Reviews in this issue:
- Roine Stolt – Wallstreet Voodoo
- Steve Howe - Homebrew 3
- Liquid Scarlet - II
- Liquid Scarlet - Killer Couple Strikes Again [EP]
- Day Shift - Imaginary Menagerie
- Lord Of Mushrooms - 7 Deadly Songs
- The Soft Machine Legacy – Live In Zaandam
Roine Stolt – Wallstreet Voodoo
Disc One: The Observer (11:05), Head Above Water (5:25), Dirt (8:15), Everyone Wants To Rule The World (4:05), Spirit Of The Rebel (6:10), Unforgiven (3:00), Dog With A Million Bones (8:10), Sex Kills (7:20), Outcast (7:50)
Disc Two: The Unwanted (9:00), Remember (6:55), It's All About Money (8:05), Everybody Is Trying To Sell You Something (6:55), Hotrod ( The Atomic Wrestler) (9:10), Mercy (2:40), People That Have The Power To Shape The Future (11:05)
I guess there’s no need to introduce Roine Stolt… Anyone who has only a little knowledge about progressive rock of the last ten years has probably heard his name. The guitar player, lead vocalist and the mastermind of The Flower Kings also has four solo records in his portfolio and Wallstreet Voodoo is his fifth baby. Strangely most of your memories of Stolt’s past work should be deleted now before reading on, because your knowledge about his music is of no use, if you try to comment on this album. In fact, it may even make you dislike this record.
Yes, Wallstreet Voodoo is not a typical Stolt work and in my opinion it is anything but not prog except for a few moments. The most adequate label for this music would probably be blues-rock, with some Beatles influences thrown in it along with a Zappaesque touch. Blues seems to be the magical word in the Flower Kings camp these days. After Tomas Bodin’s excellent bluesy rock opera I AM, Roine Stolt serves us with another bluesy effort which is a total surprise for me. Actually the album is a little bit shocking if you had expected a prog album, but it’s a solo album and as you might know: Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you gonna get. Therefore I think it’s not fair to criticize Mr Stolt for this sharp turn to non-proggy world since this is HIS solo album and should reflect HIS vision about music. Otherwise there wouldn’t be any sense of releasing solo albums, if an artist does exactly the same thing what he does with his main band.
I must admit that this is a very entertaining album within the borders of blues rock. I should also add that it’s neither an instant classic, nor a disaster. But, please skip the first track of the first CD. Eleven minutes of total boredom, namely The Observer instantly kills your eagerness for this album. I for one started to listen in the hopes digesting it from start to the end as a whole and tried this for 3 or 4 times, all without success and have quit right during the first song. Starting with the second song is definitely a good idea in my opinion. After that, the album ascends to a certain quality and sticks to it until the very last song of the second CD. I must mention though, that unfortunately it isn’t full of grand musical fireworks except for the wonderful guitars of Mr Stolt, but as I said before, this effort should not be considered as a prog record. And if this fact is accepted, actually you’ll probably realize that it is a very good album within psychedelic blues rock borders. Entertainment is the key factor here and this album certainly is up to it.
As it is the case with some Stolt songs in the past such as Vampire’s View, he reflects his critical view on capitalism and the modern society on this album. Another thing of importance is that there are also some guests on this one, the most striking one of them is Neal Morse who plays Hammond organ and does some excellent lead vocals on a few songs. It would have been great to hear his voice on a few more spots. The guest list also contains some “fictional” characters, and there aren’t any clues as to who they might they be. I know at least that they are not artists from InsideOut roster, since Roine stated that these names were used because of legal issues with other labels. Anyway, keep guessing while I move on to the production. It is crystal clear as it is the case with all Stolt productions of latter years. The cover artwork also reflects the main concept very well. A businessman figure with voodoo make-up, which is somehow reminiscent of Joker (from Batman). Pure evil…
It’s a cliché for prog-reviewers to use phrases like “It’s a very hard album to get into. You must be patient and give it some time to be digested”. I never thought that I would use this phrase in my whole life, and the most tragic fact is that I’m using it for an album which is mostly not prog, but as a fan of Stolt’s past work, it’s hard to unlearn the good old habits. After enough time is invested it’s quite an enjoyable album though. If only it had been only one CD, free from some filler material, I would easily recommend this record to everyone, but what I consider as a filler could be a highlight for another one or even for Mr Stolt. Who knows?
