Reviews in this issue:
Zen Rock And Roll - The Birthright Circle
Tracklist: Thanatos (7:16), Anthem (5:48), Richard (9:14), Circle (23:06)
Zen Rock And Roll is the stage name of Jonathan Saunders, a multi-instrumentalist whose musical pedigree includes the classic rock cover band No Drag Revelation and the tribute act Dazed And Confused (no prizes for guessing which band they were paying tribute to!). Not confined to just rock music, Saunders, who studied composition at German and American universities, also composes art music for electronic instruments, traditional orchestral instruments, and choirs. In 2001 he contributed keyboards to former NDR guitarist Rob Higginbotham's solo album Words and Music, an experience that spurred him out with his own solo project. The debut album, End Of The Age was released in 2002 and was "composed and recorded in the spirit of the British symphonic rock movement of the early 1970s".
On a mission to take the symphonic music of bands such as Genesis and Yes (who Saunders believes never fully explored the limits of the medium due to the changing musical climate of the late seventies) into the 21st century, Zen Rock And Roll "seeks to expand the scope of rock music with idioms from various genres and compositional techniques akin to classical and romantic music." Quite an ambition.
Opening track Thanatos is an older number having been written approximately 10 years ago in conjunction with Rob Higginbotham and Ken White as one of the original numbers composed by No Drag Revelation. The reason for the break up of NDR was the failure of that band to gain any momentum as an original band. Considering the general apathy towards prog music at that time, and with the internet really being in its infancy, the lack of progress achieved by NDR is not surprising. With a keyboard opening that is slightly more than a nod and a wink in the direction of early Gabriel-era Genesis (a ploy also used, and expanded on, in the opening of Richard) it doesn't seem to be anything startlingly new. As the keys are pushed into the background by the introduction of first guitar and then drums the song takes on a different hue. An upbeat melody and insistent beat keeps things moving along with the multi-layered vocals, interestingly quite far back in the mix, not over-dominating proceedings. The arrangement is interesting, good use being made of various guitar and keyboard sound effects. The song is well put together and flows nicely, but is somehow lacking the killer touch. A good enough opening number though.
Anthem continues proceedings. One always expects that any song called "Anthem" to be rather pompous and grandiose. It was quite a surprise therefore to be faced with a relatively simple piano-based ballad. There are synth embellishments which at one point threaten to take the song into a more overblown direction but fortunately restraints are in place and things are kept in check, and all the better for it too! Good lyrics as well. As mentioned previously, Richard starts off with a collection of 'greatest Genesis Mellotron moments', or it seems that way. Rather unnecessarily so in my opinion, as the main song itself is a corker. A very melodic song with an instantly memorable chorus, this song has echoes of early Journey. The vocal arrangement includes lots of backing vocals that fit the song perfectly and the years of studying seem to have paid off as the composition itself is very good with, opening excepted, the song never outstaying its extended duration.
And speaking of extended durations, the final track is the album's epic. Clocking in at 23 minutes the song reminds me in places of Spock's Beard although the introductory piano and flute passages bear no resemblance to that particular group. The vocals are a bit thin in places but that minor flaw is compensated for by the music. There are some sublime moments throughout this piece but, if anything, Saunders has been rather too restrained. There are some powerful moments which I think would have benefited from really letting loose, playing down the symphonic and emphasising the rock! The lyrics display an intelligence (and subscription to a scientific journal!) that may be beyond a lot of listeners, particularly none-native English speakers. I don't mean to be patronising but lines such as "Here- unique Mujinic face, there cognate ptolemic race, either rung a topographic stair" and "As a meme is the man, in a dream the theme began, crossed the seam from demiurgic to confirmed ... some mythologic passion wyrmed, the memetic fashion squirmed" will have many reaching for the dictionary!
So, what's the verdict? A very decent sophomore effort that I think will improve on repeated hearings over time. Saunders has a lot of ideas and the skills to implement those ideas. The results will prove to be more than acceptable to the modern progressive rock fan, particularly those that are into music of a more symphonic nature. The booklet artwork is also exceptionally good, the sleeve opening out to form a single large picture (like the halcyon days of gatefold LP sleeves!). The major drawback is the group's name, so bad it literally makes me cringe!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
AQi Fzono – Chronicle
Tracklist: Movement 1 (8:54), Movement 2 (11:50), Movement 3 (9:34), Movement 4 (8:18), Movement 5 (9:12), Movement 6 (6:41), Movement 7 (10:13), Movement 8 (11:08)
Chronicle is the fifth in Japanese synthesist AQi Fzono’s series of synthesiser symphonies, following 1997’s Cosmology. To be honest, this has been on the review list for quite a while and no one seemed to want to cover it. I picked it up mainly because I was becoming conscious of doing lots of positive reviews, and I was secretly hoping to be able to do a less favourable review. After listening a few times to this lengthy work, it became obvious that this would not be possible. I could not bring myself to sell this one short – it wouldn’t be fair, either to Mr Fzono or to you. Although it does have one or two weak points, there is some excellent music here.
