Reviews in this issue:
Phideaux - Ghost Story
Tracklist: Everynight (5:14), Feel The Radiation (4:02), A Curse Of Miracles (6:25), Kiteman (4:30), Wily Creilly (5:24), Beyond The Shadow Of Doubt (7:45), Ghostforest (5:45), Universally (5:45), Come Out Tonight (5:52)
Only a couple of months after the release of Fiendish, Phideaux Xavier is back with a new CD. Ghost Story differs slightly from the previous album in that there is less eclectism in the style of the songs and that it is mostly performed by a core line-up of musicians (which, I suppose, is called a band!) What hasn't changed is the quality of the songwriting or the recordings. Possessing a slightly heavier edge, but still containing characteristic shades of psychedelia, Ghost Story (subtitled 'A Lullaby In Nine Movements') is another excellent collection of great songs that draw on the numerous influences that Phideaux openly admits to being inspired by.
Accompanied in the main by Rich Hustings on drums and percussion, Sam Fenster on bass, Mark Sherkus on keyboards and guitars with Phideaux providing vocals and guitars, the album possesses, as the website states, a more "in your face" production. However, that doesn't mean that it is an all-out sonic assault on the senses, the album contains a healthy mixture of light and shade, the heavy fuzz guitars of album opener Everynight, balanced by the gentler acoustic based number such as A Curse Of Miracles and the achingly lovely closer Come Out Tonight. As a whole the album strikes me as an unusual amalgam of Paul Roland and Al Stewart, both of whom are excellent storytellers. And stories are what Phideaux has managed to incorporate within each song. There are vocal similarities with Mr Stewart, particularly on Kiteman and the aforementioned A Curse Of Miracles which also happens to contain some excellent lead guitar work by Mark Sherkus expertly entwined with Phideaux's acoustic six string.
Every group has their 'epic', the track that becomes synonymous with the band. Phideaux may have discovered his in Beyond The Shadow Of Doubt. Probably the most progressive (whatever that may mean these days) track on the album, it could be roughly divided into three sections, acoustic segments bookending a more keyboard dominated centre part. A great song, but not the highlight of the album. For me, the best has been saved until last. Come Out Tonight is a very simple song - no solos, rudimentary percussion and bass patterns, strummed guitar and the occasional organ chord thrown in - but the result is indefinably stunning. I suppose it is all in the melody.
So, there you have it. With a great cover, a booklet of lyrics and 'interesting' photographs and a CD that has a drawing, if my anatomy is up to scratch, of a back of an eyeball, the album is great value at only $5 (see Phideaux's website for details of how to get the album), that's about the price of a pint of beer! I don't care that some people will argue over the label that should be attached to this music, it is irrelevant, trite and ultimately meaningless. All I care about is that Ghost Story contains some excellent songs and is an album that I would willingly recommend to my friends. And you are my friends aren't you?!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Guapo - Five Suns
Tracklist: Five Suns (46:34) (1 [4:31], 2 [10:19], 3 [10:30], 4 [12:57], 5 [7:55]), Mictlan (8:58), Topan (6:37)
Guapo are an instrumental English trio that have been around for several years. Described as playing "music that straddles the boundaries of progressive, noise, minimalism and avant-rock", Five Suns is the group's fifth album, and first for US label Cuneiform. The three members are Daniel O'Sullivan (Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, organ, harmonium, guitar, electronics), Dave Smith (drums, percussion) and Matt Thompson (bass, guitar, electronics). Not since the Red era of King Crimson has a trio of musicians made such intense music.
Five Suns, the 46-minute title track, is a sonic tour-de-force. Although split into five sections, the segmentation is irrelevent as the piece can only truly be listened to in one sitting. Starting with a jazz-like cacophony of clashing instrumentation is one hell of a way to begin proceedings, but it certainly grabs the attention. A sustained organ chord leads into the 2nd part, which contains possibly the most overt Crimsoninfluences. The use of Mellotron and Fender Rhodes gives the section a period feel but not one that is dated. Part 2 ends with some atonal guitar work before the drums and bass drive us into section 3. Throughout the whole piece careful use of hypnotic repetition fused with periods of driving rock maintains the interest, particularly as there is no over-riding melody to stick in the brain. Infused with 'micro-riffs' taken up and rapidly abandoned by various instruments, there is a lot to take on board which makes one want to list! en intently to what is unfolding as the track progresses.