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Steve Howe - Homebrew 3
Tracklist: Turbulence (3:59), Hint Hint (3:09), The Main Title (2:30), Just A Passing Phase (3:01), Suddenly (2:35), Kind Of Friends (3:37), Pyramidology (1:40), In The Course Of The Day (2:24), Family Tree (4:02), Solar Winds (2:01), In Your World (1:18), No Deceiving (2:49), From Door To Door (4:23), Cruise Control (1:17), It's Too Late (3:01), Seven Castles (3:22), Between Your Smiles (2:03), Reaching Out (3:01), The Last Word (4:27), Getting Through (0:54), Outlawed (3:51)
It seems that hardly a month goes by these days without something new from Steve Howe. It’s actually been four months since the release of the Spectrum album, and one month before that, there was the Remedy Live DVD. Add to that his appearance on the recent Yes DVD, and it’s fair to say that 2005 has been a very prolific year for Steve.
In my humble opinion, Steve Howe is the consummate progressive rock guitarist. Even if you do not necessarily agree with that view, it’s hard not to acknowledge his skills. The marketing sticker on the CD case states “the guitarist of Yes”, but he is more than that. I’m of the belief that to fully appreciate his abilities, it’s essential to have an awareness of his work outside of Yes. His solo work allows him the flexibility and freedom to fully exploit the diverse musical styles he encompasses in his playing. Often, the democratic recording process of a band like Yes means that many individual ideas are not fully realised.
Homebrew 3 is as the title implies, the third release in a series of albums that have included demos and alternate versions of solo and band related material. This time, there is solo work from 1991 to 2001, Yes material from Magnification back to ABWH, and finally GTR. The CD booklet thoughtfully includes extensive notes by Howe, with comments on the origins of each track. In addition to playing the usual array of acoustic and electric guitars, he demonstrates his keyboard skills, and proves that he is no slouch when it comes to electric bass. His only obvious Achilles heel, as is all too evident at times, is in the vocal department.
Turbulence and Hint Hint together provide a melodic and upbeat start to the album. Both tracks are reasonably faithful in sound to the released versions that opened Steve’s excellent 1991 album Turbulence. The only obvious missing element is the crisp drumming of Bill Bruford. With the emphasis on vocals, for me The Grand Scheme Of Things album from 1993 was less satisfying than the all instrumental Turbulence. The two demos featured here however provide an interesting showcase. The weeping Fender Steel in The Main Title is just sublime, whilst the curious walking bass line on Just A Passing Phase lends a hypnotic quality. Suddenly is an atmospheric track that has a simple but beautiful melody. The released version was featured on the Quantum Leap album, which some how passed me by. In contrast, I found little to appreciate in Kind Of Friends, a song with a basic structure, dominated by Howe’s vocals.
To conclude the solo material, there are four demos, which eventually surfaced on the all-acoustic Natural Timbre album. They all feature electric guitar, which provide an interesting variation on the released versions. Pyramidology starts in Spanish guitar mood, with Fender Telecaster and Moog providing additional colour. Chet Atkins style guitar rags are a constant feature of Howe’s solo work, and In The Course Of The Day is a typical example. The playing is accomplished, but the style leaves me cold, although I do like the spacey guitar ending here. From a tranquil guitar opening, Family Tree develops into a multi-layered instrumental including Fender Strat and mandolins. This is one of the best and most complete tracks on the album. Solar Winds includes the bizarre combination of a repeated Spanish guitar phrase, a spacey synth, and jazz like electric guitar ramblings.
The simple, but effective repeated vocal line and guitar riff of In Your World is almost unrecognisable as the basis for The Spirit Of Survival from Magnification. In contrast, the origins of Soft As A Dove from the same album can clearly be heard in No Deceiving. With the exception of Howe’s vocals, I actually prefer this version, particularly the chiming electric guitar intro. From Door To Door is a deceptively laid back instrumental featuring some intricate finger work on Fender Telecaster, with acoustic and pedal steel backing. This piece went on to become The Messenger from The Ladder, but you would be hard pushed to tell. The basic (in Howe terms) guitar riff that runs through the short Cruise Control became the intro to the much longer New Language, also from The Ladder. It’s Too Late is the kind of melodic, freewheeling electric guitar instrumental that Howe does so well. This infectious piece found its way into Face To Face from The Ladder.
Seven Castles is a much better song than the heavy handed Silent Talking from Union would suggest. Featuring a strong melody, again it’s only the weakness of Howe’s vocals that lets it down. The delicate, but all too short acoustic guitar backed song Between Your Smiles is instantly recognisable as the beautiful I’m Alive from Quartet on the ABWH album.
