Reviews in this issue:
Ozric Tentacles - Live At the Pongmasters Ball
Tracklist Disc 2: Saucers (8:19), Dissolution (12:30), Sploosh (7:11), Ta Khut (2:35), Kick Muck (5:18), The Throbbe (10:54)
Still going strong after twenty years in the music business, the Ozrics are back, this time with a double live album recorded at Shepherd's Bush Empire on Friday 29th March 2002. Their music could be described as psychedelic music with a dance beat, yet this could be too much of a simplistic description as the band manage to infuse a myriad of styles and rhythms throughout the tracks on the album. The choice of material comes from every period of the band's history with tracks taken from their eighties cassette-only era to latter day albums. No matter how many studio albums one listens to of the Ozrics, theirs is a live experience which has to be tasted. I remember attending a concert of theirs in Italy in the mid-nineties and the vibe and power they exuded was simply impressive.
Many people have tried to describe the band as a latter day Hawkwind, attributing to them the crown of Space Rock, though such a categorisation of the band and their music would be slightly too restrictive. The space rock features of swirling keyboards with lengthy solos are definitely present. However Ozric Tentacles' influences run much deeper than plain simple Hawkwind and one could mention bands such as Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Gong and of course Steve Hillage.
The live album kicks off with the lively Oddentity. One here immediately realises the variety of styles that this band possesses. The bass line has a distinct reggae touch as it pumps throughout the whole of the track whilst the guitars and keyboards swirl around each other. The keyboards occasionally drag out various Middle Eastern tunes which add to the mystique of the music that achieves a hypnotic trance-like touch. The Domes Of G'Bal is also similarly structured as the reggae bass line merges with sounds of the Middle East amidst atmospheric keyboards as is Kick Muck.
Tracks like Erpland shows the rockier side of the Ozric Tentacles with the guitars dominating proceedings as the band shifts through a variety of time signatures that would make any other prog-band envious. A significant element of the Ozric Tentacles' music has its roots in the electronica and, at times, the kraut-rock genre. Oakum opens with a Tangerine Dream-like sequence which slowly blends into the rockier nature of the band as the guitar progressively takes over. Tracks such as It's A Hup Ho World are just one such example whilst Pixel Dream features some impressive guitar solos alongside a addictive pumping bass line.
Actually this band is capable of putting most rock bands to shame when it comes to really rocking out with their music and this crops up many a time on this live album. The end section of Oakum would be a case in point as would the initial parts of Myriapod, which then descends into a contest between airy keyboards and flute. There are times when I have read articles that describe the band as being the only rock band capable of creating a dance rhythm without resorting to studio wizardry. Hearing this live album one can understand how an Ozric concert features most of the audience dancing away as you would expect at a trance or rave party. Pyramidion shows the extent to which the band are capable of creating a hypnotic rhythm that would simply get the crowd swirling.
Sometimes the band seem to pick on different style altogether and Saucers, the first track of the second disc, sees the band in a more acoustic vein giving the track an Iberian touch with its guitar work. However, once again it is the bass line that hooks the listener onto this track. Throughout their pieces, the band always have a definite structure associated with their music and rarely do they over indulge in lengthy solos. An exception to this would be Dissolution which is an up tempo amassment of chaotic guitar work featuring the only spoken words on the whole of the album!
Sploosh has the band resorting to their extensive database of sound effects which help in creating that space-rock effect, yet it is also one of the more accessible and ear-friendly pieces on the album. Ta Khut seems to draw from the other musical extreme of the band as the flute introduction conjures up another Middle Eastern flavoured work which has more to do with Peter Gabriel's Passion soundtrack, though the guitar work soon dispels any notion that this trend would be held for much longer. Live At The Pongmasters Ball comes to a close with The Throbbe, which as can be expected from the title is dominated by a throbbing keyboard sound as the band merge all the various styles from space-rock to Middle Eastern drones into one.
