Reviews in this issue:
Ray Wilson - Change
It's hard to think of this as Ray Wilson's debut album, after all he's been around for quite some time. Scored a worldwide hit with hardrock band Stiltskin, with the single Inside. He then moved on to replace one Phil Collins in a small unknown band called Genesis, and was subsequently unjustly blamed for the demise of that band.
Ray went on to form the band Cut with his brother Steve (no, not *that* Steve Wilson), with which they had some success in Germany.
Last year we reviewed the excellent album Live And Acoustic, which was recorded at a successful Scottish pub tour in Ray did in 2000, and earlier this year he scored a minor hit with Dutch DJ Armin van Buuren, with the song Yet Another Day.
So since 1994 Ray Wilson has moved from hard rock to prog to pop to acoustic to dance... So how does that translate to a solo album? Quite simple: something completely different again! Actually you can compare it to the first solo outing by Damian Wilson (what's with that surname anyway?), whose solo album was completely different from his work with Landmarq (neoprog) and Threshold (progmetal). Not that these two Wilsons sound similar, but the experience is similar.
On this album Ray plays most instruments himself (guitar, bass guitar, mouth organ, piano and strings) and he is helped once again by his brother Steve (guitar and backing vocals) as well as singer Amanda Lyon - both had also contributed on the Live and Acoustic album.
There's a whole range of guest musicians too, most notably Calling All Stations drummer Nir Z (on all tracks but two) and Alan Parsons / Fish bassist David Paton.
Ray Wilson's voice sounds a lot like Peter Gabriel's, not so much the style of singing, but mainly the sound. The songs are mostly of the acoustic pop rock kind. Actually, you could describe the sound of the album as Peter Gabriel singing a Bob Dylan or Tom Petty album. There are also strong influences from the likes of REM or Bruce Springsteen to be heard - known favourites of Wilson. So it's not really prog, but it is the type of music that many prog lovers will enjoy. And there's also the matter of Wilson being former lead singer of a famous prog band, and the fact that he's on the Inside Out label, *the* number one prog label at the moment, which warrants this album a review on this site.
The enjoyment factor of this album is high, as it has this instantly likeable sound to it, most notably in the poppy title track and the Beatlesque Beautiful Child.
One of my favourites of the album is Beach, which has such a melody which can bring tears to my eyes.
Another Day is actually a song from Wilson's former band Cut, which had been remixed by Armin van Buuren earlier this year. Probably because of the popularity of the remix it has been included on the album, yet the version here is a bit tame as it's slower than the previous versions.
Actually, the most "prog" the album has is the atmospheric Intro and the outtro The Last Horizon, both of which consist of synthesiser soundscapes with some samples from Wilson's voice.
If you want good comparison material then think of the solo albums by Neal Morse, Steve Hogarth or aforementioned Damian Wilson: quite different from their previous work, yet very familiar sounding and accessible.
Ray Wilson must be one of the most diverse artists to enter the (prog) rock scene in the past 15 years. Over the past 10 years Ray has found himself being part of bands like Guaranteed Pure (doing tongue-in-cheek stuff like Swing Your Bag), rock ensemble Stiltskin (scoring a big hit with the Levis tune Inside) only to take the unthankful task of replacing Phil Collins' on Genesis ´97 album Calling All Stations. After Genesis was disbanded Ray played in his band Cut and in 2002 he would release a splendid Unplugged album, featuring tracks from all aforementioned bands an some extra covers. In 2003 he would join forces with Armin van Buuren to re-record a trance version of Cut track Another Day. And now Ray's back with his first real studio solo album.