Reaching Out finds Howe in heavy riff mode, and the unmistakable GTR era of the 1980’s. Steve Hackett received joint credit for Reaching Out (Never Say No), but the recognisable elements of the released version are already in place here. Another song that closely resembles its released counterpart, The Last Word features an escalating guitar riff, counterpoint steel guitar, and a spacey middle section. Free from the AOR style vocals that shackled Imagining, this is a superior version in my opinion. The guitar line that makes up the very short Getting Through is unmistakable as the opening riff and backbone of You Can Still Get Through from the GTR album. The Clap style acoustic guitar part in Outlawed found a more prominent role in Bareback on the Not Necessarily Acoustic live album. The heavy organ and 80’s synth sound included here provides an uncharacteristic close to the album.
The amount of care and effort that has been put into creating this album is plain to see. The production from Howe is good, compositionally the material is strong for the most part, and virtuoso playing is evident throughout. Having said that, I believe it will not stand up to repeat listening. The inconsistencies of the material and the limitations of the original recordings lend an erratic feel to the album.
On reflection this is an interesting, if not essential release from Steve Howe. As a note of caution, if you are purchasing on the strength of the Yes related material alone, then you may well be disappointed. If however you have a broader appreciation of his work, then this album has much to recommended it.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Liquid Scarlet - II
Tracklist: Lines Are Drawn Again (5:14), The Carafe [part II] (10:07), The Marriage Of Maria Braun (4:33), Rhododendron (9:30), Everywhere (4:05), Just Like You (4:19), Killer Couple Strikes Again (3:51), There's Got To Be A Way To Leave (4:26), The Thorn In Your Flesh (3:56), Lines (7:09)
Swedish quintet Liquid Scarlet return with the follow-up to their highly acclaimed eponymous debut album released in 2004. Despite having been in existence since 1996, the band have only played 64 live concerts, with only seven of those outside of their home country. Nevertheless, their youth (the band are all still in their twenties) and relative inexperience hasn't hindered them in coming with an album of immense maturity. It is rare these days to be immediately enraptured by a song, but that happened when the first notes of Lines Are Drawn Again rang out from my speakers. Beautiful in its simplicity, Olle Sjögren's solitary piano chords blend perfectly with the softly intoned vocals of Markus Fagervall before, gradually, the minimalist sound is joined by gently plucked (by Joel Lindberg) bass notes, cymbals and drums (played by Johan Lundström) and finally a couple of repeated guitar notes (from Olov Andersson). As the music builds in tempo and volume, the instrumentation becomes fuller rounded off with some choral style backing vocals. Imagine if you will a mixture of Sigur Rós and Aqualung and you may come close. Simply stated, this is the most impressive song I have heard all year.
After such an immense opening, how would the rest of the album hold up? Thankfully, the answer is impressively well. The Carafe [part II] starts with some angular guitar riffs backed by some heavy strumming before the tempo is taken down and filled with some jazzy piano and synth washes supporting the vocals. The overall effect is something akin to the first couple of King Crimson albums and it is no exaggeration to suggest the song is every bit as good as the material on those seminal albums. Jumping styles again, a string quartet is the backing for the introduction to The Marriage Of Maria Braun. An achingly beautiful song, superbly sung by Fagervall, with the vocals set against a backdrop of Sjögren's electric piano which takes over from the string quartet. Multi-instrumentalist Johan Lundström (in addition to drums and percussion he also sings and plays accordion, harmonica, guitar, violin and keyboards and also writes the bulk of the songs as well as the sting arrangements) opens Rhododendron with a rather folkish accordion. However, the listener is duped if they think they are in for a mellow ride as the song is schizophrenic in the extreme. Bouts of frantic Fripperian guitar work and Emerson synthesiser frenzies are mixed with quieter sections replete with sound effects.
Everywhere is, once again, beautifully sung and instrumentally mixes in cello, violin and vibraphone with the more traditional rock instruments. The string quartet (Sofia Eklun and Britta Hällstig on violins, Maria Pallin on viola and Ulrika Hägglund on cello) are back for Just Like You, the most classically orientated song on the album. The melancholy vocals belie the dark nature of the lyrics: "I shot her once, I shot her twice, I killed her fast, she's dead at last, You'll judge me too, but I'm just like you". The darker lyrical theme is continued in Killer Couple Strikes Again which is a great song and in more musically enlightened times would be a hit single as it blends a commercial sound with original grittiness (great video too!). There's Got To Be A Way To Leave takes on the mantle of the album's epic, albeit not in length but in vision and scope. Grandiose and lush with a very continental flavour, ideal for the closing scene of a film. Combining an accordion with the string quartet is nothing short of inspired. Tempo rises and murderous lyrics, return for The Thorn in Your Flesh, a more straight forward rocker while closing number Lines once again builds on the piano opening to create a stunning keyboard-laden finale, outstanding.
