Album Reviews

Issue 2005-011

Reviews in this issue:

Arena - Pepper's Ghost

Arena - Pepper's Ghost
Country of Origin:UK
Record Label:Verglas
Catalogue #:VGCD 028
Year of Release:2005
Info: Arena

Tracklist: Bedlam Fayre (6:08), Smoke And Mirrors (4:42), The Shattered Room (9:45), The Eyes Of Lara Moon (4:30), Tantalus (6:51), Purgatory Road (7:25), Opera Fanatica (13:06)

Tom's Review

In the course of their ten year career, Arena have become one of the bigger bands firmly tied to the traditional progressive rock scene, having thrown off the shackles of being known as ‘the band with Marillion’s old drummer in it’ to become a highly regarded outfit in their own right. Now, however, they seem to have switched from trying to gain new fans to preaching to the converted, especially if the lack of much obvious promotion of this new opus is anything to go by (DPRP didn’t get promo copies of this one). This is a shame, as Pepper’s Ghost emerges as possibly their strongest work to date, as well as one of their more streamlined and accessible outings, and given some marketing push could see the band significantly expand their audience.

Whilst Pepper’s Ghost is not a concept album, keyboards player (and Arena head honcho) Clive Nolan has remarked that there is a pronounced ‘English’ feel to the album. I’m assuming he means in addition to the fact that Arena’s sound has obvious echoes of a whole host of English progressive and pomp rock bands of the 70’s and 80’s, and you can certainly see what he’s getting at – although the ‘Englishness’ that Pepper’s Ghost summons up is very much a Hollywood-ised, Ye Olde Victorian view of the country. Nothing wrong with that if it fits the music, mind, and here it certainly does.

Opener Bedlam Fayre certainly fits the ‘olde Englande’ image (note the spelling of ‘fayre’!), with its introductory montage of market and fairground sounds. When the song gets going it soon reveals itself as a solid, up-tempo track which very much fits the established Arena blueprint – dramatic, Wakeman-esque keyboard work from Nolan, strong, clean guitar lines from John Mitchell, a good momentum and structure, topped by Rob Sowden’s slightly theatrical, very English vocals. Its certainly in keeping with the slightly heavier feel that Arena have adopted over the last few years, with Mitchell’s guitar at times having a sound you might associate with traditional metal bands such as Iron Maiden (particularly on the solo’s) and Mick Pointer really giving his bass drum some welly. The band also successfully work in a more atypical section, where Sowden sings through a vocoder over a pulsing programmed beat, which doesn’t detract from the overall feel of the song.

Smoke And Mirrors opens with Mitchell in acoustic mode, before the band crash in and the song proceeds as a mid-tempo pomp rocker, with a strong, catchy chorus which features some nice double-tracked vocals from Sowden. The solo work from both Nolan and Mitchell is top notch on this one, and the song once again has a good momentum that’s maintained throughout – something that earlier Arena albums sometimes lack, in my opinion.

The sound of a musical box opens The Shattered Room, with Sowden proceeding to sing over its nursery rhyme-type melody. This gives the song a slightly eerie, dark feel – similar to Arena’s own The Butterfly Man (a highlight from 2000’s patchy Immortal album), to which the song could be favourably compared. The song moves easily through a series of different sections, with the move from an up-tempo yet fairly mellow verse section to a more intense, dramatic chorus being particularly well handled. Once again Nolan and Mitchell put in excellent work in the extended instrumental section, and it really hits home how well these two spark off each other. At around the half-way point the song breaks off for a short, atmospheric section featuring a host of ‘spooky’ sounds, before building well into a driving up-tempo section where Pointer works overtime, creating a powerful rhythm section in tandem with bassist Ian Salmon, over which Mitchell fires off some suitably OTT solo’s, one of which could even have come from Judas Priest’s extensive back catalogue! This excellent track seems certain to become a fan favourite, and will almost certainly come across strongly in a live setting.

Next track The Eyes Of Lara Moon (its title presumably a riff on the 70’s film The Eyes of Laura Mars) is built around a simple yet extremely catchy strummed melody from John Mitchell. Like its predecessor it has a rather dark and eerie feel to it. Sowden’s vocals are restrained early on in the song, but are more forceful when the song picks up in pace and heaviness in its latter sections. Likewise Mitchell is a more restrained presence here, with a short but effective keynote solo showing you don’t need to play a thousand notes a second to make a forceful impression. There’s a nagging feeling that there isn’t really that much to this song, but it still leaves a positive impression.

Tantalus is the one song that didn’t make much of an impression on first listen, but further listens have proved it to be a something of a ‘grower’. It opens as a dramatic ballad, with Clive Nolan’s piano the dominant instrument. The orchestrated backing vocals on the chorus are effective, as is the pick-up when the song moves up a gear in to heavier climes. Its difficult to say why this song works, or in fact to describe it, as it follows a rather odd structure, but work it does. The end section, where there is a real edge to Sowden’s vocals and a cutting edge to the guitars, is particularly strong.