Section 4, the longest section, has the most repetition but the compositional skill of the band ensures that it never tires or bores. The whole 13 minutes of this section builds up to what one expects to be a frantic climax, but instead, drops you down gently into the start of the final section, with more electric piano laid over a single keyboard note which rises slowly and almost imperceptibly over the five minutes that it is sustained for. I was expecting a grand finale and was initially disappointed that the end is a long slow fade. However, after repeated listening this makes perfect sense, particularly in view that this is not the conclusion to the album, and forms the perfect ending to such an epic.
Many artists would have been tempted just to have released the one track as anything coming after Five Suns would run the risk of being ignored. Fortunately, there is a programmed gap between the end of the title track and the start of Mictlan that allows the listener to regroup. In many ways, Mictlan and the final track Topan are extensions of Five Suns. They are not appreciably different in form or style. Mictlan is perhaps a trifle more jazzy to start with and Topan is rather more laid back, but they could reasonably easily been incorporated into the main composition as additional sections. The main difference is that the two tracks, unlike the individual sections of Five Suns, do stand alone as separate entities. However, having said that, with minimal addition and rewriting, any part could be extracted and given individualism, after all, these are by no means compositions that are going to be released as singles!
I found the album to be most enjoyable and something of a breath of fresh air as far as progressive albums go. Something that would definitely appeal to fans of the more manic Crimson or even Magma without the distraction of the vocals!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Cryptic Vision - Moments Of Clarity
Tracklist: Introspective (5:06), New Perspective (4:05), Contemplation (4:16), Grand Design (7:16), Angeline (4:22), Losing Faith (2:25), Angel’s Requiem (2:14), Colored Leaf (4:44), Shock Value (4:03), Moments of Clarity (12:28), Ascension (5:42)
One of the things I’ve learnt whilst reviewing is never to go on first impressions. This album is a case in point. From the band’s name and album cover art, and the photo’s within showing distinctively shaggy-maned band members clad in Dream Theater T-Shirts, my first impression was that this was going to be an album of standard issue prog-metal. Thankfully, that’s far from the case with this debut effort from Cryptic Vision, Moments Of Clarity.
As seems to be the case more and more in prog, the driving force behind Cryptic Vision is an individual – one Rick Duncan. Not only does he play the drums, keyboards, mellotron, guitars and bass (and, er, djembe), but he wrote the lions share of the material and produced and engineered the record. Vocalist Todd Plant (ex-Millenium, Eyewitness etc.) and keyboardist/ guitarist Robert Van Dyne make up the band line-up, whilst there are a veritable plethora of guest musicians – the most recognisable names being guitarist Ralph Santolla (Iced Earth, Millenium), violinist David Ragsdale (Kansas) and keyboard player Howard Helm (Ian Hunter).
Musically, whilst there are undeniable echoes of Mike Portnoy and crew at times, particularly during sections of the epic title track, this album is far more in the AOR / prog crossover mould. Cryptic Vision are one of those bands that wear their influences firmly on their sleeve; ones that immediately spring to mind are the likes of Kansas, Yes, Styx, Toto, Supertramp, Rush, Spock’s Beard, Pallas and Saga. Occasionally these influences are quite overt – the upbeat, forceful Shock Tactics shares more than just a titular similarity with Pallas’ Shock Treatment, whilst the towering vocal harmonies and symphonic keyboard work on Grand Design made me scan the guest credits a second time to see if the names of Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman had somehow slipped my attention – but generally the band have been successful in creating their own sound. This is also an album which just oozes confidence from the off, and combined with the excellent sound (the album was mixed in the UK by renowned producer Pete Coleman and really does pack a punch, sonically speaking) means it is one of those records that makes an impact the first time you hear it.
Moments of Clarity is not without its flaws – at times it does cross the line into rather anodyne, slushy AOR (the mawkish chorus of Angeline being the prime culprit); the po-faced narration on Contemplation doesn’t really work, and on occasions it feels like the music drifts along rather aimlessly. I do recognise that not everyone will perceive these as weak points (particularly AOR lovers!), and in any case the quality of the majority of the record is the thing that leaves a lasting impression.
Overall then, a more than promising debut album – the music of Cryptic Vision is sure to hit home with fans of the bands I’ve mentioned in the review, and indeed anyone who enjoys well-played, highly accessible melodic prog rock. There appears to be a real buzz developing around this record, and if Duncan can get a live version of the band together and take this material on the road, there is every chance that Cryptic Vision can become a pretty big name within the scene.
