Reviews in this issue:
Steve Hackett - To Watch The Storms
To say that To Watch The Storms has been an eagerly anticipated album on my part is somewhat of an understatement. Ever since I made acquaintance with Steve Hackett last year whereby I was allowed an insight into this album with snippets of various tracks played out to me, the anticipation has been eager to say the least. Finally the day came and a package from Camino Records came through the post. Would the album live up to expectations or was I to be disappointed? The result is an album that has taken me by surprise at the multitude of styles that To Watch The Storms possesses over the course of the album.
In hindsight, I should not have been too surprised by this. When one looks back at what Steve Hackett has achieved in various musical fields over the years, it was only a matter of time that all the influences and styles would conglomerate together under one album with just the right amount of space and time given to each of these styles to satisfy every fan.
The last studio album that Steve Hackett released was in 1999, the brooding Darktown. Since then his acoustic concerts have become more prominent, though there was also a band tour which spurned the DVD boxset as well as double live album Somewhere In South America. This not to mention the Live box set, 70's 80's 90's. In fact when one talks about Somewhere In South America, one should also mention that Steve Hackett has retained the same core lineup that appeared on the live album as his studio band. The tour promoting Darktown was already an indication of the tightness of the band and this was transmitted onto the studio album. Together with Steve Hackett one finds Roger King (piano, organ, keyboards), Rob Townsend (brass, woodwind), Terry Gregory (bass) Gary O'Toole (drums, percussion). Furthermore one should mention contribution by John Hackett (Serpentine Song) and Ian McDonald (Brand New).
To Watch The Storms opens with the languid acoustic Strutton Ground, a delicate piece which might lead the first time listener into false pretence that the album would consist solely of a delicate and acoustic touch. This is soon turned around with Circus Of Becoming which with its gradual crescendo seems to be an omen of things to come. The track itself is a delightful piece with a vaudeville piece of music utilised as its foundation over which Steve Hackett has created a great piece of music. This is the progressive rock of the twenty first century where the lengthy ten minute plus tracks have become condensed into tracks less than four minute longs yet which still contain all the ingredients that a progressive rock fan looks out for.
One would not have expected a cover version of a Thomas Dolby track to appear on this album. The track has a strong electronic touch, as would be expected, and it took me a large number of spins before I actually got used to it. Admittedly it is not my favourite piece on the album though it does grow on you. Mechanical Bride is one of two tracks that had previously appeared on the live Somewhere In South America that are present for the first time in studio format on this album. The jazzier nature of Mechanical Bride is introduced by abstract Frozen Statues which reminded me very much of David Sylvain. Mechanical Bride is one of the stronger tracks on this album with some fantastic interplay between all the band members in a most unusual powerful almost heavy metal style.
Wind, Sand and Stars is an instrumental acoustic piece which proves that possibly, Steve Hackett's first all classical album comprising of just his compositions might not be too far off! A delightful piece of music especially for those fans who have been privy to one of his acoustic concerts of late. Apart from the two tracks previously available as live versions, Brand New is the track that most fans have become familiar with as they it has been available on the Camino Records website for some time now, albeit in a radio edit format. The track itself is possibly the closest Hackett has come to producing an American FM-format track in years so much so that it would have fit comfortably alongside tracks from the GTR-sessions.
Not all the pieces on this album could be considered as musically challenging to the first time listener. This World is a straight forward ballad with a catchy chorus while Rebecca features some great harmonies. However, one also should mention that Hackett's foray into the scene of world music also bears promising fruit in the guise of The Silk Road with it's various Middle Eastern and Asian influences with its mixture of percussion and ambient. Afro-Celt Sound System would be jealous of this track! When speaking to him last year he mentioned many a time that to him the most exciting musical scene was to be found in the emerging Hungarian jazz scene. On Come Away this influence seems to have rubbed off though the folk touches would have been more at home on an album by artists such as Amazing Blondel or Magna Carta.
The album comes to a close with acoustic The Moon Under Water which then merges into the sublime Serpentine Song which ranks as one of my favourite Hackett songs as he conjures up delicate images of Hyde Park through the harmonies as well as the spell binding flute of his brother John.