The opening guitar salvo of Purgatory Road almost had me thinking I’d put on an album by a Euro power metal band such as Hammerfall by mistake – think of a long-haired leather clad metallers standing on mountains with the wind blowing their hair about and you get the idea. Fortunately (or not, depending on your musical taste!), this isn’t really an indicator of the direction of the track, and in fact this song is actually one of the lighter ones on the album. The verses have a nicely quirky feel, heightened by the slightly odd time-signatures Mitchell seems to be working in. The chorus is solid once again, and there’s a good mid-song break featuring some pacey riffing from Mitchell and typically flamboyant keyboard runs from Nolan. The song perhaps outstays its welcome a little, but in general its pretty good, if not one of the album’s highlights.

Opera Fanatica opens with some (sampled) operatic vocals, heralding what most will see as the albums centrepiece, an ‘everything but the kitchen sink’ affair that is almost joyously bombastic and over the top. Its also one of the heaviest tracks on the album, which is a little surprising as it was written solely by Nolan (the other tracks being co-penned by Nolan, Pointer and Mitchell). For the most part this is grandiose pomp rock at its best, with several memorable sections, and a great chorus where Sowden gets to intone lines such as ‘The King is dead, so worship me’. This track reminds me a little of the band’s earlier epic Moviedrome (from Immortal), although its probably a more successful piece. Although I feel that the track begins to repeat itself a bit near the end, and could have been trimmed a little, this is still another highlight, and ends the album on a high note.

Pepper’s Ghost comes nicely packaged in a well-designed dig-pack, and is also the only album I can think of which comes with its own comic book! Here five characters representing the band are involved in various adventures and situations, presumably meant to match the songs they illustrate – although given that Nolan tends to write his lyrics in rather unspecific language, the link sometimes seems rather tenuous. Not being a great comic book fan, I didn’t exactly read the stories from cover to cover, but it’s a nice idea – although not really suited to the small format of a CD booklet (would have been better on a double gatefold LP sleeve!).

I’ve been a fan of Arena since their first release, but somehow have always had misgivings about previous albums, even those which many fans would doubtless regard as classics. The debut Songs From A Lion’s Cage, for instance, undoubtedly had some outstanding moments, but the effect was ruined a little for me by steering far too close to Marillion’s sound circa 1983 for comfort, whilst the Crying For Help series completely ruined the album’s flow. The Visitor again has real standouts, but for a concept album didn’t flow as well as it should, and contained too much filler. 2003’s Contagion, meanwhile, was far more consistent, but lacked real standout material. With Pepper’s Ghost, therefore, the band seem to have finally got the balance right. Despite (as previously mentioned) not being a concept, the songs work well in unison to produce a cohesive whole, and are well structured in themselves. Both Mick Pointer and Rob Sowden, who I’ve previously considered the weaker links in the band’s sound, but in career-best performances, the former going successfully for a harder and faster style, the latter putting in amore measured performance, actually helped by the fact that his voice is further back in the mix than on previous albums. The production (by Clive Nolan only this time around) is excellent, retaining the heavier edge introduced on Contagion but adding further clarity to the mix.

All in all, this is a very strong release from Arena, and one would hope that it furthers their appeal – although whether it actually will is a moot point.

Ed's Review

Quite a few people have asked us why we haven't reviewed this album earlier. Well, there's a couple of reasons. First of all it helps if the concerned band or label makes one or more promo copies available so we can actually start reviewing an album prior to its release. In this case we haven't received any yet. We were approached about advertising on our site in early February but since we prefer to refrain from any advertising on the site we suggested a Round Table Review and competition instead. No reply so far.

Since I'm translating some articles for the Arena fan club The Cage every now and then I did get a promo copy (after having to ask for it) so I finally was able to hear and review the album. However, since I like to listen to an album several weeks before actually committing myself to reviewing it, it has taken some time to get this one ready.

As background information, I have always had a bit of a love-hate relationship with Arena. I have been one of the earliest members of The Cage and have all of the band's albums. As far as I'm concerned the band follows a recognisable pattern of releasing a classic album (Songs From The Lions Cage, The Visitor, Contagion) followed by an 'okay' album (Pride, Immortal, Pepper's Ghost) followed by a questionable live album. I also have to add that although I considered The Visitor a real milestone when it came out, not all of it has stood the test of time.
Unlike their studio work I have disliked Arena's live performances for some time. For some reason they do not seem to be able to recreate the same level of quality as they reach on their studio outings. Especially the dodgy playing by Mick Pointer has always been a major annoyance for me resulting in not going to any Arena live performance anymore.

The band's new CD, Pepper's Ghost, is not a bad album, but it's not a classic Arena album either. It seems like Clive Nolan is running out of inspiration. The whole album is one big Aha-Erlebnis. You constantly find yourself thinking 'where have I heard this before ?'. Some songs sound almost identical to passages of other Arena albums (e.g. the opening of The Shattered Room is almost extremely similar to a song from Contagion) while others recreate the atmosphere of the Casino album Nolan did with Geoff Mann (sections of The Shattered Room) while other exceptionally dark passages remind me of Nolan's work with Shadowland (e.g. Tantalus). Maybe Clive has found a way to release the more dark work of these mentioned bands in the new Arena CD. If so, it might actually be a good decision, since it would save us from another highly disappointing album like the third Shadowland CD.
The only thing really 'new' about this album is the slightly heavier edge that the band has developed. As such, like the previous albums this new CD opens with a rather up-tempo and heavy piece (Bedlam Fayre) and this tempo and volume is maintained for most of the album.

