Reviews in this issue:
Cast - Al-bandaluz
CD 1: Viajero Inmóvil (7:09), Jerezcali (Pueblo de Dos Mundos) (8:52), Encrucijada (a: Ascención, b: Retorno, c: Conversión) (17:52), Lamento del Gato (9:55), Damajuana (4:17)
CD 2: Viento (5:01), El Puente (a: Vida Real, b: El Puente, c: Luz al Final del Túnel, d: Valle de los Sueños) (22:01), La Balesta (8:46), Ensamble Al-Mayá (5:26), Ansia, Augustia, Desesperación (7:10)
Despite having been in existence since the late 1970s, Cast could only afford to release the debut album in 1994. Since that time there has been a consistent stream of band and solo releases culminating in Al-bandaluz, the 19th Cast-related album. For this latest album, long-time members Alfonso Vidales and Francisco Hernández (keyboards and vocals, respectively) have been joined by new members Kiko King (drums), Carlos Humarán (guitars) and Flavio Jimenéz (bass) to produce a ten-track double album, clocking in at a fraction short of 100 minutes. Despite being familiar with the name, I had not heard any of the previous releases so I was very curious to hear just what the highly regarded Mexican prog stalwarts sounded like.
Five of the ten tracks feature vocals, sung in Spanish, although in general the vocal sections are fairly short leaving plenty of room for the expansive instrumental swathes of what must be the finest symphonic progressive music to emanate from the southern hemisphere. Primarily centred around the highly impressive keyboard skills of Alfonso Vidales which neatly integrate complex piano and synthesiser lines in with the rest of the instrumentation. This is none more evident that on the opening track Viajero Inmóvil, which harks back to the early days of Emerson, Lake and Palmer. Indeed, the Emerson influence is readily found all over this album.
Each of the CDs contains an epic track: on the first disc it is the three-part instrumental, Encrucijada. Opening with an insistent piano riff, powerful guitar and sax (played by guest musician Pepe Torres) lines intrude helping the piece to evolve into an epic of grand proportions. Melody lines recur throughout the track taking the listener through an initially relatively calm journey before reaching an exciting climax full of chugging guitars and double bass drum attacks. Fine stuff! On the second disc we are treated to the 22 minute El Puente which slowly builds through the rather loosely arranged Vida Real, before the vocal section, El Puente pulls things together. The final two sections give the band the opportunity to demonstrate how well they gel together producing totally engaging soundscapes. The only criticism I have is that the female backing vocals, provided by Lupita Vidales, need a bit more force (possibly by double tracking or adding extra vocalists) and are rather too far down in the mix. But it is a very minor gripe!
Of the remaining tracks Damajuana is stylistically reminiscent of Camel, particularly the way the flute (again, played by Pepe Torres) is woven around Humarán's impeccable guitar work while La Balesta has gentle piano and acoustic guitar passages which bring back memories of Banks and Hackett in all their glory. Ensamble Al-Mayá is the only track with a more Latinate feel to it, although not in the more traditional manner one would expect from a South American band. Oddly enough, it reminds me of Ozric Tentacles! Final track Ansia, Augustia, Desesperación has some determined riffing by Humarán and closes the album with a steady instrumental romp.
All-in-all Al-bandaluz is a fine album of very good songs played by excellent musicians. That they have been able to maintain the quality of their releases considering their prodigious output over the last nine years is nothing less than remarkable.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
KBB - Four Corner's Sky
KBB have been around since 1992, releasing their first album Lost And Found in 2000. By all accounts, judging from Nigel Camillari's review, a pretty impressive affair and now in September 2003 we see the follow-up to this with Four Corner's Sky. Although I have not heard their debut, it would need something special to equal this release. KBB's lineup has remained almost unaltered from their debut with the exception of Toshimitsu Takahashi who takes over the keyboard mantle.
I have to say that the violin (for me) is one of those instruments that in the wrong hands can inflict torture above human endurance, however, in the hands of someone as gifted as Akihisa Tsuboy, it is a joy and pleasure to listen to. Coincidentally Four Corner's Sky marks the second album to feature the talents of Akihisa that I have reviewed this year, having been most impressed by his contribution to the delightful Era album. However we should note that KBB is not just about one man, but four gifted players, who have fused together to make this fine instrumental album.