Centrepiece of the album is once again Another Day appearing here in it's 4th incarnation, following the Cut, Unplugged and Armin van Buuren renditions. Not that I mind, since this is my favourite Ray Wilson track. The mood and lyrics about one of Ray's friends committing suicide are so incredibly powerful. This version is arranged with percussion, synths and what seems to be sampled accordion and gives a bit of a laid back feel. It flows into The Last Horizon, which is basically an ambient soundscape based on the chords of Another Day. It might seem out of place but it closes the album in a wonderful way. As a matter of fact it also opens the album since the Intro is a quick preview of The Last Horizon. Thus Another Day makes 8+ more minutes of history on this solo album.
Another song which is quite remarkable compared to the rest of the album is the short I Look For You There, which has a very Porcupine Tree-like feel, though composer Steve Wilson is probably Ray's brother and not the frontman of this band.
All of the other tracks are fine pieces of singer-songwriting as well. Most of them are acoustic or semi-acoustic featuring lots of acoustic guitars. Some tracks have a more daring arrangement with instruments like accordion or harmonica. Also the stomping arrangement of a track like Beautiful is very enjoyable. The lyrics are great and at times even very touching, with probably the only exception the cheesy chorus of Cry If You Want To. And than there's Ray's raw but sensitive vocals, probably one of the best voices in the business today.
The compositions lie along the same lines as those on the Unplugged - Live and Acoustic album. Other references would be The Eagles, Bob Dylan and maybe even Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles. Is it prog ? No it's not. Is it any good ? Yes, it's damn good ! As a matter of fact this is one of the best singer-songwriting albums I have heard in years.
All of this makes it quite hard to rate this album. As a stand alone album, regardless of genre I would definitely give this album a well deserved 8 and 'recommended' tag. Since, however, this is mainstream pop rock everybody will have to make up his own mind and decide for him/herself if they are interested in this album. I will refrain from rating it for DPRP purposes since a tuned down rating would not do the album justice.
Not sure yet ? Try the on-line Change medley, containing bits of all tracks, including the three bonus tracks on the special edition.
A change is as good as a rest. And a change is certainly what we have here. A 360 degree change. Out with the old and in with the new. Enough cliches! But you hopefully get my drift.
Ray Wilson in 2003 is an entirely different beast from the Ray Wilson who found himself a Millionairehead with Cut in 1999; the Ray Wilson who was Calling All Stations with Genesis in 1997 or the Ray Wilson who was looking in The Minds Eye with Stiltskin in 1994. In his first true solo release, the 34 year old artist from Edinburgh is far away from open air arenas. In Change, Ray Wilson is very much towards an audience where an intimate musical experience, up close and personal, is the order of the day.
Recorded at Wilson's own Scottish studio and in New York, it features guest musicians including his brother Steve, Black Crowes bassist Andy Hess, Genesis drummer Nir Z and female singer Amanda Lyon (who also appeared on his Live and Acoustic collection released last year). Certainly not the normal sort of release you get from Inside Out, this puts Wilson firmly in the classic singer/songwriter category.
Now the Bruce Springsteens and Bob Dylans of this world, totally pass me by. But there are a couple - namely Mike Tramp and Kip Winger - who do strike a chord in my more reflective moments. And to this short list I can now add Ray Wilson. Indeed from the very first listen, this above all, reminded me of the recent solo material from Kip Winger.
What I really like about this album, is Wilson's use of subtly different vocal pitches and expression. It gives a lovely variety to the sound. Along the Way has the phrasing and acoustic reflection that Michael Stipes (REM) uses to make good songs into a great ones, while She Fades Away has a very raw vocal, giving the songs a certain Neil Young character. Elsewhere there's a deeper, mournful voice to Beach - the most atmospheric track. While Believe has a great lyric and a classic singer/songwriter vibe, with Wilson's vocals just standing above an acoustic guitar and harmonica.
With his hands also on the production, Wilson has kept a very gentle touch on the controls - resisting the temptation to fill out the sound. Instead letting the songs stand on their own two feet.
