Reviews in this issue:
- Svarte Pan - Nattvandring
- Retroheads - Retrospective
- Dio - Master Of The Moon
- Trio96 - Duo'03
- Echo Us - Echo Us
- Azigza - Kriya
- Lukas Tower Band - After Long Years
Svarte Pan - Nattvandring
Tracklist: Det var en man (4:41), Min vän (4:03), Vill ha (3:47), Balladen om Lillebror (4:50), Gravsäng (2:23), Starkare (4:14), Möss & Människor (5:56), Dårarnas Palats (8:31), Sov Gott (5:14), Drömmar (9:07)
A good album, this, and I say so happily even though I can’t understand a word of the lyrics – not even the titles. Svarte Pan is Swedish and obviously proudly so, recording entirely in their own language. And while that determination might limit their audience, I hope it won’t limit it too much, because the music alone is worth hearing. It’s nothing shockingly innovative, and I’ll have to stretch just a bit to call it progressive, but I’m going to do so not just because I’d like this band to get a wider audience but because they’re ambitious beyond their declared genre, which is “stoner rock”.
Stoner rock is sometimes also called “doom” (especially when it’s on the metallic side), and the practitioners of the two sub-genres often intersect with each other. It all descends ultimately from Black Sabbath, and there’s a lot of that great old band behind the songs on this album. This band declares, however, that they differ from other stoner rock bands because they are “far more blues based and also do not put their trust in walls of distortion.” Of course, Sabbath started out as a heavy blues band, too, and there’s much of that early-seventies vibe on Nattvandring, but Svarte Pan is far from a Sabbath cover band. Various of the songs put me in mind of such diverse groups as The Black Crowes (there’s definitely a “jam band” sense to some of the numbers), Cream, Led Zeppelin, and even, especially in Conny Andersson’s guitar sound on many songs, early Rush. But a slightly faster (and, of course, Swedish!) Sabbath is what you’ll think of as you listen to the album as a whole. Certain songs, too, recall specific Sabbath tunes: the harmonica on Min vän echoes that in The Wizard, and the sludgy Balladen om Lillebror, right down to the guitar sound and the plodding beat, somehow invokes both Black Sabbath (the song, I mean) and War Pigs.
I may seem to be contradicting what I said earlier about Svarte Pan not being too dependent on Sabbath by pointing out such strong resemblances to that great old band. But you’d never mistake these guys for Tony, Geezer, Bill, and Ozzy – and not just because the singing here is in Swedish. Many of the songs, for example, are almost too perky to be considered stoner rock. Damned if the opening few bars of the album’s first song, Det var en man, don’t sound like something Pearl Jam could have come up with – a great clean-but-crunchy Les-Paul-through-Marshalls guitar sound, the drums and bass kicking in just the way they do in, say, Pearl Jam’s Even Flow or Go. I guess it’s this wide range of sounds and influences (Pearl Jam, The Black Crowes, and so forth) that allows Svarte Pan to make what truly is stoner rock sound peppy and perky rather than muddy and depressing – at least much of the time.
(For an example of the genuinely excellent muddy-and-depressing variant of stoner or doom rock, incidentally, check out the wonderfully named Finnish band Reverend Bizarre, who have released several albums on Spikefarm Records. An instructive comparison can be made between the two bands, because Reverend Bizarre not only depends more heavily than does Svarte Pan on the sound of early Sabbath but actually quotes both Ozzy [lyrically] and Bill Ward [musically] on certain songs. Such a comparison will illuminate the range of influences that I’ve suggested is behind Svarte Pan’s music and that makes their contribution to the genre particularly lively, although I treasure the unrelenting doominess of Reverend Bizarre.)
Weaknesses? I guess the main one is that vocalist Björn Holmdén isn’t a great singer. However, though his singing isn’t first-rate, it’s not bad, and neither does it get in the way of one’s enjoyment of the music. (If you’ve heard Tim “Ripper” Owens singing on the latest Iced Earth album, you’ll know just how badly the wrong vocalist can ruin otherwise good, even excellent, songs.) And the musicians themselves sound like they’re having fun with this heavy yet energetic music. There’s a tight looseness to most of the songs that one hears too seldom in our age of overproduced music – no Pro Tools have been used in the making of this album, you can bet. Even the “jammy” sounding songs come together nicely, and even the tighter ones leave themselves room to breathe. It’s a fun album to listen to.