Twenty years on, Ozric Tentacles still remain one of the most innovative, enigmatic and impressive rock bands in circulation. Their ability to create a dedicated fan base as well as a solid sales figure with each album release is an inspiration to most if not all independent bands. Live At the Pongmasters Ball may not be the most accessible of titles for new found fans of the band, yet at the same time allows fans to sample what the band manage to create in a live atmosphere. However as oft happens with live recordings, in actual fact for this recording to work, you would have had to be there.
Thus describes one Joe Saunders his first Ozrics concert. I couldn't have said it any better, having tried to describe their style in the Ozric Tentacle special some years ago. There is no other band like 'The Ozrics' and, as Nigel said, they have maintained and build on their style for 20 years already.
Now, I know that the concept of 'dancing' is probably beyond most of you prog fans, having only learned 'The Harold' which Fish used to teach his audiences in the mid nineties (holding a beer with crossed arms and gently swaying from left to right). I however am a sucker for dance rhythms. It's not that I like much of the contemporary dance music though, most of it is absolute rubbish (although I recently learned that my dislike of Techno disappears linearly with the amount of alcohol consumed). In the music of the Ozrics I have found that very rare combination of rock and dance music. Even though I often have a hard time remembering the names of all those instrumentals, I can always find some tracks on their albums which I fiercely enjoy.
The Ozrics have always played a mixture of different styles, and most of their music can be categorised into one of four types. First, you've got the uptempo guitar frenzies in which band leader Ed goes
absolutely berserk. This style is over-represented on this live album in the form of songs like Erpland, Kick Muck, Myriapod and Dissolution (to name a few). This is actually a good thing, because it is one of my favourite styles. On this live album, most of the other tracks also have an extra dosis of electric guitar thrown in.
Second, you've got the reggae/dub-like compositions and other songs which move along in a very catchy groove. Examples on this album are Oddentity, The Domes of G'Bal and the improvised second half of Pyramidion.
Third, you've got the more electronic, almost techno-like stuff which mainly centers around the keyboards. Examples are Sploosh and The Throbbe. Whereas the originals of these are mainly (if not completely) synth-driven the live version on this album has got a good dosis of electric guitar as well, making them more varied and better than the studio versions.
Finally, you've got the drawn out ambient pieces which often are not my favourites on the studio albums. On this disc they are represented by a short version of the flute focussed Ta Khut and Oakum, which was previously released on a fanclub-only CD.
All of these styles often come with a mixture of eastern and Indian melodies and driving bass lines - which probably only Colin Edwin of Porcupine Tree can compete with - giving the Ozrics their own unique sound.
I found it quite remarkable that there were so few songs from recent albums present on Pongmaster's Ball, for instance, the latest full-length studio album The Hidden Step is only represented by Pixel Dream. Still this is not a bad thing because on one hand we are treated to some of the best Ozrics material from the past two decades, while on the other hand live material from the latest studio albums had already been released on last year's EP Pyramidion.
Up till now I considered the live-in-the-studio album Spice Doubt my favourite Ozrics album. Not only because it featured a collection of some of their best songs, but also because, when playing live, the band often improvise or expand on the studio versions without ever
turning it into a boring and dragging affair. The same goes for this new CD, for instance in the new intro for Oddentity, the second half of Myriapod and the reggae jam at the end of Pyramidion, to name a few. And that's exactly what I want from a live album. Everybody can play an studio album note for note, but it takes a good live band to actually take the tracks to different
places so the listener actually finds something new in the music.
Besides that, the band plays incredibly tight, almost as if you are listening to one single entity instead of 5 guys trying to keep up with each other.
So, to sum it up, you get almost two hours of splendid music played incredibly well and with added value compared to the studio versions. Compared to the regular studio albums I can also conclude that this live album does not contain any weak tracks; it's classics all the way. This can only lead me to the conclusion that this isn't just a good starting point for anybody wanting to sample the world of the Ozrics, it's also my favourite Ozrics album to date ! If there was ever an Ozric Tentacles album you needed to buy, this is the one !
