Reviews in this issue:
Vanden Plas - Beyond Daylight
Beyond Daylight is Vanden Plas's fourth full-length studio album and appears over two years since the release of Far Off Grace, their last studio effort. Of course in the meantime we have had 2000's The Spirit of Live but since then the band have been very quiet, partly due to problems with guitarist Stephan Lill's wrist and partly because they have been working on musicals and other projects.
Far Off Grace certainly raised the band's profile. The excellent production from Dennis Ward showcased the band's instrumental strengths very well, highlighting their mighty rhythm section of Andreas Lill on drums and bassist Torsten Reichert, as well as the inventiveness of keyboard player Günter Werno. However the big change seemed to be in the guitar department, where Stephan Lill's sound became much heavier in a way which was reminiscent of Dream Theater's John Petrucii, particularly around the period of their Awake album. The new 'hardness' in their sound seemed to dominate over the more whimsical, melodic side of the band and as result it remains my least favourite disk of theirs.
Nightwalker is the right sort of tune with which to open the disk. Moody and menacing, with some tasty basswork from Torsten, the big chorus is powerful and anthemic enough to give the disk a real kick-start. The sound, though heavy, is somehow better balanced and this tune is a promising start to the disk. It is followed by Cold Wind, which opens with some nice piano that is soon drowned out with one of Stephan's chunky riffs. However as the song develops there are some rich chorus parts and a neat break into a instrumental section which features a gorgeous, fluid guitar solo from Stephan.
Scarlet Flowerfields is one of those immediately catchy Vanden Plas numbers, opening for a change with some pleasant acoustic guitar and building steadily in intensity up to a classic, soaring chorus. Beautiful keys from Günter in the middle section carry the song along and although the chorus is 'heavier', this is achieved through a build up in atmosphere and volume rather than with a heavy guitar-driven approach. In fact, as it also contains a neat guitar solo from Stephan it forms a perfect resume of their style and in the same way as You Fly or How Many Tears it shows every sign of becoming a live favourite.
However, having made a promising start, the disk dips a little in the middle. Healing Tree, has Andy largely accompanied by Stephan but it lacks a sense of urgency. End Of All Days is slightly better, containing a trademark Vanden Plas chorus and a nice keyboards solo, but once again the construction and tempo changes seem predictable rather than flowing naturally and it might benefit from having been made a little shorter.
Free The Fire is a return to their earlier more Hard Rock-style root. It has a welcome urgency not found on the other songs, an uplifting chorus and a fine guitar solo from Stephan Lill, yet still fails to satisfy. But then we have Can You Hear Me, a dreary, over-long number which dissipates all the energy of the preceding number and which is a real low-point of the disk.
Fortunately, just when things were looking bad, the material improves with the lively Phoenix, every bit as positive as its title suggests, raising the disk from the depths and brings the listener to the final, title track Beyond Daylight - the key to unlocking the mystery behind the stories of the preceding numbers. It is a brilliant resume of their style and of the preceding tunes, taking little excerpts and blending them into an impressive, progressive number.
The bonus track on the Limited Edition version of the disk, is a cover of Point Of No Return by Kansas. Short and punchy with a memorable chorus, it fits well alongside their own material. Vanden Plas perform a faithful rendition, just adding their own, slightly harder edge to the tune, by way of making it their own. It accomplishes its purpose with a brevity, which Vanden Plas would do well to copy.
With this disk the band have achieved a pleasing balance to their sound melding melody and big choruses again alongside a rock solid rhythm department and pounding guitar. If there are Dream Theater fans who feel that their recent disks have lacked a little punch, then this is perhaps the sort of antidote they require. However, for the seasoned Vanden Plas fan this is very much 'more of the same'. The band appear to have neither expanded their sound nor written more than a couple of really great tunes. Its solid stuff, but Scarlet Flowerfields and the title track aside, it seems to lack any emotional intensity. I had expected more.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Dreadnaught - The American Standard
The American Standard is third album by Progabilly trio Dreadnaught. Don't take the album title to literally, as not one single standard is used here, but many musical styles are mixed up in a crazy way.
Dreadnaught is a band that likes to confuse its audience. A piece may start in a relaxing jazz style, and then suddenly changes to fast rockabilly (!), mixed with some exciting "classic" prog rock (as in The Jester's Theme).
