Reviews in this issue:
Eight years ago, way back in 1995 (I know it is horrible to think that that is actually such a long time ago - especially when discussing progressive rock) Arena released their debut album Songs from the Lions Cage. At the time, Arena could primarily have been said to be Clive Nolan and Mick Pointer, but over the years and throughout extensive changes of band members, it would seem that things have now fallen into place. Contagion is actually the first full length Arena studio album featuring exactly the same band members as its predecessor.
In other words, Rob Sowden (vocals), John Mitchell (guitars & backing vocals), Clive Nolan (keyboards & backing vocals), Ian Salmon (bass) and Mick Pointer (drums) are back with a vengeance, finally presenting an album the fans have waited for a long time due to delays of the release.
Having heard lots of things about it throughout 2002, I was very anxious to hear the new Arena album. Knowing that this was going to be another concept album, and remembering the fine The Visitor album, this album could indeed be an interesting release. Arena's previous studio album Immortal? had been a 'okay' kind of release, but missed the high quality of albums like The Visitor or the band's debut album Songs From The Lions Cage.
First time I heard Contagion I was very, very disappointed. I was so disappointed that I even considered to put the album away and never play it again. Fortunately I didn't. It took me a while to figure out what it was I so fiercely disliked about the album but eventually it dawned on me. After five studio albums it is becoming painfully clear where the weaknesses in Clive Nolan's writing lie: he can write some brilliant chorus melodies and lyrics but the structure and sound of the verses is often following the same pattern and style. Most of the lyrics follow this semi-aggressive, half-spoken style which eventually makes them sound too much alike. On top of that Arena's singers are closely coached (dictated?) by Clive Nolan, making them all sound very much alike. As such I still think singer Rob Sowden lacks a certain own style (besides a slight lack of high range, which at times sounds very forced and on the verge of breaking).
The second thing I disliked and have disliked for a long time is the lack of flow in Mick Pointer's drum work. Even though he has definitely grown in the past years I still think his drum rolls are a complete disaster and have the same woodenness they had back in the early eighties with 'some other band'. Especially the first couple of times I played The Visitor it really made me cringe.
Fortunately I decided to give the album a couple of more chances and after listening to it for about 5 times it really started to grab me. Okay, the drum rolls could be better and the verses were far from original, but most of the melodies in the choruses are very good and the instrumentation and solos are among the best Arena has ever done. Just listen to the album's three powerful instrumental tracks (This Way Madness Lies, On The Box and Riding The Tide) and you'll hear the absolute splendour. These tracks are among the highlights of the album.
This Way Madness Lies contains a thunderous Rickenbacker bass by Ian Salmon (who really shines on this album) and an echoing guitar in the background as well as one of Mitchell's Gilmourian guitar solos. On The Box features a Tony Banks-like keyboard solo and some more Mitchell splendour, while the IQ-ish Riding The Spree has Nolan going absolutely berserk on the keys in a Martin Orfordish way. Come to think of it, I hear a lot more IQ in this new Arena album. City of Lanterns is this albums Provider, while the second half of Salamander has a strong Erosion feel.
The melody of An Angel Falls, Never Ending Night and Bitter Harvest runs like a red thread through the album, enhancing the feel of the concept. Being a big fan of returning themes and considering the dramatic strength of this theme, I really like this. And when I really got into the album I found a lot more of remarkable bits and pieces. Overall, the approach of the band is again slightly heavier than on the previous album. Lots of the songs (e.g. Witch Hunt, Painted Man, Skin Game, Salamander) have a very 'stomping' feel, almost like the band is trying to become some bombastic Manowar-like hard rock band. Then again, this approach has been used before and as such a track like Witch Hunt brings back clear memories of Crack in the Ice.
Most of the album is powerful and uptempo, with the mentioned red thread tracks, the beautiful hymn-like City of Lanterns and the only real ballad Mea Culpa being the only moments to catch your breath. One of the strengths of the album is the often seamless way the tracks flow into each other, giving you the feeling that you are listening to a one hour epic instead of an album with 16 tracks. This of course also supports the strength of the concept.
Talking about the concept of the album, I have to admit that I fail to grasp the story line, which is based on a short story written by Clive Nolan. As always Clive Nolan's lyrics are vague and symbolic and seemingly the album works with flashbacks. This does not help the listener to understand the story line. A more in-depth explanation would be necessary to fully appreciate the concept, and of course that explanation is missing. Let's hope Clive's story will be published one way or another soon.