Fzono is a talented and creative keyboard/synthesiser player who also composes, orchestrates, arranges and produces his own work, in the vein of Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre. On this CD, he is assisted by Ashra on percussion, Madame Juju on guitars and Janis Bradley on soprano vocals. There is also orchestra and choir, lending an epic grandeur to the work. The nearest comparison would be to Vangelis’s Mythodea, but this work is more experimental, less sober and serious sounding than that work, and is also frothing with influences from a wide range of artists and styles. Stravinsky, Wagner, Morricone, Future Sound Of London, Classical, New-Age, Progressive, Ambient Techno, Industrial and Space musics all vie for attention at various points during the eight generous movements that make up this gargantuan work. There are also some nice ethnic oriental touches to remind of Fzono’s background.
The whole work is awash with operatic vocals, and whilst they are often stunning and highly dramatic, it is their overuse that slightly reduces my enjoyment of the work. If you are a fan of Opera, then this should not present a problem, but it may put some of you off. There are many rich melodies here, but also some surreal soundscapes and avant-garde touches.
To quote from the booklet, “Chronicle is a symphonic poem portraying the time eternal in the history of the world from the creation to the present day” so you can’t fault AQi’s willingness to tackle big subjects. I’m not sure how he hoped to cram all that into 75 minutes of music, and therefore I can’t really say that he has entirely succeeded in his aims, but having said that, this is still an impressive and multi-faceted, richly orchestrated work. My favourite sections are the techno flavoured Third movement, the stately opulence of the Fourth movement and the Industrial pounding percussive stomp of the Sixth movement, but there are many great moments (some of them positively spine-tingling) sprinkled throughout the symphony.
This is highly evocative music on a suitably grand scale, an absolute must for fans of classical influenced synth music and well worth a try for adventurous prog fans.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Fireclan - Sunrise To Sunset
Tracklist: Electric Sunrise (7:40); Sudden Mist (9:47); Winds Of Sorrow (14:33); Faces In The Terrain (9:09); Rising The Shaman’s Drum (6:03); Beyond The Mountain Top (7:20); Cliff Of Fate (11:49); Acoustic Sunset (9:01)
Fireclan are a Californian trio who formed from the ashes of a band called Melting Euphoria, a space rock outfit who, during their career, opened live shows for the likes of Hawkwind, Ozric Tentacles and Gong.
This lineage is obvious from the first notes of album opener Electric Sunrise. With its pulsating bass-lines, shimmering synths and cymbal-heavy percussion, this track (along with similar numbers such as Sudden Mist and Cliff Of Fate) could almost be a long-lost track from the Ozric’s legendarily huge back catalogue. Other tracks, such as Faces In The Terrain and Beyond The Mountain Top, are more ambient and atmospheric, with compositional skills taking a back-seat in favour of ‘setting the right mood’ – presumably designed for listeners who are in a ‘relaxed’ frame of mind at the time! These tracks have certain parallels with the classic works of Tangerine Dream; the promo material also mentions Air as an influence, but to me this isn’t so obvious.
The one track that deviates from the space rock blueprint is Riding The Shaman’s Drum, a purely percussive track featuring exotic-sounding instruments such as the djembe, dumbeks, udu, nut shakers and even something called a ‘bamboo tone stick’! Sadly the end result is actually a trifle dull.
The core trio of drummer Mychael Merrill, keyboardist Luis Davila and bass/strings player Don Falcone are joined by a number of guests on various tracks, not least Gong main-man Daevid Allen, who adds some of his trademark guitar work to Electric Sunset and Faces In The Terrain (for some reason he’s rather low in the mix though); and celloist Kirk Heyt, who contributes to three tracks, most effectively on the slightly downbeat, portentous epic Winds Of Sorrow.
