Reviews in this issue:
- Moon Safari - A Doorway To Summer
- The Phoenix Foundation - Pegasus
- Little Tragedies - Return
- Eloy Fritsch - Landscapes
- Indukti - S.U.S.A.R.
- Kinzokuebisu - Momijigari
Moon Safari - A Doorway To Summer
Tracklist: Doorway (11.36), Dance Across The Ocean (7:30), A Sun Of Your Own (9:19), We Spin The World (24:52), Beyond The Door (6:40)
What's that old saying, saving the best 'til last? Well in the case of Moon Safari that may just be the case as their debut album, A Doorway To Summer, may just be the freshest thing I've heard all year. Formed in early 2003 in the north of Sweden (yes another Scandinavian band!), within a month the group had entered a recording studio and laid down demo versions of four songs. Within four months they had noted Flower Kings keyboardist Tomas Bodin knocking at their door eager to take on the role of their producer. Two years down the line and the results of the collaboration are finally released on the remarkable A Doorway To Summer.
The five-piece group - Simon Åkesson (lead vocals and keyboards), Petter Sandström (lead vocals and some acoustic guitar), Anthon Johansson (guitars and backing vocals), Johan Westerlund (bass and backing vocals) and Tobias Lundgren (drums and backing vocals) - have produced a light and breezy, almost summery album that is simply a joy to listen to. The fact that all the members are credited with singing may provide a clue to the fact that the album is replete with harmonies and gorgeous melodies. From the opening of Doorway with its acoustic guitar, piano and harmonica, a mellow vibe is set. As soon as the harmonies start the impression is set that one is in for something a bit special. The group concentrate on getting the mood right and, quite rightly, don't go all out to impress the listener with technical prowess. Prog purists will be thrilled with the vintage keyboard sounds adding a dash of 70s nostalgia to an otherwise contemporaneous album.
Dance Across The Ocean has more hooks than a riverbank of fishermen and an arrangement to die for (Yes would do well to take note) while A Sun Of Your Own is nigh on perfect in every way, demanding too many superlatives to warrant a more in-depth review!. Epic track We Spin The World has a slightly heavier beginning but the tempos chop and change throughout the 25 minutes. Despite the duration, the song never seems to lag, with new ideas and themes popping up along the way and instruments changing from acoustic to electric and back. Album closer Beyond The Door is prefaced by a simple yet evocative piano solo. The song itself reprises the opening theme from Doorway bringing the album full circle, it is as if the first song posed a question, the last providing the resolution.
A Doorway To Summer is the perfect anecdote to the darkness and cold of short winter days. It is amazing that a young band could come up with an album of such maturity, that it is their debut makes it all the more impressive. This album has the potential to catch the imagination of a wide cross section of people and yet still remain dear to the progressive rock community. When was the last time that happened? (For a debut album you'd probably have to go back to Mike Oldfield's Tubular Bells!) My only complaint is that, even though it lasts an hour, it over too quickly!
Conclusion: 10 out of 10
The Phoenix Foundation - Pegasus
Tracklisting: 1. The Morning Pages (2:13), All In An Afternoon, (3:14), Hitchcock (3:30), The Posh Tiger (2:41), Through The Woods (4:18), Cars Of Eden (7:15), Damn The River (2:06), Sea World (3:44), Slightest Shift In The Weather (5:36), Nest Egg (4:34), Twilight (2:58)
Okk, I’ll admit prejudices and say that yes, Phoenix Foundation are one of my favourite bands, and yes this album is likely to top my list for 2005.
The Phoenix Foundation (TPF) from Wellington, New Zealand are hardly a prolific band. Pegasus, their second full album comes two years after their LP debut Horse Power in 2003. A six piece band consisting of Warner Emery, Will Ricketts, Samuel Flynn Scott, Richie Singleton, Conrad Wedde and Luke Buda (his hard to find EP has just been re-released on SlowBoat Records). Stylistically Pegasus is a mix of alt-country, a bit of dub, a bit of ambient, and very strong on melody, with tinges of prog, and that’s a description the band themselves use!
Performance-wise TPF are difficult to capture, long gently meandering songs suggest early Tull, Ryan Adams’ folk-pop sensibilities, and possibly even a little Dylan. Live, the band have a slightly chaotic feel, there’s always a hint that things are getting away from them – but it all seems to hang together. In the studio producer Lee Prebble seems to have been able to keep things together, resulting in a tight yet relaxed album.
The album opener, The Morning Pages is a gentle guitar/vocal number that eases the listener into TPFs approach to song writing. Things get poppier on the next track, All In An Afternoon (currently getting a reasonably amount of air and video play), a gentle pop song about a boy who meets a girl who ‘could drive a man to murder’ and TPF explore where that relationship goes, very catchy song.