Although, as I’ll repeat, Svarte Pan isn’t a progressive band in the way many of the groups reviewed on these pages are, I’m going to recommend this album highly for fans of good heavy rock, especially those with leanings towards the groups I’ve mentioned but also those who’d like to hear an interesting twist on the “stoner” sub-genre. It’s a good album, and it’s one that I’ll return to in days to come.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Retroheads - Retrospective
Tracklist: Earthsong (10:45), Man (5:14), Judgment Day (9:16), Dreams (6:09), World Reveal (8:49), Starry Night (6:05), Urban Flight Delight (6:53), Taking My Time (8:25), The Fool (5:23)
With a band name of Retroheads and an album called Retrospective, it doesn't take too much of an imagination to figure out that the music will take inspiration from the past. Based around songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Tore Bø Bendixen, a founder member of Fruitcake, the album also contains contributions from Ann-Kristin Bendixen (vocals), Tommy Berre (guitars) and Harald Skullerud (percussion) with Ole Staveteig adding lead guitar on one track.
Although the album has a definite 70s feel to it, there are sufficient additional influences outside of the classic prog period to prevent writing off the band as simply copyists. With the group members having musical backgrounds that encompass jazz, pop, rock, African and world music these influences come through in the arrangements. Liberal use has been made of the sounds of the classic analogue instruments, like the Hammond B3 organ, ARP synthesisers and the inevitable Mellotron, although they have been recreated via modern technology, not that my ears can really tell the difference.
Earthsong opens the album in impressive form. From the gentle introduction to the extended guitar solos, the composition bears all the hallmarks of an epic. Yes, there are clear pointers to what has gone before but overall the piece has a freshness and originality about it. The song ends with an interesting spacey feel, something akin to Tim Blake, but then the whole song is about exploration of the universe!
Man starts as a slower acoustic number but unfortunately I found Tore Bø's vocals a bit weak on this piece. Still, the instrumental ending is succinct and to the point. Judgement Day is the best example of the band combining their influences. Starting with a harder, almost new wave, introduction the song goes through various changes with splashes of jazz, prominent percussive beats, new age vocals and synths, and a three-minute guitar solo to boot! At over nine minutes the song is probably a couple of minutes too long, but that is a personal preference. Altogether more to my liking was Dreams with the flowing vocals of Ann-Kristin Bendixen complementing Tore's voice, which is a lot more palatable than on Man. The dreamy atmosphere is interrupted by a middle eight that once again makes full use of vintage keyboard sounds but on the whole the arrangement works well to create a modern and memorable song.
World Reveal has echoes ('scuse the pun!) of The Wall era Pink Floyd intertwined with some poppier vocals followed by a Latimer-esque guitar solo and atmospheric keyboards. Starry Night is a decent slower number (in parts) with some nice harmonising and fake Mellotron while Urban Flight Delight has a keyboard intro and other sections that are from the Kerry Minnear school of composition. The final two tracks end the album strongly with Taking My Time having a more 1980s feel to it and The Fool taking the laurels for the best Bardens-Latimer era Camel instrumental that was never written by that band.
All-in-all a jolly little release. It has its limitations but they are relatively minor and are not detrimental to the enjoyment of the album. One's opinion will depend on personal thoughts of seventies progressive rock. I like that era and did enjoy this album. However, the Retroheads will need to come up with something more of their own style and stamp out their own musical personality on future albums.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Dio - Master Of The Moon
Tracklist: One More For The Road (3:17), Master Of The Moon (4:19), The End Of The World (4:39), Shivers (4:15), The Man Who Would Be King (4:58), The Eyes (6:27), Living The Life (4:25), I Am (5:00), Death By Love (4:21), In Dreams (4:26)
I doubt the name of Ronnie James Dio needs much in the way of introduction, however his inclusion in the DPRPages may raise a few eyebrows I suspect, and I have to say I did deliberate the inclusion of Master Of The Moon. It certainly would be stretching the boundaries of my perception of "progressive", although the "rock" element is more than adequately covered. However as I suspect that Mr Dio might feature somewhere along the line in most record/CD collections, I decided to bring matters up to date with this album.
So what swayed my decision? Firstly it was Mr Dio's voice, which I have to say shows no signs of aging or wear and tear (even at 63), in fact listening to Master Of The Moon instantly brought back memories of those early Rainbow albums. For someone like me who's early musical influences embraced ELP and Deep Purple equally and had no difficulty justifying the purchase of Genesis or Tull album along with Led Zeppelin or Uriah Heep, then in 2004 should I differentiate between Dio or say Dream Theater?
