Reviews in this issue:
Keller Williams - Stage
CD1 : Tubeular (3:28), Rapper's Delight (6:09), Skitso (3:16), Under Pressure (3:32), Shinjuku (3:01), Keep It Simple (4:51), Dance Of The Freek (7:44), Blazeabago (2:16), Let's Go Dancing (2:28), Blazeabago (2:50), Moondance (10:35), Stargate (5:02), Hum Diddly Eye (3:21), One Way Johnny (3:28), Novelty Song (5:10)
CD2 : Shapes Of M+M's (3:34), Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough (2:08), Dudelywah (4:03), Bird Song (9:30), For What It's Worth (8:35), Prelude To A Cracker (1:37), Cracker Ass Cracker (3:25), Zilla A Trois (4:44), Gate Crashers Suck (3:02), Balcony Baby (6:19), Celebrate Your Youth (6:40), My Sisters And Brothers Boob Job (12:10)
If there was ever an album that is crying out for release as a DVD, then it is Stage, the live album by Keller Williams documenting his 2003 tour. Williams truly is a one-man band playing a multitude of instruments - bass, acoustic and electric guitars, drums, percussion, brass and mouth flugel (don't ask!) - virtually simultaneously. Virtual is the key word in that sentence. By the clever use of live phrase sampling Williams is able to loop the various instruments adding and subtracting at will. As he explains in the CD booklet "basically, I step on a button, play or sing a phrase, step on the button again and it repeats what I just played or sang. Then I can layer a bass line or a drumbeat or a birdcall or whatever". The results can be chaotic, fascinating, amusing or plain weird yet it all sounds quite marvellous. However, the audible results are so slick that the fact that all the music is created by one man in real time tends to slip past the listener, one would really need to visualise the show to witness the full effect of Williams dancing about the stage seemingly picking instruments at will from the vast array he surrounds himself with.
Acoustic guitar is the main instrument and inspiration in the playing is drawn from the sorely missed Michael Hedges, although you'd be hard pushed to make any accurate comparisons between the artists. Inspiration also comes from other sources, for instance the a capella vocal work of Bobby McFerrin is obvious throughout the cover of Van Morrison's Moondance (if you can call it a cover as such, so totally deconstructed and rearranged is it). Other cover versions are spread throughout album and a very eclectic mixture it is too. Artists as diverse as The Sugarhill Gang, Queen, Jerry Garcia, Drivin' 'N' Cryin', Buffalo Springfield and Michael Jackson all come in for William's unique treatment and that doesn't include the snippets of songs he shoehorns into his own composition as little teases. As Jeff Buckley used to do in his early solo concerts, Williams will lock into the essential elements of a tune and run with it, seeing where it will take him.
The two CD set is split into distinct parts, stage left (or west coast) and stage right (or east coast). The first showcases the "attentive energy of a seated listening audience" while the second "explores the seatless dancing vibe". In practice what this means is that the second disc is rather looser, has more jams and a bit more of a groove. The technique and playing are similar, the mood is subtly different. Either way the results are never less than entertaining bought about by Williams' sheer enthusiasm (which comes across on the CDs even without the aid of visuals). The duet with soundman Louis Gosain on Balcony Baby, where Gosain's flugel horn is matched perfectly by Williams' mouth flugel (you had to ask, didn't you!), is great theatre, particularly as the stage lights were dimmed with only two spots picking out the performers (Gosain still behind the soundboard in the middle of the auditorium). Another example where visuals would enhance the listening experience.
Williams' non-instrumental compositions display a dry wit such as on Cracker Ass Cracker where he bemoans the fact that he can't play the blues because his woman is too good to him, or Novelty Song with its very amusing lyric that keeps telling the audience not to listen to the words as they are meaningless. But of course, one simply has to listen. Pride of place has to go to the self-harmonising admonishment dished out to the gate crashers that caused the cancellation of a Grateful Dead show on Gate Crashers Suck. Never have four-letter words been so sweetly sung!
Overall, Stage is quite an outstanding recording of a very original artist. Great music, superb and inventive playing, entertaining and amusing and, in my experience, totally unique. What more could one ask for...apart from some visuals!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Saga - Network
Tracklist: On The Air (6:25), Keep It Reel (4:20), I’m Back (5:01), If I Were You (3:50), Outside Looking In (4:16), Don’t Look Now (5:06), Live At Five (5:16), Back Where We Started (4:19), Believe (4:57), Don’t Make A Sound (6:18)
Saga’s previous album Marathon was a rather good album with again that typical Saga sound that you recognise just after a few seconds. Network, their 15th studio album is also a rather stereotyped Saga album with the trademarks of this Canadian band very distinctive scratching the surface... The vocals of Michael Sadler, the guitar riffs and solos of Ian Crichton and the keyboard passages of Jim Crichton, they are all there and they sound so familiar that you sometimes wonder how long these guys can go on like this without “boring” fans and critics. But, something has changed in the Saga camp, drummer Steve Negus has left the band and he is replaced by Christian Simpson, who certainly gives a rather new, refreshing sound to the rhythm section.