Cryptic Vision are a band that I first discovered at Rosfest 2005 - they took the stage at 11.00 on a Sunday morning and just tore the place apart. Naturally I had to check them out further and bought their Moments Of Clarity CD.
Just so you know where these guys are coming from, you can expect a heavy dose of Yes and Kansas influences in their music, but plenty more too, such as ELP, Spock's Beard, Floyd, Genesis and probably many more too numerous to mention. Vocalist Todd Plant and long-time musical collaborator and multi instrumentalist Rick Duncan are the driving force behind the band, and the Moments Of Clarity CD was essentially a two man project augmented by guest musicians, friends and colleagues such as keyboard player Robert Van Dyne, Iced Earth guitarist Ralph Santolla and former Kansas violinist David Ragsdale amongst others.
In 2005 a live band was put together consisting of Todd on guitar, keyboards and main vocals, Rick Duncan on drums, Tim Keese (vocals/guitar), John Zahner (vocals/keyboards) and Sam Conable (vocals/bass). For more on Cryptic Vision live check out my Rosfest 2005 review.
Moments Of Clarity is most definitely classic, symphonic progressive music, with a strong nod to some of the best AOR bands of the 80's - and if that's your bag you will enjoy this album immensely. Opening instrumental Introspective tells you straight from the start what you are in for ; swirling keyboards, a constant, driving bass/drum rhythm, fluid guitar work and a terrific violin solo from Ragsdale.
New Perspective is a very upbeat, appealing rocker with strong vocal work all round, some great guitar work and a very strong melody. Todd Plant has an incredible voice and a great range, often calling to mind other vocalists, though never seeking to actively copy anyone.
Contemplation has a very low-key opening, which leads into a short spoken narration section before bursting into life with a every anthemic vocal section that for me brings back great memories of Todd, Sam Conable and Tim Keese standing with arms outstretched on stage at Rosfest belting this one out - very much a show highlight and indeed a defining moment, and one which made everyone sit up and take notice on the day. The very upbeat mood continues to the end of the track, but it just gets better...
Grand Design is without question my fave track from the album. Grabbing your attention from the start with a harsh, powerful staccato rhythm not unlike Holst's Mars God Of War, with piano and keyboard runs weaving in and out of the slightly offbeat time signature. But the vocal work on this song is a Tour-De-Force - there are some incredibly intricate vocal harmony sections throughout the whole track, similar to some of Spock's Beard's a capella vocal pyrotechnics on tracks such as Thoughts, and also Yes circa the Trevor Rabin-era material. A strong but very welcome Yes influence on this one.
Angeline shows yet again the bands strong AOR influence - a great melodic, romantic radio-friendly track in the Styx/Kansas mode. Once again, superb vocal work from Todd make this one of the standout tracks on the album.
Losing Faith takes the mood down a little with a short acoustic number, followed by Angels Requiem ; church organ and piano chords are overlaid with gentle female vocals, building to a satisfying, very stately climax.
Colored Leaf retains the low key mood, lyrically a very strong track with a slight touch of Pink Floyd (just listen to the way Todd sings the line "Couldn't she have picked a better day to go" - pure Roger Waters), Just a small nod, but a welcome one, with the tempo increasing and building gradually to a powerful conclusion.
Shock Value starts off with some interesting sampled keyboard noises, before developing into a bit of a rocker with a slightly more aggressive vocal than usual. This was a song that initially I was not very impressed with, but I must admit it has grown on me the more I listen to the album.
And then we are into the epic of the album. Thus far the tracks have been between two and five minutes, but the title track is 12:28. I suppose you would expect that if the album were to have a weak spot it would probably be here. Not so.
A very fast, aggressive opening instrumental section sets the scene here. No slow, doom laden passages, just some superb keyboard/guitar/violin interplay backed by a meaty rhythm section. In fact the time passes by incredibly quickly considering, as there is just so much going on here, so many interesting rhythms and strong vocal passages (especially the powerful "In due time" section). The tempo changes again for the next section (Hope For Tomorrow) , with a consistent, steady rhythm, interspersed with some intricate time changes coupled with fast, rockier guitar led passages - and before you know it, it's over.