Because of the nature of the music and the instrumentation, probably best represented by the more intense Kracken's Brain is Blasting and I am Not Here, comparisons to Mahavishnu Orchestra or early Jean-Luc Ponty are probable. Although other than these two tracks I certainly found the rest of Four Corner's Sky to be more accessible and melodically paletable. Leaning therefore perhaps to some UK notions, but again I would be cautious as the complexity of the pieces here, far exceeds any arrangements to be found therein. KBB's music fuses together some those elements that can be found in the above by the melding of progressive rock with jazz rock. The combination of these intricate rhythms are nicely balanced by the accessible and concordant themes.
The opening track sets the tone for the whole album with Akihisa's tuneful violin complementing the complex but sympathetic backing. Discontinuous Spiral also features some fine interplay and solo sections from both Tsuboy and Takahashi and with the mood lightened by the Celtic reel that is interwoven into the piece. A truely wonderful track. Sharply contrasting this is the aptly titled Kracken's Brain Is Blasting which takes us into the depths of jazz fusion, stretching the bounds of endurance in this somewhat heavy-weight track. Release comes in the form of Horobi No Kawa with its gentle and familiar pening piano melody. A beautiful and charming piece with some magical solo sections, Dani providing the first of these with his fluid fretless bass work, which later combines splendidly with Tsuboy's liquid style. Dani also takes up the gauntlet in Backside Edge, this time around his perculating bass work, reminiscent of Jeff Berlin, under-pinning the lengthy solo sections that pervade this track. Everyone comes to the party, including the as yet unmentioned, but excellent Shirou Sugano on drums.
Slave Nature makes a great companion to Backside Edge, a rockier track and one given a stronger edge by the inclusion of Tsuboy's driving guitar work. Although this is the only track to feature Tsuboy on guitar his command of the instrument is evident and worth noting his involvement with Strings Arguments, who's album The Encounter we also reviewed earlier this year. Slave Nature is broken by Takahashi's jazzy Rhodes-like piano solo which acts as the centrepiece here. I Am Not Here takes us once again into the fusion side of KBB, which opens delicately enough, however this is possibly the most difficult of seven tracks to take in. Again fine playing, but a little too avant-garde and cacaphonous for my taste. However the balance is restored with the closing track Shironiji which is full of meandering melodies and featuring some truly striking lead guitar from Dani, again another flowing and superb track.
In conclusion this was an unexpected but hugely pleasant surprise. The combination of the solid and inventive rhythm section, strong "dialogues" between the keyboards and violin along with the melodic structuring of the pieces made this compulsive listening. Definitely one for those with a leaning toward free flowing instrumentals and if any of the above 'referencing' artists feature in your collection, then this could serve as one of this year's best finds. - Heartily recommended!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Satellite - A Street Between Sunrise And Sunset
Neo-prog from Poland? Not generally the sort of thing found in my pile of albums to review and it was only on a recommendation from a friend that I got it.
Having lived with it for a wee while, I must say it would be criminal if I didn't scribble a few words, on what is a simply superb album. On a long car journey my friend Chris put this on the stereo and 72 minites later he just looked at and said: "I've gotta buy this".
Founded by Wojtek Szadkowski (best know as the mainstay of Collage) this release had apparently been highly anticipated in neo-prog circles and I'm happy to report that it has been well worth the wait. Joined by former Collage colleagues Robert Amirian, Mirek Gil and Krzysiek Palczewski this is simply one of the best albums of its type I've ever had the pleasure to listen to. Concentrating on long, atmospherical compositions where the melodies and mood entwine the listener bit by bit, the ten songs on offer drift effortlessly between power and beauty.
As you'd expect this is a concept album of sorts dealing with choices - how we can understand and see our world in two completely different ways - like choosing one side of the street or the other. In the words of Wojtek: "Some people can see or feel more than others. May be all of us could find a more sensitive side of ourselves but unfortunately for different reasons we do not have enough time or we don't want to see anything else than our little grey everyday lives." And in case you wondered, the cover artwork and logo was designed by Mark Wilkinson (Marillion and Fish among others).
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Jaime Rosas - Virgo
Jaime Rosas, the man, is a bit of a mystery, and one which his website (very much still under construction) does little to illuminate. He is from Chile and plays the keyboards, but little else is revealed. Thankfully, Jaime Rosas, the Artist wears his (he)art on his sleeve and apparently believes in being direct and to the point. Thus, the titles of the tracks pretty much sum up their contents very nicely thank you. Plegaria (Prayer), Sinfonia (Symphony) and Breves Piezas Rockeras (Brief Rock Pieces) leave you in no doubt as to what’s in store.
