Issue 2003-001

Reviews in this issue:

Glass Hammer - Lex Rex
Glass Hammer - Lex Rex
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD
Record Label: Arion Records
Catalogue #: SR1123
Year of Release: 2002
Time: 66:46
Info: Glass Hammer
Samples: Glass Hammer

Tracklist: Good Evening (0:51), Tales Of The Great Wars (10:42), One King (6:07), Further Up And Further In (15:13), Intermission (1:08), Music For Four Hands (And Temporal Anomaly) (2:19), A Cup Of Trembling (7:50), Centurion (7:47), When We Were Young (9:53), Goodnight (1:11), Heroes And Dragons (3:45)

Well, I said it on more than one occasion last year and as we enter the new year I'll say it one more time - 2002 was a good year for prog. Fittingly the first review for this year is no exception with Lex Rex being the cherry on top of the cake. Glass Hammer offer us an album of classic material that harks back to those halcyon days of progressive rock, two years since the acclaimed Chronometree and Messrs Schendel and Babb have come up trumps once again. Boasting their massive array of keyboard sounds and textures, from the mighty Hammond organ and classic synths to the distinctive timbres of the mellotron, this is surely a must for all fans of this genre of progressive rock. Accompanying these walls of keys are the soaring guitar passages and strong vocal sections, provided in part by a supporting cast of musicians.

Proceedings are set underway with Good Evening which purports to be an old gramaphone recording of a "Babb and Schendel musical extravaganza". From this brief introduction we are soon into the body of the music as firstly the Hammond organ, followed by the counterpointal acoustic guitar and further instrumentation eases us into Tales of The Great Wars. From these gentle beginnings we then erupt into full flow with electric guitar picking up the theme, accompanied by the rhythm section and even more keyboards. Mellotrons and classic synths are added to the pot and very soon all the ingredients are there and still only two minutes into the piece. Also refreshing are the vocal sections, not only as they are thoughtfully written but the harmonies, which feature throughout, are well constructed. Similarities to perhaps Yes or Gentle Giant may be noted but also the now defunct It Bites came to mind. Glass Hammer have once again enlisted several guest vocalists, all of whom go to make these sections pleasantly listenable whilst retaining their subtle intricacies.

The keyboard driven format continues into the next offering One King and like its predecessor there is much complexity within the arrangements and instrumentation. Drawing comparisons to the greats of the progressive field is not normally my want, however on this occasion there is sufficient grounds to do so. With the deft piano interludes interlaced with the carefully chosen keyboard synth sounds, it is possible to imagine Wakeman, Emerson or Banks supplying some of these parts. And as we weave through Lex Rex it is now so obvious why Glass Hammer are so appealing - the music contains elements of many of the greats of prog, without being too derivative. So by carefully blending together such stalwarts as ELP, Genesis and Yes and mixing these together with the newer (neo) progressive elements you cannot fail to emerge with striking musical ideas. This is not to suggest that Glass Hammer have merely plagiarized these artists, on the contrary they have utilized this wealth of influences and forged their own sound.

I feel sure that by now you have grasped where Glass Hammer and their music is coming from and a track by track dialogue is not necessary. However a few further observations may help to guide you towards this album. Perhaps the inclusion of David Carter, Charlie Shelton and Bjorn Lynne, who have added their fretboard skills to three of the tracks. The recording and production of the album which is precise and clear, again credit to Steve Babb and Fred Schendel. Finally and not on a musical note, I was taken by the fine cover artwork of Rosana Azar. So were there any downsides to Lex Rex, well not enough to detract from the whole concept. I tend not to like "talky" interludes, but that may just be me. As to the highlights certainly Tales of The Great Wars and One King. Along with these would be the brief but excellent piano interlude Music For Four Hands (And Temporal Anomaly) and finally Heroes and Dragons which concludes the album - a gentle piece with acoustic guitar, vocal and sparse synth lines.

For those unfamiliar with Glass Hammer, but with a penchant for keyboard orientated prog, then this is an excellent introduction to their music and an opportunity to hear some classic progressive rock. The music and arrangements come at you fast and furious, no protracted chord sequences to fill in the gaps, just cleverly arranged and written music. Abundant time signatures and careful orchestrations are also featured in the armoury of this tale of our Roman Soldier's quest. Many listenings were needed to review Lex Rex, not to convince myself as to the quality of this album, but because there was much to digest.

Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10

Bob Mulvey

Renaissance : In the Land of the Rising Sun
Renaissance - In the Land of the Rising Sun
Country of Origin: UK
Format: Double CD
Record Label: GEP
Catalogue #: GEPCD1032
Year of Release: 2002
Time: Disc 1 51:20
Disc 2 53:38
Info: Click Here
Samples: None

Tracklist Disc 1 : Carpet Of The Sun (3:49), Opening Out (4:24), Midas Man (6:31), Lady From Tuscany (7:07), Pearls Of Wisdom (4:41), Dear Landseer (5:40), Northern Lights (4:21 ), Moonlight Shadow (4:08), Precious One (4:48 ), Ananda (5:42 )
Tracklist Disc 2 : Mother Russia (10:31), Trip To The Fair (11:53), One Thousand Roses (7:53 ), I Think Of You (3:20 ), Ashes Are Burning (19:57)

Formed out of the ashes of The Yardbirds in 1969 it wasn't until 1973 with their classic Ashes Are Burning album, and a completely changed lineup, that Renaissance achieved any major commercial success. Throughout the 1970s their popularity, in both America and Europe, increased, culminating in Northern Lights a Top Ten UK hit in 1978. The 1980s were not a good time for the band and they eventually split in 1987, at which point there were only two members of the most successful lineup remaining. Throughout the 1990s, several CDs associated with the Renaissance name were released, although they were generally reissues of live or archive material or solo releases from past members.