Hitchcock, starts with a Theremin solo, followed by a monster guitar hook and more Theremin. Great stuff. An absolutely gorgeous instrumental that gradually builds to an grunge-style guitar solo. The Posh Tiger is more alt-country with gently twanging guitars leading smoothly into the next track a love song, with a haunting and menacing backing track.
Cars of Eden is the ‘long’ track, clocking in at 7:14, lots of keyboard in a Mark Kelly subtle background style (think Brave, but cheery!). Damm The River is an upbeat, driving rhythm song. Great favourite live and full of delicate guitar work that contrasts with the meaty bass line and drums by Warner, Richie and Will. Unlike many prog bands, TPF know when to stop. This kickass song stops at 2:06, although live it just going and going which works live, but would get very boring on CD. Another instrumental, Sea World, is followed by another longer piece Slightest Shift In The Weather (5:36) a haunting country-esque song dealing with isolation. A theme that fits nicely with the sparse arrangement. Nest Egg is more up-tempo with some great piano and a very catchy chorus – again a live favourite.
The highlight for me is the gorgeous final track Twilight, with piano and Francesca Mountfort on ‘cello. Play it quiet, scotch in hand. Perfect.
So who is this album going to appeal to? It’s actually quite a tricky question, some bands that could be used as reference points: Ryan Adams, Breaks Co-Op, early era Porcupine Tree, No-Man, even a hint of recent Mark Knopfler, but really this album is quite different. In keeping with a lot of prog (and there are hints of prog throughout this album), the album is greater than the individual tracks. Pegasus is a great album, interesting, delicate yet punchy, no wonder it’s sold so well in New Zealand. The problem is getting people outside of NZ to hear it. Do yourselves a favour, buy this album. With most currencies being stronger than the NZ dollar it won’t break your bank!
After the opening to the review, I doubt anyone is surprised when I give this album a nine out of ten. It’s great.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Little Tragedies - Return
Tracklist: Dreams [part 1] (5:59), After Death (8:58), Credo (12:57), In The Deserted House (4:33), Games (6:23), Neoromantic Fairytale (5:07), The Clever Demon (7:12), Canzona (5:38), Return (6:09), On The Themes Of Grieg (10:59), Dreams [part 2] (4:11)
Obviously inspired by (but not slavishly imitating) Emerson Lake & Palmer, as well as Russian Neo-Classical music, Little Tragedies, lead by keyboard virtuoso Gennady Ilyin, have produced a very impressive and inventive conceptual album of Art Music of a high calibre.
Whilst often recalling ELP, and also The Flower Kings and After Crying, Little Tragedies forge their own identity, largely due to the strong Russian flavour which often permeates the epic, grandiose music presented here, and also the use of saxophone. The lyrics, based on the poetry of Nicolai Gumilev, are in Russian, and this is perhaps the only stumbling point of the album. I admire their intentions, and personally wouldn’t want it any other way, but the Russian language does sound strange to western ears, and may prove hard going for some. It would perhaps have helped to have a translation of the poetry.
It is the music which is most important though, and the album constantly surprises, alternating sweeping orchestral melodies (Dreams [part 1], In The Deserted House), with more full on, intense prog rock epics (Games, The Clever Demon). Perhaps the highlight is the large scale Credo, which thunders along for 13 minutes and manages to blend the best of ELP with some hard and heavy prog-metal riffing. Wow!
On The Themes Of Greig is another strong piece, which is reminiscent of Hungarians After Crying, with bold themes confidently hammered out by keys and guitars, to terrific accompaniment by the rhythm section. Quirky, folkish melodies rub shoulders with dramatic themes for a frequently startling musical journey.
The sound is sharp and clear throughout, and Analog instruments help capture the retro-prog sound of the 70’s the group clearly love.
Not wanting to labour the ELP comparisons, as LT do throw quite a few unique elements in, I nevertheless feel that this CD is primarily going to appeal to ELP fans. But it is better than anything ELP have done for many a year. If you never liked the 70’s giants, it’s unlikely that this Russian twist on the style will do much for you. For the many fans of classic albums like Tarkus and Pictures At An Exhibition, you should love this bombastic feast of instrumental virtuosity and dexterity, in a melange of Neo-Classicism and Symphonic Prog which manages to breath new life into an old style in convincing fashion.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Eloy Fritsch - Landscapes
Tracklist: Landscapes (7:27), Teleportation (4:46), Andromeda (6:08), Science Fiction (5:28), Somewhere In Time (3:31), Cartoon (4:40), Run Through The Light (3:21), Oasis (3:29), Escape (4:08), Imaginary Voyage (3:56), Top Of The World (2:50)
Eloy is a keyboard wizard from Brazil. Originally in the band Apocalypse he has in recent years been more focused on producing his own solo work, for which he is the composer, performer and producer. Eloy's childhood was immersed in music as his father worked for one of the local radio stations and from the age of 13 he helped out with the duties. It was during this time that he was exposed to and discovered his love for electronic music. Since this time he has completed a PhD in Computer Music and is a teacher of electronic music at Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, in Porto Alegre. On top of this, he was voted the best keyboard player at ProgDay 99 following a performance with Apocalypse. Needless to say the man is obviously talented!