Not everything is as splendorous as the highlights of the album. Some songs begin very mediocre but develop into something stronger along the way e.g. Spectre at the Feast (weak first half and those all to familiar verses and some cheesy lyrics like 'this brave new world has fallen and decayed, are there no heroes, just men with feet of clay'), Skin Game (which has a beautiful acoustic a capella end section), Tsunami (an interesting experimental piece with prominent Rickenbacker bass which is maybe a tad too long), Mea Culpa (nice, but not one of the band's best ballads and the scratchy vinyl vocal effect has been done ages ago by Klaautu, so is not as smart and original as it might seem). Also, some tracks at the end of the album feel too much like a remake of the final tracks of The Visitor. Still, the final two tracks are among the highlights of the album. Especially the powerful and energetic Cutting the Cards is among one of Arena's best tracks ever and Ascension is a much stronger concept closer than the mediocre The Visitor. I do however miss the big drawn out guitar solo climax in the final track a bit.
All in all this has grown into a very likeable album. There's much to criticize on the album but there's even more to like and admire. The more I listen to the album the more the balance shifts into the positive direction. Once you've accepted the weaknesses of Contagion there is even more to enjoy. I can therefore only highly recommend this album, which might one day perhaps be considered to be one of the band's best.
Arena's latest achievement has been something I have waited for a long time. And I must say that I, unlike Ed, was taken by the album from the first spin. The heavy opening of Witch Hunt makes me think of Chosen from Immortal? and I think it shows that Arena continues the line towards a heavier sound which they started on that album (this said, I do not deny that Arena had a heavier side previous to that album, I just think that it crystallised itself more). I like the road Arena has been on from the start and where they have chosen to go on it. Where Ed obviously sees weakness in song structures, I would write that down to a matter of taste, because I am by no means disturbed by these matters and would rather see the entire piece as a very organic whole.
The idea of an organic whole is also strengthened (as Ed points out) by the concept album format. I think that the lack of that format on the previous album was one of its (few) downsides... probably mostly because of the fact that it still felt like a concept album in its overall sound (in my humble opinion). On Contagion the flow of sound becomes the strength of the whole and unlike The Visitor it contains no real pauses. The returning of themes that Ed also points out above is another strategy of coherence and cohesion in the music that works really well, and once more shows an attitude of growth in Arena's approach to the format... and as a band. I do believe that that is an important point to be made: Arena keeps progressing. Maybe not in an entirely original or innovative way, but in a way which strengthens the material they produce. It retains enough of the old to please the fans, yet introduces a development and movement in ways which can attract new audiences and keep the band from stagnating.
I would argue that the fact that this is the first time Arena has recorded a second album with the same members to be of significance as well. The interaction between everyone in the band seems stronger to me, and I do not really agree with Ed's critique of Sowden's vocals. Sure, there are vocalists out there with a stronger personal touch, but Sowden has a voice that, in my opinion, lifts the songs more than Paul Wrightson ever could (given that Wrightson's stage performance is a hard act to follow, and that Sowden still has some more learning in that field from what I have seen).
When it comes to the lyrics, I do agree with Ed in that the concept becomes a bit vague (a problem with concept albums in general at times), and it is sometimes hard to think of a unified story as the perspective seems to shift a bit (which makes me curious as to what the short story is really about). However, having said this, I must say that the lyrics overall touches me more than Arena has done before. This might be due to reasons of a more personal nature, yet nevertheless, this album has had an immense impact on me - and when it is all wrapped up in Ascension, which must be one of Arena's best tracks ever (and which is reminiscent of Marillion's Script for a Jester's Tear), it leaves me with an amazing feeling.
Do not get me wrong, having singled out the final track of the album is not that significant. It is a fantastic song, but I find that the album does not really have any proper weak spots. Sure, things do stick out (an early example in my own appreciation of the album would be Salamander) but in the end, what really sticks out is the unity of the whole. And in this respect the album makes a much stronger impression on me than The Visitor did and does. I do not think that any of Arena's fans need to feel disappointed by this album (it has been worth the wait) and I think it works well as an introduction to one of the most prominent bands on the heavier side of neoprogressive rock.
2002 was quite a year for all things Flower Kings. Aside from the release of the impressive double CD ‘Unfold the Future’, and The Flower Kings ‘Official Bootleg’, fans have been regaled by a huge amount of new non- Flower Kings material from virtually every member of the band. Pinup Guru is the latest release from Tomas Bodin, their keyboardist. For the unfamiliar, Bodin has already carved himself quite an impressive repertoire by appearing on all of The Flower Kings releases, has one solo album out already, and another on the way. Like his first solo CD, Pinup Guru is entirely instrumental. But whereas for his first solo effort Bodin featured a more “standard” band make up (keys, guitar, drums, bass, percussion) which included just about all of the then members of The Flower Kings, this time out he has opted for the more intimate trio format of keyboards, bass, and drums. The result is one of the finest progressive rock albums of 2002.
