Issue 2003-014: A.C.T. - Last Epic - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
A.C.T's Last Epic receives a resounding DPRP recommended from all of the team participating in this Round Table Review. The album was given to two reviewers who were familiar with A.C.T's previous two albums and had also caught the band in concert. Of the other two contributors, they had either not previously been sold upon A.C.T's music, or as in my case, were less familiar. The idea, as has always been the case, is to offer a rounded view-point from as varied a cross section of reviewers as is possible.
"I just hope I will not have to wait two more years for my next dose." - I wrote those words in 2001 when reviewing A.C.T's second CD Imaginary Friends, and now... ironically (and finally) two years later I sit here with Last Epic, the band's latest achievement. And it is another achievement.
Whereas Imaginary Friends took A.C.T a bit further in the sense that it felt more like a unified album than Today's Report, its fantastic but somewhat straggly (because of the obvious mix of new and old material) predecessor, Last Epic truly takes the band to the next level, in my opinion. Not so much that the music is better - I like all their albums equally much - but it is different, more together, following a much clearer line; which one could argue is necessary, considering the fact that it is a concept album.
Like the last time (but to a greater extent), A.C.T is backed up by The Acting Orchestra, which this time consists of Stefan Pöntinen (violin 1), Kajse-Lotta Soleke (violin 2), Malin Wikblad (viola) and Per Tidstrand (cello). This little quartet gets quite a bit of space, not only in the actual songs, but in the very brief instrumental interludes included at the end of some tracks (e.g. Garden and Attic). It is also pleasant to see that Tomas Erlandsson (their ex-drummer) has chipped in with some percussion. Not that Thomas Lejon (Erlandsson's replacement since just after the previous album) does a bad job. Far from it. If anything, this album testifies that Lejon is precisely what A.C.T needs (and I had no doubt after having seen the man in action twice - not to mention heard him play with Andromeda).
As for the music (which is sometimes linked between tracks and sometimes not), it is another full platter of A.C.T, so the fans will not be disappointed. And for anyone not yet acqainted with Sweden's, in my opinion, best band in the genre, this album is as good a starting point as any. Heavy elements are mixed with soft ones and funny bits are included, which is basically part of A.C.T's trademark by now. Not to mention the beautiful harmonies that permeates the album. Herman Saming (lead and backing vocals) remains one of my favourite Swedish singers (all categories included), and his comrades, Jerry Sahlin (keyboards, vocoder, lead and backing vocals), Ola Andersson (guitars, lead and backing vocals) and Peter Asp (bass guitar, backing vocals, percussion), also have excellent voices (though Saming is in a league of his own, sorry guys!). Clear references, as always, would be ELO, Queen, some Valensia, IQ, Arena, Saga, etc. It could also be mentioned here that the band is actually touring Europe currently as support act for Saga.
Favourite tracks on the album, so far, would be the heavy tracks Mr. Landlord and Manipulator (both of which I had the opportunity to hear live last autumn already), Wake Up with its great back beat and slight reggae feel, and The Observer, which is actually a remake of the track Recall from their demo (which was finally re-released on CD with two live recorded bonus tracks late last year with the title [The Early Recordings]). Since Recall has always been a favourite of mine, from the moment I first heard it live in 1997 and bought the demo on tape, I am very pleased by seeing it included here (I missed it on Today's Report onto which two of the other demo tracks made it) and it has definitely been well integrated and does by no means feel disparate in any way from the rest of the material.
I would also like to compliment Peter Asp and John The Fisherman on their cover and sleeve design. I never liked the covers of the two previous albums, but this one looks great (especially the sleeve). Only things that disturb me is the misprint in the lyrics for Wake Up, where verse two is printed twice at the expense of verse three, and some sloppiness in the proof reading. But those are merely details.
So... all in all, A.C.T has definitely done it again! Whether you are already a fan or not, if you are into this sort of music and do not already own the album: What the heck are you waiting for?!
And now once more, "I just hope I will not have to wait two more years for my next dose." But if so... I am sure A.C.T will make it worth my while waiting. They have definitely earned my faith and support in that area.
These Swedish Progsters have built a firm cult following across the world thanks to a carefully crafted mix of complexity and melody on their first two releases - Today's Report and Imaginary Friends. Little surprise therefore, that having reached that key, third album, they venture into full-blown concept album territory.