From the outset there are no real surprises to be found on Master Of The Moon, just a pure slice of melodic hard rock, derived from the current band who form a solid and unified unit. This Dio line-up sees the return of Craig Goldy on guitars; more regulars in Scott Warren on keyboards and Simon Wright (AC/DC) on drums; and Rudy Sarzo (Whitesnake, Ozzy & Quiet Riot) on bass. Dio make a creditable return with Master Of The Moon after the not too wonderful Killing The Dragon (2002), but whilst building on the more impressive and adventurous Magica album (2000).
Master of the Moon opens with the up-tempo One More For The Road, with its Blackmore-esque riff that will take the "more seasoned" reader back nearly three decades. In fact for me the whole album was like a nostalgia trip for me. Ronnie James' voice remains in full flight for the title track, a slow burning rocker, that brings his unique and almost "theatrical" vocals to the forefront. Lyrically the album is Ronnie James Dio and perhaps a little cliché bound for the average prog fan, however a slight delve into these lyrics may reveal more than meets the eye (or ear). For instance the opening track One More For The Road has little to do with "an extra drink" but deals with the subject of executions. The title tune looks at the trials and tribulations of a rebellious teenager. Therefore the album is not necessarily just the perceived "Dungeons and Dragons" that are commonly associated with RJD, but quite often are more of his personal observations and viewpoints on life, politics and "good vs evil" - quite succinct and observant in the main. Although despite its darker subject matter lyrics like "death by love" (over a straightforward rock rhythm) still make me want to puke! Stand out track for me was the "religiously" tinged The Man Who Would Be King, dealing with the Holy Crusades of the 9th century, but drawing analogies from Mr Bush's recent incursions into the Middle East.
In summation the burning question must be - should you buy this album? Well to answer that question you should ask yourself the following. Do I like Ronnie James Dio's voice? Do I still play any of the early Elf, Rainbow or even Sabbath albums (featuring RJD)? If so I can wholeheartedly recommend this album to you. However if you are unsure or in fact are not a fan then you might want to move quickly on to the next review in this issue.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Trio96 - Duo'03
Tracklist: Left-Handed Rotation (9:04), Kerenmi Afureru Pray (6:03), Coffee with God (3:11), Curriculum (5:51), Improvisation [Bradford] (6:48), Hommage a A&G (5:42), Improvisation [Distance, Perspective] (9:00)
In my review of Trio96’s Quartet’99, on which (of course) the band is a four-piece ensemble, I spoke highly of the work, especially praising its effective interplay between sweet (but not saccharine) melody and improvisational blasting. On Duo’03, which finds Trio96 now performing, obviously enough, as the dyad of guitarist Ishikawa Kenji and percussionist Tanaka Yasuhiro, the band retains its intensity but veers more strongly (and unfavourably, I’m afraid) into the world of chaos, noise, and atonal composition. I found this offering too bombastic, too disjointed, and somewhat sparse, and I especially missed talented saxophonist Yano Tomoaki from Quartet’99, although I can report that the CD is agreeable in spots.
Apparently, Duo’03 was culled from a series of live performances recorded at two venues in Tokyo. On one track, at least, a smattering of background conversation is audible although I couldn’t tell if the shouts and retorts were praise for the band or common drunken rambling. Nonetheless, the mere fact that this version of Trio96 could manage such complex dynamics and musical variation in a live setting expands my opinion of the band’s formidable skilfulness. But still, I found this CD far less satisfying than its predecessor, Quartet’99.
Duo’03 begins with Left-Handed Rotation, which includes creepily atmospheric guitar passages. Kenji displays meticulous control of the tune’s emotional impact with sage chord selection and perfect tone. The chords are ringing and open, bright and heavily flanged, and the progression never really resolves: it’s simply a chain of suspended tension, functioning more like ‘blocks’ of sound than motion. The percussion is decent here because it’s not just straight drum kit banging. The track is tuneless (in fact, it’s decidedly non-linear) but it still holds your attention. Left-Handed Rotation doesn’t really remind me of anything specifically and seems like a good artistic blend of multiple influences, surfacing now as unique craft. Toward the song’s close, we have a more conventional motif, sort of “Spy vs. Spy” or “Mission: Impossible”, with the guitar’s staccato quarter beats ascending then descending before returning to the blanketing chords. Overall, Left-Hand Rotation does a fine job oscillating between ambient mood and angry guitar sniping.