Besides this lack of real innovation, another thing that is starting to get on my nerves is the 'over performing' vocal work by Rob Sowden and lyrics and vocal arrangements by Clive Nolan. It gets a bit tiring having to listen to all these albums where vocalists sing like megalomaniacs trying to dominate the world but instead are on the verge of breaking into tears. I like a theatrical performance but it's getting a bit overdone with Arena.

Another major complaint about the album is the production. Two year's after the release of Contagion I have realised that one of the biggest strengths of that album is the brilliant production and mixing. Contagion feels very open and you seem to hear every little detail of every instrument. This 'open sound' is mostly absent on Pepper's Ghost, which sounds very cramped with sounds and at times it's hard to hear certain instruments or make out what is being sung. At times what comes out of the speakers seems to be one big compact block of noise. Especially Smoke and Mirrors suffers from this, but there's many other moments where it's hard to make anything out. Which is a shame because there's quite a few fine bass lines which will be hard to hear for the average listener.

I recently saw an interview with Roger Waters about working with younger bands. He said that these bands often make the mistake of 'putting too much in and not leaving enough space', while the most popular Pink Floyd albums had lots of space and resting points in the music. Pepper's Ghost also suffers from lack of space, making it a rather exhausting experience to listen to. Even the vocal harmonies, which I normally adore, are overdubbed so many times that it's not longer pleasant to the ears.

And of course there's the big epic that seemingly needs to be present on every prog album. Lately I get more and more apathy towards big epics because it often seems to be much more a goal in itself than the outcome of spontaneous song writing. This often results in the presence of very mediocre segments or too much repetition. Now, combine that with a completely over the top arrangement featuring opera singers - opera's one of the few types of music I fiercely dislike - plus an unhealthy dose of Arena pretentiousness and you'll get Opera Fanatical.

Having said all of this this, the album does have some fine moments, among which Bedlam Fare, parts of The Shattered Room and the acoustic sections of The Eyes of Lara Moon. The latter being one of the few instances where the band seems to try something different. There's also quite a few great guitar riffs and solos, but often used in songs that are otherwise not all that interesting (e.g. the riff in Tantalus, the mid section in Purgatory Road, the riff in the opening section of Opera Fanatical).
The album artwork deserves a big thumbs up. I haven't seen the complete booklet, but I've seen enough of the work that's present in the booklet to be really impressed. David Wyatt, the artist who was also responsible for Contagion was commissioned to turn the band into characters out of a comic and the whole artwork is therefore actually a comic book. All quite cool, but I would rather have a great album in a dodgy packaging than the other way around.
Die-hard Arena fans will without a doubt be delighted with this album (there seems to be very little that cannot please them) but the average progger might well be disappointed. I would suggest these people stick with Contagion or even Immortal? instead.


TOM DE VAL : 9 out of 10
ED SANDER : 7 out of 10

Thereon - Liguria / Sirius B

Therion - Lemuria / Sirius B
Country of Origin:Sweden
Record Label:Nuclear Blast
Catalogue #:27361 12950
Year of Release:2004
Time:Liguria 42:21
Sirius B 57:05
Info: Thereon
Samples:Click here

LemuriaL Typhon (4:36); Uthark Runa (4:41); Three Ships Of Berik – Part 1: Calling To Arms And Fighting The Battle (3:19); Three Ships Of Berik – Part 2: Victory! (0:46); Lemuria (4:15); Quetzalcoatl (3:47); The Dreams Of Swedenborg (4:58); An Arrow From The Sun (5:54); Abraxas (5:21); Feuer Overture/ Prometheus Entfesselt (4:38)

Sirius B: The Blood Of Kingu (5:45); Son Of The Sun (5:35); The Khlysti Evangelist (5:38); Dark venus Persephone (4:02); Kali Yuga Part 1 (3:27); Kali Yuga Part 2 (5:48); Wondrous World Of Punt (7:19); Merek Taus (5:31); Call Of Dagon (4:14); Sirius B (3:44); Voyage Of Gurdjieff (The Fourth Way (5:56)

Swedish outfit Therion have been around since the late 80’s; initially they were a fairly standard-issue death metal outfit, but as the 90’s wore on they soon developed a far more entertaining style – bombastic, symphonic power metal that is probably best described, in rather over-simplistic terms, as someone akin to Iced Earth meets Nightwish. Albums such as Theli, Vovin and Deggial soon garnered the band a large fanbase. Things have been quiet since the last studio effort, 2001’s Secret Of The Runes, and it is soon apparent why, once this album (or strictly speaking, albums), is placed in the CD player.

