Reviews in this issue:
Deadsoul Tribe - A Murder of Crows
Deadsoul Tribe are the brainchild of one Devon Graves, aka Buddy Lackey, leader of cult US metallers Psychotic Waltz. Despite gaining something of a cult following in Europe, Psychotic Waltz never really cracked the big league and called it a day in 1997. There followed a long period of silence from Graves, which was emphatically broken by the release of Deadsoul Tribe’s eponymous debut album in 2002. Although an excellent piece of work, the album really didn’t get the profile it deserved, partly because, in my opinion, many people who would have enjoyed it never got to listen to it. Hopefully the same won’t happen with this new, equally rewarding release.
The band’s sound is quite difficult describe. Although you can hear echoes of more conventional prog metal bands such as Dream Theater and Threshold, closer comparisons can be made with the likes of Tool and Devin Townsend (in solo mode). Graves also throws in unexpected curveballs, such as the very Jethro Tull-esque bursts of flute playing which pepper the album.
First track, the two-part Feed, is almost a textbook illustration of both the band’s sound and their idiosyncrasies. The first part (Stone by Stone) sees the band riding in on a sea of tight, coiled riffs which build and then subside throughout the track. Graves in vocal mode employs a variety of different styles, and manages to convey a number of moods – sometimes sinister, sometimes emotional, sometimes pleading (and occasionally all three at once!) - always without losing control. This song certainly does have that Tool feel to it, but just as you think you’ve got the measure of the band, we segue into part two; heralded by that Tull-esque flute and some mellow acoustic strumming, we soon get an extended guitar solo that could have come from a Euro power metal album. The most skilful part of all this is that it never seems contrived; these seemingly disparate elements blend very well with each other.
Generally speaking, the first section of the album sees the band at their heaviest; the personal highlight here is In A Garden Made Of Stone which boasts an intro that’s very similar to Black Sabbath’s Iron Man before going on to demonstrate the band’s ability to rack up the tension before breaking into a memorable chorus. I also heard hints of Alice In Chains on this one, a good thing in my opinion as they were one of the best bands to come out of the Seattle scene in the nineties. Following the superb Angels In Vertigo, which features a magnificently twisted central riff, and sees Graves vocally at his most chillingly effective, the band then change the emphasis again with the almost jaunty, piano-led Regret (although it should be said its still lyrically somewhat dark – in keeping with the tone of the overall album). From this point on there is more light and shade on show, although no let-up in power – I’m Not Waving is a particular stand-out, powered by a superb dynamic performance from drummer Abel Moustafa which would give Neal Peart a run for his money.
The band leave the most prog rock-friendly track for the end of the album; Black Smoke And Mirrors sees flute and acoustic guitar once again to the fore, not to mention a liberal dose of classical strings; at some points this attains the bombast of the best symphonic rock, whilst at others the track sounds like a dead ringer for the Jethro Tull track Cross-Eyed Mary!
The production, handled by Graves, is excellent throughout; although I immediately picked out the excellent, sharp guitar sound and wonderfully clear and well-mixed vocals, this doesn’t mean Graves has concentrated on his own instruments to the detriment of the others; the sound as a whole is full, varied and well balanced. Overall, this is another excellent effort by Dead Soul Tribe, which deserves to be heard by as wide an audience as possible. One for those with an open mind and an interest in music which doesn’t necessarily fit within conventional boundaries.
If it's true that crows are carrying the souls of dead people into the beyond, then what happens with the souls of those people when the crows didn't manage to get there? A thought to ponder every time you drive past a dead bird on the edge of the roadside? It's also the central theme of the latest release from songwriter and multi instrumentalist Devon Graves.
Now, in the UK every packet of cigarettes has to have the words 'Smoking Kills' printed in big, black letters on the front and rear. A similarly clear health warning should be printed on the sleeve of this album. A Murder of Crows is a seriously addictive musical drug.
Formed from the basis of Psychotic Waltz, I first had a taste of Deadsoul Tribe with an absorbing set at the ProgPower Europe festival late last year. I was immediately struck by the band's very individual, groove-laden style and Devon's amazingly intense yet restrained vocals. One minute, tender passion. The next, guitar fuelled angst. I quickly snapped up a copy of their self-titled debut and it still gets regular spins on my player.