Overall, this album is definitely one of progressive rock's releases of the year. It has been along time since Steve Hackett has shown such a musical variety on one album and this augers well for the future. The fact that he is to embark on a lengthy tour which also includes shows in his native England is definitely a step forward as is the news that he already thinking of the next album. With so many of the legendary musicians of the progressive rock era falling by the wayside, it is indeed heartening to see (and hear) Steve Hackett in such fine form.
After many times through To Watch the Storms, I can’t help but think of this newest addition to the Steve Hackett catalogue as an art exhibition. It’s like walking through a gallery of fantastic paintings, each piece on the CD representing such diverse atmospheres, moods, landscapes, styles and approaches.
Hackett chose to record this album with the band he’s been touring with lately, the one that appears on his DVD Somewhere in South America. The reason is obvious. They have gelled together so well, and with a little help from special guests like Steve’s brother John Hackett (a regular on other Steve Hackett albums) and old mate Ian McDonald, the group adapt themselves impressively to the variety of settings imagined for this album. And as most readers probably know, Steve Hackett has an incredible imagination and a voracious appetite for experimentation.
As stated earlier, I’ve come to think of this CD as a kind of musical art gallery, rather than a standard album. Each work herein seems to present a picture distinct from each of the others. From the angular expressionist insanity of Mechanical Bride to the beautiful impressionism of selections like Wind, Sand, and Stars and The Moon Under Water; or contrast the stark and sparse avant-garde jazz of Frozen Statues with the incredible shifty surrealism of Circus of Becoming. There is the world music flavour of The Silk Road, the soft toned ballad This World, and even a bizarre re-working of the Thomas Dolby song The Devil is an Englishman (this containing demonic speak singing on top of a twisted disco beat and strange aural incursions). These are just a few of my own interpretations to prepare you, the reader and potential listener, for the aural whiplash you might experience with the first few spins of this CD … it takes some time to digest, but well worth the while. I would also like to mention that the album contains at least two pieces which have become for me new Steve Hackett classics: the spine tinglingly gorgeous Serpentine Song, and Brand New, a progressive rock anthem for the new century. Both of these contain the fantastic vocals and thoughtful arrangements characterized by much of Steve’s finest work.
I’ve been intrigued and inspired by Steve Hackett’s works, particularly the earlier ones, for years and I am ecstatic about this latest offering. I regard it a marvellous gift from one of progressive music’s most fertile, versatile and distinctive musical minds. It’s been a long time coming, but I believe that this album is the true and logical successor to earlier albums like Spectral Mornings and Defector. The wonderful and evocative cover art by Kim Poor even seems to allude to those earlier covers. All of this is not to imply that To Watch the Storms in any way resembles those albums in style as much as it does in approach. Back is the wonderful diversity, unabashed beauty and fearless experimentalism that characterized those earlier releases. Back are the superb vocal harmonies (special mention given here about Steve Hackett’s great lead singing) and the trademark mind-blowing virtuoso classical guitar work. To Watch the Storms is a fabulously fresh and moving work… just what this Hackett fan has been waiting for.
Djam Karet - A Night For Baku
We've all heard of The Grateful Dead, Phish and The Dave Matthews Band, some of us may have even have heard of Widespread Panic, but how many are familiar with Djam Karet? Another of the American 'Jam' bands, they, like the other groups mentioned, can instantly sell-out live concerts without blinking an eyelid, but have not been as succesful when it comes to shifting albums. Maybe it's because they have not confined themselves to any one musical area - they once released an album of 'bone-crushing heavy power rock with anarchistic guitar solos' in the same year as one of 'dark, eerie, ambient soundtracks' - maybe their name, which can be loosely translated from the original Indonesian to 'elastic time', has put people off, or possibly the fact that they are an entirely instrumental band has limited their mainstream appeal, but for whatever reason, a lot of people are missing out on some great music!
Founded in 1984 by guitarists Gayle Elliot and Mike Henderson, the band has released 11 CDs and inumerous tapes and archival CDs in their 19 year history, not bad considering they split for six years in the early 1990s! Drummer Chuck Owen Jr. and bassist Henry J. Osborne are the two other original members while last year the line-up was rounded off by the addition of a second bassist, Aaron Kenyon although, on this album at least, the two bass players don't perform simultaneously.