For reasons best known to themselves, Therion have essentially released Lemuria and Sirius B as two separate albums that just happen to be packaged together, rather than as a double album. There seems no particular reason for this; both albums are conceptually similar (with lyrical themes that are, in the main, based around myriad myths and legends) and share similar artwork and personnel (the former, by the way, is excellent, and is by Thomas Ewerhard, a man well-known in prog circles for his work for the likes of Enchant and Threshold). The albums are available separately, but I can’t imagine anyone wanting one and not the other, and as the double pack sells for only a fraction more than one of the single discs cost, you’d be foolish not to plump for that.

One look at the credits page should let any unsuspecting listener know that Therion are not the sort of band to play any sort of stripped down modern metal; nor indeed do anything by half measures. Joining the core trio (Christoffer Johnsson (the main songwriter and undisputed band leader) and Kristian Niemann on guitars, and bassist Johan Niemann) are not just the usual suspects (drummer, keyboardist etc.) but also what appears to be the entire City of Prague Philharmonic Orchestra, plus the many voices of the Kühn Mixed Choir. At well over 150 personnel all told, this cannot have been a cheap option for Therion, but its one that pays off handsomely, with both orchestra and choir fully (and imaginatively) utilised on each and every track. Therion also take a different tack than many other bands when it comes to lead vocalsists. Whilst they do employ a couple of ‘standard’ male metal singers (including Mats Leven of At Vance), these are use used sparingly. Much of the lead work is actually handled by a number of classical vocal soloists, both male and female, handling a variety of ranges (soprano, alt, tenor and bass). This wide range of vocal armoury really adds an extra dimension to the band’s already expansive sound.

Although it’s the shorter disc by quite a margin, Lemuria probably sees Therion utilise a wider variety of styles than its companion. The opening Typhon is reminiscent of the sort of melodic death metal for which Therion’s homeland is famous for, complete with effective death grunts from Johnsson; the delightfully Spinal Tap-esque call to arms Three Ships To Berik is also reminiscent of such ‘battle metal’ luminaries as Rhapsody, and the title track is a rather mellow, laid back number with echoes of the likes of Pink Floyd and Clannad, although its somewhat let down by Piotr Wawrzeniuk’s poor lead vocals on the chorus. The Dreams of Swedenborg, meanwhile, has a chorus that’s reminiscent of 80’s hard rockers such as The Scorpions, whilst the tight industrial riffing and rather deadpan delivery of the (German) lyrics of closing track Feuer Overtüre / Prometheus Entfesselt inevitably give preceedings something of a Rammstein-esque feel. Unsurprisingly, however, it’s the tracks where the band stick to their traditional strengths that Therion really excel at, with the likes of Uthark Runa, An Arrow from The Sun and Abraxas all being gloriously bombastic and anthemic additions to their canon.

Sirius B is perhaps more straightforward, but its no less entertaining; in fact, probably more so. The only track that really sees Therion stretching beyond their usual repertoire is the lengthy, rather drawn out Wondrous World Of Punt, which features some great Hammond and Church organ playing, but is ultimately a bit confused and directionless. Elsewhere though, the band are frequently at their best on this disc. The Blood Of Kingu and Son Of The Sun provide a great 1-2 punch to kick the album off; the former coming on like Iced Earth crossed with Bizet’s Carmen (I kid you not!), and the latter featuring an excellent spiralling lead riff that Iron Maiden would be proud of, and an anthemic chorus that works all the better for being sung by a female soprano (Anna Maria Krawe, who is perhaps the standout of the classical vocal soloists) rather than a screeching male metal singer. Dark Venus Persephone weaves a slightly darker, gothic atmosphere into the mix, whilst the two-part Kali Yuga is a nine minute epic that sees the band switching pace and mood constantly, yet managing to meld together the diverse elements into a cohesive whole (there’s some great massed chanted vocals on this one too). The title track is a nicely atmospheric, mainly instrumental track with good semi-acoustic guitar work and imaginative use of chanted vocals again, whilst Voyage Of Gurdjieff wraps everything up, an ultra-fast power metal romp that recalls the likes of Hammerfall – not my personal favourite, but then one of the best things about this album is that it runs (and therefore caters for fans of) the whole gamut of what you could loosely call ‘traditional’ metal.

To conclude, then, Therion have certainly come up with a highly entertaining, typically ambituous and bombastic slice of symphonic power metal here. If I was nit-picking I’d say that this could probably have been condensed to a single CD, with a few tracks being surplus to requirements, but then that’s hardly the point is it? Besides, even the lesser tracks have something entertaining to offer. With traditional power metal making something of a world-wide resurgence, and symphonic, gothic metal with female vocals experiencing a real boom, Therion seem well placed to capitalise on both, and fans of either style would be advised to check out Lemuria / Sirius B pronto.

Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10


Mike Keneally Band – Dog

Mike Keneally Band – Dog
Country of Origin:USA
Record Label:Exowax Recordings
Catalogue #:Exowax 24046
Year of Release:2004
Info: Mike Keneally Band
Samples:Click Here

Tracklist: Louie (6:37), Bober (6:47), Splane (2:59), Pride Is A Sin (4:54), Simple Pleasure(1:56), Physics (1:35), Raining Sound (2:16), Choosing To Drown (4:54), Gravity Grab (3:33), This Tastes Like A Hotel (15:15), Panda (4:51)

Mike Keneally is an exceedingly talented guitarist and keyboard player, whose career has seen him work with a large number of artists, most notably Frank Zappa (Keneally was a member of Zappa’s last touring band), Steve Vai and his own “big band” project Beer For Dolphins. The CD to hand is the first recorded outing of his new outfit – Mike Keneally Band – featuring Nick D’Virgillo (Spocks Beard) on drums, Rick Musallam on guitar and vocals, and Bryan Beller on bass.

Though the instrumental prowess and tightness of the band as a unit is apparent from the start (and most of you will already know how talented Nick D’Virgillo is) the CD is a tricky item to pigeonhole as the bulk of the material evinces a singular, skewed approach which is quirky to say the least and, on twisted ditties like Gravity Grab, is downright odd. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as most of the songs have their own unique charms and can prove quite addictive.

For all the apparent strangeness (down, at least in part, to the obvious influence of Frank Zappa), there is an undeniably accessible, commercial sensibility at work, making the tunes instantly likeable, leaving the quirky time signatures, twisted melodies and frankly bizarre lyrics to slowly make their presence felt over repeated listens. If I had to label this, the nearest I could get would be Art Rock, with Zappa/Rundgren/Godley & Creme/Steely Dan/Gentle Giant and Echolyn being the likely progenitors.

Louie, built around a grungy grumble of a riff and topped with startling falsetto vocals has quite an Echolyn feel but also has splashes of Sparks (in the vocals) and a measure of Todd Rundgren. It’s an impressive opener and bodes well for the rest of the disc. Bober is a gentler track, with hidden depths. The tune insinuates itself into your brain and the peculiar lyrics will stick there too. As with most of the tracks, the vocal arrangements are particularly fine, showing lots of invention and innovation.

Splane is currently my favourite track, with a hummable melody and a slick production style that would be at home on a Steely Dan album. There is something very likeable about this one, but I can’t quite say what it is. Pride Is A Sin is the closest we come to a straight ahead rocker, with a funky Hendrix opening and a strong central riff and a tough vocal performance on the forceful chorus. There is still room for plenty of quirky little touches though. The guitar playing is superlative.

Simple Pleasure is a complexly structured little tune that has more than a touch of Gentle Giant about it. Cramming an awful lot into two short minutes, it is anything but simple, but is highly pleasurable. Physics is a frantically paced instrumental which manages to marry Gentle Giant-ish guitar with techno beats. It’s a busy track, but great fun.

Raining Sound has a lot of the white reggae feel of The Police, particularly in the percussion department. Choosing To Drown begins with a twisting, intricate riff and gets weirder from there, and is the closest thing to a Zappa tune on the whole CD. Gravity Grab has a lounge jazz style for a peculiar little tune which is Zappa meets 10CC/Godley & Creme. Very odd!

Though there is nothing ordinary on this disc, just when you think you have got the measure of it, along comes This Tastes Like A Hotel which quickly turns all your expectations on their heads. A sprawling 15 minute monster, this is a chaotic sound collage of snippets of all kinds of weird noises, orchestral blasts, techno beats, jazz interludes, heavy riffs and many more flavours – it’s like a messy sketch pad of sound doodles and is definitely a curates egg. I like some of it and appreciate the experimental nature of the beast but ultimately, it fails to hang together as a coherent work. Though it’s a long time since I heard it, I think it has something in common with Zappa’s Lumpy Gravy i.e. its a difficult listen but one that may well be rewarding if you persevere with it. It is nothing like any of the other tracks and seems out of place on the CD.

To finish, we are back with a much more accessible tune in Panda. I love the vocals on this one and it’s a nice gentle, almost commercial way to end the disc.

Hotel aside, there is a lot to like on this intoxicating CD, but its quirks and foibles make it something of an acquired taste, so I think it falls just short of being DPRP recommended, but if any of the above has aroused your curiosity, I strongly suggest you try the samples on the above link. You’ll find the lyrics there too. Incidentally, the CD is also available in a special edition which comes with a NTSC DVD. I did not get this in my review package, so I can’t comment on it further.

Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10


Signs - Source Code

signs - Source Code
Country of Origin:The Netherlands
Record Label:Indpendent
Catalogue #:-
Year of Release:2004
Info: Signs
Samples: Click here

Tracklist: Phenomena (7.07), The Kings Of Disneyland (5.50), Knots & Tangles (9.28), Scanner (5.26)

Signs can trace their roots back to the time I was leaving home for University - 1987! Two demo tapes (cassettes in those days!) brought them solid reviews that attracted the interest of a record company SI Music. Sadly a last minute cancellation of the deal meant the band lost momentum and Signs' members decided to call it quits in 1992 - about the same time as I got my first proper job!

Keyboardist Marcel Faas went of and focussed on the top 40 cover band circuit while guitarist Ron van der Park and bassist/vocalist Hans de Graaf joined forces in Mr Slammer who enjoyed success as opener for Dutch rock legends Golden Earring.

