Reviews in this issue:
Mostly Autumn - The Lord Of The Rings
The Unexpected Album, is what Mostly Autumn themselves call this CD. Well it indeed came as a surprise to me. The subject, Tolkien's magnificent epos The Lord Of The Rings, has of course been an inspiration to zillions of symphonic and progressive rock bands now and in the past (there is probably not a single name in the book that is not used by a sympho band as their name). With the movie The Lord Of The Rings creating a peak interest in the works of Tolkien, now could of course not be a better time to produce an album with this title. And who else but the biggest rising stars of progressive rock, Mostly Autumn, could do that. With their typical style of mixing folk music and powerful symphonic rock they have the perfect tool to capture both the dark threatening side as well as the more pastorale side that the book contains. They have created the album in 14 days of intense work, which is a short period (but then again, that is sort of the same time that Transatlantic take to write an album). Naturally, this causes melodies to be reused, as a kind of different themes that run through the album. Besides, they had already put two LotR-inspired tracks, Out Of The Inn and Helm's Deep (which is featured as a live video clip on the CD) on other albums (on For All We Shared... and The Last Bright Light respectively).
The album opens powerful and dark, as the ring is forged by Sauron and is picked up by Gollem, until it reaches the pocket of Bilbo. The Sauron theme, which reoccurs several times on the album, is introduced here. The album literally opens with a bang. The album then quietens down with the very pastorale Greenwood The Great. A moody, calm acoustic track which at the end suddenly bursts out in a very sharp guitar piece, which undoubtly is the musical version of the Black Riders. Fantastic when played at over 80 dB ;-).
Goodbye Alone is about Frodo's doubts to leave The Shire. A calm, melancholic piece, with a good guitar solo at the end, in the style of "recent" (Division Bell) Gilmour. Out of the Inn follows, which was also featured on For All We Shared... as mentioned before. On that album, the track starts with a pub song, which Frodo sings in the book. The track on this album lacks that intro is rerecorded and more uptempo than that on For All We Shared..., but is basically the same. Some parts are less raw than the previous version. I am not sure which version I like better. The more "pure" version on For All We Shared... or this version, which reminded me in guitar playing style of the Animals album of Pink Floyd.
Continuing this Gilmour reference is On The Wings of Gwaihir, which is more in the style of Dave's About Face album. One of the lesser tracks on the album for me. At Last To Rivendell gives the subtlety of the elves by having almost half the track played in a musical box fashion, and the rest is pure folk music. Journey's Thought has a meditative mood (duh...) about it and reminded me very much of the intro of Camel's Heroes on The Single Factor. Then it's power up with the distorted (remember the Company came into a snow storm) Caradhras the Cruel. A nice track, but it could have been worked out a bit further.
The Riders of Rohan is quite a good track, with a strong vocal line by Heather Findley, but nothing really special. One of the best tracks is Lothlorien, very, very delicately played and sung it is one of the most subtle tracks I have heard recently. Shivers down the spine! This subtlety is crushed by The Return of the King, with a powerful guitar power chord sequence. Quite a nice contrast! The album ends (for those of us who do not listen on the PC) with To the Grey Havens, refeaturing some of the previous melodies in a different fashion, in the same Single Factor-way as Journey's Thought. Those with a PC get a bonus: A live clip of Helm's Deep (of The Last Bright Light). The sound quality of this clip really sucks. There is an extremely annoying very high frequence beep troughout the track. It is however nice to seem them play live (and feast your eyes on some drawings of The Lord Of The Rings).
Recording a concept album in 14 days has the advantage that the concept is not lost out of sight. However, it also includes some risks (overly repeating melodies etc.). Mostly Autumn have not fall too deeply into that last pitfall, but nevertheless the album could have been a tat more varied. This is compensated for by some stunning tracks (the best ones for me being the first four and Lothlorien). Again a winner from Mostly Autumn!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Oliver Wakeman - Chakras
Oliver Wakeman's album Chakras was released almost simultaneously with The Hound Of The Baskervilles. This might seem a bit strange, but Chakras is not an official solo album, but a commissioned work. It was written and recorded as part of the Spiritual Vitamins series of albums, some other titles being Power Yoga, Tantric Massage and Native American Chants.