The title track, which is earmarked as a single, is probably the most popishly-catchy number (think Kip Winger with a bit of Bryan Adams). With a bit of airplay this could easily cross into the mainstream. My personal favourite, is Another Day which matches Kip Winger in its introspective, questioning tone but with the added attraction of the melodic touch of Mike Tramp. A masterful piece of simple songwriting.
Yesterday is a bit too Fairport Convention folk pop for my tastes and without the three instrumental interludes, it does clock in a little short - at under 40 minutes. However, overall I can say that Ray Wilson will now and again make a very welcome "Change" to my normal listening.
When Ray Wilson, formerly active in Stiltskin and Genesis, returned to the music scene last year with the live and acoustic album Live And Acoustic recorded at the famous Edinburgh Festival, I was glad. He has that kind of voice that has a own unique sound and should be heard more. His career could easily have been a lot more huge by now when Genesis would have persisted and made a second album. It wasn’t meant to be as we all know by now. The acoustic tour Ray Wilson did in 2001 and 2002 led the way to record this album Change and it is the first studio album since Genesis’ Calling All Stations (1997).
After a short intro Goodbye Baby Blue walks in and the atmosphere is set immediatly. Ray stays on the acoustic path he firmly set foot on. This song reminds me strongly of Not About Us, one of the highlights of Calling All Stations. Ray’s voice is stronger than ever, he sings with great passion about love and life, throughout the album. Although the acoustic guitar is used in every song, mainly by Ray’s brother Steve Wilson (co-songwriter) the songs have a warm and full soundscape; drums, keyboards, percussion, clarinet, accordion and violin played by various friends, Genesis drummer Nir Z is one of them. Amanda Lyon is doing backing vocals again. Steve and Amanda are in the band that Ray took on the road recently.
The titletrack Change would be a great single, with hit potential even! The MTV people and fans were able to see and hear Ray in Trance/Dance DJ Armin van Buuren’s remix of Another Day called Yet Another Day, a catchy piece of work. It’s a very clever move to put Another Day on this album too. It differs from the Live And Acoustic version, re-arranged and a bit different hook and I like it very much. Other highlights are Beach, a very intimate song, Cry If You Want To, Beautiful Child (notice The Beatles/ ELO drumsound) and The Last Horizon a Stiltskin-styled song.
One thing has to be said though, but I don’t think it is a negative thing. The general mood of the album is very dark and sometimes even depressing. Together with the beautiful artwork (a sure thing with Inside Out releases) these emotions are emphasized and paint a dark picture. A concept that works well with Ray’s voice which really comes to fruition on Change. Hopefully Wilson’s career can pick up where he left off in 1998 when Genesis disbanded but it my eyes and ears he already did. It’s great to have another great voice back in business.
(The Digi-pack edition contains three bonustracks, an instrumental and two other great songs Dark and Cool Water).
Sphere3 - Comeuppance
Sphere3 are a British band formed way back in 1991, so you could say that this debut album has been a long time coming! I first heard the band on a Cyclops Sampler, then saw them play a blistering set at the Whitchurch festival in 2001. The band made a triumphant return to Whitchurch in 2002, and I was pleased (and pleasantly surprised) to find that the oft-delayed Comeuppance was finally getting its launch at the festival. It’s got to be said, it was worth the wait!
The band consists of guitarist Steve Anderson, bassist William Burnett, keyboard player Neil Durant and drummer Jamie Fisher. As you might have surmised, they are an instrumental outfit; that and the fact that they play what most would probably call ‘fusion’ might be a severe put-off to many, but it shouldn’t be – this isn’t a dull instrumental work-out CD - this band play songs, with more memorable melodies than you can shake a stick at. Furthermore, they are fusion in the very best sense, taking some jazz, funk, pop, heavy rock and of course a good dollop of prog and throwing it all into the mix to create an identifiable yet diverse sound. You can certainly identify some of the band’s influences fairly easily – bits of early Level 42, Red-era King Crimson, plus the likes of Steely Dan, Brand X, I.Q. and Camel are all in there somewhere – but this doesn’t detract from what is actually a pretty original piece of work.