It took another decade before the Mr Slammer pair decided that their real love was actually Signs. It was 1991 - the year I got my second proper job - that a call to Faas opened the door to a resurrection. Drummer Bert Vliegen completed the 'new line-up. Now it's 1995 - the year I will move into semi-retirement - and the band have made a welcome return to the scene with the release of a new four-track demo entitled Source Code (not Source Cod as mentioned in the band's bio!).

Anyway that's enough of the history lessons. Now you know who Signs have been, what you want to know is whether Signs 2005 are any good?

Well, it does take a few spins but this quartet has a pretty listenable take on traditional Prog Rock. Hans de Graaf is a good bass player and vocalist with a good range of tones to his voice and a pretty accent-free diction. Ron van der Park can certainly twiddle those strings, and there's a consistent but not over-bearing keyboard later throughout.

Opener Phenomena has a clear social slant with lyrics that offer a view on the Twin Towers episode and the murder of a Dutch politician. It is fairly standard neo-prog but with a great high-pitched guitar solo and a decent melodic hook. The second track has a greater drive and stronger guitar influence that builds nicely - but the song itself doesn't really go anywhere. Knots and Tangles is the 'epic' track, seemingly touching on some space/sci-fi theme. It's here that Van der Park is given plenty of space to show off his guitar skills and the whole song has a very Marillion/Ricocher feel to it. The final track Scanner features some cool bass work and is a more straightforward rocker that with the opening track works best for me.

It's a sound firmly entrenched in the 80's but it has a modern touch that stops it from being dated. There are samples of each track plus mp3s from their 1991 demo Private Eyes available on their website. For fans of Enchant, Ricocher, Pendragon and Fish-era Marillion this is certainly worthy of a closer look.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10


Specimen 37 - The Endless Looping Game

Specimen 37 - The Endless Looping Game
Country of Origin:USA
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:-
Year of Release:2004
Info:Specimen 37
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Awake With A Shock (2:06), What Is Life? (6:05), Monday (7:05), Blow Things Up ! (5:44), Logging On (9:00), Downcast (4:55), Thursday Morning Jogger (8:11), Helix (4:02), Twilight (6:43), The Endless Looping Game (6:5), Randy And The Gogzies (7:37)

I have to admit the title of Specimen 37's most recent release did fill me with a sense of foreboding. "Endless looping", is this really something to be covered in a progressive rock ezine? However the title is misleading, and is more a comment on the concept of the album, rather than the style of the musical content. Therefore what does unfold on this album is a varied programme of material and ideas - in fact, such is the diversity of the material that it took several listenings merely to become acquainted with the band's overall sound. And that sound combines dark atmospheric textures, driving rock rhythms, tasteful guitar, thoughtful and often observant lyrics, spoken dialogue - all of which are wrapped up in a distinctly modern style. A style that is not afraid to be loud or quirky, or laid-back and "in the groove". A comparative is offered on CD Baby :- " Psychetronic Rock for Mind Expansion. Pink Floyd-influenced modern rock with overtones of Nine Inch Nails, Ozric Tentacles, Tool, and Mr. Bungle".

Boston based Specimen 37's second release The Endless Looping Game conceptualises one man's week of experiences dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday life, from the simple and tedious, to the contemplative machinations of life itself. Our man (specimen) fears "he'll never find meaning in a world that seems to turn on an axis of meaninglessness, and in this chapter of the specimen's life, it's never clear whether or not he finds hope". To pursue this 'week' musically the band employ not only their chosen instruments, but an array of sonic and atmospheric sounds along with a multitude of sampled effects (radio/tv announcements, telephone conversations, weather reports etc). The band also craftily merge many musical genres - Techno grooves - NuMetal - Ambient textures - Electronica - "Post grunge aggression" - and all of these mixed together gives Specimen 37 their unique sound. To cover the varied programme of material on the album would be nigh on impossible as each track seldom stays with the same idea from start to finish (not something you might expect from the album's title). So instead I have chosen to isolate one block of songs that appealed to me.

So to look at the diversity of the tracks we will start with the longest piece Logging On. A repeated piano motif opens accompanied by atmospheric sound effects, then followed by a melodic Satriani-esque guitar solo over quirky variations in tempo. But once the solo is played we never return to it! Next phase of the track is the vocal sections interrupted here by a "conversation" before returning to the chorus. The outro is comprised of tremeloed guitar and psychedelic spacey vocals reminiscent of early Floyd. Phew! Logging On is then segued into Downcast which after the opening "noise" moves into a grooving rock track, with effected vocals. The lyrics are particularly biting here, well befitting the song. Once again the track is segued, this time into the more ear-friendly Thursday Morning Jogger a gentle keyboard backwash is the setting for the whispered spoken vocal and the almost continuous laid-back guitar fills.

So is it all good? Well there were certainly areas that troubled me and despite the many runs through of the CD I didn't feel that The Endless Looping Game had a consistent flow. Consequently this made listening to the album as a whole a less enjoyable experience. The challenging nature of the music ended up being its strength and its weakness. Now some may not agree that music that is constantly provoking is a weakness - there are many great examples to sustain this point. Ultimately the decision rests with you.

