Round Table Review
Tracklist: Losers Day Parade (9:03), Letting Go (5:25), Leave a Light On* (6:17), Swimming In Women (5:22), People (6:07), All You See (5:08), Perfect Tense (4:16), Room For Two (3:43), Holding On (7:08), Picture (2:22)
Bonus DVD: Leave A Light On, Letting Go, Swimming In Women, Losers Day Parade
Picture is released in a Single Disc CD format as well as Limited Edition Digipak. The
Digipak comes with an extended booklet and bonus DVD featuring four songs filmed for the Rockpalast TV show at the Underground, Koln in December. The Single Disc Edition has been reviewed here. [It should be noted that the price appears to be the same for either edition.]
[* Leave a Light On replaces the promo title of Telling Me To Tell You]
The term 'prog supergroup' has become an over-aired one recently, especially as it doesn't mean that much – OK, it may be a 'supergroup' in the rarefied confines of the prog underground, but who in the mainstream has actually heard of any of the band's which the members come from? Additionally, there just seem so many of them now, and the end result doesn't always live up to the billing. That being said, a band composed of members (and ex-members) of Arena, It Bites, Marillion and Porcupine Tree (all of whom are up there in terms of my favourite progressive rock bands) was always going to intrigue me, and I certainly had high hopes for this album, especially as it seems the members (John Mitchell, John Beck, Pete Trewavas and Chris Maitland) consider this to be a serious, long-term project than just a chance to jam with a few mates. Thankfully, this album more than lived up to my pretty high expectations.
Picture kicks off with the nine minute epic Loser's Day Parade, and its immediately clear that the Kino's promise to deliver 'modern rock with progressive influences' was not a hollow one. The power chords and full-on almost emo-ish rush of the opening section reminded me of hardcore legend Bob Mould's (Hüsker Dü/ Sugar) more accessible work, yet underpinning John Mitchell's buzzing guitars and fairly aggressive vocal delivery are John Beck's undeniably 'prog'-sounding keyboards – looking back, it was probably Beck's keyboard sound which got It Bites labelled as 'Yes like' back in the 80's; they certainly have that early 70's symphonic flavour to them, and work surprisingly well in tandem with the more modern sound of the other instrumentation.
Loser's Day Parade isn't all full-on rock however; there are frequent changes of mood and tempo, with the music flowing from powerful and aggressive in one instance to melancholy and pastoral the next. A standout section is when the powerful opening passage suddenly stops and morphs into a mellow, rather psychedelic section featuring female vocals, and best described as a mix of The Beatles' Strawberry Fields Forever and the 'Canterbury' sound, with a nod to It Bites own Once Around The World. These sudden switches sound a little jarring on first listen but make much more sense a few spins down the line. The track also ends very strongly, with soaring guitar solo's and a strong, emotional vocal delivery from Mitchell, evoking memories of Porcupine Tree circa their Stupid Dream period. This is a fantastic track, and gets the album off to the best possible start.
Kino wisely elect to follow this track with an altogether more straightforward composition. Letting Go is probably best described as a (slightly!) more modern take on the kind of pomp / AOR ballad that the likes of Styx or Asia might come up with. Whilst the first half of the track is perfectly serviceable, things really step up a gear about halfway through, when the song seems to gain some extra momentum and power, helped by some superb harmony vocals, which have John Beck's signature all over them (he was one of those responsible for the great vocal harmonies that are all over It Bites' material).
The breezy introduction of Leave A Light On (Telling Me To Tell You) is strongly reminiscent of The Police's Everything She Does Is Magic; like that song, this appears to utilise a vibraphone, which is heard throughout the track. The song itself is more substantial than The Police number, although you get the feeling it could easily have come from the pen of someone like Sting in the early eighties – not that that's a criticism; this is a pop song, but when pop is done well, as it is here, that's fine with me. Interestingly, the song has a rather atypical instrumental break, with a versatile solo by Beck (which sound like it was done on one of those old analogue synths) over a dense, choppy rhythm, which is eerily similar to a section of the Rush track Subdivisions. Pete Trewavas' work on this track is particularly worthy of note, as its his bass that really drives the song.
Swimming In Women is the only song on the album where lead vocals aren't handled by Mitchell, with John Beck taking the lead. He has an equally good voice, in a slightly lower key than Mitchell. The song starts slowly, with Beck singing over a piano backing, before erupting into a lush symphonic chorus, which reminded me of Crime Of The Century-era Supertramp, partly due to the (once gain excellent) vocal harmonies, with someone (presumably Beck himself) even successfully reaching the very high notes that Roger Hodgson used to handle. The song gets a little more modern and aggressive in feel later on, but retains that pomp-rock, symphonic feel throughout.