The compositions are not spectacular or new, we heard it all before on their previous albums, although the opener On The Air is a rather heavy song for Saga. If you like their sound, like I do, then this album will certainly one that you want to buy, as there are plenty of good, melodic rock songs that you can enjoy. On The Air, Live At Five and Don’t Make A Sound being the best three. Rather average and in fact simple rock songs are: I’m Back (boring rock and roll-ish), If I Were You (a semi-acoustic ballad) and Outside Looking In (a ballad-like sing-along radio minded track). But the rest of the material is quite okay, so again a decent album of a rock band that has not really changed over the years that they have been playing around the world.
I also believe/think that Saga has enough fans that will certainly appreciate Network. Do not expect anything new, but cherish this album of a true Canadian rock icon, and I mean that in the most honest and positive way. The only real surprise on this CD is the fact that there are no new Saga chapters on Network, which might suggest that the “story” has come to an end, or maybe they saved some chapters for the next album... Let’s wait and see.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Section A - The Seventh Sign
Tracklist: The Seventh Sign (8.45), Riot (6.10), Pray For Rain (5.48), Nightmare (7.58), Tomorrow (9.38), The Man In The Mirror (4.42), Killing Fields (6.57), Into The Fire (6.58)
This album was actually released last year but as the label didn't make the effort to send us a promo copy, then you've had to wait for it to reach the top of my ever-lengthy shopping list. At first, I wasn't going to go to the trouble of giving it any promotion but Seventh Sign is such a superb slice of aggressively melodic, progressive metal that it would be real shame if it didn't get as wide an exposure as possible.
Finnish label Lion Music has a habit of combining well-known musicians into 'super-groups' - usually with at least two guitar heroes. Until now the results of these artificial combinations have failed to generate very interesting results - the mechanics of producing an album has been followed but the lack of a real band setting always fails to stimulate a cohesive and original style.
Section A is the exception that proves the rule. The group consists of Torben Enevoldsen (who provided keys, bass and all guitars as well as handling production duties), Lions Share vocalist Andy Engberg, Vanden Plas drummer Andreas Lill plus Derek Sherinian (Ex-Dream Theater) and Gunter Werno (Vanden Plas).
The opening title track is really all you need to hear in order to know what is on offer. What they have produced is a brilliant amalgamation of styles that delivers an ever-changing dynamic of full-blooded and highly-progressive metal with chorus' to die for. The quality level never falls far below maximum for the near hour of music that follows.
Riot, the second track, is a more accessible song, full of killer riffs and a catchy chorus, and then things slow a bit for Pray For Rain. Clocking in at almost 10 minutes the musicianship on Tomorrow is incredible, Into The Fire brings a great up-tempo ending to the album and Nightmare has a very effective jazz/soul vibe that evolves into an equally effective hard rock chorus.
Throughout, the extensive soloing sections are superb and never plummet into over-indulgence and Engberg again proves why he is regarded as one of the premier vocalists for this type of music with a stunning blend of soul, power and emotion. From beginning to end, this album is pure class.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Rhapsody – Symphony of Enchanted Lands II
The Dark Secret
Tracklist: The Dark Secret (4:13), Unholy Warcry (5:54), Never Forgotten Heroes (5:33), Elgard’s Green Valleys (2:20), The Magic Of the Wizard’s Dream (4:30), Erian’s Mystical Rhymes (10:32), The Last Angel’s Call (4:37), Dragonland’s River (3:45), Sacred Power Of Raging Winds (10:07), Guardiani (5:51), Shadows Of Death (8:13), Nightfall On The Grey Mountains (7:20)
For the past seven years or, to be more precise, since the opening tones of their sensational debut album Legendary Tales, Rhapsody have been one of the most unusual and interesting phenomena of the current power metal scene. After the release of their spectacular mini-album The Dark Secret the true Italian power metal kings now reach the climax with their new album. A new saga has been born one that takes the listener on a musical adventure like never before, featuring epic, fast power metal tracks and amazing sonic landscapes with stirring narrative parts of Mr Christopher Lee. This is an album that you really have to listen to several times to fully appreciate and enjoy it. This is mainly due to the fact that the music is so complex and bombastic and the story so intriguing that you need a certain period to marvel about this new film score metal album.