Opening track, the snappily titled A Good Example of Arbitrary Presumption is a great introduction to the band’s sound; An opening blast of frenetic percussion and heavy guitar riffing leads into a sublime piece of uptempo jazz-rock fusion, with fluid leads from Anderson and plenty of organic keyboard and jazz piano-style noodling (in the best possible sense!) from Durant. Durant also has an arsenal of more atmospheric, symphonic keyboard sounds at his disposal which really do add to the mix, and it is probably this which gives the band’s sound more of a prog rock feel. Burnett’s bass playing, meanwhile, is reminiscent of a heavier and funkier Mark King (Level 42), especially the way in which the bass is in many respects the lead instrument. This track also shows how seamlessly the band can shift pace and moods, doing so in such a fluid manner you barely notice the joins.
A track by track review seems somewhat superfluous here, with so much going on in each song, but personal highlights include the unstoppable, uptempo rush of Shrimp.sng, the almost sinister, hard-edged atmospherics of Paralysis and the much lighter, jazz flavoured An Unusual January. The best track for me however is the epic December Gaze. The track starts off with a mellow, laid back section with saxophone sounds (from Durant’s army of keyboards!) which could almost have come off a late 70’s Camel album (such as Rain Dances), before the main body of the track sees the band building on a simple, repeated theme with new sounds and instruments gradually added to crank up the atmosphere – reminiscent in style, in fact, to the lengthy instrumental section from IQ’s The Narrow Margin. The way the band once again effortlessly change pace and mood to return to the earlier section just adds the icing to the cake – a magnificent piece of music.
Other tracks worthy of note, in that they break from what you could very loosely call the band’s formula, are First Kiss, a slow-burning exercise in atmospherics and dynamics with Steve Anderson’s guitar breaking through the sound effects in almost Floydian style, and Tapestries which is really just a solo guitar piece by Anderson, and is in the mould of Genesis/Steve Hackett’s Horizons.
The production on Comeuppance is excellent throughout. The only way you’d know this album was made on a tight budget is the absence of real saxophone and brass – hopefully this is something the band can rectify in future releases.
Overall, a very fine album, with no filler and plenty of variety, originality and fine musicianship. I’d urge all open-minded rock fans to give this a listen – and if possible to see the band live, where they are a heavier but no less enticing proposition. Highly recommended - and I hope we won’t have to wait another 10 years for the follow up!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Queen Of Hearts - The Devastated Run
Some of the members of Queen Of Hearts have been playing together since the 1980's and up until now this has never resulted in a CD, however, the band did produce a number of tapes (still available for order). It might be their long experience as a band that causes the instruments in all the tracks to have a perfect balance. The production and sound quality of this album are good.
Queen Of Hearts plays a somewhat mellow form of progressive rock. Do not expect long and bombastic tracks on this album as it is a collection of AOR/Progressive rock songs.
Queen Of Hearts is a good straight-forward rock song. Meant To Be starts with a horn tune and after that turns into a mellow track. The uptempo part in the middle (like it!) fades into the same mellow sounds the song started with. The heavier guitar sounds of Raising Cain set the tone to this uptempo track but it is not a heavy song. Crossing Crossroads really reminds me of the first part of Marillion's This Strange Engine. I noticed because of the first line of the lyrics: "There was a boy.." but also because of the atmosphere and the vocals. It is there in some of the other songs too, but in this song it is really evident: Dirk van Helmond's voice sounds like Steve Hogarth. Cold Sunday Morning somehow reminds me of a Simple Minds song, cannot figure out which one but it is triggered by the guitar sound in the chorus. It's Over has a slow start (and again the similarity to Hogarth is there) but half way through the song becomes really interesting and I like the way the keyboard and lead guitar played together.