So what do you get for your money? Proclaimed as "a distillation of their musical visions across 20 years" A Night For Baku is a tremendously varied collection of instrumentals. Dream Portal sets the scene. An effortlessly smooth piece of languid atmospherics cut through with a biting guitar motif, it lulls the listener into a serene state before the hard rocking Hungry Ghost takes over. Featuring a driving drum beat that persistently pushes the track along, there is a some wonderful guitar - keyboard interplay as well as a few scorching guitar solos that will keep the air guitarists happy for years to come. Another change for Chimera Moon, which bears resemblance to Ozric Tentacles or perhaps early Porcupine Tree. The style of music makes it abundantly clear why Djam Karet have remained an instrumental band - there simply isn't room for a vocalist to slot in with the arrangements. Like the Ozrics, also an instrumental group, the compositions rely more on mood and soloing rather than riffs, choruses and melody lines but it is done with such aplomb and vision. Imagine one of Mike Oldfield's more adventurous large scale compositions distilled down into under ten minutes with a couple of up-front guitar solos thrown in and you get a rough approximation of the scale that Djam Karet operate in. Not afraid to incorporate slices of Eastern textures (as in The Falafel King), some modern psychadelia (Ukab Maerd), or even King Crimsonesque angular guitars and aggressive basslines (The Red Thread), the album is a guitar fan's utopia. Forget your goblins and court jesters, this is what real progressive rock sounds like!
There are many things one can do in an hour, but it is unlikely that many will be so rewarding as listening to A Night For Baku.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Pink Floyd - Dark Side Of The Moon
Thirty years ago one of the milestones in progressive rock was released. To celebrate this 30th anniversary a new version of this album has been released. To quote from the Dark Side Of The Moon website "We couldn't just remaster the album yet again, I suggested. The fans might, quite understandably, beat us to death with sticks". I think during the making of this Super Audio CD this thought was kept in mind, because this 'remastered' version is not just another remastered version in a nice box. Yes, it is a nice box, the booklet with new artwork is printed on a thicker, higher quality paper and this adds to the feeling that extra care has been given to this new version, but the most important feature of this album is (as it should be) the music on the disc inside of this box.
Dark Side Of The Moon on Super Audio CD. It is also a milestone for DPRP: the first review of an SACD. I will not really write a review of the music on this album. I assume that readers of DPRP are progrock fans and most of them will have this album in their collection. You might want to read the article by Remco, instead I will focus on the technique, the quality of the 5.1 mix. Apart from the demo SACD that got delivered with my SACD player this is the first SACD in my collection but because I also own the first CD version of Dark Side of the Moon I can make a good comparison.
I was a bit sceptical when I heard of this 5.1 version - it is indeed a new mix, but wasn't the original album just a stereo album? This first hesitation disappeared after 5 minutes of listening: If you own a SACD player stop reading this review and go to the recordstore and buy this album!
The sounds Speak To Me arise from absolute silence and transition into Breathe. Guitars are mainly heard on the rear channels while the vocals are situated at the front channels (including centre). Of course the division is not absolute: if all guitar sounds were only heard at the back channels this track would lose all cohesion. The new mix is done in such a way that the sound is 'wider' without becoming to spacy. It is like you are in standing in the same room that the band is playing in, without it is getting to artificial. One can imagine that the sequencer sounds of On The Run can be divided across all 5 channels easily. And it is true, as I would have expected this track has the most obvious 5.1 mix. Sounds running from left to right, front to back, sounds popping up at one channel only. The clocks of Time are divided separately among the channels as if each clock has its on place in the room. The music that follows again makes use of all channels without really changing the feel of the original, the drums of the intro have some extra echo, in the rest of the song the sound balance is mainly on the front channels without some highlight popping up in the rear channels.
