Reviews in this issue:
Ken's Novel - Domain Of Oblivion
Tracklist: Sadfield (8:08), Crowd On Sail (10:07), Empress Of The Frozen Sea (10:18), Rejected (1:27), Voices (7:25), Wisdom Peak [a] The Magnifying Glass (2:47), [b] Mirror Man (3:53), [c] Distorted Reflection (3:14), The Hallucinogenic Lake (8:56), Peaceful? (0:21), Domain Of Oblivion (16:06), Distinctive Signs (3:52)
With this second studio album, Belgian proggers Ken's Novel definitively enter the major leagues. This five piece band is composed of Patrick Muermans (lead and backing vocals, drums and keyboards programming), Eric Vanderbemden (electric and acoustic guitars), Bruno Close (keyboards), Geoffrey Leontiev (drums, percussions, drums programming) and Sébastien Mentior (bass). Like its predecessor, Domain Of Oblivion is a concept album, following Ken's adventures. Here the adventure is a quest that will lead our hero to the domain of oblivion, a place where you can have a fresh start by making "tabula rasa" of your past, sweeping away all mistakes, all memories, good or bad. The catch is that when our hero finally reaches the domain of oblivion, he changes his mind. His journey has made him realise that his memories are an important part of who he is and the sacrifice is not worth it.
What really shines here is the musical arrangements. The boys really put their blood and hearts in this work. To help them nail it, they retain the services of no less than 13 musicians (3 female vocalists, 4 keyboards players, 2 guitarists, 2 bassists, 1 violinist and 1 cellist)! It pays off.
Sadfield starts off on a strange mood, installed by cello and violin. The vocals soon join in, in an exquisite madrigal before yielding to a killer guitar riff sustaining a hysterical synth line. This section on itself could almost sum up the album. As a matter of fact, the way the guitars and synths are used throughout the album is exemplary, full of surprises and ingeniosity. But I said almost because there is more...
In Crowd On Sail for example, where moods changes are numerous, we are at one point gratified by a heavy metal riff supporting a vibraphone solo, and it works perfectly. This is progressive rock in its purest form. This is not neo, this is not RIO, this is the real thing, plain down to earth prog rock in all its splendour. Sometimes symphonic, never jazzy, Ken's Novel puts back the rock in progressive rock, and it does it on a consistent basis. There are no weaker songs on this CD. Everything is enjoyable.
Some of the high-lights include the guitar solo on The Magnifying Glass, very reminiscent of Latimer at his most inspired, the incantations on Distorted Reflection, very effective, and the entrancing intro for The Hallucinogenic Lake. Intelligence is at work here. Everything fits, from the constantly efficient rhythm section (Leontiev and Mentior) and the versatile vocalist to the creative keyboard playing and trance inducing guitars.
With Domain Of Oblivion, Ken's Novel put themselves in an awkward position; what will they do next? Fans will be expecting a lot. In the meantime we can all enjoy this instant prog classic ...
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Leaves' Eyes - Lovelorn
Tracklist: Norwegian Lovesong, Tale Of The Sea Maid, Ocean's Way, Lovelorn, The Dream, Secret, For Amelie, Temptation, Into Your Light, Return To Life
For some reason, Lush has always been one of my favourite words. And Lovelorn is one of the most lusciously lush albums that I've ever heard.
Musically this is an album that drifts between, across and through such a multitude of genres, that it's difficult to know exactly where to begin with this review. However, one thought does stick out. If you've ever wondered what would happen if Kate Bush recorded a rock album, then this disc encompasses all your fantasies wrapped into 45 musical minutes.
Leaves' Eyes is the sextet comprised of former Theatre of Tragedy singer Liv Kristine plus the current Atrocity line-up - including husband and Atrocity frontman Alexander Krull. And while all the tracks on offer have a very distinctive and edgy metallic vibe, Lovelorn is an album where Liv's voice is the centrepiece. And a truly enchanting voice she has. Pushed to the very front, in a crystal-clear mix, she possesses a delightfully light tone, a childlike innocence that floats, nay caresses, over every song.