For Pinup Guru, the title incidentally borrowed from a lyric in Genesis’ “The Battle of Epping Forest”, Bodin again stayed close to home in choosing players to accompany him. With approximately ten years of experience working together in various musical projects, bassist Jonas Reingold and drummer Zoltan Csorsz (the latest editions to The Flower Kings) are arguably the finest drummer/bassist combination to emerge on the progressive rock scene in years. Tomas has been playing extensively with them live and in the studio since early in 2001. With their incredible talents, he has been able to flesh out some brilliant compositions on this disk. Many of the titles on the album reflect aspects of Bodin’s life over the period he wrote the pieces. But don’t be fooled by the seemingly mundane nature of the song titles, as the music is anything but. On this CD the listener is treated to music with grand symphonic themes (Sodium Regale, What’s Going On), cosmic sonic landscapes (Blood, The Last Eagle), gentle lilting piano pieces (My Beautiful Neighbor, The Ballerina is Not Getting Closer), and grooving, jazzy, ethnic and world music flavors (Harlem Heat, New in the Hood).
Bodin himself engineered the album (listed by his pseudonym “Don Gepetto”) and Flower Kings band mate Roine Stolt handled the mastering (listed by his pseudonym “Don Azzarro”). The result of their labor is a sparkling and dynamically produced collection of music. The CD itself is presented within a cool gatefold cover, wherein the CD booklet is found neatly tucked on the inside pocket. I like the cover art and the liner notes, which are written by Bodin (they begin with “Dear Sir or Madam” and continue with the album introduction). Each song title is given a brief description, to let the listener know what Bodin was thinking when he came up with them.
Let me entice you further by saying that this is one of the finest keyboard centric works since the glory days of progressive rock in the 70’s. All the elements of classic symphonic prog are there, but there is so much originality to this music as well. For Tomas is not only a masterful musician (he composes music for some of the leading theater groups in Sweden) but he is also an extremely talented sound-scape designer. And while he clearly owes a debt of style to his predecessors (such as Wakeman, Emerson, Jobson, and Moraz) he has a highly individual musical personality which he can call his own, and that’s really saying something these days. His compositions are unique and daring, so although the album is a sprawling 71+ minutes long, I never find myself bored when I listen to it, or looking at the time count to find out when a piece on this CD will end.
So if you think you can handle an extremely adventurous album of instrumental Progressive symphonic rock (note the capital P), do yourself a favor, pick up a copy of Pinup Guru and give it a listen (or two, or twelve, or two hundred and twelve). In the vain of albums by the great originators of the style, Tomas Bodin’s Pinup Guru is a release that may take some time to get your ears around entirely, but the effort is sure to pay off.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Melbourne - Night Star
This is the second album of Carrie and Doug Melbourne, after their excellent debut Indian Ocean, which was released in 1999. The band consists of Carrie Melbourne, bass guitar and Chapman Stick player of (a.o.) Babylon Zoo and Mike Oldfield, her husband Doug Melbourne (formerly of ReGenesis) on keyboards and programming, and Jamie Fisher (also of ReGenesis fame) on acoustic and electric drums and percussion.
The music is quite different than one would expect when looking at the background of these musicians. Although some (nineties') Mike Oldfield influence can be pointed out, the music meanders more in the symphonic ambient/dance regions than in progressive rock.
Carrie's pleasant, angelic voice forms the base of most tracks, most of which combine sung, spoken and wordless vocals. Her vocals hold somewhere between Tori Amos and Björk. Although subdued, her vocals carry all songs in a beautiful, almost hypnotic way. The monotonous (but never boring) rhythms of Jamie, and the spacey keyboard arrangements of Doug help create this atmosphere, resulting in a very relaxing, listenable album.
For a band that centers around a bass-player, the songs are surprisingly low on the bass side. Despite Carrie Melbourne being one of only three female Chapman Stick players in the world, her playing is always of the supportive kind and never a self-indulgent show-off. Having said that, she is more present that any other musician on the album, not only singing and playing bass, Chapman Stick and acoustic guitars, but also playing piano on Christmas Is Gone Now and electric guitar on Love Remains.
Only once or twice does Doug's alter ego Tony Banks come around the corner, most notable during the spacey synth solo of Numbskull. A track which, by the way, features yet another member of Re-Genesis, Steve Marsh on guitar and mandoline.
Possibly my favourite on the album is the beautiful ballad Love Remains, during which Carrie proves she is well capable of handling electric guitar as well, in a solo which is clearly inspired by her former employer, Mr Oldfield.
Oddities on the album are the groovy Deep Deep Deep, which is released as first single, and available for download from their Website, and Clandestine, which is the heaviest track on the album, with pounding drums and a roaring guitar solo courtesy of Manir Donaghue.
In conclusion, I'd say the album is a welcome relief after so many over-serious attempts of recreating prog from the heyday of the seventies', and a whole lot more original too!
