Reviews in this issue:
Gordon Giltrap - Music For The Small Screen
Gordon Giltrap is a British guitar player, who started recording in the late sixties. He has worked and recorded with many great (prog) rock artists, like Steve Howe, Rick Wakeman, Brian May, Midge Ure, Clive Bunker, Ian Mosley, Simon Phillips and Matt Clifford. Over the years, Giltrap has recorded a lot of albums, some of which have recently been re-released by the Voiceprint label. In this review, I will concentrate on two of his albums, that were originally recorded in 1982 and 1995.
Let me start by saying that I'm not overly impressed by Giltrap's music. I know several of his albums, and I must say it's not really my kind of music. Most of Giltrap's albums are fully instrumental. His music is quite melodic and well played. Being a guitar player myself, I must say that I really like his style (especially on the acoustic guitar), but his compositions don't strike me as particularly strong. There certainly is some prog rock approach to the arrangements and instrumentation, but most of his music is not overly progressive, complicated or adventurous. This also goes for these two albums.
The first album, Airwaves (1982), started as an album of "library music" (written for use on television or radio). But according to Giltrap, the record company decided to release it as an official album. As I said, it's all instrumental. Main instruments are Giltrap's guitars, but the album has a good band feel. The pieces seem to fit well together. On some of them the electric guitar reminds me a bit of Dire Straits, but most of the songs have a feel not unlike Camel. In fact, the last three bonus tracks on the album (coincidentally) bear the same name as a Camel's Snow Goose album. Airwaves has no weak spots, and even has some "light" progressive influences. It's not bad at all, tasteful, but never really spectacular.
More recent is the other album, Music For The Small Screen (1995). As the title suggest, this is a compilation of the music Giltrap has recorded for various TV programmes (drama series and documentaries). In fact it's a mixed collection of pieces in all kinds of styles: moody, catchy, introspective, colourful. Again: never bad, but never really spectactular, and I don't think these pieces really fit together. My favourite track is the more progressive Heartbeat, with its "all star" cast (Wakeman, Howe, Phillips, Ure & May). This in fact is a new recording of the original version, to celebrate Giltrap's 25th anniversary in the music business.
As I said, I really enjoy Gordon Giltrap's guitar playing. But his albums are not my taste.
Most proggers will find Gordon Giltrap's music too simple. It's not easy to compare his music with other bands, as his sound is very unique. However, if you enjoy bands like Camel or Mike Oldfield, you might give Giltrap a try. I am not familiar with all of his releases, but have the impression these two particular albums are not his strongest works. Airwaves definitely is the better of the two. But if you want to check him out, I suggest you try his album Fear Of The Dark (1978).
Conclusion: 6,5 out of 10 (Airwaves) and 5 out 10 (Small Screen).
The Scorpions - Acoustica
Most of us will know The Scorpions from hits like Still Loving You, Wind of Change, and Send Me an Angel. The band also has a more heavy side, but Acoustica, the band's latest release, is one of those greatest hits live & unplugged albums, and concentrates on the more melodic stuff.
Most of the songs on Acoustica are power ballads, with that typical Scorpions sound, with the exception of 2 or 3 rockers and a slow blues. Strongest element are Klaus Meine's high and dramatic vocals. Also nice is the fact that the album has some interesting cover songs: Love of My Life (a short piano/vocal version of the Queen classic); Drive (a guitar rendition of the hit by The Cars) and Dust in the Wind (an uptime "party" version of the Kansas ballad, which strangely works out pretty well).
On most of the album, the band plays in a full line up, augmented by some extra musicians on cello, keyboards, guitar, percussion and vocals. They all play very well, but still, I found there was something missing. I think it's because the band tried too hard to produce a commercially interesting sound. First of all, the arrangements (and particularly the three girl singers) take away some of the raw edges of the music. And secondly, there is just a very modest role for the guitars (three players!).
Acoustica is a bit of a let down. Although I usually prefer ballads to heavy rock, I must say the album would have been much better with some more fire and aggression. But listening to this album, it's hard to believe The Scorpions have toured with band like UFO, Aerosmith, Uriah Heep, UFO, AC/DC and Iron Maiden.
The band has a lot of interesting song material, that could have made a great unplugged album (a good example being the excellent Unplugged album by Kiss). But on Acoustica, the result is more like ordinary pop. If you like the songs, I advise you to the buy the original versions.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Mona Lisa - Prog Fest 2000
French band Mona Lisa have been around for a number of years and this latest release of their material was recorded live in Los Angeles during ProgFest 2000. The line-up for this gig included Guilliaume de la Pillère (guitar, vocals, flute), Alain de Lille (keyboards, vocals), Martin Goethals (bass), Benoit de Gency (drums) and main songwriter Dominique Le Guennec (vocals, flute), the only remaining member from the original lineup of the band.