The band borrows elements from a wide variety of musical styles, makes fun of them by blowing them up to ridiculous proportions, and then -after a few bars- changes to another completely different style. All in a dazzling tempo that keeps the listener in a constant state of musical confusion.
Especially in the many instrumental parts, melodies and rhythms are completely turned inside out (the first track, the instrumental Ballbuster, made me wonder "what the heck is going on here?").
The drums are quite jazzy and technical, constantly shifting into different time signatures. The bass guitar is restless, both supporting and attacking the drum parts with dominant and aggressive melody lines, not quite unlike Chris Squire (Yes). The main instrument is the guitar. Don't expect the usual "melodious" guitar solos here, they're often very wild and bizarre. I can hear quite some Yes (Steve Howe) and King Crimson (Robert Fripp) influences here. The vocals are not too strong, often destorted and not too much on the foreground. Some tracks also have additional instruments (sax, kazoo, violin, flute, organ and syths), which adds a nice colour to the sound spectrum.
The album has 13 separate tracks, some of which are connected parts of musical "suites". It's hard to point out some favourite tracks, as the album is an ongoing mixture of musical twists and turns, rather than a collection of songs and instrumental pieces. I think the album is mainly interesting in a "technical" way. The musical format comes closest to King Crimson (mainly the hectic Larks, Starless and Red period). The band has the weird sense of humour of The Cardiacs, and might also appeal to those who like the ecclectic Zappa stuff. The Yes influences are mainly in the way the instruments are played, but the musical result is totally different.
I quite like The American Standard for its energy and its experimental approach of the prog rock idiom. Traditional prog rock fans may find the album too hectic and technical. It seems the band is not interested in creating "magical bombast" or emotionally haunting songs. As the album is quite "uneasy listening", I think it will be appreciated best by the more 'progressive' prog rock fans.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Dealen - Forgotten Tapes
Instrumental albums are always difficult to review, and this one is no exception. Dealen is the pseudonym for Dutch Ruud Dielen, and this self-produced album contains music he wrote and recorded between 1986 and 1991.
The album contains mellow, atmospheric instrumentals, which are all pretty much in the same vein as the music of Gandalf, although there is more emphasis on the guitars. In his playing style there is also some influence of Mike Oldfield, and overall the album reminds me a lot of the Tony Harn album I recently reviewed.
Some heavenly, new age style pieces like Astral Body and the very 'aptly' titled aZ gWIR a eVEB d'AR bED are alternated with more upbeat tracks like A Dream Within A Dream and For You And I (the latter of which contains some great roaring guitarwork and a very Cyrille Verdeaux-type keyboard solo). Temple Of Heaven is serves as "the epic closer", containing various tempo-changes, some really atmospheric and psychadelic themes and a great guitar solo in the middle.
All tracks were recorded between 1986 and 1991 and there lies the largest point of criticism I have. Despite the remastering, the recordings sound rather dated. Especially the drum computer is quite horrible at times. However, on the whole this is a very pleasant album to listen to; Seven lovely athmospheric instrumentals with a healthy dose of spacey new age!
This CD can be bought for € 8.75 plus € 1.80 p&p. E-mail Dealen for more details.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Kotebel - Mysticae Visiones
A seconding offering from the pen of Carlos Plaza, the man behind the Mysticae Visiones album, as writer, arranger and producer of this, the second release by Kotebel. Hailing from Spain, the Kotebel project offer us symphonic progressive rock with a distinct leaning towards the classical side, although this may be an over simplification of an album that covers many styles and influences. A clever use of flute and cello combined with electronic and acoustic keyboards; guitars; human voices and drums that give this music an interesting and unique quality.
The album opens with a lengthy piece of some thirty five minutes and supports musically, a metaphysical theory of experienced feelings and sensations from birth to beyond death. Mysticae Visiones is subdivided into twelve pieces each of which depicts changes in state - an intelligently thought out concept, well executed here in music.
Prologue, the opening tune, is a haunting piece created by random notation on synth and a string chord structure based around a flattened fifth interval. A female vocal melody is added and with the inclusion of the other instruments builds dramatically until its release into the sharply contrasting Birth and Childhood, a gentle piece played mainly on piano and acoustic guitar. This again nicely segues the dreamy third track Youth with the re-introduction of the beautifully haunting melody vocalised by Carolina Prieto. It is this recapitulation of the melodies, themes and patterns throughout Mysticae Visiones which reinforces the classical notion of the music.