While being based on a similar blueprint to the debut album, the quality of the workmanship here, is a whole step up in class. The songs on the debut more than held your attention. Here, they slide under your skin, deeper and deeper with each listen.
The Tribe is a complex and bold creature. When it all fits together, this album is a stunning musical beast. It works best, when Devon really spreads his song writing wings and combines the rough with the smooth. The two-part Feed which opens the album, mixes some vicious, intense riffs with sections where Devon's distinctive, almost hypnotic voice stands alone - a real emotional rollercoaster. He does it again on Some Things You Can't Return. This track makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up every time.
Most of the material was written recently, although a couple of songs are developments of older ideas - two dating back from his Psychotic Waltz days. Devon even picks up the old flute for a couple of songs as well. Indeed, the first half of this album is brilliant. The guitars are far more prominent with the keyboards held in the background and there's a great variety in tempo, emotion, rhythm and complexity.
The only criticism I can lay down is that in the second half, the trio of Crows On The Wire, I'm Not Waving and Flies fail to maintain that variety. It's probably down to personal taste, but they also take on a few too many psychedelic bursts and repetitive riffs for my liking. Thankfully the band rises again at the end with another ambitious emotional journey through Black Smoke and Mirrors and ending in some style with the laid-back groove of Time. Both these were written in the Psychotic Waltz period and will have added appeal to fans of that band. Strangely, Time is actually billed as a 'bonus track'. It certainly has a different, more upbeat feel but it's actually one of the best tracks on the album.
If you've never heard them before, Devon has such a distinctive style that comparisons with other bands won't really do it justice. All I can really say is, as a big fan of their debut, I'm equally pleased with this. Oh, and next time you see a crow in the road, please drive carefully.
Power Of Omens - Rooms of Anguish
It's been five years since Eyes of the Oracle became the debut release from promising progressive metallers Power of Omens. Rooms of Anguish, the band's follow-up, is comprised of nine songs - all but one of which, are more than six minutes long and one a 20-minute monster.
It's great to hear a Prog-Metal band that has some originality these days, and Power of Omens definitely fits that bill. 'Epic', 'complex', 'intriguing', are the sort of words that will feature in most reviews. These guys mix highly-technical, Progressive Metal with majestic Art Rock. Rooms of Anguish is indeed an epic, complex and intriguing affair. It is sure to please listeners who have waited for something new from this talented ensemble. Those familiar with Eyes of the Oracle, will certainly be compelled to buy this one, as they have taken a similar style and sound, yet moved to another extreme in terms of melody and atmosphere.
Most technical bands (Spiral Architect, Watchtower) tend to leave me feeling rather cold, rather detached. What lifts Power of Omens above that, is the sense of joy, fun and almost spiritual verve that runs through their music. They also employ a very unique style in terms of rhythms, chops and arrangements. After repeated listens - and I'm well onto the second hand in terms of keeping count - their stylistic differences continue to amaze and baffle me.
The one element that will split most listeners is the drumming of Alex Arellano. He rolls so many different beats and rhythms - often at the same time and often totally at odds with what the rest of the band are doing. Innovative? Yes. Well played? Sure. Excessive - that's where opinions will differ. For some listeners it will just be too over the top. It has an annoying tendency to distract the ear away from the rest of music and at times it just becomes frustrating. It certainly adds another dimension and overall it's just - and I mean just - bearable. However in the future, it could be an approach that isn't tried all the way through every track!
David Gallegos's guitar playing has a signature sound that is also very distinctive. He also doesn't play to the rhythm being laid down by the song. But while Arellano's drumming contrasts with the sound, David's does at least co-exist with it. Furthermore, his solos are superb - they tend to cry instead of scream.
Chris Salina's vocals remain the biggest attraction in the Omen sound. It's a much-overused comparison in ProgMetal circles but Salina is Geoff Tate's bastard twin. His top range does have a slightly different tone but he uses the same phrasing and emphasis and on the lower and mid ranges in particular you have a good basis for a game of the spot the difference. No bad thing at all in my book and surely this album will establish Salina as one of the most accomplished vocalists around the scene at present.
Overall this is an album where the highs are so high that they well and truly outweigh even the lowest lows. It would be too much to attempt a song-by-song break down. Let me just pick out a few of the highlights to whet your appetite:
- The first two minutes of As Winter Falls - a despairingly beautiful intro with acoustic guitar, panpipe keys, and Salinas' haunting vocal.