Overall, this is a solid effort by Fireclan. It will appeal most to fans of the various space rock outfits mentioned previously, and even for them is probably not a ‘must have’ item, especially given the huge back catalogues the likes of the Ozrics and Gong have built up over the years. Nonetheless, an enjoyable album of superior ‘chill-out’ music.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
aLkemy - Da 63 Projekt
Tracklist: Underwater (6:08); Turtle Soup (5:56); On The Very Day (5:07); Sick Seekers (6:28); Leaving Future [part 1] (2:46); Leaving Future (6:18); Within My Prism (6:32); First Person Dreamer (5:25); Different Looks (5:21); Inner Pulse (5:24); My Eyes (8:00)
aLkemy (their spelling!) are a French band who formed in 2000, and Da 63 Projekt is their debut album.
aLkemy’s label describes the band’s influences as ranging from Dream Theater and Queensrÿche to the Chick Corea Elektric Band, Miles Davis and the Pat Metheny Group. This led me to believe that the resulting album would be a real dog’s dinner, and no doubt it would have been if the more self-indulgent tendencies of those outfits had been picked up. Instead, aLkemy thankfully concentrate on melody over showmanship – although there is no doubting the playing talents of these guys.
Its best to describe the band’s sound as accessible fusion with a pronounced hard rock edge. Keyboardist Aurelie Martin favours an electric piano sound for much of the time and, along with the funky bass lines of Phillippe Sifre and jazzy licks of guitarist Aurelien Budynek, certainly gives things a fusion feel at times. Its on the accessible side of that style, however - check out the likes of Turtle Soup, the sublime On The Very Day and the pacy Inner Pulse for good examples. Budynek, however, has a range that ventures outside even the wide scope of fusion – he incorporates chunky hard rock-style riffing, lengthy atmospheric guitar solos plus some funk and blues influences into his armoury, which often leads to the songs veering off the path you might expect them to take. Occasionally the transition from laid-back jazz-funk to hard rock seems rather disorientating and intrusive (such as on the oddly named Sick Seekers, for instance) but for the most part this is handled well, and it means that there is plenty of variety across the eleven tracks.
I actually expected this album to be predominantly, if not totally, instrumental, yet in fact all but two songs have lyrics. These don’t sound like add-ons either, as the songs are well written, with structures being properly thought through (complex yet never wandering off into one-way cul de sacs) and the choruses often very strong. This unfortunately highlights the main weakness of the album, however, which is the vocal performance of Aurelien Budynek. His voice is rather flat and lifeless and struggles when called upon to hit anything other than what could be called ‘mid range’. On the up-side, its not distinct enough to really detract from the music, but its still a shame that a stronger singer wasn’t used, as it means that the songs often don’t make the impact they could have. Leaving Budynek to concentrate on his excellent guitar playing and getting a higher quality singer in must surely be at the top of the band’s priorities if they want to progress further.
Nonetheless, despite this weakness this is still a fine album that certainly bodes well for the future, and will certainly be of interest to those with a penchant for both hard rock and fusion.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Philippe Cauvin - Climage
Tracklist: Rocktypicovin (2:51), Bagatelle (3:30), Boucle Aux Oiseaux D'en Face (2:35), Petite Étude No. 1 (2:20), Fantaisie Bordelaise (1:52), Vertiges (8:09), Balade Imaginaire Avec Liza (4:10), Voyage Au Bord De La Nev-Rose (5:05), Petite Étude No. 2 (1:43), Lolita (4:21), Para Las Señoritas (2:46), A L'infini Pour Ma Mère (3:08). Unreleased Bonus Tracks: Chanson Facile D'Amour (3:14), Vocalises Aux Promeneurs Déconcertés (4:04), Paradoxe No. 2 (1:29), La Libellule Declamant (2:56), Deux Divertissements (4:20)
Philippe Cauvin joined his first band, a progressive rock group called Absinthe, way back in 1971. Despite winning a French national rock competition in 1972, success was not forthcoming and, following a brief stint with the David Bowie inspired glam rock band Papoose, Cauvin temporarily left the rock scene to study baroque, contemporary and classical music. His aim was to create "progressive, contemporary rock for the classical guitar", an ambition he came someway to achieving by the formation of Uppsala in 1976. However, a serious road traffic accident whilst on tour in 1979 left bassist Dany Marcombe paralysed from the waist down and signalled the premature end of the trio.