So the album opens very dramatically with good usage of highs and lows to create a strong symphonic framework strengthened by the choice of the principal instruments, mainly the flute and cello. It is here that the music changes and the tempo lifts during Manhood, a jazzy track with some inspirational flute from Omar Acosta and a nicely constructed violin solo, excellently executed on keyboard. From this we are linked to one of the highlights from the album, albeit one of the shorter pieces, in Reflection and features the guitar of Cesar Garcia, shades of early Genesis were brought to mind.
Track six onwards deals with those states from death to a point at which "evolution as humans is completed when no further desire for material action is felt in the third heaven....". I did say this was a deep album, but the music does capture the ideas it purports to deal with. There are numerous moments of genius throughout these tracks especially from Carlos Plaza, his keyboard sounds and style during First Heaven were very reminiscent of Keith Emerson at his best. Not wishing to repeat what has already been said Mysticae Visiones continues to it's conclusion with all the above ingredients in abundance. Although I would comment that the drum and percussion parts were good, as in Transition, I did think that an actual drummer would have elevated the album as a whole.
The second major piece on the CD is The River which although in keeping with the previous epic, has slightly different variations, with a mixture of latin rhythms - I may have detected influences from Al Di Meola here - and combining unusual, oriental sounding keyboard timbres. The inspiration behind this can be found in an extract by Hermann Hesse entitled Siddhartha and an interpretation of which can be found in the ideas embedded in Kotebel's powerful symphonic music.
So you may have gathered that Mysticae Visiones is not a simple album - in fact it is complex and challenging, possibly a little too dramatic and somewhat "heavy-weight". It appealed more to the musician in me than the listener, but having said this, it is also very enjoyable and surprisingly relaxing, well once I had stopped analysing it for the purposes of this review. Possible other guides to similar styles not mentioned above might be found in The Enid and Gentle Giant, however click the link in the "Samples" box above and hear for yourself.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Autograph - Stoneland
Stone Land was initially released in 1989 by this Russian band. Their debut disk, which had been released 4 years earlier, had been very succesful and its sales enabled them to travel to Los Angeles, where this particular disk was recorded. It is polished FM with proggy touches and the comparisons to the likes of Toto, Journey or Foreigner are fully merited, though with Russian lyrics, you would be hard-pressed to confuse the bands.
The disk opens with The City, a pleasant, typically 80's sort of pop rock tune with a regular verse-chorus-verse format and featuring a rather high-voiced singer, very typical also, of those times. This tune also features a smooth, engaging saxophone solo from second vocalist Sergei Mazaev and in fact it is his sax playing and the accompanying horns which appear throughout the disk, which could be considered one of the highlights of this disk.
Oh My Boy features a different, and to my ears, more pleasant voiced singer over a synth and guitar led melody. Once again its fairly classy 1980's fare much like the following numbers. I Need You features the first singer once again and is a slow, ballad featuring keyboards which evoke the sound of Foreigner very well, but which is overall a little on the sugary side. Stranger is little better with only the chorus raising the number above the mediocre level of the former.
Much of what follows could be said to lie within the smooth AOR/Radio-friendly ballad territory and it is a relief to hear the guitars on Demon setting the stage for a real rocker. However once the main theme, played on the organ, appears; it takes over and the guitars are pushed way back in the mix again. They reappear later on for the chorus and to execute a simple solo which does little to rescue the number from being a simple sing-a-long pop tune.
This is followed by The Bell, which is yet another well crafted slow ballad, packed with polished playing and nice touches on guitar and keys, while Master raises the tempo a tiny bit with the guitars coming more to the front and the voices blending well.
The plantive Stone features more excellent saxophone and keyboards. Along with Amour, another slow, keys-led ballad with lovely touches of sax and soaring chorus, they are perhaps the most memorable tunes on the disk and while the concluding cut World Inside follows along similar lines, its chorus lacks a certain magic and drags rather than soars.
The disk can be summed up as a nice 80s pop-rock effort, perhaps slightly ballad-heavy, but nevertheless featuring some excellent playing and a crisp production - thus a well produced product of its time. However outside of the novelty value of this being a Russian Recording artist produced in an American studio during the 1980s, the release will offer little of interest to the fan of the Hard Rock/AOR of that period and even less to a fan of progressive music. While this recording may have a greater significance within the Eastern European market, its style is too generic to stand out alongside western groups and the Russian vocals, while pleasing, would provide another barrier to many. In short, its a solid pop album, with limited appeal in this day and age.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.