The Devastated Run is a short album, a few seconds over 33 minutes, it's price is 12 euros, so decide for yourself if that's a fair deal. I think this is a good album but it is a bit too mellow for my taste. On some tracks I am really waiting for the music to take off but it never does. Parts of other tracks show that Queen Of Hearts is technically capable of playing a more uptempo, less mellow style. As I have said it is just a matter of taste and my taste normally tends to be more to the progmetal side. All in all: if Queen Of Hearts releases their next (full) studio album I would certainly want to hear it.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Pangaea – A Time And A Place
Hailing from Houston, Texas, Pangaea finally treats us to their third album, following 1998’s Welcome To The Theatre. In fact, this was recorded in 1999 but has taken until now to see a release.
The Core band remains: Corey Schenck – Keyboards / Guitar, Andi Schenck – Drums / Percussion, and Darrell Masingale –Lead Guitar / Vocals. They are joined for this release by Steven Osborn – Vocals / Acoustic Guitar and Maurice Bettaglio – Bass Guitar. Osborn was the original singer back when the group was known as Artica, and Bettaglio has now left, to be replaced by the return of Ron Poulson.
Once more, the production is expertly handled by Robert Berry (Hush, 3, Alliance) and the evocative fantasy artwork (with imagery straight out of Disney’s Treasure Planet) is again provided by Rainer Kalwitz.
Something… is a strong opener, immediately reaffirming the patent Pangaea sound, a highly polished, modern blend of American style Neo-Prog. Fusing elements of Styx, Kansas and Starcastle with AOR/Stadium rock touches and an undeniable Pink Floyd air to the lead guitar. An inventive arrangement and plenty of mood changes help keep up the interest throughout the length of the song.
The next three tracks make up the ten-minute The Journey, beginning quietly with reflective vocals, acoustic guitar and haunting harmony vocals before picking up the pace with energetic drumming and dramatic keyboards in the second section. A melodic guitar solo gives way to the harder edged, up beat final section with a strong feel of Yes (as filtered through Starcastle) and a refrain reminiscent of the theme to "Lawrence of Arabia".
Hollow Life is a mid-paced power ballad, with a lush atmosphere, which finally progs out with a neat synth solo at the end. Here, as throughout the album, Berry’s production is clean and crisp, giving each instrument the space to breathe and shine. The Panther, written by Drummer Andi Schenck, has a brief vocal section before becoming a high-energy percussion workout that adds welcome spice to the album. This is a surprisingly successful track, and one that I enjoy every time.
Next up is Time, their contribution to the Floyd tribute Signs Of Life, which, apart from highlighting their influence from that band, and a slightly more twangy bass line, adds little to the original, and its inclusion here strikes me as being pointless. Beyond The Prism is more like it, packing a lot of invention into its three minutes, with a soaring guitar solo and interesting textures provided by keys and percussion. November Sky is a melancholic reflection on loss, with a suitably sombre feel and powerfully dramatic vocals. Masingale is on top form once more on guitar, adding to the superb sense of atmosphere created by this track.
Myth is a real tension builder, with anthemic vocals and twisting melody lines, backed by orchestral keyboards and vibrant bass playing from Bettaglio. This would make a fine conclusion to what has been a remarkably consistent album (ignoring Time), but unfortunately Pangaea carry on to The Human Condition. This two part track starts off OK, as a slightly Rush influenced rocker, with some fine organ and stop-start rhythms but it degenerates into a lamentable attempt at a Stadium rock anthem, which is hugely out of place on this disc, and is a severe drop in quality.