Having just completed a degree in English Literature, it's little surprise that Liv has chosen to base the album around a story that could be lifted from the pages of Edgar Alan Poe or Shakespeare. Lovelorn tells the tale of a young man who looses his True Love to the sea. The eternal connection between the two, can only be restored with the help of a mermaid.
With the current favour for female-fronted rock bands, there are at least two songs on this album that would be instant hits if they ever got airplay. The band's first single Into Your Light (the video of which forms part of a multi media section on the disc) unites bombastic symphonies with a dark, driving hard rock chorus. A playful piano accompaniment forges an intimate bond with Liv's voice in the quieter sections.
For me though, the real gem is the opening track. Norwegian Lovesong is unwrapped with a gentle guitar and string section that brings a sea shanty to mind. Then a great rolling riff bursts into the scene before we hit a verse and chorus that I just can't stop humming.
Comparisons with a certain famous English singer were validated when I played this in the car and my wife asked me: 'Since when have you started listening to Kate Bush?' It's particularly noticeable on the more melancholic songs like For Amelie and Lovelorn. Others, like The Dream make more use of classical elements, though in a very poppy, rock-orientated framework - the guitars always providing a menacing undertone. A few tracks feature duel vocals between Liv and Krull. I'm no fan of deathly growls, but when used with restraint, they can, as they do here, provide a clever contrast and add another dynamic to the listening pleasure.
It is with all this in mind, I come to the firm conclusion that in Lovelorn, Leaves' Eves has produced a rare album. An album that manages to be both familiar, yet sound fresh and exciting. An album that passes between the extremes of the musical spectrum, yet manages to maintain a cohesive sound. An album that really has an indecent amount of obscenely addictive melodies. An album with one of the most captivatingly accomplished vocal performances you could ever image. An album that just gets better with every listen. An album that defines the word 'lush'. Absolutely essential.
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
Steve Unruh - Out Of The Ashes
Tracklist: Out Of The Ashes (40:39) (i. Miracle Mile [16:03], ii. Battle / Aftermath [10:21], iii. Breaking Free [14:15]), Slowly As The Light Go Down (5:06), Violin / Drum Solo (6:21)
Out Of The Ashes is Steve Unruh's ninth album in eight years, not bad going for an independent artist who has a full time job to contend with. His back catalogue includes four other solo albums (five in you include an instrumental retrospective), a folk/rock album (with his first proper band Sign Of Saturn), a jazz album (with the Egeria Jazz Trio) and an album with 'jam band' The Dayfly 4 (who Steve intriguingly describes as a lying "somewhere between Phish, the Grateful Dead, and Willy Nelson"). If that wasn't enough he also designs and makes violins for a hobby (although hobby is probably too tame a word to describe his spectacular creations, see the examples on his website to get an idea, I particularly like the fish-shaped instrument!).
A proficient multi-instrumentalist (drums, violin and guitar being his main instruments, with bass and flute more than adequately 'faked'), Steve creates music that is really in a style of his own. He describes it as 'progressive folk etc', which is as good a description as any. The elements of progressive rock (extended pieces, ambitious arrangements, recurring themes) subtly fused with the traditional aspects of folk music (lighter acoustic textures, social commentary). However, as with most things, it is possible to over analyse these things and categorisations only ever tell half the story. As lovers of progressive rock we should be acutely aware of just how broad a spectrum the category encompasses.
The main stay of Out Of The Ashes is the three-part title suite, which takes as its theme a personal reaction to the violent start the human race has made to the 21st century. The first component of the suite, Miracle Mile is an outsider's view of the political shenanigan's leading to conflict and the fact that it is beyond the control of the isolated individual. Undoubtedly a reaction to the September 11th terrorist atrocities and the resulting aftermath, the lyrics are personal, political (in terms of the bigger societal picture) and of high literary quality. The music covers a wide range; reflective periods of acoustic guitar and vocals are mixed in with angry electric guitars, some reggae-tinged moments entwined with heavier rock elements. Strength in diversity - the arrangement is exceptionally good, particularly coming from an individual, one tends to find that the most exciting arrangements, particularly in longer pieces, tends to come from bands of accomplished musicians who all want to throw their ideas into the mix. For one person to achieve this is very impressive.