Chakras is not a prog rock album, like Jabberwocky or Baskervilles, but "New Age" music for relaxation or meditation. As you might expect from a New Age album, it's fully instrumental, melodic and reflective. The music was written and played by Oliver Wakeman, and recorded in February and March 2001.
The album comes in a cartboard cover, which doesn't mention Oliver Wakeman's name, but he is mentioned in the booklet, which also has some background info on the Chakras theory. As the booklet explains, the word "Chakras" refers to the seven energy channels in the human body (spiritual energy, psychic energy, communication, love, logic, sexuality and basic energy). I'm not too much into spiritual theories, but it would seem "logical" that the seven pieces on the album correspond with these seven items.
The album sounds well balanced. The pieces all have similar moods and sound schemes, and they fit together well. Olivers plays piano and various keyboards on all tracks. No drums or percussion are used, but some tracks have strong rhythmic keyboard parts (like in Svadisthana or the beautiful, oriental sounding Manipura). The musical themes are quite nice, just like on Oliver's previous instrumental album, The 7 Ages Of Magick. On Chakras it's all a bit less attention grabbing, due to the New Age nature of the album. It's a bit like someone said: "If the music sends you to sleep, it's because it is doing its job."
Generally spoken, I am not a great lover of New Age music. It often seems to lack "identity", and as it's never meant to be "spectacular". I sometimes consider New Age the exact opposite of prog rock. Having said this, I must say I found this album quite pleasurable. It's perfect melodic background music, even if you play it loud. If you don't like New Age stuff, just forget about this album. But if you do, you might find this a very nice release.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Bag: Theory - A Good Ass-Kicking Wears Many Faces
Before any review can be made of this album, one must first become familiar with what Bag: Theory is all about. Bag: Theory is an improvisational music company, a spin off from Paper Bag, which has at its basis drummer and percussionist M. Segal. Together with guitarist Antony Cossa, the two have created this album enlisting the help of fellow musicians, Tom Shannon (Death & Taxes) on bass and Chapman stick, Matt Brown on keyboards, George Radai (Paper Bag, Ritual) on bass, Richie Häss (Zoogz Rift, Saccharine Trust) on vibes and Marc Mylar (Two Separate Gorillas, Zoogz Rift) on saxophone, clarinet and melodica.
Improvisation is the name of the game on this particular album, though A Good Ass-Kicking ... thankfully does not feature the unnecessary endless doodling that one tends to find on such albums. In fact many of the tracks are condensed to the four to five minute barrier allowing the listener to grasp what the musicians involved were trying to point out without getting lost in frivolous soloing and jamming.
The album was recorded between September 2000 and May 2001, with some tracks also recorded live for a radio show called "Noise Pollution"! As can be expected much of the music, being improvisational, would tend to be compared to such luminaries as Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart, more so the former. There does not seem to be the roots feel that one could grasp from Captain Beefheart's recordings, whilst on the other hand there is a tendency to feel that the band move along a free jazz approach when playing though the sound is decisively rock in nature.
Melody is also a feature of many tracks from this recording such as on Last Scream Of The Missing Surfer which has a touching sixties feel to it. The presence of a saxophonist/clarinetist could also bring about comparison to various progressive rock bands, namely Van Der Graaf Generator and possibly at times Hawkwind. Various other tracks such as Solid Gone, possess a solid jazz backbone that would have categorised any other band as a jazz band.
Of course, having said all this there are pieces, such as Worms, Flies, Spiders, in which the music is almost absolutely free and devoid of the normal structure that one attributes to a rock song. However that is to be expected on such an album, though the tracks in themselves more often than not feature a mixture of free improvisation and seemingly well construed rock.
A Good Ass-Kicking Wears Many Faces is one of those albums that are extremely difficult to categorise and possibly even give a grade to. Listening to it over and over again makes me realise that this is one album that is too free to be considered rock, yet at the same time too rock to be considered jazz! What is certain is that with repeated listening the album does, unlike many similarly marketed albums, tend to sound more and more familiar and at the same time offer the listener new melody lines as well as challenges. What is definite is that after hearing this album, one minds bewildered at how this intense and tight music is totally improvised. Unbelievable!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10.