The trouble begins, though, with Kerenmi Afureru Pray, which reminds me instantly of the contemporary King Crimson (e.g., The Power to Believe), for which I have no especial fondness. I suffered through the grating, industrial sound, blatantly Frippish, and the low-end throb was fully annoying. This track is just too tense and non-melodic for my taste, and I’ll go so far as to label it “junky noise”. Shrill and intolerable. It sounds like a lament sung by electric power tools.
Curriculum is more pleasing. The intro is excellent, a swampy, syncopated guitar pulse and then Yasuhiro puts down a hip-hoppy, trippy beat. Kenji spreads soft layers of cloud-chords over the top. (And here the tune reminds me of Djam Karet’s more ambient moments.) The drumming is top notch; it drives the song and really is the lead instrument atop the swampy beat and the chiming chords. It’s strange but fascinating to me that the drummer is basically overplaying but because the guitar is so understated and restrained, it never clutters or ruins the song. (In Curriculum and throughout Duo’03, primarily in the ambient segments, the guitar work really serves as would keyboards, erecting a backdrop for the improvisation.)
Improvisation [Braford] opens with crazy drumming, almost Latin (with the use of a cowbell) but more frenetic and irregular. It’s basically time for a free-form rave-up. Kenji excels here and throughout, accenting the drumming, which is certainly a curious twist! Ultimately, it’s another overly noisy track: I expect I’d leave a club if this were the night’s entertainment. I detect a Hendrix influence, perhaps, in the guitar work, but it’s Jimi’s tendency toward overkill, unfortunately.
Hommage a A & G is a soundscape, sounding much like horror-movie soundtrack music. (An aside: I say that too often about the majority of instrumental progressive music I review for DPRP. It must be a trend.) The drumming doesn’t fit here, it’s too active: Yasuhiro should’ve stayed off the kit, maybe using hand percussion or something. Finally, the CD concludes with Improvisation [Distance, Perspective]. The track starts with a drum solo. You have to admit that Yasuhiro has jazz sensibility, no question, and he plays with power and precision, but it’s, as Don Henly might say, “Everything, all the time”. Otherwise, it’s simply another bit of ad lib jamming.
I want to reaffirm my assessment that Ishikawa Kenji is wildly talented guitarist: he has chops and a mature and keen sense of accenting and ‘filling the gaps’. His solos stay very much to the side of rhythm and drastically shifting chord progressions, with infrequent and usually clever scalar flourishes. And Tanaka Yasuhiro is more than capable but he needs to refrain from what I call Moonism: No drummer needs to go around the kit or touch every skin and cymbal on every song. Both are excellent, ballsy musicians and I hope to hear more from them, BUT…I hope I hear them in the quartet rather than as a tandem. Duo’03 lacks the depth and colour that made Quartet’99 so enjoyable and I hope they can return to that fuller, less hectic sound.
Anyone who appreciates brash improvisational music without recurring passages, played forcefully and loudly, should like this disk. Anyone who wants their fusion laced with rock ‘n’ roll energy should like this disk. It’s indeed barebones in the less atmospheric portions, but I didn’t find that severely detrimental. I prefer the more moody sections where the drums are lighter and I can live without the noisy harshness. I still would like to see what these guys would do with more traditional songs or with a vocalist, or anything more contoured that requires control and finesse (although sometimes the ethereal passages are close to my desire). In the end, I can’t pan Duo’03, as it’s far from horrible and is noteworthy at times, and it might get another spin on my CD player, but I suspect that I’d always reach for Quartet’99 first.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Echo Us - Echo Us
Tracklist: My Sirens (2:59), Dreaming (4:13), Directed Study (3:39), Her Hearts Army / White Wednesday (11:00), Who Loves You (5:32), To Save You (6:02), I Radiate I (7:52), Black Thursday (4:01), In The Fall (3:42)
In 2000, DPRP reviewed (favourably) the debut CD by Greyhaven, a young American band who reputedly delivered a powerful set of prog metal tinged with electronic elements. The prog community largely responded in a positive fashion, but sadly it seems Greyhaven are no more and Ethan Matthews (their keyboard player) has now gone it alone with the Echo Us project.