As far as I can tell, Rosas is responsible for everything here except for the vocal on the only song – Lluvia (Rain) – which is sung (in Spanish) by Jaime Scalpello. The music consists of keyboards (various) and percussion (programmed), with lush, symphonic arrangements. The overriding impression is of a cross between the dramatic orchestral epics of The Enid, with the rockier, but still classically inclined concept works of Rick Wakeman. Rosas favours sweeping string synth arrangements, grandiose organ workouts, and spiralling Moog solos, but there is also some nice electric piano work (particularly on the second movement of the Symphony).
Works of this nature clearly have their roots in the Progressive Rock revolution of the 1970’s, but there is a freshness to Jaime’s approach, which stops this having a purely retro appeal. Occasionally, the programmed drums are a bit intrusive (as is often the case), but there are moments when a kettle drum effect (I’m assuming Jaime is not actually hitting anything with a stick, but I could be wrong) adds greatly to the dramatic tension.
Plegaria is a nice opening to the album, revealing Rosas’ considerable talents both as player and arranger. The opening theme is sombre but beautiful, and is nicely developed as the track unfolds. At around the two-minute mark, there is the first of many Moog solos, which incorporates and modifies the theme to good effect. This is followed by some impressive organ work.
The centrepiece of the album is the four-movement Sinfonia, totalling over 32 minutes. The thirteen-minute opening movement is particularly impressive, with a truly commanding orchestral feel to the arrangements. Aside from a couple of cheesy moments, and again, some clumsy drum effects, this is a keyboard fans dream come true, with plenty of terrific solos and dramatic crescendos. It should appeal to all lovers of symphonic rock.
The second movement is a gentle affair, with some lovely electric piano, and a pleasant, relaxed atmosphere. It reminds me of German Neo Proggers Rousseau, or the quieter moments of Camel, without the guitar. The synths reproduce a nice woodwind type of sound. The third movement is short but highly charged with tension and drama. There is a richly cinematic feel here, achieved with string synths and Moogs. The percussion is hugely effective on this track.
The final movement brings things to a satisfactory conclusion, with yet more Moog and organ soloing. There is plenty of variety in the keyboard textures and voicings, with only the drum machines to lower the quality a little. This is a powerful end to a long but well sustained work.
Lluvia is a romantic ballad, with a lush arrangement, primarily featuring rippling pianos, and topped with a moving vocal from Jaime Scappello. He has a richly toned voice, which imbues the Spanish lyrics with a highly poetic air.
For the concluding suite of short pieces (mostly around the two minute mark) Rosas really whips it out, and whips up a storm. Abandoning the orchestral feel for a much more rocky approach, he proves himself to be equally at home with this much punchier style of playing and writing. The tempos are generally pretty fast, but Rosas is a good player, and is more than equal to the task, his fingers executing lightning fast runs to rival Wakeman or Emerson at their best.
What stops this being a great as opposed to a good work is the slightly one-dimensional production and, more importantly, the lack of input from other musicians. I would love to hear Rosas as part of a full band, or even better, to unleash his composing, arranging and soloing talents on a full orchestra. Now that would be awesome. Having said that, Rosas is a talented individual, and his work deserves hearing by all fans of symphonic keyboard extravaganzas.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Ulysses - Symbioses
Yet another band coming up from the growing Dutch Prog Metal scene, Ulysses earned positive comments with the release of a debut mini CD, Eclectic, a couple of years back. Now, they have released their first full-length album. In producing Symbioses, Ulysses has tried to keep everything in their own hands - from the composing and recording, to the layout and design of the booklet.
However, it's the music on which a band has to be judged and I'm afraid Ulysses fall well short of the mark. The vocals are the weakest link. Raymond Jansen will not be to too many people's taste and in the ballads his voice is pretty exposed. Full marks for effort and passion but it really is quite hard listening.
The songs don't rate much higher. Symbioses starts off as a fairly straightforward Progressive Metal album before mellowing into a edgy, neo-Prog workhorse with some decent, atmospheric keyboard and piano parts. However what we have are seven song titles in need of songs. No real melodies, no real structure and a distinct lack of rhythmic variety. Not one of them has a focus - something that jumps out at you and says: "Listen to me".
Of course not every album is going to get a 'recommended', but even when not liking an album, I can usually pick out a few positive things that a band could build on for the future. Sorry, but being bluntly honest, I really can't find anything here that would make me want to come this way again.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10