Musically the band tend to play a classical style of progressive rock based on seventies influences, mainly Genesis. This is immediately apparent from the opening notes of Captif De La Nuit. Judging from the antics and photos of the band while playing live, the group seem to use a lot of tongue in cheek while playing, though unfortunately this is probably lost in the use of the French language for the vocals. In fact this could possibly be the main stumbling block in the band reaching across to a more numerous audience. The utilisation of a mellotron-like sound does give the music a very classical sound though the music does tend to lack a bit of inventiveness, especially on the opening track.
Le Petit Violon De Mr Grégoire starts off in an intense manner with the use of narration and a rumbling rhythm that breaks out into another Genesis clone. In fact during this particular track, Le Guennec invites Genesis comparisons with his "Mr. Gregoire" costume, which clearly bears a significant similarity to that which Gabriel would use for Musical Box. Les Sabots De Lena adds a new dimension to the stable sound of Mona Lisa with its hard rock guitar introduction. The seventies influences are still predominant especially when the flute is also thrown into the musical ring as a solo instrument. The style is also similar to that of Ian Anderson with heavy breathing accompanying the flute, rather than the classical mode of playing the instrument.
Voyage Avec Les Morts, as its name implies, is a rather more somber piece of music than its predecessor Les Sabots De Lena. The tempo is slowed down with the keyboards and flute creating a heavy air, and admittedly, at over seven minutes the track becomes slightly dragging, only picking up towards the end with the guitar creating some amount of diversion. L'Échiquier De La Vie promises more with its fanfare-like opening section as Dominique Le Guennec makes full use of his Gary Brooker-like rich voice. This seems to be one of the aspects of Mona Lisa's music, as one always seems to expect the music to suddenly break out into a romp with the tension that is created, yet somehow this rarely materialises, unfortunately.
Les Guerriers seems to move along the lines of L'Échiquier De La Vie with its dramatic element while Tripot starts off with a Market Square Heroes (Marillion) keyboard run, making it one of the more entertaining and upbeat tracks on the album (an adrenaline dose that the album sorely needed). Les Noces De Cendres is a rather boring track while the final two tracks are what in my opinion are the highlight of the album, namely Au Pays Des Grimaces and Comme Un Songe. For some reason the band seemed to have saved the best for last with two tracks that manage to combine both the dramatic element of the band together with a certain amount of party atmosphere, something the band are known for when playing live, interjected into the music.
Unfortunately this album does pose a few drawbacks to the non-French speaking listener. Hearing an album sung in an incomprehensible language does tend to have a rather negative effect on one's opinion of an album. Further to that, one of the strong points of the band when they play live is their lively stage show, something which is rather difficult to capture without any visual aid. The music is still entertaining, though there is nothing innovative enough to write home about. Nonetheless, an interesting album yet still not one that would gain too many new fans for the band.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Antares - Choking The Stone
Antares is a giant red star in the constellation Scorpio. Being at the end of its live, it has expanded immensely and is about to explode. The Dutch band Antares is the opposite of that: still being in its infancy (the band has just been formed), they are far from exploding. However, expansion could be a factor which we might want to consider for this rising star on the progressive/symphonic rock/metal scene.
Antares creates a kind of music that is somewhere in between the genre of rock and metal, a bit in the direction where Arena or Threshold takes us. Like Arena and Threshold, they seem to hold the symphonic part more important then the metal part, which generally results in much more interesting compositions then when you take the metal as your base, and try to give it a symphonic attitude. Big exceptions are of course bands like Dream Theater, Pain of Salvation etc. The main point of criticism on the album is the fact that I constantly have the impression that the tracks are not finished yet, that they are recorded in "raw" form. Especially in the intro for Ethnic Cleansing this is apparent. Somehow maybe the recording and mix are too "dry". Also the lack of solo guitar during some sections may attribute to this. You listen to the tapestry, but the actual main melody is not present. An important exception is the track Circle of Keys, where the overall sound is much richer, giving it immediately a more professional feeling.
It seems that the strongest point of guitar player Klaas Pot is rhythmic riffs, which is very obvious from the first track, the oddly titled Ragamuffin Rag-and-bone-man, whose main riff (presented as a solo instrument in the mix) you can't get out of your head. The keyboards, where appropriate, try to give some melodic line, but against the omnipresent rhythm guitar, they are no match. It sounds a bit like most live concerts, where the keyboards are pressed into the background by the guitars.
Ok, let's stop telling what could be better and focus a bit on what's good. First of
all, the vocals are quite OK, giving the tracks a bit of an Egdon Heath (yet
another great symphonic band from the North of the Netherlands) feeling. Also the
compositions are never boring, they are powerful and interesting without ever becoming
too complicated. A good example of this is the title track Choking The Stone, where
the intro is quite quite complex, but still easily digestible, a bit
Kayak-like maybe, in terms of chord changes. The middle part shows some impressive, obviously Portnoy-influenced, drumming.
The general attitude the band has towards music is absolutely all right, and if they manage to give the successor to this album a richer, fuller sound, then I believe that they will expand their fan base to outside Holland. They have potential, but need to grow in the studio. I am convinced however that they will do very fine in a live setting, where the dry sound can be more easily compensated. One to keep an eye on, as Distribee have discovered as well, where you can order the album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.