Abandoning the metal elements (but thankfully not all of the progressive influences) Matthews has embraced a modern electronic pop/rock/ambient sound which, whilst perhaps only being of marginal interest from a prog perspective, reveals him to be a talented composer / arranger /instrumentalist.
I have to admit that I am on shaky ground when it comes to naming possible influences for this music, though there are clear references to Tangerine Dream, Jean Michel Jarre, and Mike Oldfield on the instrumental side and Depeche Mode might be a good indicator for the electro pop side of things. Undoubtedly there are influences from more modern electronic acts, but I don’t know enough of this genre to be able to provide names. Having said that, I do feel that Matthews has an original approach and any influences are smoothly integrated into the patent Echo Us sound.
Vocally, Matthews has a delicate tone, in a style reminiscent of eighties electro pop singers – kind of Al Stewart (yes. I know he’s not an eighties artist or an electro pop singer) or Neil Tennant (Pet Shop Boys) on downers.
The album opens with My Sirens, which is an ambient industrial collage more than a song, but the rest of the album – whilst not short of experimental textures and the odd avant garde touch - is much more song based, thought the structures are imaginative and often unusual. Dreaming is slowed down electro pop, vaguely suggesting the Pet Shop Boys (vocally at least) but is much more interesting than that might imply and has some nice resonant guitar work to provide a slight neo prog slant. Directed Study marries Depeche Mode style repetitive beats with Tangerine Dream-ish melodic synth splashes and the whole thing somehow has an eighties vibe about it.
Her Heart’s Army / White Wednesday at eleven minutes is the album’s centre piece and is my favourite track, coupling urgent and sinister beats with ethereal electronic orchestrations and journeying through frantic passages to more sedate and eerie atmospheres. The prog quotient is strongly increased with some superb guitar soloing which has a definite Mike Oldfield air to it. This is probably one of two tracks on the album that I will lift for use on compilation CDs. Who Loves You has a light reggae beat, fragile vocals and a pleasant, laid back atmosphere. It is also the only track to feature a guest musician as Kai Kurasawa contributes understated Bass Guitar. Unfortunately, this track is a little too polite for my tastes.
To Save You is a modern minimalist electronica type affair with a bleak, but catchy chorus – “I can’t save you, even if I wanted to”. Varied keyboard textures provide an effective atmospheric backdrop. I Radiate I is the second longest track and has some interesting changes of pace over its seven minutes length, including aggressive, pulsating electronics and some impressive guitar textures, which put me in mind of Mike Oldfield’s more recent offerings, making this track potentially much more interesting to the Old School prog fan. Indeed, this is one of my favourite tracks.
Black Thursday is a nicely rhythmic little instrumental which sounds like recent Tangerine Dream and should appeal to their fans. I quite liked the central melody and there are some interesting keyboard sounds to spice up the mixture. In The Fall is a spooky downbeat closer, with Matthews mannered vocals riding over some very modern sounding electronic beats, but with some more proggy keyboard inserts as well.
This kind of music is not really my kind of thing, but I can easily appreciate that Ethan Matthews is a talented individual with an original slant on electronic pop. I found this CD to be a pleasant listen, with the Tangerine Dream / Mike Oldfield elements providing more than a few interesting moments. If you like modern (or even eighties) style electronic pop, you should give this one a listen.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Azigza - Kriya
Tracklist: Bembé [Ogun, Medicine, Wheel of Bembé] (14:03), Yaman (9:32), Agadir [Orphans of Agadir, The Wall, The Reminder] (9:22), Amalgam (5:31), A Bulgarian Suite [Paidushka, Bulgasta Norodna, Horo Kriva Panagiursko] (7:40), Shiva Calling (8:42), X [Resolutions] (12:46)
With a considerable delay due to several circumstances here's finally the review of this second CD by the American band Azigza called Kriya. One of the reasons for the delay is probably that I had some difficulties to build an unbiased and in-depth opinion about this album; not only is it quite different to what I've come across so far, but it's also not much to my personal liking. But of course I won't bother you with my personal dislikes and tell you what this album is all about!
Music and colours have many similarities, one of them being that if you mix too much different kinds together you'll end up with a very indistinctive result. Azigza have tried to mix traditional Asian, Arabian, African and East-European world and ethnic music with progressive rock and some hints of modern jazz and I actually can't say they have undoubtfully proven that such a mix really can work. Exploring new musical areas also holds the risk that it can become too forced or too experimental, so it can end up overdone and too much demanding for the listener. This album offers some great musicianship, original ideas and sounds, but also some boring, annoying and over the top chaotic moments.