People, like many of the tracks here, is built on a deceptively simple yet naggingly catchy melody line. This is a relatively heavy track which again reminded me a bit of late 90's Porcupine Tree, although the keyboards, as is often the case here, point further back to prog rock's seventies heyday. The chorus is not the strongest, being rather straightforward, and reminding me a little of the likes of Coldplay, but the verses are good, and there's some great instrumental work, with Mitchell and Beck trading solo's back and forth – its clear that there's a real musical chemistry between these two. Perhaps in a nod to It Bites, Mitchell's solo reminds me of something that (former IB frontman) Francis Dunnery might have come up with.
All You See is a beefed up, modern style AOR ballad, again evoking thoughts of Coldplay, or even a less histrionic Muse. The chorus is a strong one this time, and the fine extended guitar solo by Mitchell this time has shades of Steve Rothery about it. Somewhat surprisingly the vocal harmonies are relatively restrained and in the background here, whereas I feel that adding a few extra layers to the harmonies would have worked well and added something to the song.
On the next track, Perfect Tense, there is once again a prevailing Police influence, with the song (up to the chorus) having a similar structure to their early 80's classic King Of Pain – Mitchell's vocals even seem to have a touch of Sting to them. The melancholic chorus is again naggingly catchy, with the harmonies thankfully back in full effect here. Interestingly, some of Mitchell's guitar work here seems to give a nod to Dire Strait's Mark Knopfler. This wouldn't be a bad choice for a single, should the band decide to release one.
Room For Two is bouncy, up-tempo power-pop – the intro, particularly Mitchell's guitar sound, is reminiscent of The Pretenders' Back On The Chain Gang, whilst the song itself could be favourably compared to some of Marillion's latter day 'pop' songs such as Rich or Between You And Me.
After the bright and breezy Room For Two, Holding On initially sees Kino back in balladic, slightly darker territory. The song starts slowly and gradually grows; a slow burner in the best tradition of the style. In fact the song reminds me quite a bit, in construction if not delivery, of the It Bites track The Ice Melts Into Water (from their under-rated final album Eat Me In St Louis). The latter part of the song has a staccato, more up-tempo rhythm that again sees some interesting solo trade-off's between the two John's. The song threatens to lose its structure at one point, but thankfully Kino pull it back from the brink to end with another run through of the excellent chorus
Picture ends with the short title track, a spare, rather haunting ballad which again has Porcupine Tree echoes (think of In Absentia tracks such as Heart Attack In A Layby or Collapse The Light Into The Soul and you'll be on the right track).
As you've no doubt been able to tell from my review, Kino are a band that have a host of influences, sometimes worn on their sleeve, sometimes more weaved more subtle into the songs; and these influences stretch far beyond the usual boundaries for progressive acts. If you're looking for an album which falls squarely into the progressive rock territory, and have an aversion to the sort of shorter, more straightforward material which (Loser's Day Parade and Holding On aside) makes up the majority of the material on Picture, then you'll be disappointed. If however you have a more open mind, and are looking for an album full of songs with memorable melodies and choruses, which flits successfully between a variety of different styles yet still retains a unified, cohesive feel, and features superb instrumental performances from all concerned that are designed to compliment the songs rather than illustrate how great they are on their chosen instrument, then I have no hesitation in recommending Picture. Its an excellent album which has rarely been off my CD player for weeks, and will surely feature strongly in any best of the year poll, regardless of what's released in the remainder of 2005. What's more, this appears to be far from a one off, and I for one will certainly be keen to see what Kino come up with in the future – one things for certain, it will have to be good to beat the standards they've set for themselves here.
What is it with prog musicians? They all seem to be injected with an overdose of creativity and energy. Playing in just one band is simply not enough; some side projects seem to be absolutely necessary to keep the creativity flowing since it's impossible to keep a lid on it. Even better is starting another group where the ideas that don't find a loving place in the one group can be fully executed in the other one. Somewhere at an obscure place on the Internet there must be a meeting point for overactive prog musicians that seek equally suffering souls to share their feelings with and where new collaborations are born! This very place or other virtual and real places with the same purpose have brought us already so many great bands.
Sometimes we call them 'supergroups' if they consist of already renowned musicians, often (former) members of various famous established bands. Supergroup in the sense that the combination of such great talents keeps in itself a promise of a musical experience equal to the added up enjoyment of all the bands where the members originate from. But often that expectation surpasses the realistic abilities and possibilities of such a 'supergroup', so it has happened too often that their product met with fierce disappointed feelings.
So now there's a new 'supergroup' again called Kino, consisting of Arena's guitar player John Mitchell, Pete Trewavas, bass player of Marillion (and also a former member of Transatlantic, talking about supergroups), John Beck, the keyboard player of It Bites and Chris Maitland, former drummer of Porcupine Tree. They joined forces to produce their first album called Picture, which is a very appropriate title since kino is German for cinema; a subject that clearly is depicted on the sleeve.
But now the big question is: Does their music live up to the expectations? Being an avid fan of Arena's music I must say my personal expectations were pretty high, but I can already give away that I was not disappointed. Picture offers very high quality and original music; although some influences are clearly there Kino still managed to create a sound of their own that is absolutely enjoyable.