Rhapsody used a complete orchestra and a rather huge choir to turn this CD into a classical rock opera like you have never heard before. Fans of the band who already enjoyed their previous albums will truly be amazed and start to cherish this fantastic release. And if you thought that Symphony Of Enchanted Lands Part I was bombastic and overwhelming then you ain’t heard nothing yet. To give this album a surplus dimension, Rhapsody asked Christopher Lee to be the narrator of the fantasy story, and he will take the listener to a land that reminds me of Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings-saga. Lee’s beautiful dark voice opens the album and right from the start you are “into” the story and you want to hear more and more …
The three epic songs: Erian’s Mystical Rhymes, Sacred Power Of Raging Winds and Nightfall On The Grey Mountains are without any doubt The highlights of this album. These tracks feature bombastic classical musical parts, speedy guitar riffs and solos, Lee’s “spooky” voice, heavenly keyboard passages and last but not least the fabulous voice of Fabio Lione. If you like opera (like me) then you should check out The Magic Of The Wizard’s Dream, an almost Puccini-like song, really dramatic, with Fabio singing at his best and the choir and the female voice doing the rest. After listening to the album every day (yes, I am crazy) I wonder how the hell these guys are going to top this one... Some critics will call this CD pure kitsch; I however consider this to be one of the best power metal albums I have ever heard. So buy or die and play it as loud as you can !!
Try to get the limited edition digibook with parchment pages inclusive a 50 minutes bonus DVD. On the DVD you can see: 3 video clips of Unholy Warcry, a documentary about the recordings in the Czech Republic, the building of the dragon, an extended interview with Christopher Lee, a documentary about the recordings in Germany, the making of the videos and the recording with the orchestra. Also watch out for Rhapsody on tour in 2005.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Royal Hunt - The Mission
Why has nobody heard of Royal Hunt? I’m exaggerating, of course, because many people (though certainly not enough) have heard of that fine Danish band. However, despite having long been a fan not only of all varieties of heavy metal but also of the kind of progressive melodic hard rock that Royal Hunt specializes in, I hadn’t heard of them until a friend with similar tastes discovered them earlier this year. The first CD I got was their 2001 album The Mission, and although since then I’ve heard four or five of their other albums, all of them good, I persist in thinking that The Mission is their best. It’s a thoroughly coherent work, both lyrically and musically – a concept album, in fact – and it deserves to be heard by all fans of progressive or “symphonic” rock and by fans of heavy metal, too: those, at least, with particularly good taste.
The band was formed by Andre Anderson (guitars) and Steen Mogensen (bass), along with two other members long departed, in 1989. Royal Hunt’s first significant line-up had stabilized by the time they recorded their third album, 1995's Moving Target, with the addition of second guitarist Jacob Kjaer and vocalist D.C. Cooper. The final change that brought the band up to the current line-up was one of vocalists; the very fine John West, who had sung with the underappreciated Badlands (Jake E. Lee’s too-short-lived hard-rock group) in their latter days and spent four years with Vitalij Kuprij’s highly regarded progressive-metal group Artension, joined Royal Hunt for the 1999 album Fear, and he’s been with the group ever since, singing on three more albums and an E.P. The Mission was only his second full album with the group, but it finds him, like the other members, in fine prog-rock form, taking on a subject that should have been seized on by ambitious bands long before 2001: Ray Bradbury’s beloved 1950 novel "The Martian Chronicles".
So what does the album sound like? Well, fans of power metal (as the sub-genre is now usually, if not so very usefully, called) will have a good idea if they imagine their favourite epic song by the venerable German outfit Helloween, but imagine a Helloween whose members were all fans of Rick Wakeman, steeped in science fiction, and able to sing harmonies like the guys in Styx or Kansas. Even that’s only a very rough analogy, though, because Royal Hunt sounds like nobody else.
A song like Surrender does indeed have both the speed and the melodic twin lead guitars of Helloween at their best, but the songs on this album are remarkably varied (as befits the components of a concept album): two songs after Surrender, the meditative Clean Sweep rides on power chords and gorgeous vocal harmonies as it concludes “We’re almost proud that our race is bad right to the bone / Can’t you see – we’re looking again, high and low / For the world to destroy – like our own?” The powerful music might recall a band like Iced Earth, but it’s only a distant similarity. Songwriter Andre Anderson doesn’t just rely on his numerous influences, which include Rick Wakeman, Jon Lord (who’s a delightfully audible inspiration for much of the band’s work), Mozart, and Paganini; he has crafted here, as he has done on each Royal Hunt album, exactly the music needed to suit the subject of each song.