As I approach the summation of this review I am conscious that I have not mentioned any of the musicians or discussed their individual and overall contributions. This maybe because none of the musicians are mentioned by their real names (so what), or perhaps as it is not entirely clear who contributes what to what. But mention should go to Empathy's guitar playing which acts as the cohesive element to the music. I particularly liked those tasteful guitar passages, which like the music covered many styles. The rhythm section of Mojonine (drums) and Sketch Element (bass) who came up with some great grooves and driving rhythms. Vocally the album is a bit of mixed bag, but certainly the music contains many catchy melodies along with the quirkier half sung - half spoken ones. Finally there are the synths and samples that bind the music and concept together.

So at the end of the day the burning questions for me were - is it progressive, is it rock and does it combine the two cohesively? Overall I would have to say yes it does, but certainly not in the traditional sense of progressive rock as I have encountered in the past. The album is a definite grower and once I got passed the fact that it was not going to be the usual "20 minute, Mellotron drenched epic in 7/8" that prog is (isn't it), then the album's own merits emerged. So if you are searching for something different, challenging and distinctly modern in its feel, but not forsaking originality, then The Endless Looping Game could be the one.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10


TriPod - TriPod

TriPod - TriPod
Country of Origin:USA
Record Label:Moonjune Records
Catalogue #:MJR004
Year of Release:2003
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Jerome’s Spotlight (2:51), Trip the Light (4:10), Dance of the Kabuki (6:56), Prelude (0:56), No Diamond Cries (3:28), East Flatbush (0:49), Buzz (3:17), Smoke & Mirrors (4:50), Conversation Drag (3:59), World of Surprise (2:24), Ghosts (2:08), Fashion (5:13), Fuzz (6:57), As the Sun (7:35)

I have an idea for a new progressive-rock group. I’m sick of the traditional drums-bass-guitar-keyboards instrumentation, so my group will feature only an accordion, a kazoo, and a xylophone. That’ll make people sit up and take notice!

Well, it’s just a thought. But I’ll confess that it’s a thought I have whenever I read or hear about a new group that proudly eschews traditional instrumentation. I mean, if drums, bass, guitars, and keyboards were good enough for, say, Led Zeppelin, The Who, Genesis, Yes, The Beatles – not to mention, oh, pretty much every other great band in rock history – well, why not hang on to them? The White Stripes be damned; I think those four instruments sound great together. Now here we have TriPod, “America’s newest and most unique music attraction – a hard-rocking trio with no guitars or keyboards!” (as their promo letter boasts). Vocalist Clint Bahr plays 12-string bass and bass pedals; joining him are drummer Steve Romano and saxophonist/clarinettist/flautist Keith Curland. And do you know what? It all sort of works. Their sound is never going to be a favourite of mine, and I doubt it’ll catch on with many other groups or fans, but the good news is that TriPod are not simply trading on novelty; they write some pretty interesting songs, and their playing is well worth listening to.

The first few times I put on the CD, I’m afraid I didn’t get more than a few minutes into opening track Jerome’s Spotlight before giving up. Does anyone remember jazz saxophonist Ornette Coleman and his “harmolodic funk”? Well, I have only one Ornette Coleman record, and I doubt I’ve listened to it in the last decade, but it came flooding back to me as Curland’s wacky saxophone playing swirled around in that track. Bahr’s eccentric vocal stylings don’t help much, either: if you think of King Crimson’s Elephant Talk (from their great 1981 album Discipline), you’ll get a very rough idea of the kind of singing to expect in Jerome’s Spotlight and, indeed, several other of the tracks on this album. But it’s worth your while to persist through and beyond that song; others on the album are more listenable, less off-putting (at least to those of us who cling to old-fashioned ideas of melody). World of Surprise, for example, has something like a standard descending chord progression in the verses, and Bahr’s singing is actually quite tuneful. But here, as in every song, you have to prepare yourself for Coleman-ish saxophone blasts every so often – to my ears, perhaps too often.

I’ll admit that the songs on this album offer surprising variety, given the restrictions the band has imposed on itself with its instruments. (Incidentally, the members claim to find their instrumentation rather freeing than restricting: Bahr is quoted in the promo letter as saying “It really opens up the harmonic possibilities, not being tied down to the typical chord progressions.”) Ghosts is a fine, if short, atmospheric piece without vocals, a nice break before the energetic early-King-Crimson-sounding blast that is the beginning of Fashion. And there are other brief but lovely interludes, too, notably Prelude, a minute-long flute-and-clarinet piece that put me in mind of some of Bill Lee’s quieter music for the film Mo’ Better Blues. That song segues into a beat-heavy rock song (although, despite the promo letter’s claim, I still find it hard to think of TriPod as a “rock band”), No Diamond Cries, whose propulsive 4/4 beat and methodical bass/sax riffing provide some welcome grounding to the predominantly eccentric songs that make up most of the album.