Final track Ascension is another mid-paced song that again has that 80's influences, a gentle but very melodic track that you can imagine an audience swaying along to - lighted matches held aloft optional.
And there you have it - one of the most consistently enjoyable albums I have heard in a very long time. It's an album I listen to regularly purely because it's very accessible, a very easy album to play all the way through on a regular basis without skipping a single track - and there are really not many albums I can say that about, can you?
Sonus Umbra - Spiritual Vertigo
Tracklist: Bone Machines (5:50), Fools Arcadia (8:40), Man Of Anger And Light (4:18), Fascinoma (7:10), Self –Erosion (6:03), Amnesia Junkies pt 1-Pax Americana (4:19), Amnesia Junkies pt 2 – Pax Israelica (3:42), TimeQuake (5:31), Rust In My Sleep (3:31), Snakes And Ladders (10:58)
Originally formed in Mexico, but now relocated to the USA, Sonus Umbra has now unleashed their second full length CD following 2001’s Snapshots From Limbo. The packaging (tastefully done) and imagery may lead one to expect Gothic Darkwave (their name translates as "The Sound Of Shadows"), or possibly Progressive Metal, but this is definitely Progressive Rock, albeit with some metallic crunch, taking cues from Folk and Neo-prog as well as a heavier touch, to fashion an admittedly dark work of some originality.
Lead vocalist Andreas Aullet has a fairly understated style, which mostly works out OK, but it sounds a touch flat in one or two places (largely due, I think, to his slight but unmissable accent). On occasions Lisa Francis of Kurgan’s Bane helps out on vocals to good effect.
There is good use of acoustic guitars – check out the intricate opening of Bone Machine - and plenty of varied keyboards to add colour and texture. I caught glimpses of Camel, Rush and Steve Hackett in the mix. The female vocals may bring Mostly Autumn or similar bands to mind. The bass playing of Luis Nasser is particularly impressive, often playing a prominent role in the compositions. Nasser also plays keyboards and acoustic guitars.
My favourite tracks are the aforementioned Bone Machine with its almost industrial opening and tricky time signatures; Fascinoma, an instrumental that twists and turns its way through some heavy riffs, approaching prog metal at times but including some very proggy keyboards and a melodic guitar solo; Man Of Anger And Light featuring nimble drumming from Jeff Laramee and tasty guitars from Ricardo Gomez – with a hint or two of Marillion creeping in here; and the lengthy closer Snakes And Ladders which has some nice synthesiser breaks and is one of the more progressive tracks. Note though, that although it displays at 10:58, the actual track is only 8 minutes long, leaving a silent gap at the end, before the hidden track, which is merely a couple of minutes of silliness that I will leave for you to discover yourselves.
Overall, this is a nice CD, with some excellent moments, if a little uneven in places. It is heavy on the lyrical side (both in terms of volume and content), being sombre and serious in tone. On Amnesia Junkies Parts 1 and 2, they are openly political, but the music doesn’t quite have the bite for such weighty topics. There is, however, plenty - both lyrically and musically - for the discerning prog fan to get his teeth into here, and the band definitely show promise for the future.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Dave Harrington - Rule 29
Tracklist: Awaken (3:27), Android Dream (10:12), The Thirteenth Hour (2:55), Empire (8:23), Carnival Son (5:44), Ancient Race (11:07)
Rule 29 is the name for the music of Minneapolis multi-instrumentalist Dave Harrington, who on this CD is the composer, arranger and sole musician. Dave's music eminates from the piano and added to this are flute and electric guitar. Additional instruments played are cello [tracks 1-3], trumpet [track1] and horn [track 2].
As briefly mentioned the music of Rule 29 evolves from the piano and might best be visualised in terms of a small classical ensemble, with the additional instruments adding flavours and movement to the music. Much of the rhythmic drive stems from the piano, however what Dave Harrington does from here is, and in his own words - "much of the music avoids traditional major/minor tonality in favor of octatonic, whole tone and modal scales". The resultant music therefore does not rest easily upon the ears, always appears to be held in tension, and challenges the "normal" perceptive listening. Ehh! - its heavy going.
Heavy going perhaps, but certainly well worth delving into. The opening piece works well with its rippling piano and unlike most the other tracks the dark and brooding melody is held by the cello and with the flute and clarinet providing the opposing counterpoints. This gives an early indication of the albums RIO influences. The dark and eerie tone (which remains pretty much throughout) is again captured in Android Dream, although here the track has time to develope its ideas and themes further. Splendid piano - the low end stabs punctuating the track and driving it along, whilst I assume that the "plucked string" is created by the guitar. All the tracks have a sense of forebodding, created by the "odd" scales or modes used and the dissonant nature of many of the solo passages.