- The 20 minutes of In the End will take at least a dozen more listens to reveal itself to me. It may not be an easy piece, but the mixture of Middle Eastern vibes, Wagnerian classics and metal madness never becomes boring.
- The great flamenco guitar work on The Calm Before The Storm and the brilliant bass acrobatics that launches Rooms of Anguish.
- The opening track With These Words and the closing title track are slightly more direct and provide very enjoyable listens with some great melodic hooks.
- And Only a Dream is one of the most beautiful ProgMetal ballads created in at least a decade.
So to conclude, is this an album that ProgMetal fans should add to their collection? If you like music to be an instant hit and an easy listen, then the answer is probably no. Power of Omens doesn't do easy listening. However, if you like something that takes the classic Queensryche/Fates Warning/Watchtower framework but twists and bends it into an schizophrenically complex shape then I'd suggest this is for you. Not everything the band tries works for me here. But there are enough moments to cherish, to make opening the door to the Rooms of Anguish, a worthwhile adventure.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Arabesque - The Union
Arabesque was originally founded in the Netherlands back in 1989 as an instrumental trio, then consisting of Joop Wolters, Marc van Mierlo and Barend Tromp (the latter later known from Lemur Voice). During the 13 years it has taken for Arabesque to finally release a full length debut album, this setting has altered entirely. Tromp is no longer playing with the band and apart from Wolters (guitars, backing vocals) and van Mierlo (drums), the band now consist of Frank de Groot (grunts, bass), Katja Salemi (vocals), Nicole de Seriere du Bizournet (vocals including some rap) and René Ubachs (keyboards, backing vocals). As can be understood from this line-up, it is quite clear that Arabesque is no longer an instrumental band, and I personally think they have gained from it.
The many vocals contribute to an interesting mix. Neither de Seriere du Bizournet nor Salemi have typical female voices, but coarser, rockier - comparable to singers like Maria Sjöholm (from the Swedish band Drain) and Anouk. This suits me just fine as I think female vocals in rock and metal (progressive or not) are very often used in a far too sweet manner. The addition of de Groot's grunts is reminiscent of the type of bands (e.g. After Forever, Opeth and Wolverine) which has swept over the prog metal scene over the last five years or so. Nevertheless, Arabesque is doing something which I feel is something distinctly their own. The music is a somewhat slower, rather heavy kind of prog metal - at times reminding me of Dream Theater. There is also elements of pop, jazz and even some funky grooves. And de Groot's bass playing really get me going - a worthy replacement for somebody of Tromp's calibre.
My favourite track on the CD is the 8-minutes long Instant Daydream - strangely enough, given that I am usually not that keen on instrumental music. This piece, however, shows that the band could very well give an instrumental band like Liquid Tension Experiment a run for their money. The musicians get to show off without it ever feeling out of place. Apart from this track, I immensely enjoy the poppy, melodic piece Heal Me and Naked with its superb keyboard and bass opening as well as its softer - slightly jazzy - bits. At their worst, the band has a slight tendency in some songs - like the title track - to be a bit monotonous, but on the whole this is outweighed by their finer moments.
If you are a fan of prog metal and do not mind softer elements (every so often of a pop musical nature), this should defintely be on your list of things to check out. For my own part, I will eagerly keep an eye out for what the band will do next - and hopefully it will not take another 13 years.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Mythologic - Standing In Stillness
Mythologic may not be a name that immediately springs to mind, or in fact the small independent label PMM (Progressive Music Management) who have released this album, but I feel that these names will be heard more frequently over the coming months and years. Based in the USA, Mythologic have kindly made life simpler for me, in that three of the band all carry the same surname. Chris Rodler, who supplies the guitar and bass sections, Brett the drums and the final Rodler (by marriage) is Melissa on vocals. The line-up is completed by Steve Matusik who forms the other half of this formidable guitar ensemble.
The album opens bravely with the a cappella Magic to Breathe, which prompted a quick glance at the accompanying literature to make sure I'd picked up the right CD. The vocal melody is sung with minimal effects and it was only on subsequent listenings to the album that I felt this worked. As I said a brave start and one that stamped Melissa Rodler's mark upon the proceedings from an early juncture. In Solitude 'E Bows' its way in and amongst ever increasing layers of guitars. Definitely the most infectious track from the CD, with its driving and at times intricate rhythms, distinctive vocals and contagious vocal harmonies - a Mythologic trademark.