Honing his acoustic skills, Cauvin entered the studio in 1980 to record his debut solo album Le Chien Jaune which, unfortunately, failed to attract a distributor and remains unreleased. After all these tribulations, Climage was released in January 1982 to great acclaim from elements of the more specialist music press. The release of a follow-up, Momento, was delayed until late 1984 by the reformation of Uppsala and the recording of their much-delayed album. The reunion lasted until 1986 at which time the short-lived The Philippe Cauvin Group was formed, splitting a year later due to a lack of effective management. Since then, Cauvin has spent his time teaching, composing for films and ballets and making sporadic (due to a muscular problem in his right hand) live appearances.
This first CD release of Climage has been put out with the assistance and supervision of Minimum Vital's guitarist Jean-Luc Payssan, a long-time fan and admirer of Cauvin's composing and playing. The album is quite eclectic, rather eccentric and possesses a rather strange charm. The acoustic guitar work is exceptional throughout but it is the vocals that make the album stand out from the crowd. Cauvin's counter-tenor voice is a strange mixture of femininity and overgrown choirboy. If that sounds strange, then the use to which the vocal chords are put to is somewhat stranger, singing a seemingly made-up language where imaginary words and vocal inflections intertwine with the instrumentation. The effect is unique, although some similarities with Shawn Phillips can be drawn on tracks such as Vertiges while Bagatelle could conceivably come from a Michael Nyman penned film score. Lolita is as close as things come to a conventional ballad and Vocalises Aux Promeneurs Déconcertés is as strange as the title suggests (something about singing to disconcerted walkers!).
The instrumental numbers are a fine mixture of short classical pieces (Petite Étude No. 1 & No. 2, Fantaisie Bordelaise, Paradoxe No. 2), flamenco-esque dances (Para Las Señoritas), and jazzier pieces like Rocktypicovin which has shades of John McLaughlin and Al Di Meola.
All-in-all, a diverse album of acoustic music that is out there pushing on the ever-expanding boundaries of the progressive idiom. The guitar playing is of the highest order and there are sufficient instrumental numbers to enjoy if the vocals become a bit tiresome. One for the more adventurous or those with an interest in the classical avant garde!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Rock Star Scientist - Rock Star Scientist
Tracklist: Apollo (3:45), Brain Check (4:40), Oblivion (8:10)
Rock Star Scientist is the 'brainchild' of Eric Rissolo who has written and produced this, his first EP and is also responsible for the keyboards, drum machine, percussion and loops. Joining him are Jim Eriksen (bass), Scott Carle (drums), Jay Rusnak (lead guitar) and David Quick (rhythm & acoustic guitars). From the accompanying literature these guys are well seasoned musicians having played in a number of bands covering many styles.
The bands biog also comes with the comment that these three instrumentals "redefines the boundaries of music and sound by combining sci-fi, acid jazz and prog-rock". Not sure I entirely agree with this statement, finding the material fairly straightforward, often predictable and somewhat cliché ridden. Now all this sounds distinctly negative but there are the plus sides to Rock Star Scientist's music.
Things don't get off to a flying start though with Apollo being the weakest of the three tracks, featuring a rather irritating arpeggiated keyboard motif (reminiscent of those early Casio keyboards), although this note pattern is expanded upon as the track progresses. Along with this the drumming is somewhat uninspired and plodding, the guitar adds little - mainly power chords low in the mix and the main keyboard melody has a sound you might expect to hear on a 60s TV sci-fi programme.
Brain Check shows a marked improvement and although there is still a sequenced feel to the music, this time it works better - most likely because of the movement away from 4/4. The arrangement sees distinctly stronger keyboard parts with some nice touches on the acoustic piano, bouncing synth bass lines and an infectious theme - later embellished by the guitar. The drums also perk up a little here.
Oblivion is the last and longest of the three offerings from the EP, so time to develop some ideas perhaps. Or perhaps not, as Oblivion's driving pace does not disguise the predictable chordal structuring, simple arrangement, stodgy drum rhythms and the drum fills leave much to be desired. Overall the piece is quite infectious and brings to the forefront RSS's hidden element, guitarist Jay Rusnak. Some fine guitar themes and solos from Rusnak lift the ante and the return to the 5/4 rhythm from Brain Check made a credible conclusion to the this track and to the EP.
In summation, and if there is to be a full scale version of this release, then Rock Star Scientist will need to look more closely at their material. Certainly the 'sequenced' feel will need to dealt with and a rethink on the rhythm section, after that possibly the inclusion of some vocals, as on the evidence here I cannot see that an hour of instrumental offerings would capture the imagination of a wider audience.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10