Barclay James Harvest - Caught Live
The story of Barclay James Harvest (BJH) dates back to the late sixties, in fact to the summer of 1967 to be more precise, and brought together John Lees [Guitar & Vocals], Les Holroyd [Bass, Guitar & Vocals], Stuart "Woolly" Wolstenholme [Keyboards & Vocals] and Mel Pritchard [Drums]. All four musicians originating from Oldham in Lancashire, England and make-up one of the UK's most endearing and longest serving bands. In recent times, Woolly Wolstenholme has come out of his self imposed retirement, and is collaborating with John Lees on the Nexus CD. Les Holroyd and Mel Pritchard are currently promoting the Revolution Days CD and are amidst a fairly heavy tour schedule throughout Germany and Europe.
The music of BJH is firmly embedded in the melodic and more readily accessible end of the progressive rock spectrum. Lush keyboards, themic guitar passages, immediate melodies with rich vocal harmonies and although the music was not overly challenging in complexity, it certainly was one of the fore-runners of the symphonic sound. So much so that the band augmented the mellotron sound with partial & full orchestral arrangements for many of their songs and even enlisted Robert Godfrey [The Enid] as their "Resident Musical Director". Barclay James Harvest were very much in the Moody Blues vein, a reference they became increasingly irritated with over the years, so much so that they penned a song entitled "Poor Man's Moody Blues", a snipe at this constant comparison. The track was very derivative of the Moody's Night's in White Satin and if memory serves me correctly used the same chord sequence, not surprisingly this did become a favourite among BJH's fans. In reality BJH wrote many memorable songs, sold a great many albums and perhaps should have been seen more as contemporaries of the Moody's rather than clones.
The DVD features the recently re-discovered 50 minute documentary style film of the band. Opening with individual conversations with each of the band members and interlaced with on-stage versions of the songs taken from their 1977 German tour. The film is also a nostalgic insight into the band on the road, covering many of the back-stage preparations and includes a nice little section when the support band failed to turn up. Here enters Trevor Warman one of the band's road crew, who we see earlier in the documentary playing guitar on the tour bus and now elevated to on-stage entertainer (and not for the first time). A nice little touch.
Although the audio quality is somewhat poor, even after extensive re-mastering, the picture quality has been restored and is much better, but not brilliant. The concert footage captures the band arguably at the pinnacle of their career, by this time having released nine studio albums and features many of their favourite tracks from their extensive catalogue of material, Child of the Universe, Mockingbird, Suicide?, Rock and Roll Star and The Great 1974 Mining Disaster. Also included on the DVD is some extremely rare and until now, unreleased footage of the 1974 Drury Lane Concert. Again note should be made that the audio quality of this concert is not great.
As with the recent review of Emerson, Lake & Palmer's Pictures at an Exhibition DVD, Classic Pictures Entertainments should be applauded for issuing this nostalgic film footage. It would be all too easy to ignore these past gems and look to the wealth of current prog rock material that is becoming available for DVD. I would suggest a must for BJH fans and from my own personal point a pleasant re-kindling of music that I had not listened to for some time now. Much store is made of the sound and film quality possible on DVD discs, but note should be made that some of the charm of these re-issues of "old concert footage" is that it is reflective of the times and the technology of that period. My suggestion would be ignore the fact that a 5.1 Dolby Digital version is available (nothing can be gained in audio/visual quality here) and enjoy the music as it was, but which is now available on this accessible media.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Bob Katsionis - Turn Of My Century
This Greek keyboardist comes from a speed metal background having played with the likes of Fatal Morgana and Acid Death. Just reading about Katsionis' musical background should be enough preparation as to what to expect from this album. Aided only by Jimmy B. on 5-string bass, the album is a full blown rush with various melodic variants on a speed metal theme.