Battle, the instrumental part of the second section, is self-explanatory really. Rather discordant in nature, the music is often harsh and always uncompromising. An actual battle unfolds through the speakers as electric guitar (left speaker) takes on violin (right speaker). A war ensues (portrayed by bass and drums) with victory being heard through the speakers (listen through headphones for the full effect!). Aftermath deals with the consequences of the victory, a clever juxtaposition of the individual's questioning of the conclusions of victory sung over the sound of the victor's instrument. Significantly, the losing instrument is nowhere to be heard. Resolution is attempted in Breaking Free, but first one has to deal with the political repercussions and the fact that the old adage is invariably true - history is written by the victorious. Searching for truth with resolve, the final conclusion lies not with the winner of the battle but with the changing of ideals to prevent the battle in the first place. Musically similar to the first section (ie, as diverse), the arrangement has metaphorical overtones; it is not insignificant that the losing instrument makes a comeback towards the end of the piece.
The CD is completed by two additional tracks. Slowly As The Lights Go Down is a rather plaintive acoustic number with an air of fragile melancholy. In many respects a music antidote to what has gone before (although not necessarily lyrically so), this piece is a lovely conclusion to the album. At least it would be if a somewhat superfluous violin/drum piece hadn't been tagged to the end of the CD. Recorded live at a Psynapsis (Steve's latest band project who, apparently, play really fast progressive rock) it is basically a violin solo followed by a drum solo (Steve plays both) and, I suppose, is best viewed as a bonus piece. To me it ruins the flow of the album and would best have been left as a website download or as an extra on the forthcoming Psynapsis DVD or CD). Perhaps Steve himself was in two minds about including it, as it is unlisted on the album's sleeve.
So what is the overall conclusion? It took a while to get into this album having initially preferred Steve's 1998 solo album The Beginning Of A New Day that he kindly sent along with the latest album. However, after a few hearings I began to understand the ideas behind Out Of The Ashes and appreciate the complexities, and subtleties, behind the music. Reading through the erudite lyrics helped confirm that this is a very mature piece of work from an extremely accomplished musician. The scope of the work is rather immense and my only criticism is that I hadn't heard any of Steve's music prior to this release. Recommended for those who like diverse, original music with thought provoking lyrics. I'll certainly be on the look out for more of Steve's albums!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Steve Unruh - The Beginning Of A New Day
Although The Beginning Of A New Day was released six years, Steve Unruh was kind enough to send a copy along with his latest release Out Of The Ashes, so it seems rather churlish not to give it a review. As it is not a new release, and I'm sure Steve would prefer the attention to be focused on his new album, this will be a somewhat briefer review than normal.
The Beginning Of A New Day is the middle album in a trilogy of 'progressive folk etc' albums recorded between 1997 and 2001, the other two titles being Believe? and Two Little Awakenings. Steve is a veritable one-man band, playing acoustic & classical guitars, violin, drums & percussion, mandolin, bass, flute, harmonica in addition to singing. The instrumentation shows that this is not a typical progressive release, the lack of electric guitar and keyboards of any sort is evidence to this. Instead the focus more towards the acoustic nature of folk music although the ambitious arrangements and musical structures are certainly progressive in nature. I suppose it all comes down to the arcane methods people have of defining music; personally I am happier to consider an acoustic album by Roy Harper as a progressive release than an album by, say, Dream Theater for example, but that is simply personal preference. The Beginning Of A New Day, particularly the title track, is progressive in that it pushes forward the boundaries of music. Managing to incorporate a wide variety of music ranging from country to bluegrass to rock to acoustic protest song and a whole lot more besides, the album in an engrossing collection of very fine songs. To top it all, Steve is an exceptional lyricist and even if you don't have any of his albums it is worth checking out the lyric pages on his website - serious, mature and thought provoking, like all great art, various interpretations can be wrung from the words, it's all up to the reader's perspective.