The piano inThe Great Gig In The Sky is only situated on the front channels, while the guitars sweep from front to rear. It is a nice touch. The higher pitched vocals of Clare Torry get ditributed to all channels. All around coins are falling and cash registers are opened and closed in Money. In this track it is like every instrument has its own channel (apart from the vocals). The wider sound of Us and Them gives it an even more melancholic feel. Backing vocals during the "chorus" on the rear channels, while during the the rest the rear channels are rarely used. On Any Colour You Like the keyboard sounds flow from front to rear like a wave overtaking you. My personal favourites of this album Brain Damage and Eclipse have a subtle use of the different channels. Laughter at the rear channels, music accents at different channels etc.
I found it pretty hard to convey in this review my opinion on the album. Sticking to just the new technique of this SACD is not all there is to it. Everything about this album breathes the idea that people have been trying pretty hard to make this something special, not just another "the fans will buy it" ripp-off. Of course I enjoy listening to it (and singing along) in a normal way without really paying attention to where each sound is coming from, or judging how clear this is or how that sound is compared to the original. This SACD version has its own mood and I like it.
It's price being the price of a normal mainstream CD also makes me stand by the remark I have made before. If you like DSOTM and would like to "upgrade" your version to a SACD version it will be well worth the price. If you previously did not own DSOTM why not buy this version. The 'normal' remastered version of this hybrid SACD is as good as any other.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Mike Oldfield - Tubular Bells 2003
Together with Dark Side of the Moon, reviewed elsewhere in this issue, Mike Oldfield's classic Tubular Bells must be one of the most heavily milked albums of all times. But whereas Dark Side of the Moon keeps re-appearing in remastered and anniversary editions with basically the same recording, Tubular Bells has spawned a multitude of different recordings and interpretations besides the obvious remasters.
Let's see. We had the original Tubular Bells in 1973, followed by the Orchestral Tubular Bells in 1974 and the live version on the 1979 live album Exposed. Then, after more than decade of 'bellslessness' we got the splendid rewritten interpretation Tubular Bells II in 1992 and the less splendid (to say the least) Tubular Bells III in 1998. The next one had nothing to do with the original whatsoever, so instead of Tubular Bells IV they decided to call it The Millenium Bell (1999), thereby safeguarding a continued hitch on the success of the old album. Bits and pieces of some of these recordings were released on Virgin's 2001 answer to the Warner label's 'rehash frenzy', The Best of Tubular Bells.
Simple mathematics calculation of chance tells us that a new Bell thingy should arrive in 2003, and lo and behold ! Here it is. Tubular Bells 2003. I approached this release with a more than healthy dose of scepticism and disgust. And I was pleasantly surprised. VERY pleasantly surprised. Instead of a techno remix of the original masterpiece I got the same masterpiece. Well, almost the same. This is an album that defines the word 're-recording', not 'remix' or 'rendition'. The piece of music is almost exactly the same as the original, but recorded with today's technology, and 90% of the instruments are the same as those that were used on the original. The result? A crystal clear updated version without the bum notes, out of time and tune bits and sounding the way a classic album should sound, if it weren't slowly outdated by the hands of time and pace of technology.
Yes, Tubular Bells 2003 is indeed very true to the original. Only minor things have been changed, some good and some doubtful (perhaps they need some time to get used to). I believe the bass under the Introduction is a synth and the heavy Thrash might be a bit too distorted for my taste. Then again, we are treated to John Cleese as Master of Ceremony in the Finale of part 1 and Sally Oldfield (I guess) joins in as ... err .... cavewoman during the grunting ramblings of Caveman. DPRP's Oldfield-guru BJ also informed me that Latin and Jazz are significantly different with some other instruments and a different balance between the instruments. The melodies, however, remain nearly untouched.
Well, that might be the another minor point of criticism. Those track titles. Okay, it is a tough job to name segments of a classic epic which used to be nameless. And I can live with names like Caveman, Russians, Ghost Bells, etc. But the attempt on Tubular Bells II was a whole lot more imaginative than names like Fast Guitars, Basses, Jazz, Blues or, worst of all, A Minor Tune. Then again, what's in a name ? It's the music that counts. And the music is marvellous.