Its not jazz - its certainly not rock - it can find foot holds in modern classical chamber music - however it certainly must be classed as progressive. I can offer nothing in the way of comparisons to Dave's music. He himself offers as related artists Art Zoyd and Univers Zero, but I would use these as a pointers rather than as comparisons.
This album has been with me for several months now and has had many spins in the CD player. I have to say after all this time that the music has not grown on me. However this is not to denegrate Dave Harrington's undoubted abilities, but more down to the fact that the music is always challenging and seldom allows a resting point. I feel sure this is the intention of the music and therefore it more than adequately achieves this. One for those who enjoy classical piano, with perhaps a smattering of jazz, leaning strongly to the avant-garde, and with more than the odd nod to the RIO genre. Curious, then try the samples at CD Baby.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Metaphor - Entertaining Thanatos
Tracklist: Socrates (7:59), Galatea 3.3 (7:43), When It All Comes Together (4:17), Raking The Bones (7:43), Call Me Old And Uninspired Or Maybe Even Lazy And Tired But Thirteen Heads In The Same Backyard Says Your Wrong (3:31), Yes & No (17:49), Wheel Of The World (7:55)
Starting life as a Genesis tribute band, a career that lasted all of two performances, Metaphor released their first album, Starfooted, in 2000. Following a couple of line-up changes, the band return with their sophomore effort Entertaining Thanatos. John Mabry (vocals), Malcolm Smith (guitars) and Marc Spooner (keyboards) remain from the debut effort although bassist Jim Post left shortly after that release to be replaced by Jim Anderson and drummer Bob Koehler departed following the recording of two new tracks in 2001. The drum stool on the rest of the album is occupied by Jeffrey Baker.
Although not a concept album, thematically the songs are linked to the album's title (Thanatos was the ancient Greek god of death, hence the rather cheery grim reaper of the cover!). Indeed, the album is subtitled "Seven Cheery Songs About Death". A lot of inspiration has come from classic literature or mythology: Socrates deals with the (enforced) suicide of the Greek philosopher; Yes & No is about the Hindu tale of Krishna persuading the archer Arunja to go to battle and kill his kinsmen; Galatea 3.3 retells the tale of "Pygmalion" the misogynist whose sculpture of his perfect woman is brought to life by "Aphrodite"; Raking The Bones is based on a Finnish myth about a mother who receives a sign of her son's death, finds his skeleton and brings him back to life. Cheery subjects indeed!
But what of the music? Considering the history the band and the fact that the first album was criticised (at least by DPRP!) for borrowing too much from the Genesis style of writing, it has to be said that on Entertaining Thanatos the old influences are not so overt. Instead, the band seemed to have delved deeper into musical history with both Socrates and part of Yes & No borrowing themes composed by Gustav Holst. The problem I found with the album was that most of the tracks were of a pretty even, and relatively sedate, tempo. There were few moments of intense passion and excitement, things just tended to wash over the listener. In some cases things were rather too disjointed, with different themes coming and going without being developed to any degree (Galatea 3.3 being a good example). Even the shortest track, the marvellously titled Call Me Old And Uninspired Or Maybe Even Lazy And Tired But Thirteen Heads In The Same Backyard Says Your Wrong, would, I think, have benefited from being edited so that the amusing lyrics provided a bit more of a compact punch.
It is hard to point out any highlights, any defining moment that really puts a stamp on the album. There is nothing that would put anyone off the band from hearing individual tracks; in isolation each of the songs is fine, if a little long-winded in places. However, en masse, it gets a bit too much. I found that listening to the album seemed to take much longer than the actual running time of 57 minutes. The album would possibly have had a greater impact if it had been about ten minutes shorter (most of which could have been excised from Yes & No).
Overall, not a bad album, the playing and sound are fine, the booklet and artwork are better than a lot of independent releases, the lyrics are thoughtful and more erudite than most, resulting in a quite inoffensive album. In my opinion Metaphor need to start considering if the majority of the songs they write really needs to be in excess of seven minutes duration. A bit more focus and a little less rambling would improve things immeasurably.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10