There is also a cohesiveness to the album that makes it more than a collection of eight individual tracks. Instrumental counter-melodies that are rearrangements of vocal lines elsewhere on the album frequently pop up, and the amount of lyrical and musical cross-referencing is impressive. The more acoustic guitar numbers, such as Reaching For The Sky, bear resemblance to James Varda, Bach is, as expected, a classical piece, while Returning is the bastard offspring of John Mayall and Paul Simon. However, the energetic and polyrhythmic opener Square 1 is the track that immediately grabs the attention. Rounding things off with the lovely Lotus' Land, the angry aggressiveness of Nighttime For A While and you are left with a completely satisfying release.
Steve Unruh is quite an exceptional talent. Fluent in a multitude of disciplines, his seemingly effortless traipse across musical genres is inspiring and enjoyable. Check out his MP3 samples and hear for yourself.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Neverland - Neverland
Tracklist: Neverland (5:33), No Time To Lose (5:26), Express Your Servant (4:36), Mysteria (6:13)
The only negative remark to make on this album is it length: it is not a full length album. And because it is high quality music, we are really at loss here, we should have had a full album. Between all mediocre and 'just nice' all of a sudden another wonderful progmetal sound is created. This time it is called Neverland from Switzerland/Germany. A very classy mix of Dream Theater, Symphony X, Iron Maiden and Threshold (all lifted from the band's bio). Quick speedy loops, quality vocals, very good and original drums. All played with such a conviction that it is hard to understand that these guys have not been around for years, scoring hit album after hit album.
It is music on the verge of sounding slick and almost 'commercial' but at the same time complex and interesting. It catches on quickly but I have not found it to wear off quickly. Music on the verge of speed guitar showing off but changing tempo just before you notice that. Music with enough recognisable references but mixing these with a touch of Neverland making it original.
Speedy guitars, break, speedy guitar, break, vocals moving up in pitch, pumping rhythm section, screaming guitars, keyboard solo: oh how I love these guys. This is progmetal in all it's glory. The drums should be mentioned: at times they perfectly support the music with just the plain and 'simple' rhythm but the intro's and breaks are little masterpieces. The same can be said of the guitars, good at supporting the chorus but during solo's all capabilities can be heard. When oh when will there be a full length album?
An album of just over 20 minutes cannot really be rated but if you have read the review you must have a general idea of what rating I would have had in mind. Highly recommendable!
Project 814 - Declassified
Tracklist: The Speed of My Life (5:02), Chaos [The Test of Time] (5:48), X (5:01), Catamaran Tack (3:21), 5 and 1 [Distant the Heart] (4:03), Courage, Honor, Glory (4:31), The Demon Within (6:07), Cathode Ray Reflections (5:23), Episode 69 [Don't Go In There] (5:14), Running Out Of Time (4:23)
Declassified is the debut release of US band Project 814, which consists of bassist Jon Pomplin and vocalist Todd Joos, augmented by various session players.
The CD opens with The Speed of My Life, which instantly tells you exactly what this band is about, and sets the tone for the rest of the album. A fairly standard rock tune, it starts with guitar and bass doubled, before slipping into a clean guitar verse to give the first taste of Todd Joos' singing. Joos is comfortable in the blues-rock stylings of these tracks, and in that respect fits the spot perfectly. Bob Brady's drums are a bit weak here, failing to add any pace, which is somewhat compensated by Pomplin's ability on the bass guitar.
Things pick up a little for Chaos (The Test of Time) for a few moments, before the song kicks in with a riff somewhat reminiscent of Deep Purple. In fact, the Ritchie Blackmore stylings pervade the album, although the lyrics here are generally more intelligent, and the guitars occasionally more interesting. X, complete with wind effects, evokes Black Sabbath with its plodding doom-laden verse, before picking up in double time for the chorus. It's followed by an instrumental, Catamaran Tack, which despite never really going anywhere manages to conjure up a sea air, and in that respect is one of the more successful tracks here.