This is his 7th solo CD but the first I have heard and initial impressions are favourable with the album starting well, the title track being very symphonic with a strong classical feel and lashings of fat mini-moog lead. Not totally dissimilar to some of Rick Wakeman's output in the 90's but without the somewhat cheesy solos that Rick tends to spew out.
Teleportation is even more Wakeman-ish in with it's syncopated beat and could have been placed on the Return To The Centre Of The Earth album. Again, mini-moog lead is dominating the track but there's a really lush battery of analogue strings underpinning it throughout. The production is warm with the bass end of the spectrum mixed high - that's great because there's nothing worse than tinny, thin sounding synthesizers.
Andromeda has much more of a Jean Michel Jarre feel reminiscent of the Oxygene era although when then leads are played they still make you think of Rick again. It's another good track though, pulsating sequencers and a strong melody perhaps better than the opener, well structured and again beautifully produced. Science Fiction continues in the Jarre/Wakeman vein and is another competent piece with some nice warm patches. Somewhere In Time evokes more an image of Vangelis - perhaps it's worth mentioning at this point that I don't think Eloy is copying any of these artists, rather he is very strongly influenced by them.
Cartoon is quite a departure from the rest of the CD so far, it's highly whimsical as the title may suggest and would make a good backing track for a short children's film, err, perhaps a cartoon I suppose. It reminds somewhat the sense of humour that Tomita sometimes used in his renderings of the classics although it's much more upbeat than Isao's work. Mid-track it's rather more conventional returning to the whacky theme at the end. I don't know if Eloy plays this stuff or programs it, it's very technical and precise.
Run Through The Light - no, it's not an inventive cover of the Yes track but rather a somewhat throw-away piece with nasty sampled disco bass line, a bit of a let-down after the good stuff so far. Things pick up again with Oasis and now I'm reminded of Tangerine Dream around the Optical Race period, beautiful strings here one again and it's a real pleasure to hear such wonderful sounds. Oasis continues in the Tangerine Dream mould with a pulsating sequenced intro, the Teutonic trance is somewhat broken though by more Wakeman-esque soloing - some of it very good actually and doing a fairly good imitation of electric guitar using a patch very similar to one that Derek Sherinian used with Dream Theater on Falling Into Infinity.
Imaginary Voyage is the first ambient piece on the disc and it's very nice, somewhat of an Eastern flavour without descending into cliché. Once again really very beautiful fat, lush, warm strings this time mixed with some choir. The closing track, Top Of The World is a nice outro again somewhat ambient but less so than Imaginary Voyage.
Overall this is a very nice CD; electronic music can often be sterile and without feeling but the sounds that Eloy employs are so warm and rich that this generally isn't the case here. He's an accomplished composer and a good producer, the music washing over you like gentle waves and although I wouldn't listen to it every day I'll certainly return to it from time to time. This album would surely be appreciated by anyone that likes any of the artists I have mentioned in the review and isn't a bad choice either for a prog fan looking for something a little different in their collection.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Indukti - S.U.S.A.R.
Tracklist: Freder (7:21), Cold Inside...I (4:05), No. 11812 (7:55), Shade (4:27), Uluru (6:31), No. 11811 (7:21), ...And Weak II (9:03)
Hot on the heels of the new Riverside album, comes a release that should hold more than a passing interest to any fans of these fast-rising, heavy proggers from Poland.
Boasting King Crimson and Tool as their musical guides, new Polish ensemble Indukti has put together a very fine slab of dark, heavy and often complex Prog. In places the results are quite superb.
The five classically-trained musicians that make up Indukti, have created a largely instrumental soundscape, which mixes a constant tension between violin, twin guitars, bass, drum and a host of other musical implements, including a harp and a didgeridoo.
There is a very close relationship to Riverside. Not only does a lot of the guitar work have a strong resemblance; not only do they share the same label, but this album features guest appearances by Riverside vocalist Mariusz Duda.
Most of the pieces last for around seven minutes, building up repetitive riffs and structures to increasing levels of aggression. However there are enough subtle time changes and additions to keep things interesting. Not being a great fan of King Crimson, the last two tracks are a bit too left-field for me. But the remainder of the album, which sticks more closely to Laterus-period Tool or Riverside, provides some great listening. The opening track in particular, really hypnotises with this approach. In its own right, it stands as one of my favourite songs of the year.