The diversity and intensity of the music builds from the title track, Standing In Stillness and moves forward from this strong base. Each of the four members displaying their individual prowess, whilst forming a cohesive playing unit. The band's sound is distinctly guitar driven, which perhaps initially belies the complexities of the music. It is possible to pick up on some Dream Theater influences in this (and subsequent) tracks, along with the more Liefsen-esque guitar parts. However, for me one of the stongest pieces was the tension building Battled Beliefs and if for no other reason than the all too brief King Crimson-like outro section.
Following on from Battled Beliefs is the mini epic A Dim Too Dark, opening with acoustic guitar and voice. I couldn't help thinking that although Melissa's voice fits well with Mythologic's music, it is in the these gentler moments where it shines through. Her voice also possessed those timbres that would allow it so easily to fit within the framework of bands such as Mostly Autumn or Karnataka. A Dim Too Dark also features one other aspect of the band not touched on yet and that is the song writing, which adds yet another dimension to the material. The more I listen to this album - the more I like it.
The mixing and production on Standing in Stillness may lack the purity of tone afforded to many of the current batch of Prog Metal releases to grace DPRP, however it retains a certain rawness that is so often lost within rock music. Melissa Rodler's melodic sense and tonal qualities act as a perfect foil to the band's harder edge and this blending of non stereotypical vocals, complex time signatures and strong guitar orientation makes this an interesting and somewhat unusual addition to this Prog Metal Special.
I have to admit I tend to avoid CD's that carry the moniker of Prog Metal. It is not that I dislike the genre, in fact the contrary applies. However one of my biggest turn off's is invariably the vocals, or its delivery. So when looking for a 'bit more meat' in my prog, I tend to stay with those "safer" and ultimately more established bands. A shame really, but when presented with all the positive musical elements of prog metal and a distinctive and contrasting voice, I felt compelled to add my words to this feature. Mythologic offered this inspiration - so check this band out!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Elsesphere - Blind Leading The Blind
Formed eight years ago in Stockholm by drummer Mikael Kvist, after several line-up changes, Elsesphere found a steady line-up two years later when Jonny Berntsson joined on vocals. Thanks to a tip from Mercyful Fate guitarist Mike Wead, Elsesphere got hold of keyboardist Joakim Floke a year later. Bass player Lollo completed the team in early 1999.
What sets this band apart, is an unusual doom slant on the more usual ProgMetal fare and their ability to change styles effortlessly several times within a song. Elsesphere take a very progressive approach without being overly complex and then mix in a gloomy, almost doomy approach to the verses. It's all done with a bone-crunching guitar sound, synthesizers for lead keyboard and an aggressive, mid-ranged in-yer-face singer. Jonny Berndtsson never strains or tries to do anything that his voice can't handle. Savatage, but with more complex instrumental work, is the comparison that keeps springing to my mind.
The chorus' are melodic if not over-brimming with memorable melody. The first two and the last two tracks are good if not great - although they do get away with a 'Somewhere Over The Rainbow' chorus on the album's best track Hole Inside My Head. In between however, neither the riffs nor the melodies really demand repeated listens.
The production ain't gonna win too many prizes either. It's a bit rough around the edges. Giving a pretty flat, un-dynamic sound - it doesn't punch as this sort of metal should. However the band has managed to carve out its own sound and with a bigger production and sharper song-writing next time around, Elsesphere could be ones to watch. In the meantime, if you like a bit of doom and gloom with your ProgMetal then it could be one to buy as well.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Nemesis - Eden ?
Nemesis is a Hungarian band formed in 1997 and after the albums Nemesis and Abraxas comes this, their third. Eden? marks the first release on which the lyrics are sung in English and it might be because of that that Zoltan Kiss' vocals are not completely without accent. However, Nemesis make ProgMetal with all the correct ingredients: double bass drums, metal guitars, haunting keyboards and high pitched vocals, which they appear to be able to mix together with the correct amounts. This album has Dream Theater (with a hint of Threshold) written all over it. Such a qualification might be used a lot in progmetal land (Dream Theater is, of course, one of the progmetal icons), but in this case I have a mixed feeling on this album: the songs are good (the correct ingredients are all there and they are high quality ingredients), but despite this, the album did not make a very large impression on me, perhaps lacking originality on some tracks.