5 and 1 (Distant the Heart), with acoustic guitars, organ and pub rock lyrics falls flattest, and belongs more in the repertoire of a pub blues-rock band than here, particularly the rather uninspired guitar solo. The following track, Courage, Honor and Glory, is a significant improvement, featuring some diversity in vocal effects together with some proto-metal stylings. While not entirely successful, it's promising. The Sabbath comparisons stand up here, as well as they do on the following track, The Demon Within. Another plodding track, there's also some odd vocal harmonies in the chorus that don't quite work as well as they should. At 6 minutes long, it's also too long, despite a much better solo from guitarist Mark Summers.
Cathode Ray Reflections is another Purple-esque track, the background organ stylings of Jon Lord audible in keyboardist James Miller's playing, although the guitar solo here is generally a cut above the rest of the album. Instrumental track Episode 69 (Don't Go In There) works better, featuring another rather more capable drummer on this track only, and amounts to a band showcase. The jazz-rock feel of this is much better structured and attractive than the rest of the album, even though it's two minutes too long for an instrumental without more variety. The CD closes with Running Out of Time, another track with metal stylings.
Declassified is not a bad album; it's a credible first effort, but it just isn't progressive rock - it's closer to the blues-rock one can still occasionally find played in 'drinking establishments'. It really needs some more variety in the songs; 5 minutes of the same two sections is far too long without a break. Some more accomplished musicians would also go a long way to improving the sound, particularly in the keyboard and drum departments. However, among those who enjoy the likes of Rainbow, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, or even early Whitesnake, and are willing to exchange a little slickness in song writing and rhythm for some more intelligence in the words, Declassified should find fans.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10
Vivahead - Cosmic Dunce
Tracklist: Pulper (5:52), Pre-Real (3:42), Splinter Run (3:03), Brief Shape (1:02), Webble (0:29), Dim (5:14), Sober Chaser (4:40), Stomp Riddler (4:47), Only (1:20), Allsorts (1:02), Home (15:35), Proposition (7:54)
Vivahead comprise of Lewis Gill and Neil Packer who hail from the Warrington region of the UK. Little other info is available although a website is apparently in the offing.
I should point early in these proceedings that the music of Vivahead falls into a grey area for me and not one that I would normally delve into. I have to say my initial attraction to this CD came more from the cover artwork by Dutch artist Maurits C Escher (Other World 1947) - whose work I admire. However as Cosmic Dunce had sat in the DPRP 'in tray' for a little longer than I would normally like, I decided to take up the challenge, therefore the comments offered should be viewed as those of a novice.
So firstly to the somewhat of a difficult task of suggesting an encompassing "genre" to place this music and thus give me a starting point. Certainly we are in a heavily sequenced area, with little or no 'played' instruments, barring some synthesised vocals and strange noises. After this Vivahead's music moves from the rhythmically infectious - dance like to the minimalist and sparse offerings that might be classified as incidental film-score music. None of the tracks are replete with catchy melodies owing more of their allegiances to the random and or avante garde. In some of the longer pieces the music seemed to meander aimlessly - best illustrated by the longest track Home, which at over the fifteen minute mark just became tiresome.
Vivahead are at their strongest, for me, with rhythmic trance-like material - Proposition, Pre-Real and Splinter Run, although the ambient and moody Brief Shape could have been expanded upon. The downside of Cosmic Dunce was that there was too much that was free-form or avante garde (although in fairness the dissonant sections were never overly jarring). Examples here are the aforementioned Home, Pulper, and Dim.
So this is another one of those albums that is difficult to evaluate, mainly as the music falls into areas I have little knowledge and therefore I cannot offer much in the way of influences or comparisons - neither can say with any conviction how it fares within its 'field'. All I can say is that if you plan to explore Vivahead's music further then you will certainly need an interest in electronic music and also minimalist electronic music. The rating I have given is based on my perception and overall listening enjoyment and note should be made of this.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10