As for references, I'd say you could describe Melbourne as Mike Oldfield doing a Massive Attack, with a subdued Björk on vocals.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
I must admit that I had greater expectations of this album, mainly as it featured members of the critically acclaimed Six North. A band I have much admiration for and who offer up a strong brand of well constructed jazz fusion, tempered with some progressive influences. All the band are superb musicians and their compositions are well balanced against those improvisational sectors of the music. Admittedly Six North record with a larger cast, but this I fear would not have improved matters.
So as we continue to delve into the more recent releases from Japan, I can only remark on the diversity of albums that have landed with DPRP of late, and Budderfly certainly was a challenge. To say this was a disappointment might be an understatement and I really did struggle with this album. The sleeve notes say that Budderfly is a "recorded improvisation" which the band undertook at the Big Apple Club (Japan) on 24 November 2002. The line-up consisting of Hideyuki Shima (5 String Bass/Conductor), Takumi Seino (Guitar), Shinju Odajima (Guitar), Hiroshi "Gori" Matsuda (Drums) and Futoshi Okano (Drums).
Musically it is difficult to see where the music is coming from or going too. The vast majority of the compostions having almost no tonal centres or any decernable rhythmic patterns. In fact the tracks are almost entirely freeform and appear to have very little cohesion between the players. Again I struggled with the concept as these are talented musicians, however to the untrained ear or casual listener this would appear to be a cacophonous row. Granted Six North have avant-garde passages, however they do return to the original theme or idea, in between the improvised sections. Not so here! So are there any saving graces, well Essential Talk is listenable as Hideyuki Shima plays a bass solo passage. The most cohesive track is the final track K'adolo and sees the two drummers, Matsuda and Okano, working well together and taking alternate solo sections whilst the other holds down the piece.
I can offer very little encouragement to buy this album and it is difficult to know who might. Perhaps it may be a lack of understanding as to the aims of this recording or I may just have missed the point. Or perhaps hallucinogenic substances may hold the key?
Conclusion: 4 out of 10
Colt - From The Fridge
Hailing from Poland, Colt are a young trio centered around the talents of Radoslaw Kopec, who not only sings and plays guitar, but also adds piano, organ and some bass guitar to mostly self-penned material. However, this is by no means a solo album, Colt are very much a band with Adam Romaniszyn providing drums and percussion, as well as co-composing two songs and contributing the short instrumental Boozies and Artur Malinowski who plays bass and also contributed to the writing of Doesn't Matter.
Mostly guitar based, this is a progressive rock album with the emphasis primarily on the 'Rock' side of the genre. Indeed, the back of the CD proclaims the album to be a "Hardrock Trip Into The Progressive '70s". And that is exactly what the CD contains, an album of hard rock songs that has it roots firmly in the early 1970s. It may seem a somewhat strange merger, hard rock and progressive, but it is easy to forget that, at the time, the first incarnation of Deep Purple were considered to be a progressive band and I have even read contemporaneous reviews of the first Back Sabbath album that defines it as progressive!
However, Colt lean more towards the musical direction of early Deep Purple but with the focus mainly on guitar; keyboards are very much utilised as a support instrument to add textures and tone. The majority of the songs are based around simple guitar riffs and generally feature guitar, bass and drums arranged as straightforward rock songs. The most adventurous composition is the album's title song, From The Fridge, which starts with a keyboard section that is based on a four-note organ refrain and has a sound akin some of the Deep Purple song introductions played by Jon Lord on his trusty Hammond organ. The refrain is taken up by the guitar which, following the first verse, slowly builds, adding bass and drums at an increasing tempo. The middle two sections of the song, The Escape and The Battle, are instrumental with guitar, bass and organ vying for dominance before vocals intervene for the conclusion. The playing is solid with solos avoiding being overly complex and the arrangement remaining on a quite simple level.
Stand-out tracks are the opening number, Chosen One, and the only song on the CD sung in Polish, Z Wielkich Walk, both of which feature guest musician Joanna Jaworz-Dutka on flute. The variety introduced by the wind instrument lifts the tracks, particularly on Chosen One which features a nice flute solo immediately followed by one of only two keyboard solos on the entire an album. The instrumental conclusion to the song is somewhat reminiscent of the 1970s Welsh band, Budgie.
The two short instrumental numbers, Boozies, also featuring Joanna Jaworz-Dutka, and Drop, a rather pretty acoustic guitar piece, also add diversity and benefit from being free from vocals. Kopec's vocals are sonically rather flat (in places they sound as if they have been electronically treated) and lacking in range and are the weakest element on the album. This is none more apparent on I Want Your Love So Bad (S.L.Y.) a cover of the Vincent Crane song from the first Atomic Rooster album.
Overall, it is a reasonable debut album (at least I think it is their first, information on the band is hard to come by!) but could do with more variety both within and between songs. If you like basic hard rock that is undemanding and not at all overindulgent then there is probably more than enough to satisfy you on this CD.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10