Of course the keyboards are the dominant instrument on the whole of the album, with the remaining instruments relegated to a purely rhythmic background accentuated by the incessant pounding double bass drum (synthesised of course!). Not all tracks are fast and furious. Pieces such as Windows To The World and My Strange Girl allow Katsionis to utilise his guitar skills amidst a slower and much more musically accessible tempo.
A number of tracks show off Katsionis' Greek background such as Cold Pale Skin which has a Vangelis flavour to it while tracks such as Enemy's Adagio and Song Of The East fuse the Eastern European influences with Mediterranean ones creating a sound that differs greatly from the melodic metal from Scandinavia, for example.
However, one should ask what is there about this melodic metal album that could be described as progressive rock? In truth, very little and this is a flaw that most albums released by the Lion Music seem to possess. Melodic metal keyboard licks and the occasional foray into the speed metal sphere does not qualify as progressive rock. Unfortunately, though an interesting and pleasant metal album, Turn Of My Century does not kindle any of the progressive flame. This album is better left for the metal-lovers.
Conclusion:5 out of 10.
Electrum - Standard Deviation
Right from the outset of this CD I had the distinct feeling that I was going to enjoy this band. Opening with some precise bass harmonics, dexterous and flamboyant drumming, with solid and innovative guitar work, my early perceptions were quickly confirmed. Not an easy listening album, but one full of dynamic and complex arrangements, ever challenging timing changes, and nicely melodic sections. So, definitely not one to put the feet up to after a hard day and chill-out to, with a glass of beer or a cup of coffee. Standard Deviation follows up the band's first release from 1998, Frames of Mind.
Electrum is collectively: Gino Foti [Bass & Synthesizers], Dave Kulju [Guitars & Synthesizers] and Joe Musmanno [Percussion]. The album came with comprehensive notes regarding all aspects of the band and their music, but as usual I tend to skip over these initially and then put them to one side. This is not that I am ungrateful, but more so that my opinions are not coloured by what the band may think, and later on, it is nice to see if there is some correlation between my summations and the band's viewpoint. This is not to say that after drafting the review, that things may not be added if it is relevant to the music or the people behind the music.
Although on the surface Electrum have a guitar, bass and drums line-up, the tracks are nicely augmented by the inclusion of some cogent keyboard sections both in the chordal structure and in some of the lead sections. The keyboards therefore form a significant portion of the overall sound, it is unclear whether these parts are sequenced or played, my feeling goes toward the latter, or possibly a mixture of both. The inclusion of keys does tend to make the material more diverse and in many ways more accessible - which is always a good thing. Initial thoughts, taking into consideration Electrum's three piece make-up and choice of instrumentation was that they must have been, or in fact still are, into Rush and after the first run-through of the album, I had a listen to YYZ from Moving Pictures. However, it should be noted that this is not a Rush type album, nor is intended as such.
I had toyed with the idea of doing a track by track précis; however two factors deterred me from this idea. Firstly this type of write-up is always more difficult with instrumental albums and secondly I felt I could be writing for weeks as each track was a multitude of ideas. Eventually I came to the conclusion that my initial thoughts may be the simplest approach - comprehensive notes on each of the individual tracks can be found at the band's website. As a possible guide I had considered the music to have influences from the following, either on each of the individual members or the band as a whole - Rush, Brand X, Steve Morse & Dixie Dreggs, Bruford (early), Chick Corea Electric Band and John Petrucci (Dream Theater).
Illustrations as to the material and possible highlights would be as follows. A Tense Bow... A Moving Target; a brief but complex piece with time signatures abounding (it certainly lost me at times) and includes solo sections from each of the individual musicians. The Impudent Piece of Crockery; a superb track concentrating around the stylish guitar of Dave Kulju. The opening track The Will to Power, which contains all the elements that make up Electrum's music, one of those tracks that if you decided you were not keen on a particular section, the band had already moved on to the next. Electrum's progressive leanings are best captured during the final half of Seven Falls, Eight Rises, a splendidly orchestrated section.