Let's make a quick run through the album: The first track Bembé, that consists of three parts, starts off with a nice whipping guitar backed by a solid drum beat rhythm that reminds me a bit of Tool, well-known for their thriving basic rhythms. When the Arabic singing kicks in it clearly walks a very different path than Tool does and it directly brings you in Eastern/Arabic spheres. Unfortunately there's a failure on my disc (it does not look damaged though), which makes me to have to skip a couple of minutes. The second part is a very quiet number with some whaling voices that go over into the third part with a more up tempo guitar with again a Tool-like droning rhythm and quite a weird ending.
The song Yaman starts in an almost ambient, but also somewhat ethnic, style with lots of serenity brought on by a violin, wind chimes and soft, almost whispering female singing. The song then builds up with strong percussion, a flute, more powerful singing and a great dramatic violin solo among others. So far I found the album quite enjoyable, not knowing the worst was still to come.
Agadir consists of three parts as well and has a still pleasant, but dark beginning brought about by a violin and electric guitars. Then the song slowly floats along in the second part until it builds up with an irritating repetitive guitar riff into a sort of modern jazz style where the endlessly repeating guitar loop brings you into the third segment that only can be described as pure chaos. To my opinion this part has not much to do with enjoyable music anymore, in the end it's nerve wrecking and just awful as if all instruments are being tested simultaneously by monkeys!
Amalgam begins with street en crowd sounds and fragments of a public speech until it goes over in the music; once again based around a repetitive beat and guitar riff, which is starting to annoy me somewhat by now. The spoken lyrics and soundscapes that signify this song don't make it any better for me. The song ends with the text "put down your gun" and the sound of a screaming man, surely this is an anti-aggression song
A Bulgarian Suite is more to my liking, a bit gipsy styled traditional Bulgarian tune with violins, but also unfortunately again with a too repetitive riff which makes the song somewhat boring in the end. Shiva Calling begins, as could be expected from a song with this name, with a sole sitar, followed by traditional Indian singing; lots of ethnic sounds, but not much prog here.
X starts in a more progressive style again, but soon enough moves into a style that plays not by my (Western) ear, again sometimes with a continuous repetitive guitar riff. The female singing is beautiful though, but all in all also this song floats along without a clear direction. Near the end it tends to become a bit chaotic again to be concluded with a short traditional vocal piece accompanied by a single percussion instrument. The unnamed 'hidden bonus track' that concludes the CD is a short mellow tune played on some kind of flute.
It's clear that this album was not the highlight of my week and for enjoyment, would not get a very high rating from me; I however upgraded my score somewhat realising that purely musically seen this album isn't half bad, and it surely has earned some points for its daring attempt to make this exceptional mix of music. The album is absolutely interesting, innovative, original and surely progressive and only for that this album deserves a good listen by anyone interested in broadening his/her musical experiences and discovering a new musical landscape.
Just have a look alone at all the instruments their percussionist Stephan Junca plays on this album: djembe, djun-djun, ganza, gankoqui, udu, rainstick, def, tom, shakers, zils, tar, Tibetan bells, block, bongos, congas, gong, chimes, drumset and even questionable antics (!) and spontaneous tirade! How many of these can you identify, let alone play? So this album should probably be left aside by all traditional sympho and progressive rock lovers like me, but could be a treat for anyone sincerely interested in traditional ethnic music and uncommon sounds; it's a strange, wild and exotic adventure for those who dare to undertake it.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Lukas Tower Band - After Long Years
Tracklist: Indian Beard (8:09), Ravens (5:39), Dreams to Gell (2) (6:39), Le Pocal d’Olives (Reprise) (7:18), King of Dyfed (7:38), Lalla Rookh (5:01), Wanderer (6:25), Thomas the Rhymer (8:28); Bonus Tracks: Lucy (5:34), Work of Time (6:18), Sparks of Fire (3:59)
Next time you hear an old song by seventies and eighties FM mainstays Foreigneron the radio, try to remember that multi-instrumentalist Ian McDonald, who was with the band for their first three albums, had long before Foreigner’s time been a member of the very first incarnation of the venerable King Crimson, his saxophone work especially adding tasty highlights to each band’s music. Oddly enough, that fact came back to me as I listened for the first time to the first track on the Lukas Tower Band’s After Long Years. It’s not that this band sounds particularly like early (or any other) King Crimson – well, okay, the guitar hook on that song had me humming “In the court of the Crimson King. . . .”– but the interplay among the instruments, particularly saxophone and guitar, on Indian Beard sure put me in mind of that great old band. And there are other such moments on the album, too, but the Lukas Tower Band is in no way a mimic of King Crimson or of any other band.