Is there a future for progressive rock? It would be foolish in the extreme to state that Liquid Scarlet were the answer to that question. However, with music this good and musicians with this much talent, those waiting for the sounding of the death knell of the rock known as prog had better be patient. Easily contender for album of the year.
Conclusion: 9+ out of 10
Liquid Scarlet - Killer Couple Strikes Again [EP]
Tracklist: Killer Couple Strikes Again (3:40), This Might Be The Last Time (5:35), Staden Rämnar Vid Fagelns Skri (5:59), Heading For Golgata (4:00), All that is Grey (5:00)
As if the excellence of the Liquid Scarlet II album was not enough, the band has simultaneously released a five-track EP that contains an additional 21 minutes of music. Lead track is the joyously upbeat tale of murder and crime that is Killer Couple Strikes Again, one of the most immediately accessible songs on the album (there is a great video for this song on the band's website, check it out!). First of the additional tracks is This Might Be The Last Time. This song has a fantastic melody and is beautifully sung by Markus Fagervall. The double bass contrasts with the synth washes that permeate the background. The bass vocals reciting, almost chanting, the title of the song is, at first, rather unnerving but certainly adds gravitas to a very solid and enjoyable song. Instrumental Staden Rämnar Vid Fagelns Skri is quiet a mixture: the opening female vocals and flute are fairly folky but then a very funky bass riff takes over with the guitar adding all sorts of textures. Reminds me somewhat of Funkadelic's Maggot Brain (bet that's a first for a prog review! But seriously check out that song and album, fantastic!). To ensure symmetry, the vocals and flute return to round off the song.
Heading For Golgata is a song that probably wouldn't have sat too well on II although I can't quite put my finger on why. Yes, the main CD is a strong mixture of styles but this seems a bit too out of the box. Quite a simple song based on electric piano it is by no means a bad song, just not as striking as the other material. Finally we have All That Is Grey which rounds the EP off in style. A rousing chorus mixed with weird sound effects all cemented down by a solid bass line. Crushing stuff!
This EP is by no means just a collection of outtakes or filler but an essential companion to the album. If you buy the album, and you should, then you need this EP as well.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Day Shift - Imaginary Menagerie
Tracklist: The Clothes Horse (6:40), The Happy Elephant (6:11), The Alternative Magpie( 8:05), The Abstracted Sloth (7:08), The Unwashed Platypus (14:06)
Day Shift was an unknown band for me, but after listening to their debut album for a couple of times I am hooked. Based in the south of England Day Shift set out on a tripped out psychedelic bliss of guitar riffs/melodies and dark side drum beats, reminding me of Porcupine Tree, Anathema and Blackfield. The completely weird lyrics were penned by cabaret musician and self-described "musical prostitute with the morals of a tapeworm" Henry Crud.
The opening song has a truly addictive guitar riff and a long heavenly rather distorted guitar solo, making it clear that this is not just an ordinary album. The Happy Elephant features an Oriental guitar melody intro, followed by a funky rhythm and soaring vocals by Bob Leek. The third track is a typical English prog rock track with lots of influences from earlier mentioned bands. It is a mid tempo song with sometimes whining vocals and again an amazing guitar solo by Nick Beere.
The Abstracted Sloth starts with keyboards and a heavy bass line, followed by a real Porcupine Tree guitar riff. This track develops into a psychedelic song with lots of soundscapes and again a stunning, speedy guitar solo. The highlight of this fascinating CD is the longest song called The Unwashed Platypus. This is a truly diverse song with lots of twists and turns, starting with a keys and guitar intro, followed by lots of space rock musical elements, where again PT comes to mind. There are even two Pink Floyd-like guitar solos in this song, making the guitar again the dominant factor in Day Shift's music.
A great album by a very promising typical English band. If you like PT and Anathema then you should give this album a chance. Try to figure out what they mean with their absolutely Monty Python-like lyrics and listen to this album in the dark at maximum volume and you will not believe your ears. Truly highly recommended!!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Lord Of Mushrooms - 7 Deadly Songs
Tracklist: Pride (6:45), Avarice (5:24), Envy (5:54), Anger (8:41), Sloth (3:35); Gluttony (7:45), Lust (8:41), The Bewitching Air (3:50), The Tempest (2:54), Paylee Control (5:25)
If you can get past a band name, that's straight out of The Beano or The Simpsons, you'll find that this is probably one of the most original albums to ever come out of the Lion stable.