Pangaea’s previous album was patchier than this one, and was in places guilty of being too experimental for its own good, where complicated ideas got in the way of good songs. A Time And A Place is, mostly a big improvement but unfortunately ends on a sour note, and regrettably, according to their website, this seems to be indicative of a deliberate shift towards a more commercial sound in search of a bigger audience. This may be where I part company with Pangaea, but whatever the future holds, this CD is a keeper.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Mach One - An Ancient Lie
Back in the early 1980s when the New Wave Of Progressive Rock was starting to get into full swing, a multitude of bands came out of the woodwork and aligned themselves with the new movement, well anything to get a gig! One of the most confusing outfits was Mach One most of the members of whom also played in the band Janysium. Releasing a couple of demo tapes between 1982 and 1984 the band finally released an album in late 1984 called Lost For Words, promptly set about confusing everyone further by transposing the band and album name and then disappearing. Some 19 years later, original guitarist Peter Matuchniak, now residing in Los Angeles, has dug out the tapes and released a collection of Mach One tracks on CD.
Made up of seven tracks from the Lost For Words album (strangely omitting one song, Feel It) the CD is completed by four live in the studio rehearsals (which if memory serves were also released as a tape back in the 1980s) and three tracks from their first demo tape recorded while the band were still at school. Although at the time the band came in for a lot of criticism over their initial song writing attempts, I retained a fond memory for my long-lost copy of the original Janysium/Mach One tape, which had a rather naive charm.
The CD opens with Into The Pit one of the earliest songs written by the band. Starting with an ethereal violin and 'angelic choir', the main song takes over as a furious rocker that for some inexplicable reason reminds me of Hawkwind on speed. With a couple of guitar solos, a funky bass and even a splash of keyboards, this song has everything thrown into the mix and is a promising start to the album. However, it is also probably the highlight of the release. Not that the other tracks are not any good, songs like Essence of Life and Primevil Man still maintain a certain appeal with both tracks featuring interesting arrangements and sound effects, even if the lyrics and vocals are a bit suspect at time. However, there is a lack of consistency, and overall direction amongst the rest of the album tracks. Amadeus is based around an electronic drum pattern and never seems to get anywhere, Lovers Only has a nice intro and outro separated by an incongruent funky middle section, Shout For Francesca features vocals that are far too prominent in the mix and a band that at times seem to be playing different songs. The final album track Sands of Time is a promising song that somehow feels incomplete, like the demo of the first half of a longer composition. Indeed, there is a spoken section towards the end that one instinctively expects to be followed by some sort of instrumental section, maybe a guitar or keyboard solo. Instead it comes to an unsatisfying conclusion by simply fading out.
The four live in the studio demo tracks suffer from a relatively poor sound mix, not being as crisp as the other material on the CD. Machine In White is a reasonable enough song but I find the chorus rather annoying. In contrast, Clockwork Subversive has quite an infectious chorus but suffers most from the demo nature of the recording, the 'call and response' lyrical narrative does demonstrate an advance in writing technique but the band don't quite pull it off. New Worlds is more straight ahead pop/rock while Me is another directionless song.
The final three songs, taken from the first demo tape are, paradoxically and in my opinion, better compositions than a lot of the later material. Centre Of The Universe is a musical cousin to Into The Pit and, likewise, has a Hawkwind vibe. Chocolate Eclair is a decent instrumental number featuring some nice guitar effects with a strong resemblance to Camel in places while No Time To Sleep is a simpler song based around a strong bass riff and a tale of insomnia. Short, amusing, quirky and something a bit different.
On the whole, rather a mixed bag. The CD has its moments and for devotees of the 1980s scene it is worth tracking out even if it is just for nostalgia purposes. Personally, I could have done without the four live studio demos and would have liked to have heard more of the original demo, tracks like The Iron Lung Overture (no idea how the song went but what a great title!), Urban Jungle, and the lovely piano piece A Bit Of Nothing Really (or was that on the Janysium side of the tape?). Speaking of whom, I did have a preference for Janysium at the time, with the epic Honest Policies, the silly Hippy In The Rain and the solo guitar piece Roll A Joint. Mr Matuchniak, if you are reading this, how about considering a release of some of that material or at least sending me a tape of it so I can relive my youth!
Conclusion: 6 out of 10