The first three tracks on the album catch on quickly. That might of course be caused by the fact that they sound so familiar. Reality's Door, Predestination and Four Mirrors can be used as example to what progmetal sounds like. It appears some of the vocals are just within Zoltan Kiss' reach (but notice: within, not out of).
Eden? is one of the longer tracks and one of the highlights of this album. In fact it marks the second half of this album on which Nemesis shows that they are able to stand on their own without sounding too much like another band (but still the Dream Theater reference is lurking in shadows). Faith is a ballad that does not fit easily with the other songs on this CD, but the guitars on this track are really good. The other special and 'out of the ordinary' song on Eden is Viragenek, a Hungarian folksong, with piano and vocals only. This is a powerful song.
Nemesis is a group of good musicians. This English album is a re-recording of a previous Hungarian album. Their second English album (Psychogeist) will also be a re-recording of an older Hungarian album. In the meantime the current line-up has also released a new album in Hungarian "Terra Incognita" and it is especially this album that has triggered my curiosity. This album will also be released in English in the near future. I hope this new line-up is able to shake of the references to other bands.
In the future I will be listening to Eden? again, but this album does not place Nemesis on my shortlist - yet.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Textures - Polars
If you mixed Grindcore (say Pissing Razors) with Prog (say Pink Floyd) then you'd definitely end up with something like Textures.
Together, in the current line-up for two years, this Dutch six-piece has certainly put together a very impressive debut release, especially as they've produced the entire album themselves. The quality starts with the digi-pack and cool graphics (although I prefer the back of the album to the cover!). Inside you'll find six songs, running to almost 60 minutes that I can safely say stand at the extreme edge of the ProgMetal field.
By their own admission Textures aim to 'give ProgMetal a right slap in the face'. And sure enough, Polars pretty much pummels the listener into submission (or surrender) from beginning to end.
I won't mention individual track names as there are eight according to my CD player but only six listed on the rear cover - so I'd probably pick the wrong ones! Anyway we open with a huge barking roar from vocalist Pieter Verpaalen and the first few tracks stick more closely to the Grindcore model. However as the album progresses, more of the Prog influences fuse into the mix and the songs broaden out, with the closing two tracks weighing in at 18 and 14 minutes respectively. The whole thing benefits from the fact that the band play as an extremely tight unit, and that the production is well-balanced and dynamic.
Polars certainly won't appeal to pure Prog fans but anyone looking for a very different and certainly very extreme slant on ProgMetal, would find something of interest here. And with an average age of just 24, I guess there's plenty more to come.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Mindgate - Willow Whisper
At its best, prog-metal can be a potent force, combining the power and anthemic quality of heavy metal with the melody and intricacies of progressive rock to exhilharating effect – just listen to some of the top exponents within the genre such as Dream Theater, Pain Of Salvation, Symphony X and Threshold for confirmation. Unfortunately, there are also thousands of imitators around who, I feel, give the impression that all prog-metal is about is trying to cram as many notes and time changes into a song as possible. Sadly, Mindgate are amongst the latter group.
There’s no denying that there’s talent here, as evidenced in many of the build-ups to these songs, which are generally skilfully handled. Unfortunately, as soon as each song proper starts things tend to go rapidly downhill. This is due primarily to two things. One, the band are far too tricky for their own good, to the extent that the complex time changes begin to sound like one musician has decided to change the pace, and its taking his bandmates a few seconds to cotton on! There is simply far too much going on here, with no room for a song to properly develop or for the music to breathe. Secondly, the vocals of Robert Czerwik are decidedly ropey; not only does he have a rather annoying and heavily-accented singing voice (which is way too prominent in the mix) but his pronunciation of the lyrics (unsurprisingly not self-penned) are terrible; this is of course understandable but makes for painful listening – better to have sung in his native language I’d have thought, as this would sound more genuine and less off-putting.
Overall, there are some enjoyable moments here (the relatively straightforward first-half of Lost Dreams probably being the strongest material on offer), but you have to wade through a lot of dodgy stuff to get to them. Although this CD is only just over the half an hour mark, I must admit to finding it difficult to get to the end, and I really can’t recommend Willow Whisper; even to die-hard prog-metal fans, given that there’s so much superior material out there.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10