This five-piece - which seems to have a lot of French connections - have been around since 2000, releasing a self-titled debut on the Musea label three years ago. The five members of the band clearly come from various different musical worlds, giving the song writing some extraordinary twists and unexpected turns around every corner.
I'd never heard of them before, but this release is a bold, daring and very enjoyable attempt at blending classic, progressive rock and progressive metal in equal measures. Alongside, there is a very generous topping of fusion, jazz, and more mainstream pop/rock in the vein of (I hate to say it) Busted.
The opening of Envy is pure Enchant, the opening of Anger could be from Andromeda and the opening of Lust could be a jazzy Metallica. Meanwhile, the piano ballad Sloth could be from Lionel Ritchie!
As you might expect from the title, most of the songs are based on the seven deadly sins (not the most original idea!) and vary in length, from three to eight minutes. It's all made very accessible, because singer, Julien Vallespi, tends to stay in a mid-range, which is very easy going - although his voice is a tad exposed on the quieter sections.
I'll be honest and say that after four listens, I still haven't fully absorbed everything that this has to offer. It really is one of those albums that you have to give plenty of care and attention to. It is also one of those discs where certain sections will irritate some whilst charming others. But after four spins, Seven Deadly Songs is clearly a prog rock/metal hybrid with great crossover potential, from a band that really could go places. Surprisingly good.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
The Soft Machine Legacy – Live In Zaandam
Tracklist: Ash (11:39), 1212 (12:01), Baker’s Street (6:52), Kings & Queens (9:11), Two Down (2:44), Big Crease (8:32)
Soft Machine has a long and convoluted history, which saw many musicians passing through the fold. The group played a wide range of music, from their early stabs at twisted pop, through the demented Psychedelia of their first two albums, gravitating to (from their groundbreaking Third onwards) a jazz–rock hybrid, which varied in its style and degree of experimentation, depending who was on board for any particular album.
The group’s last album, Land Of Cockayne appeared in 1981, but the group had effectively ceased to exist some years prior to this, with the album being primarily a Karl Jenkins project. 2003 saw the formation of the combo Soft Works, which united four previous SM members; Elton Dean, Hugh Hopper, John Marshall and Alan Holdsworth.
The Soft Machine Legacy swaps Holdsworth for another ex Softs boy John Etheridge, and this fine live recording continues the Soft Machine tradition of evolving and mutating, this time into a unit which is much more jazz, less rock, and certainly less experimental than in days of yore. The rock elements are Etheridge’s electric guitar, though here he plays in a very noodley jazz style, and minimal Fender Rhodes work from Dean, who mainly sticks to Alto Sax and Saxello. The main focus of the music is steady backing from the rhythm section (Hopper is really quite restrained throughout), whilst the two featured musicians take turns to lay down some lengthy solos. If you are fans of either player, this should be a winner for you.
The music has a relaxed feel for most of the disc, and whilst it will surely please ardent jazz fans, is unlikely to get prog fans too excited. It’s not even really jazz fusion, like Softs or Bundles, which definitely did appeal to me. There is a nifty retread of Kings & Queens from SM’s Fourth, and a version of Ash, which appeared on Etheridge’s solo album of the same name, but otherwise the tunes are all new. With Dean figuring so largely, you may be expecting (or dreading, depending on your perspective) a lot of free jazz squawking and squealing, as there was a time when he seemed intent on moulding Soft Machine as a free improvising group (I have a live recording from the 1970’s which goes far too far down this road for my liking), but he must have mellowed with time, because his playing here is almost exclusively melodic, with only a moment or two where he lapses into the freeform squeaky style. This may disappoint some of the old fans, but it’s definitely a plus for me.
Having said that, and for all that the musicianship is superb, this album fails to rise above the status of a pleasant listen for me – it is much too jazz oriented to really capture my imagination. I liked the Soft Machine track, and the closing Big Crease, which has a rockier aspect and a fiery guitar solo. From a personal perspective, I would rate the disc at about a 6, but really it sits outside the main focus of this site and will have a greater or lesser appeal depending on your appetite for jazz, so, hoping that my review will enable you to ascertain whether this will be of any interest to you, I’m going to leave it Unrated.