To retain the energy of their concert performances, the band even went so far as to record S.U.S.A.R. live in the studio. And if all that wasn't enough, the enhanced CD comes complete with a Quicktime video for the unreleased track Mantra.
I'd suggest that the band really needs to decide if it wants to retain vocals within their songs. It will certainly attract a wider audience, and if they do they really should get their own voice to avoid being labelled as mere Riverside copyists.
Overall, this is a really powerful debut, which should allow the band a solid platform to develop their sound in future releases.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Kinzokuebisu - Momijigari
Tracklist: Momijigari (17:18), Higansugimade (5:35), Ryoukiranman (9:48)
This release follows the band's debut album Hakootoko, which received a favourable DPRP review in 2003. The line-up at that time comprised Kenta Asanuma on drums, Makiko Kusunoki on keyboards and vocals, Takehiro Kojima on bass and Daichi Takagi on guitars, vocals and additional keyboards. Unfortunately, the names are printed in Japanese only on the CD inlay, so I cannot confirm if the line-up remains the same. They do however remain a four piece, playing the usual assortment of drums, bass and guitar, and an armoury of keyboards. I would guess that one, or all the above, is responsible for writing the material, but again the credits are in Japanese. The music is mainly instrumental, although all tracks feature Japanese vocals at some point.
Musically, their influences are plain to see, with a sound dominated by classic 70’s progressive rock, with a dash 80’s heavy metal thrown in for good measure. They mix these ingredients to create a concoction that is palatable in small chunks, but difficult to digest as a whole. The title track Momijigari is a good example. The piece opens with strident Keith Emerson like percussive organ, prominent bass and crashing percussion. There is a brief pause for haunting flute and strings, both courtesy of Mellotron, with a sprinkling of piano. Organ returns, now sounding more relaxed, floating on a sea of strings, for an inspired piece of playing. The organ sound and Mellotron samples are an ironic combination, bearing in mind that the ELP keys man refused to use the latter. Relaxed Mellotron strings take over to play the main theme, with a light backing of guitar and lyrical synth. The Mellotron sound has all the hallmarks of early King Crimson works like Epitaph.
With the instrumental work at its most relaxed, a light female voice enters to sing the main theme, backed by rippling acoustic guitar and bass. The vocal is engaging at first, but as the tempo rises, the singer struggles to reach the high notes. During the song section, the Mellotron curiously plays the intro from the James Bond theme. There is a sudden fast forward in time in terms of Crimson influences, as discordant guitar plays a lengthy and repetitive Starless/Red era guitar motive. This begins to grate after a while, until a gentle acoustic guitar and flute theme makes a welcome intrusion. Tarku-like synth rises from this tranquil setting, underpinned by eerie Mellotron and rasping bass. Organ takes the lead once more, and together with driving bass and percussion, returns to the opening theme to provide a suitably bombastic conclusion.
Higansugimade is propelled along from the outset with heavy metal guitar and an insistent rhythm section. The vocal this time is male, supported by angular guitar enforcing the songs sense of urgency. A lengthy and skilful Steve Vai style guitar solo is followed by waves of Mellotron over a thunderous beat. The mood relaxes with shimmering 12-string and an obtrusive bass line, before grandiose Mellotron brings the relatively short song to a close.
From the start, brash guitar riffs take centre stage in Ryoukiranman. The manic male vocal and chanted backing sounds like a Japanese attempt at punk, which does nothing to enhance the song. Neither does the deliberately shambolic bass solo. Crimson like guitar moments from Three Of A Perfect Pair on the other hand are welcome intrusions. The guitar adopts a melodic ringing tone, interspersed with more Fripp style punctuations. A thumping bass line with symphonic Mellotron strings is followed by a majestic mini-moog solo and driving rhythm. choral Mellotron comes within a hairs breath of Genesis’ Los Endos, before it is interrupted by hostile chanting voices. Heavy guitar riffs and bass take over, with the annoying vocals making an unwelcome return. A final instrumental excursion into Jimmy Page territory and metal guitar pyrotechnics, leaving hysterical voices to provide a lacklustre ending.
This album has its good points, the most obvious being the virtuoso performances from everyone involved. The arrangements unfortunately let the side down; giving the longer pieces a random and disjointed feel. Some good ideas are thrown away far too quickly, while others outstay their welcome. There is however some good melodies and themes introduced along the way. The sound is a disappointment, with its harsh demo quality. Cymbals splash, whilst the drums sound muddy and muted. Also, the attempts at humour in the last track did nothing for me. Such excesses may work on a live stage, but soon pale in the cold light of day. The repetition of past musical styles is done very well, but ultimately leaves the band with no clear identity of their own.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10