Days of No Trust, the slow penultimate song, indulges in long, mournful single guitar lines to emphasize the equally mournful lyrics, just as the three fastest and most exciting songs on the album, which punctuate it and divide the album into rough thirds, appearing fourth Surrender), eighth (World Wide War), and thirteenth (Total Recall), employ propulsive percussion and chugging rhythm guitar that puts the listener in mind of the rockets so prominent in the album’s storyline.
This is a concept album of the best kind: although the listener profits from hearing it as a whole, each song (the three brief instrumentals might be exceptions) can stand strongly alone as a fine progressive-metal song, only gaining in power when set in its proper place. Fans of Rush will certainly see where that band’s ambitions might have led had Lee, Lifeson, and Peart fully embraced both metal and progressive rock (rather than turning in later years to the unique heavy art-pop music they now create), and fans of bands such as Dream Theater will be delighted to hear how a similarly inclined band can express its ambitions perhaps more concisely and even interestingly.
If the album has a fault, it’s that it sounds in some way too familiar, too comfortable: you get the feeling as you listen that you know just how such an album about such a subject should sound, and this one does. Perhaps you can see, however, that I consider that fact a virtue rather than a fault: the album meets and then goes on to exceed one’s expectations. Although all the Royal Hunt albums I’ve heard are very good, and good in much the same way this one is, I can unreservedly recommend The Mission to fans of classic metal, progressive rock, power metal, and progressive metal alike.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Shingetsu - Live 1979
Tracklist: Oni (10:29), Fragments Of The Dawn (7:21), The Other Side of The Morning (4:01), Influential Street (4:16), Afternoon - After The Rain (4:15), She Can't Return Home (5:07), Night Collector (5:11), Reddish Eyes On A Mirror - Voyage For Killing Love Part 2 (20:39), Return Of The Night (6:08)
It is widely written that Shingetsu's vocalist Makoto Kitayama was Japan's equivalent to Peter Gabriel and that the music the band produced was strongly influenced by and representative of early Genesis. However, this may be a little unfair as the comparisons seem to be based on the visual presentation of the music and the prominent use of sweeping keyboards. Although the live photo on the back of the CD digipack could be viewed as an (unintentional) pastiche of Genesis Live and the picture of Kitayama in a black cat suit with a mask that looks suspiciously like an old man is probably one step too far to be called coincidental, the theatrical nature of the shows undoubtedly owes more to traditional Japanese Kabuki theatre then to a bunch of English public schoolboys. Shingetsu were only around for a couple of years, releasing a highly regarded eponymous album in July 1979 before splitting up when guitarist Haruhiko Tsuda and keyboard player Akira Hanamoto left to join Asturias. The remaining two members of the band were Shizuo Suzuki on bass and Naoya Takahashi on drums, although on this live recording they are joined by a second keyboard player Takahashi Kokubo.
Recorded soon after the album release over two nights at the ABC Kaikan Hall, Tokyo, it is not surprising that, with the exception of one track (Freeze), the recently released studio album is played in its entirety. The album also contains three non-album tracks, She Can't Return Home and the epic combination of Reddish Eyes On A Mirror and Voyage For Killing Love Part 2 (at least I think the two tracks are combined, they are listed separately on the sleeve but the CD is sequenced for nine tracks!). Inevitably, there is considerable overlap with a previous live album, Akai Me No Kagami, also recorded during 1979, although the quality of that recording apparently left a lot to be desired (I confess as to not having heard it and therefore cannot provide a comparison). The fidelity of the new release is reasonable, a bit muddy in places, particularly the vocals, but on the whole quite acceptable and enough to get a real feel of what the band were like live. It is true that there is a strong Genesis influence in the music, although that is not to say that the group were one step away from being a fully fledged tribute act. Stylistically the two bands have much in common; Tsuda's guitar playing does become Hackettesque at times, parts of Reddish Eyes On A Mirror - Voyage For Killing Love Part 2 have structural elements akin to early Genesis pieces and Influential Street is a virtual rewrite of Afterglow. But it is not all symphonic prog; the menacing She Can't Come Home sounds like a Random Hold track (except that Random Hold didn't release their first single until four months later!) and Return Of The Night has, in places, a more traditional feel to it.
In summary, this CD is quite a good introduction to the band but given that the studio album is supposed to be pinnacle of their musical achievements that would seem to be the logical place to start. However, if you already have that album then this live recording will make a very decent partner on the CD shelf.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10