Third Voice - Moments Like These
This is second release from Pittsburgh's Third Voice following up their 1998 debut Reflections and continues with the strong melodic rock format established there. Fourteen powerhouse riff orientated Prog Metal tracks with a sound that is reminiscent of 80's Heavy Metal albeit with a greater variation within the arrangements.
Moments Like These opens with the interesting mid tempo Simple Man, twin harmony guitars which pre-empt the arrival of Jeff Kearney's raucous vocals. Similarly the next two tracks Setting Sun and End of the Circle follow in much the same style as in the previous song, with a strong infectious verse/chorus format, memorable "hook lines" and some dexterous and tasteful soloing from Jason Pirone. A gentle keyboard passage opens song four Take Me Back, played by Jason, who incidentally plays all the instruments on the CD including the sequence programming for the tracks. The song grows well, however we are quickly re-aquainted with the big guitar riff and back with the carefully crafted rock framework that, although amply display the abilities of the two principal musicians, does not introduce anything paticularly new.
This pretty much sums up my feelings towards this album, after several listenings I found that the vocal melodies were rattling around in my head - a testament to the strength of the song writing abilities of Messers Pirone and Kearney but I felt perhaps with two or three band members to collaborate ideas with, that Third Voice could elevate themselves into a forceful Prog Metal entity.
The album makes a big up-turn with the instrumental My Voice. A track that moves onto acoustic guitar with a light airy keyboard background and features some tasteful guitar playing - one of the shorter tracks that, for me, could have gone on and on. Interestingly again toward the end of Moments Like These there are three acoustic numbers Home, New Day and Carry My Soul (Part 1), which still contained the strong melodic content shown previously but displayed another aspect to Third Voice's music. I couldn't help pondering if these tracks had been interspersed within the main body of the CD, that this would have given greater variation and consequently lent strength to the album as a whole.
All in all, Moments Like These, had a number of major pluses - Jason Pirone's abilities as a guitarist were ever present, strong melodies - especially in the chorus sections and the dynamic of Jeff Kearney as a rock vocalist. I must admit to not listening to great deal of this style of prog metal, however bands like Queensryche, Fates Warning, Enchant and bits of Dream Theater all came to mind. So check it out yourself!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Archetype - Dawning
Archetype is a four piece band from Ohio (USA). After their 1998 EP Hands of Time, Dawning is their first full length release. And boy, this is heavy Metal stuff...
The music on Dawning is a combination of Metal and Prog. The overall sound is mainly Metal, with complex song structures and arrangements, and many changes in pace and moods. Instrumentally, it's all well played. The album sounds very energetic.
All 10 tracks are played in fast rhythm, for which the drums and bass provide a powerful backing (lots of heavy bass drumming going on here). The singer is quite good: his voice is powerful, sometimes screaming, sometimes grunting (in the background). There are no keyboards on this album, but the many guitars fill this "gap" quite well. They are very dominant, and sometimes even spectacular. It's mainly electric guitar of course, both fast soloing and heavy rhythmic stuff. Some tracks have some extra acoustic guitar as well, which I found very refreshing.
Listening to the album, I don't think it's something for tradional prog rock lovers. The music has only limited "prog-appeal", as it's the "metal" approach that defines the overall band sound. Progressive influences are mainly in the arrangements. The song material is a bit too "unproggy" for my taste.
If you like more than "just a bit" of Metal, you might enjoy the power and energy of the music and the great guitar playing. For Metal standards, the music is all quite melodic: heavy and agressive, but never too raw. The band sometimes sounds a bit like Queensryche, but I also hear influences of Dream Theater, Yngwie Malmsteen and bands like Judas Priest, Savatage and King Diamond.
Best moments: the instrumental piece The Mind's Eye, Dawning, Inside Your Dreams (nice spanish guitar), and the epic piece Years Ago.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.