Still, the whole rehashing process does bug me a little. Therefore it is no big surprise that Tubular Bells 2003 is issued in three different versions. The single CD, the CD with bonus DVD (containing just 8 minutes of music in 5.1 sound plus the videoclip to the dance version (!) of Introduction, which is released as a single - what's the point in this near empty DVD ?) and finally The Complete Tubular Bells, which contains Tubular Bells 2003, Tubular Bells II and Tubular Bells III in a boxset - what's next ? 'Ommadawn 2004' ? 'The Songs of Distant Earth 2005' ? 'Tubular Bells 2003 2006' ?
Still, when ignoring the whole madness described above in gory details, what we are left with is a splendid, amazingly sounding re-recording that is true to the original. Makes me wonder if I should get some extra space in my CD cabinet by putting the original away in an old shoebox .... Anybody who already owns one version (or several) of the original Tubular Bells will have to make up his own mind though if he wants to cough up the full chart price for an album that they actually already own. If you don't own a copy of Tubular Bells yet you should first be ashamed of yourself and second get this version as soon as possible.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Cartoon – Bigorna
(The Real History Of King Arthur and The Knights Of The Round Table)
Come with me on a journey to a land far away (Brazil) and a time long ago (the 1970’s) as we join Cartoon for their rock opera Bigorna (Anvil). But wait, this is no lost classic! It is in fact a brand new work, though you could be forgiven for jumping to conclusions, as everything about this work screams of the 70's. The world has not seen the likes of this lavish production since Rick Wakeman stopped treating us to spectacular concept albums complete with Ice Shows (if you don’t count the damp squib that was Return To The Centre Of The Earth a few years ago, and I don’t!).
This is, in fact, Cartoon’s second album (following 1999’s Martelo) and is a full-blown Rock Opera in the grand tradition. There may be those amongst you who would doubt the wisdom of following Mr Wakeman so closely in terms of subject matter (remember Myths And Legends …) but, although there are plenty of symphonic arrangements and loads of keyboards (some of which DO sound like Rick’s style), the overall feel is very different. And as to the treatment of the concept, Cartoon completely abandons a faithful approach, playing fast and loose with the legend in a most irreverent and humorous manner – Arthur’s sword Excalibur is transformed here into a hammer, Merlin has become Pyter Pen, and somehow Robin Hood gets involved – but it’s all so much fun that none of this matters. The package comes complete with a full colour comic book, the text of which is in Portuguese, but the lyrics (from which the text is taken) are printed (and sung) in English. For an independent production, all this is very impressive indeed, but what of the music?
Well, it’s my pleasure to inform you that the music is also very impressive. There are symphonic arrangements, rippling keyboards, melodic guitars, and plenty of acoustic textures. The vocals come in a variety of voices as befits an operatic approach, some in a light-hearted vein (I am strangely reminded of 10cc at times), some more seriously handled. Sitar and Esraj add a touch of the exotic, and there are parts for saxophone, trumpet, flute, harmonica and cello. There are elements of Jazz, Folk, Classical, Rock and Pop to be found here, with flashes of Zappa, Alex Harvey, The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Split Enz all managing to spring to mind, however briefly, in addition to the usual prog fare of Yes, Genesis et al. The production is very good and the majority of the material is upbeat and accessible.
It is difficult to pick out individual tracks from a work such as this, peppered as it is with recurring themes and motifs, but I would like to mention: Knight’s Nightmare which has some amusing vocal histrionics and some country style guitar picking (although the honky-tonk piano bit may have Mr Wakeman’s solicitors rubbing their hands, as it is a bit too close to Merlin); She Smiled with its harpsichords, falsetto vocals and string arrangements underpinned with exotic percussion; Show Me Where Love Lives, which has a definite Peter Hammill feel in the piano and vocals, and the climatic The Last Battle which is the longest song here and has an appropriately bombastic opening, with twanging basslines before recapitulating many of the previous themes in a satisfying melange. The synth work here is particularly good.
The main drawback with a work such as this is that you need to devote a large chunk of time to its unfolding story – not much here would stand up so well out of context- but treated as an evening’s entertainment and devoured from beginning to end, it is very enjoyable and is the sort of thing I look forward to indulging in every once in a while.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10