In their promotional materials, the band attempts a provisional description of their music: “Camel meets Clannad meets Steely Dan.” That’s actually a very good place to start, although, again, you shouldn’t expect to hear a lot of the sound of any of those bands’ sound in the Lukas Tower Band. They also compare themselves to Steeleye Span, and that’s the group I’d invoke if I had to give a very quick and rough idea of this band’s sound. But the jazziness suggested by their comparison to Steely Dan is there, too, and the melodic progressive rock of Camel is also clearly audible. All these influences or similarities make After Long Years a very pleasant and interesting CD to listen to, although I find it a bit too leisurely, a bit too tastefully laid-back to sustain my full interest through all eleven long tracks (all but four clocking in at more than six minutes, many of them stretching to more than seven).
And then there are the lyrics. I’m an English teacher, so you can imagine how I feel about an album whose lyrics are drawn from the poetry of Coleridge (both Indian Beard and Le Pocal d’Olives borrow from “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”), Wordsworth (Lalla Rookh leans on “Tintern Abbey”), Walter Scott, and the like. Right: I’m predisposed to hate it. Leave poetry, even bad poetry, to poets, and write your own lyrics, I say. But this band does a pretty good job with the verses they borrow, although I wouldn’t say that the music in any significant way “suits” the words. Whereas, for example, Iron Maiden’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner sets the tense story to dramatic (if at times melodramatic) and powerful music, both of the Lukas Tower Band’s songs based on the “Rime” are mellow, jazzy affairs, and I can’t say that the music in Le Pocal d’Olives adds much to lines like their take on the famous “Water, water everywhere, and all the boards did shrink,” which here becomes just “Water everywhere, water everywhere, water everywhere.” The lovely vocals of lead singer Angela Maier ride above what seems to be their typical arrangement: guitar and saxophone closely doubling a melody while the bass and drums provide interesting counterpoint and accents. In this song, too, as in many others on the album, the vocals often join the guitar and saxophone, so that the melody is tripled – a very nice sound in moderation, but almost a tic on many of the songs on this album.
The players themselves are clearly very skilled, and, although there’s some virtuoso work here, it never seems meant to show off the players’ skill; the songs are paramount, and all the instruments and vocals seem determined to create a certain atmosphere in each song. As I say, there is a sameness to that atmosphere from song to song, despite the songs’ very different subjects, but it’s nice to hear this kind of ambition. I’m going to single out as favourites Dreams to Gell (2), which reminds me terribly, especially in its bass line, of Donald Fagen’s I.G.Y. (and thus reinforces at least partly the band’s own Steely Dan comparison); Wanderer, which features particularly splendid work from bassist Gerhard Heinisch, guitarist Wolfgang Fastenmeier, and saxophonist Albrecht Pfister; and (back to Steeleye Span!) Thomas the Rhymer, although I still prefer Steeleye Span’s song of the same name (this is a different song but obviously one that tells the same Walter Scott-inspired story). That said, there isn’t a clunker on the album except for one of the bonus tracks: Lucy, which reworks jazzily and emotively one of Wordsworth’s “Lucy” poems – a poem that was bad without being set to music but which actually becomes worse in this treatment. That one misstep aside, though, the CD is a good one. The album and many of the songs may be a trifle too long, but, although it mightn’t sustain close attention, neither is it tedious – the talents of the band’s members individually and in ensemble guarantee that.
It’s not an album for all tastes – not even necessarily for fans of any of the bands I’ve mentioned, though if you’re a particular fan of Steeleye Span, I can’t imagine that the Lukas Tower Band’s somewhat similar but jazzier music would disappoint you – but it’s very good work of its kind. Incidentally, the band has been around for twenty years, and their longevity no doubt accounts for their technical excellence; it would be nice to see them gain a larger audience for this disc. Oh, and if you’re wondering who the hell this Lukas Tower guy is – well, there is no Lukas Tower. The band, the website tells us, was named after “one of the St. Lucas church towers in Munich,” their home town. There’s one fewer mystery to be solved in the world of progressive rock!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10