The first and directly most lengthy track on the album, Losers Day Paradise, already provides an impressive listening experience. It has more variation than some complete albums; almost everything that you look for in great prog rock is in there and even some surprises like the vocal/piano fragment in old-fashioned mono (pure nostalgia from the pre-digital area, anyone still familiar with that?) that shortly throws you back several decades before, as you might expect, the bombastic stereo sound bursts out again. This song is to my opinion the best this album has to offer, but the rest of the album comes certainly close to that one as well. This listening experience with this song basically applies for the whole album: it offers much variation; solid and strong compositions; a full, balanced and complete sound (as if these people are playing together already for years) and powerful melodic tunes. The musicianship is truly excellent in the shape of terrific guitar playing, excellent singing, great keyboard playing always serving the whole sound and not so much excelling on its own (I'm really keen on sublime lush keyboard solo's, but I didn't miss them here) and solid drumming and bass playing. I'm having some difficulties to find good comparisons, certainly my colleagues will provide some good references; personally Kino reminded me of the better pop-rock groups from the eighties like Toto and Foreigner, but then with a delicious new flavour prog sauce and enhanced with a more heavy, bombastic sound in the direction of Cairo (the group, not the city).
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this album and think it's admirable it doesn't sound anything near the sound of the groups these guys originate from! It's a solid prog-rock album with a terrific sound that can be heard, with lots of variation that won't bore you easily. Just check it out yourself and surely you will agree with me!
It is always nice to see what happens if you put four musicians from different bands into a room and let them play together. From GTR to TransAtlantic, these 'supergroups' have always enjoyed a great deal of acclaim in the progressive rock community. And now Kino has arrived to take over the torch, which was previously held by The Tangent.
However, John Mitchell (Arena/The Urbane), John Beck (It Bites), Pete Trewavas (Marillion) and Chris Maitland (ex-Porcupine Tree) are keen to stress that this is not a one-off supergroup project, but all four intend to make Kino a full-fledged band, which should go on tours and release more albums in the years to come.
Their debut opens with Losers Day Parade, which is immediately the one with the greatest potential to be stand-out track of 2005. While seriously fragmented, the song never comes across as a glue-job - somehow the patchy affair fits the atmosphere perfectly. The song starts as a heavy rock song, with pounding drums, heavy guitars and Beck's Moog going wild. Yet within two minutes it changes to a Beatlesque piano/vocal part (complete with crackling vinyl effects) before going back to being heavy and heavier, with guitar solos and roaring organs galore. Then back to mellow vocal and (IQ-like) organ effects before ending in a great massive finale with long-drawn vocals and guitar solos.
But while the opening track appears to be a modernised version of classic prog, the rest of the album is surprisingly mainstream. So mainstream even that it might even deter die-hard prog fans. For instance, a track like Leave a Light On (Telling Me To Tell You) is built around fast staccato guitar plucking and vibraphone, which immediately resembles The Police's Every Little Thing. Then again, the song also contains a section which seems to have been lifted straight from Marillion's Holidays In Eden, and then Beck does his best Tony Banks impression with a Back in NYC-type solo, followed by a guitar solo with synth instrumentation which reminds me of Collage's Wings In The Night - oh wait a minute, I was describing the songs that did *not* sound like prog...
That is really what it is with this album, the songs are accessible mainstream rock, but laced with a juicy and tasty prog sauce.
A track that deserves special mentioning is the quirky Swimming In Women. Penned and sung by John Beck, this is the odd one out of the bunch. As Beck's voice is quite similar to that of one Clive Nolan, this song immediately evokes memories of Nolan's mid-eighties band Shadowland with me. The waltzing rhythm and merry-go-round like keyboard melodies make this song sound more like 'neo'-prog than the rest of the album.
The rest of the songs are sung by John Mitchell. Originally Mitchell wanted Ray Wilson to sing on the album, but when this fell through, he decided to handle the vocals himself. His own voice isn't miles away from Wilson's, and he has to be complimented on the excellent job he does. He isn't the world's greatest singer (before you pin me: these are his own words) yet this doesn't stop him from singing completely differently on each song. From a husky type of singing that resembles Seal (All You See) or Eric Woolfson (Picture) to singing choruses in a high falsetto voice (Letting Go, Holding On).
So as always, it is interesting to see (hear) what kind of music happens when you combine the talents from four different bands. However, those hoping to find a strong Marillion or Porcupine Tree influence may be disappointed, as the hands of Messrs Beck and Mitchell were certainly the strongest in the writing process. The music carries close resemblance to that of The Urbane, though there is definitely more room for keyboards in the music. And it is the keyboards that justify the music to be classified as prog. Beck cleverly manages to incorporate some eighties neo-prog keyboard twiddling without ever being conspicuous or even threading to the foreground.
Actually the closest thing to compare this album with is in fact Spock's Beard's latest offering Octane. This too is an album which consists largely of mainstream rock, but still has a lot of prog elements coming from the keyboard department.