to experiment with keyboards and as such enters into the realms of men like Jarre or bands like Tangerine Dream, like on Tappetti persiani , which does sound a bit like the Synthesiser Greatest records from the eighties. The next experiment is a very delicately played pure piano classical impressionist piece called Due volte. As a Satie and other impressionist piano composers fan I could really enjoy this little gem. A longer composition called Privato follows. I have no idea how to accurately describe this calm, yet strange music. New Age? Maybe, but it has a far more intriguing composition than most New Age records. However, eleven minutes is a bit too long for my attention span. The same is true for the next track, the optimistic Spiragli di luce, which has a bit of a film music feel to it. This too, could have used a more up tempo middle section.
L'armata delle tenebre is somewhat moodier, and the impressionistic chord sequences add to that. The middle section contains some dissonant brass that is a bit too electronic. The last couple of minutes provide a lovely complex section. The final track consist of three more or less separate parts, of which the second finally brings some of the long awaited tempo, but sounds a bit like Jan Hammer. Not the best part, definitely. In fact, it sounds a bit like computer game tune. The album ends with a somewhat shorter version of the first track. As this was definitely the highlight of the album to me, I didn't mind listening to this track again!
Well, nothing what I remarked about the previous album is true here. However, this album, albeit having some fine compositions, does not gain momentum. In my opinion, the album does not grasp me due to the fact that I loose concentration after 20 minutes of almost drum-less (or only percussion) complex compositions. But on a positive note: if Andrea next comes with an album that mixes the progressive elements of the first album with the recording and compositional skills he displays here, it would be a delightful album. In other words, try to think along the lines of the first track, I truly loved that one. I think people that are looking for a fine, intelligent New Age like album, in which the compositions stand central, may definitely want to check this album out.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Vital Duo - Ex Tempore
The saying goes that History Repeats Itself. When one analyses the structure and history of progressive rock, one can definitely apply such a saying to the genre. The early seventies saw bands such as Amazing Blondel, Gryphon trekking through the uncharted territory of medieval music that groups such as Incredible String Band had unveiled a few years previously. The nineties has seen a renewal of interest in such music with artist such as Loreena McKennit, Blackmore's Night and more recently Vital Duo. As the name implies the members that comprise the group are just two, Thierry and Jean Luc Payssan, both of whom are also members of one of France's foremost progressive rock bands, Minimum Vital. Most of the compositions are originals, though a number of pieces have their roots in compositions from the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth century.
When one listens to this album, one has to not merely look at each track individually, but at the album as a collective effort, much like a classical piece of work divided into movements. La Tour Haute and Les Saisons Marines are two pieces of music that had originally appeared on Minimum Vital albums and though this band blend medieval music with modern rock, the interpretation on this album is completely different to the original versions. Of particular interest is the fact that though the twins manage to present a wound that is definitely middle-aged, the instruments used are modern day ones and little has been utilised in attempting to recreate the original instrumentation that one would have heard a couple of centuries ago. Having said that the two brothers manage to recreate the type of harmonies that one does not find in modern day music. This is not only evident on the tracks that have a traditional composition as its basis, but also on the duo's compositions such as on Loué Son Nom!.
Some listeners might also add that just the playing of medieval music is not enough for an album to be labelled as progressive. However the band manage to integrate various elements of classical progressive rock into their brand of music. Take Ce Me Dame (Ma Dame M'a Trahi) with its minor chord progressions and quirky vocals, ala Gentle Giant (another medievally influenced band!) or Chanson De Trouvére (Nous Sommes Les Enfant Des Epoques) with its continuous shift in time signatures.
There are times when the music has more of an ambient/atmospheric touch to it such as on Tel Rit Au Main... (Qui Rit Au Matin, Pleure Le Soir and Deux Chemins D'Enfance) while the guitar work on the closing Méditation is exquisite. One must mention the one and only blurb on the album which is X File, a terrible attempt at introducing a modern day dance beat in the middle of the organ laden Notre Dame: Une Messe.
The album is an interesting piece of work, which unfortunately, would fail to appeal to all rock music lovers. The amount of people who could appreciate this music are possibly rather limited and it is recommended only to those who like Gryphon or Amazing Blondel. If it is medieval music with more of a harder hitting rock edge that one is looking for, than you would be better off trying out the parent band of these brothers, Minimum Vital.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.