Will you like this CD? I don’t know. It’s fresh, it’s inventive, it’s way out of the mainstream – and it has one of the worst covers I’ve seen in years. The CD stands out in all ways. If your taste in progressive rock tends towards the jazzy, even the funky; if you prefer to challenge your ears with novelty rather than to reward them with pleasing melodies; if you listen to music predominantly, or largely, to hear interesting playing by talented players – well, TriPod’s album may well be for you. I can’t imagine that I’ll play it much, and I think that many would agree with me about the weaknesses I hear in it, but I can easily imagine the band appealing to those with ears more adventurous than mine. I can’t help thinking that adding a guitar might help them cut back on the sometimes frantic-sounding cramming of almost every space with (admittedly inventive) bass playing, drumming, or sax/clarinet/flute solos, but maybe that would just compromise their vision. And conformists these guys aren’t.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10


The Future Kings Of England -
The Future Kings Of England

The Future Kings Of England -<br>The Future Kings Of England
Country of Origin:UK
Record Label:Backwater Records
Catalogue #:OLKCD011
Year of Release:2005
Info:The Future Kings
Of England
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Intro (1:01), 10:66 (7:46), Humber Doucy Lane (8:56), Silent And Invisible Converts (7:30), October Moth (3:48), Lilly Lockwood (8:18), The March Of The Mad Clowns (3:35), Pigwhistle (14:00), Outro (0:48)

The Future Kings Of England instrumental debut CD is a sprawling post-space rock epic. The British trio consists of Simon Green (drums), Ian Fitch (guitar, effects and xylophone) and Karl Mallett (bass guitar and effects) and on this album the band is assisted by Steve Mann on keyboards.

The music on this album is a blend of famous and notorious bands like Pink Floyd, Van Der Graaf Generator, IQ, Ash Ra Temple, Tangerine Dream and Porcupine Tree. It really is music to get high to and at some moments it is jawdroppingly brilliant, while at other moments (too many) you almost fall asleep out of boredom.

The first real track 10:66 truly reminds me of the legendary Floyd during their Meddle-period; featuring long spacey guitar solos, short relaxed, cool narrative parts and extremely melodic guitar passages. Humber Doucy Lane goes on too long with the same guitar riff over and over…. Here The Future Kings really bore the listener with endless looping elements of space rock and syncopated rhythms. Lilly Lockwood starts dreamy, but after 2 minutes it evolves into a rather heavy song with guitar riffs similar to Porcupine Tree, whereas the middle part is a complete cacophony of sounds going nowhere actually.    

The longest track on this album is again very spacey and dreamy, but I sadly miss some really good musical solos, as this one again is mostly filled with soundscapes and psychedelic musical nonsense. However if you like the bands I mentioned in the beginning of this review then I would advise you to give this album a chance ...

Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10


Les Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites -
Friesengeist : Part One

Les Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites - Friesengeist : Part One
Country of Origin:France
Record Label:Musea
Catalogue #:ETCD47/GA8677.AR
Year of Release:2004
Info:Les Nouvelles
Lectures Cosmopolites

Tracklist: Ballade D'Ambroise Le Malchanceux (3:29), Out Of Mind (5:52), Des Pierres Sous La Lune (1:48), Sismes (5:30), Der Geist Des Waldes (4:48), Décomposition Poétique (1:14), L'Immeuble Désaffecté (2:02), Dance Of The Frozen Spirit (6:11), Les Égouts (8:56), Ici, Nul Ne S'Affronte (3:25), Ballade D'Ambroise Le Malchanceux (3:25), A Place For Me (3:10), Forbidden Spaces (2:47), Une Gravure Fantastique (2:01), De L'Intérêt D'Être Un Hydne (4:41)

Les Nouvelles Lectures Cosmopolites, the brain child of French musician Julien Ash, have been going for over 15 years producing albums whose musical palette stretches from "industrial chaos to elegant neo-classicism". Friesengeist - Part One is the first (obviously!) volume of a conceptual saga, although my poor linguistic abilities prevents any interpretation of the actual concept as the mixture of languages employed (French, German, Dutch and English) is beyond me, and I imagine most other listeners comprehension. Still, the vocals, as they are, are largely employed as a narrative device being spoken rather than sung. As such, the emphasis is largely on the music. The expansive range of styles and diverse nature of the music make Friesengeist an interesting way to spend an hour although unfortunately I found the album failed to flow, each track incongruous and separate from its predecessor giving individual musical vignettes as if taken from the soundtrack of a film and thus only making complete sense within the concept of the film.

The nature of the album makes a track-by-track review rather pointless, particularly considering there are 15 tracks ranging from the lengthy Les Égouts (atmospheric mostly keyboard instrumental largely based on a drone) to the seventy-four second Décomposition Poétique (melodic string quartet). In between there is everything from the prominent didgeridoo on Sismes, to the drum machine driven Dance Of The Frozen Spirit and the acoustic Ballade D'Ambroise Le Malchanceux. Most of the album is of a more sedate nature, although the tempo is raised slightly on A Place For Me and Forbidden Spaces although neither piece really stands out as essential listening.

Overall, this was rather a strange album. I found the whole rather too disjointed and altogether rather bland. The press release that accompanied the album states that Ash has "taken care not to fall in the trap or hermetic aestheticism or dry experiment" but on the whole I wished that he had.

Conclusion: 5 out of 10


Album Reviews