I normally need a bit of metal with my Prog and for me the first two A.C.T. albums failed to really have enough hooks to compensate for their ever-changing musical mood swings. However with this release, it appears A.C.T. has evolved - managing to keep their musical wanderings under a tighter control and adding a more focused sense of melody to their songs.
For those of you yet to cross paths with the band, their music is impossible to put into any one pigeonhole. It is probably best described as a crossover between Styx, Queen, Saga and Jellyfish - with a heavy debt to The Beatles.
Based on the wonderful chords of keyboardist Jerry Sahlin, and the heavy, yet elegant guitar playing of Ola Anderson, A.C.T. make very melodic, progressive pop with a sublime sense of melody. However there's loads of twists, breaks, solos and musical mood swings to keep most progressive rock lovers smiling.
The setting for the Last Epic is an apartment building, where we get glimpses from the lives of the tenants and how their quirks evolve into little stories of their own. The twelve songs are often prefaced by where they are taking place - Apartment 121, Garden and Barbeque. This is very well done and provides an enjoyable but not overpowering lyrical theme for what is an absorbing listen.
I must say that it has taken a fair few listens to get into this album. However from the start, I had a strange feeling that there was something worth sticking around for and by about the sixth listen my patience began to be rewarded. Ten listens in and I'm even starting to enjoy it!!! My favourite tracks are those that do have a bit more of the guitar, especially the dark and dramatic Manipulator and the thumpy, hard rock vibe of The Observer. Mr Landlord meanwhile has a seriously catchy hook, while Dance of Mr. Gumble shows that an instrumental doesn't have to be a show-off!
There are a few moments when it all becomes a bit too twee, too cheeky and too lightweight for me (the chorus of The Cause in particular). But I must admit, there's a sense of fun and daring that runs throughout, that's quite infectious and is growing on me with each listen. As I said, this isn't normally my cup of tea, but having stuck with it, I can fully appreciate, that for anyone into modern, progressive rock, A.C.T. are as fine as they come these days.
A.C.T is one of those bands that have a very distinct and recognisable sound. To me, the best way to describe this sound would be as "happy metal"; a unique combination of sometimes almost Evergrey-like heavy guitars, booming basses and pounding drums on the one hand, and light-footed keyboards and uppish vocals with quite a bit of naughty boyishness to them on the other.
As I had heard quite a bit of their earlier albums - that kind of happens, when you have been around an A.C.T-fan a lot - I was very curious about how their third album, Last Epic had turned out. Well, I can say that I was not disappointed... although... yes, there actually were a few things that did not entirely agree with me, but more about that later.
Last Epic is a collection of songs moulded into the concept of a building and its various inhabitants. The lyrics read like a short story, even though they can very well stand on their own, whereas the pictures in the booklet complete this grand tour around the house. The production of the album is crystal-clear, adding to the overall listening experience.
The A.C.T guys are all fluent on their respective instruments and have obviously gathered quite a large spectrum of different musical influences between themselves. Apart from the more obvious Saga (especially in Dance Of Mr. Gumble), Dream Theater and Rush references that can be found on the entire album, one can also hear something as unlikely as a ska/reggae guitar rhythm on Wake Up on it. This gives this track a DoeMaar- or Madness-like feeling, even though the chorus brings The Beatles to mind. Keyboard player Jerry Sahlin's voice does even come rather close to Paul McCartney's on this song. Alan Parsons Project emerges on track 5 Attic, where we can also find a very nice classical string section.
Being Swedes, the A.C.T guys do of course also have a large amount of ABBA and Melodifestivalen (the Swedish prequel to the Eurovision Song Contest) in their blood. The guitar riffs in the deliciously whirling track Torn By A Phrase remind me strongly of named band that put Sweden on the musical map in the seventies. This feeling returns in The Cause, which also features a typical Eurovision Song chorus and some interesting fusion-guitars. Staying in Sweden, the thundering A Loaded Situation, reminds me strongly of A.C.T's heavier and louder mouthed little brother Andromeda. This might not be that odd though, considering that drummer Thomas Lejon plays in both bands.