In the late 1990s, several ex-members of Renaissance got together to work on a proposed stage musical based around the folk tale of Scheherazade that incorporated music from their 1976 album Scheherazade And Other Short Stories. During these sessions a few new songs were written which were released as the album Tuscany in early 2002.

The reformed Renaissance, consisting of long-standing members Annie Haslam, Michael Dunford and Terence Sullivan, and accompanied by Mickey Simmonds (formerly with Camel, Mike Oldfield and Fish), Rave Tesar and David Keyes (both of whom have worked extensively with Annie Haslam) played a series of concerts in London and Japan. It is from one of the Japanese concerts that this latest live recording is taken.

With four tracks from the Tuscany album, several tracks from Annie Haslam's solo releases and a handful of Renaissance favourites, the CD draws on material from throughout the band's career. Annie's voice has not weakened with time and the harmony singing is as good as it ever was. Never a band for overtly flash musicianship, the music is solidly played with Mickey Simmonds and Rave Tesar, the two keyboard players, ably providing a suitable substitute for the orchestras that have appeared on many Renaissance albums, including the two previous live albums.

The arrangement of Ashes Are Burning is masterful. Trimmed down from previously excessive versions, the 20-minutes(!) it occupies on this album clearly demonstrates the superb musicianship and Annie's singing; the dual piano interplay is stunning. Surprisingly, the two weakest tracks on the album are the ones that will be the most familiar to the majority of people: Northern Lights and the Mike Oldfield cover Moonlight Shadow. Although perfectly acceptable versions, they seem to pale alongside the less familiar material.

With Annie Haslam now focusing on her solo career and Michael Dunford completing the Scheherazade musical, this could be the last chance to hear a classic British Band.

Conclusion: 8 out of 10

Mark Hughes

Sotos - Platypus
Sotos - Platypus
Country of Origin: France
Format: CD
Record Label: Cuneiform Records
Catalogue #: 164
Year of Release: 2002
Time: 68:33
Info: Click Here
Samples: Click Here

Tracklist: Malstrom: Pt 1 (5:19), Pt 2 (4:29), Pt 3 (4:19), Pt 4 (5:01), Pt 5 (9:58), Pt 6 (7:18), Pt 7 (4:31), Wu (27:39)

With the unusual lineup-up of guitar, drums, bass, violin and cello, Sotos were never going to be considered as a typical progressive rock band. Formed from pupils of the French National School of Music the musicianship and adventurous compositions on this, their second album, is extremely accomplished, falling neatly into the realms of the avant-garde.

Malstrom, composed by bassist Bruno Camide and split into 7 parts, starts off firmly in King Crimson of the Red and Starless And Bible Black era. But whereas Crimson had a tendency to meander, Sotos mostly retain a tight structure throughout the 41 minutes of the opening track. Okay, Part 5 perhaps goes on a couple of minutes too long, but any complacency is stripped away when Part 6 kicks in! Taking the complexity of Gentle Giant and adding in a strong Magma influence, this is one of the most truly progressive, in the most literal sense of the word, piece of music I have heard in a long time.

Not always easy going, with the relationship between some of the parts not as established as they possible could have been, it wouldn't surprise me if Sotos have a big future in composing film scores as there is a degree of thematic crossover between elements of their music and Michael Nyman.

The second track, Wu, composed by guitarist Yan Hazera, is a slightly darker piece, which features frantic guitar work over some very energetic, often inspired, drumming. The strings are not as prominent as in the first track but Nadia Leclerc in particular provides cello that is sometimes mournful and at other times the impetus behind the rhythm. One can't help thinking that this is the sort of thing that Peter Hammill was trying to achieve with the last incarnation of Van Der Graaf. The only criticism is that track is six minutes too long, to my mind it would have been better to end the track on the crashing crescendo of the guitar and drums at the 21 minute mark.

Probably not for everyone but if you like daring instrumental music that pushes against the boundaries of progressive music then Platypus is well worth hearing.

Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10

Mark Hughes

Fula : The Beautiful, The Delicate & The True

Fula - The Beautiful, The Delicate & The True
Country of Origin: UK
Format: CD
Record Label: Independent Release
Catalogue #: FCD2
Year of Release: 2002
Time: 47:57
Info: Fula Website
Samples: Fula Website

Tracklist: Brazil (2:39), Ballerina Junkies(6:21), Siren (5:56), White Lilies (9:16), Buried (5:00), Save Our Souls (5:12), Code Red (9:56), Living in Pieces Pt 10 (3:37)

Originating from the UK, Fula have come up with an interesting and varied collection of tracks, but not easily or simply categorised. Certainly progressive elements are to be found, however, their strengths lie in the hypnotic and melancholic arrangements. The combination of Josie Bostin's multi-layered and delicate voice, and sparse keyboard parts, contrasting against the bands strongly guitar driven sound. By no means a heavy sound but perhaps drawing from bands like the Portishead, and combining some folk and bluesy elements. I said it wasn't easy to pigeon-hole. Fula's third album release sees the band with yet further personnel changes, which appear to have dogged the band from recording to recording. Vocalist Josie Bostin has departed and is replaced by Fiona Ford, and guitarist Jason Gilman takes his leave to make way for Simon Ward, but Fula have weathered these changes in the past and presumably will in the future.

The album opens with a restrained guitar instrumental Brazil, full of atmosphere and infectious lead motifs - a good opener. It was in fact the guitar parts throughout the album which gave each of the tracks a distinctive hook and possibly best illustrated during the second track Ballerina Junkies. A simple, rising and repetitive lead line carries the piece, creating a tension which works well with the biting lyrics and saturnine vocal melodies. In sharp contrast was the up-tempo Siren, a distinctly jaunty song with an almost Christmas frivolity to it (or perhaps it is just the time of year I started the review). I doubt, however, if this is the intention of the the lyrical content of the track.

Textural changes with the ballad opening to White Lilies, as piano combines with the dulcet tones from the vocals, which are again multi-tracked. From the first listenings through I found this fairly irritating, but eventually I adjusted to this as I warmed to the band's sound. Again the guitar features strongly, reminding me on this occasion of a seventies band Stone the Crows albeit without Maggie Bell's distinctive voice. Although the album has a distinct sound, nearly all the tracks are different, not a bad thing really and Buried is no exception. A strong guitar riff being the mainstay with some interesting added percussion parts from Greg Boulton - again a catchy melody if not fully captured by the more sombre vocal lyrics.

The final three pieces off the album, for me, were probably more towards the progressive side. Opening with the atmospheric and themic guitar instrumental Save Our Souls. The gentle piano and keyboard textures from Rob Gould forming a great canvas that nicely underpinned the solo section, certainly one of the highlights from the album. From this we move into the longest piece from the album in Code Red, clocking in at just under the ten minute mark. Some Crimsonesque guitar passages here which weave in and out of the vocal sections. The keyboards also come more to the forefront with some pleasant soloing during the middle section. The album closes with, Living in Pieces Pt 10 a rousing up-tempo instrumental, again featuring the keyboards of Rob Gould - a legacy from previous recordings and a fitting finale.

A different album and one that grew on me on each playing. The vocals took some time to adjust to, mainly due to the double tracking and the overall recording mix which had a distinct timbre to it that I could not pin-point. A somewhat dark and sombre affair throughout - perhaps Christmas was not the best time of year to review The Beautiful, The Delicate And The True. The CD is enhanced with a CD Rom section.

Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10

Bob Mulvey

Synema - Evolution For A Party Of One

Synema - Evolution For a Party of One
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD

Record Label:

Independent Release

Catalogue #: -
Year of Release: 2002
Time: 45:00
Info: Website
Samples: Click Here
Click Here

Tracklist: Conception De Renaissance ( 2:34), Would You Like? (2:15), Movement Evolution (in 2 acts) (8:07), Garden Of Circles (2:00), Million Memories (2:40), Traveler Of Space And Time (5:14), Banished To Pangea (4:07), Dream Time (5:34), Field River Tree (6:39), As Light (5:49)

Synema (derived from a combination of the words Synthetic, Symphonic, and Cinema) originally formed in 1992 under the name of Exit and for four years patiently played out the bar scene around their home town of Midvale, Utah. Somewhat disillusioned with their progress, they took a two-year break before Steve Nellessen (vocals, guitars and synthesisers) and Mike Adkins (synthesisers, percussion and vocals) reunited in 1998 to write an record an album called 'Equal Reaction' which the band describe as a "stepping stone" to the current album.

Although split into 11 different tracks, there are no gaps between songs giving the impression of one single track, albeit one with a multitude of tempo and stylistic changes. This is not to the detriment of the album as the different tracks are linked together very well providing a very natural flow to the album. The music is predominantly keyboard and synthesier based, although the range of sounds produced is impressive and the addition of various guitar textures throughout provides tonal variation for those, like me, who often find keyboard based music rather limiting.

Resembling a rather more fluid and musically adventurous Tangerine Dream it is hard to pigeon hole this album as it takes in a variety of influences. For example Dream Time has a keyboard line that is similar to Confidence by Peter Hammill, whereas As Light has the same feel as such keyboard bands as Trace or Triumvrate without the Keith Emerson excesses.

The sleeve of the CD featured interesting artwork by band member Mike Adkins which is a far cry from what one would normally associate with Progressive Rock releases.

Overall, I thought the CD was original and contained sufficient layers to bear repeated listening. The two band members are obviously very at home in the studio and are extremely competent musicians and composers. Well worth checking out for something a little different.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10

Mark Hughes