So trying to put Standard Deviation in a nutshell, we have an instrumental album that is both complex and diverse; subtle and themic, whilst covering many styles and constructed around a "power trio" framework. At times jazz rock, jazz fusion, power prog (is there such a thing?), symphonic progressive rock and so on. A visit to the bands website is probably on the cards as samples from each of the tracks can be found there and possibly enough of a taster to get the flavour of this album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Frágil - Sorpresa Del Tiempo
The South American Peninsula has been a treasure trove for progressive rock enthusiasts ever since the genre achieved worldwide status. Till this very day there are a number of bands that still dominate the rock scene in South America which command a rich and dedicated following. One of these very bands is Peruvian band, Frágil who have been playing and releasing albums since 1975. Not the most prolific of bands (they have only released five albums since 1975), they play a musical style still stepped in progressive rock tradition. This recording is a live album recorded with a twenty six piece orchestra and is indeed a gem of an album.
There have been a number of live progressive rock albums that have been recorded with the aid of an entire orchestra, with Yes being the latest classic band to do so following in the path of the likes of bands such as Procol Harum and Caravan. Sorpresa Del Tiempo deserves to be ranked alongside these classics as it embodies the colour and vivacity of a band playing some great progressive rock tunes with the bombasticity of an orchestra alongside it. The two never overpower each other, in fact, they tend to complement each other to perfection.
Musically the band re-evoke the emotions and style of classical progressive rock bands, such is the bands' affinity for this musical style that the band name is named after the Spanish translation of the Yes album, Fragile. The line-up itself has remained virtually unchanged throughout the years save for the comings and going of vocalist Andrés Dulude. Also forming part of the band are César Bustamante (bass), Luis Valderrama (guitar), Octabio Castillo (keyboards and flute) and Jorge Dutand (drums and percussion).
Obertura is just an introductory instrumental piece serves mainly to introduce the band and orchestra to the public. However, with Av. Larco the band really start kicking up the dust. The orchestra does not overpower the band and serves mainly as a form of filler giving the backdrop a broader sound. One of the more interesting aspects of Frágil is the fact that they do not just produce purely progressive rock tracks. In fact they have a strong affinity to many of the Italian progressive rock bands such as PFM and Banco del Mutuo Soccorso in that they are able to project concise ear-friendly pieces alongside relatively more complex material. An example of their ability in composing such material is Mundo Raro which has the whole audience singing along with the band on this moving track.
Pastas Pepas Y Otros Postres allows the orchestra to come to the fore in this very Italian-like track while Lizzy allows Octavio Castillo to show off his prowess on the flute on this instrumental piece. Tracks like Esto Es Iluminación and Oda Al Tulipan are relatively similarly styled with an easy sing-along touch that is rare to find in the progressive rock scene. Having said that I would not want to diminish the musical quality of the band. Tracks like Le Dicen Rock give the band a post-Hackett Genesis feel, always accompanied by that booming orchestra backing. Animales, Caras and Fotogramma simply flow by in an impeccable unobtrusive fashion until the album comes to an end with uplifting Sorpresa Del Tiempo in which the flute leads both band and orchestra through a waltz-like piece that places the band on a par with classic rock bands such as Jethro Tull and Renaissance.
One of the main drawbacks that I found with this live album was the simple fact that the tracks themselves are disjointed in that there are definite breaks in the recording between one track and another thus depriving the listener of the emotional power of a full blown concert. However this is an extremely pleasant album which should please most progressive rock lovers. The music is never overdrawn with most of the tracks trimmed to a concise length allowing them to that much more accessible to the new listener. The Spanish singing should not put one off from buying the album as it blends in perfectly with the style of the band. This is a gem of an album that unfortunately could be easily missed by the progressive rock fan. However, should you get the chance to get your hands on it, do so.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.