As became quite clear from especially the cover of their first album Today's Report, the guys from A.C.T are into old movies. It is therefore interesting that old slapstick movies come to my mind when hearing the silly interludes that are included in many of the songs. These interludes range from crazy keyboard noises to kiddie song-like little melodies (both in for instance Wailings From A Building) to horribly cheesy endings (Wake Up) and turn up in the most unexpected places. For me, their occurrence is also unwanted. I guess that it has to do with the difference between easily understandable jokes from the likes of Laurel and Hardy and the subtleness of the tongue in cheek humour of Monty Python or Eddie Izzard. One tends to like the one or the other and then guess I am someone who is more into subtleness. I mean, I can certainly appreciate lyrics like "You better honour him, don't jeopardise your stay // Put on that perfect smile and start sucking up" (Mr. Landlord), but am put off entirely by a silly bit of music that takes the sting out of the otherwise great track Manipulator. This catchy song, the chorus of which is especially liberating to sing along for people on the rebound, would have been my favourite track on the album, were it not for those two eruptions of silliness...
To wrap things up, I must say that I have played Last Epic very often and I think that the album is absolutely fantastic at times, but even after all the time it has resided in my discman, I still have not been able to get used to the slapstick-like bits. However, I am sure that A.C.T fans will be overjoyed by this album and I would certainly advise fans of well-played and slightly more complicated progressive rock with sharp edges to check this album out. Not everybody has the same sense of humour, after all... ;)
For my own part, and having read through the other three reviews I was inclined to abandon my draft article. Rather than reiterate similar remarks, comparisons and observations, I decided therefore to let Joakim, Hester and Andy's words speak for themselves and merely add a few comments and additional notes to the end of this RTR. I share with the DPRP team members overall enthusiasm for Last Epic and the following is a supplement to their remarks.
Prior to this RTR my knowledge of A.C.T was sketchy to say the least, however my curiosity had been somewhat heightened, reading through several articles of the band's performances on their recent tour with Saga. The almost universal fervour towards A.C.T within the progressive media (and even further a field), had whetted my appetite and prompted a more in-depth look at this Swedish band. Prior to Last Epic I had previously only heard the odd track or two and therefore had not formed any conclusions regarding the material. So, I have to say that even on the first listening I was totally enamoured by Last Epic. One of the first things that struck me was that although the material was well written and precisely executed it rarely took itself too seriously. This is not intended to denigrate the compositions, far from it, as so many of the tracks were tinged with a sense of humour and or irony, which again was refreshing. Some of the quirkier interludes were a little lost on me, but to each his own, and as they were in general within context I had no great problem with them.
What I liked most about the music was the variation within the tracks, as scarcely a moment passed without some new reference point being introduced. Couple this with the combination of good rock riffs, strong melodies, well played instrumental passages and a degree of complexity, all of which kept the interest levels high - all the time. Much of the material was "larger than life" in context and it was obvious to see where the comparisons to Queen originate from. Although I prefer to liken it to Queen's early (and in my opinion) better albums. To these points I would also add that the band did not fear to incorporate other styles of music, as in the crafty Wake Up with its lilting reggae timbres.
A number of comparisons have been offered throughout this RTR and I would pretty much go along with the majority of the references. I would like to offer to these, a few which also came to mind. Steeley Dan and Kansas in some of the vocal and instrumental arrangements and possibly It Bites at times. With all these notable comparisons it might well be implied that A.C.T have merely plagiarized these worthy bands, however this is not the case and you are left with the notion that these are merely the ingredients and what has come out merely hints at this. I feel it only fair to mention that I had some reservations (but not many). These were in the main confined to the vocal harmonies, which in a couple of tracks bordered on being syrupy and akin to some of the established American AOR mega-groups. Lyrically however we were spared any of the irritating clichés that adorn the previously mentioned music and here we have observant and insightful words.
It is easy to see why A.C.T are attracting so much media attention and deservedly so, this was a thoroughly enjoyable album to listen and I can see this ranking well within my top albums for 2003. For those unfamiliar with A.C.T and still sceptical as to whether to purchase this album, I will add the following. The music is abundant with strong melodies and rich harmony vocals, good rock riffs interlaced with melodic instrumentation that maintains a fine balance between complexity and accessibility. Torn by a Phrase Garden probably encompassed most of these ideas within the one track and became one of my favourite tracks from Last Epic. Almost everything about Last Epic is up-beat, again refreshing, which makes selecting further individual songs somewhat difficult as all were equally strong in their own way.
Joakim Jahlmar - 9 out of 10
Andy Read - 8 out of 10
Hester Stasse - 8+ out of 10
Bob Mulvey - 8.5 out of 10
Finally just a quick word of thanks to Stefan Polzer at Atenzia Records for his help and cooperation with this RTR review.