Reviews in this issue:
- The Devin Townsend Band - Synchestra
- Notabene – Notabene
- Gargamel - Watch For The Umbles
- Chardeau – Hors Portée Instrumental Selection
- Chardeau – Hors Portée Highlight
- Moonlight - Downwords
- North Star - Extremes
The Devin Townsend Band - Synchestra
Tracklist: Let It Roll (2:52), Hypergeek (2:20), Triumph (7:08), Babysong (5:30), Vampolka (1:36), Vampira (3:27), Mental Tan (2:15), Gaia (6:03), Pixillate (8:17), Judgement (5:55), A Simple Lullaby (7:09), Sunset (2:31), Notes From Africa (7:42), Sunshine And Happiness (2:35)
From the first track it is very clear what Devin Townsend means when he says: "With Synchestra the intention was to make me feel better about going that far". "...that far" refers to the other band that Devin Townsend is involved with: Strapping Young Lad. Their latest offering, Alien, was certainly a heavy train of anger and emotions. Devin Townsend states that the emotions of Alien were a bit uncomfortable, so as to put that in balance Synchestra was created.
On many tracks it sounds like Devin Townsend had real fun creating and playing them - some could even be called cheerful. There is an over the top Polka track that actually put a smile on my face (also because it is really good). Mind you that when I say cheerful I mean the Devin Townsend version of cheerful. And although Devin might call this a "light" album, but for progressive rock fans this is still heavy - although not compared to Strapping Young Lad's Alien. It is just that by Devin Townsend standards of heavy and not heavy are different from the average DPRP reader.
Still this is a very progressive album. Some tunes even reminded me of The Flower Kings. And who would have thought that besides screaming and yelling (as can be heard on Ayreon's The Human Equation) Devin can actually sing very well. The first track of the album brought that surprise. Of course he did so on previous albums but never as sweet and gentle as on the beginning of this album.
The rest of album contains the usual wall of sounds that The Devin Townsend Band tends to offer, but this time it is intertwined with even more melody lines than ever. Like previous Devin Townsend albums it is worth the effort to learn and understand the songs, to find that there is actually a lot of musicality in what at first seemed just a heavy blur of guitars. And this time it is not much of an effort: this is Devin's most accessible album to date. There is a very rhythmic flow in most of the tracks, one that makes you tap the rhythm and move your head. While most of the tracks seemed to flow into the next making it appear as one long track, the diversity of this album is one of it's greater strengths. Musically Accelerated Evolution was much more a consistent album and that this consistency is a great plus of that album but the cheery and up tempo feel that glues Synchestra together certainly also has it's attractions.
Although this is in a way a typical Devin Townsend album it contains more than enough evidence of the fact that Devin is not scared of experimenting and trying out new things. The humour of Vampolka, the lyrics of Babysong, the build-up and guitar solo of Triumph and the loveliness of Let It Roll. And that's only compared to the 'normal' Devin Townsend sound: a sound that is original and without comparison anyway. It might not be an album to everyone's taste but I don't think The Devin Townsend Band is out to please everyone, some people will just not like it. Still even those people must agree that it is quality, daring and originality that sets Devin Townsend apart from the rest. His albums receive nothing but praise and he has a very loyal following, but still many people are unfamiliar with the name Devin Townsend. Hopefully this will change with this release because The Devin Townsend Band deserves it. This is yet another release that proves the world of music is not dead: there are still people keeping it alive. Devin Townsend is one of them!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Notabene – Notabene
Tracklist: Terra Madre (6:42), Danza Nel Fuoco (6:56), Effimero Regno Di Plastica (9:11), Maestrale (7:52), Rosa Bianca (13:52), Hidden Track - Altopiano (7:52)
This is the first, self titled CD release from Italian's Notabene. Aside from the standard group line-up of guitar, bass, keys, drums and vocals, they are supplemented by violin and trumpet, to produce a style which blends the best of 70’s symphonic rock with some jazz fusion moves and a modern twist.
For those that like them, some easy comparisons can be made with PFM, and Le Orme. The energetic violin work recalls Quella Vechia Loccanda (the strident, powerful opening to Effimero Regno Di Plastica is a perfect example of this), and some of the harder edged moments are redolent of A Piedi Nudi. The trumpet leads give this CD a unique feel of its own, supplying some decidedly jazzy inserts, and a few moments which conjure up a more 60’s psychedelic atmosphere, aided by some fairly startling primitive organ sounds, which remind me of early Ange or Catharsis.
The musicianship is straight from the top drawer, with tight composition allowing each instrument equal measures of supporting, textural roles and spotlight-filling lead lines. I wouldn’t want to have to pick a favourite instrumentalist, they’re all great. The vocals, though only used sporadically, are terrific too. Andrea Alberici is in the grand tradition of powerful yet passionate Italian singers, and gives a very emotional performance. Put aside any reservations you may have for none-English vocals, and enjoy this bravura performance.
As with all the best Italian bands, complex composition and instrumental flash is never at the expense of melody and there are plenty of enticing melodies here, oozing the typical Mediterranean warmth and vivacity.
Putting aside my passion for Italian Prog, I wholeheartedly believe this CD warrants a DPRP recommended tag. It presents an ever–evolving musical tapestry, choc full of all the prerequisites for outstanding Prog Rock, but adding its own personal divergence from the norm. It should be of great interest to fans of Italian prog, symphonic and jazz fusion alike.
I eagerly look forward to their second release, which, if it builds on the foundations laid here, could well be something great.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Gargamel - Watch For The Umbles
Tracklist: Ties (8:47), Strayed Again (12:54), Below The Water (6:44), Into The Cold (11:54), Agitated Mind (17:42)
A lot of progressive bands have taken inspiration from science fiction/fantasy books even naming themselves after central characters, however, Norwegian band Gargamel have gone one step further and named themselves after a Smurf! Thankfully there are no credits on the album to Father Abraham! Formed in the spring 2001, the Scandinavian quintet originally comprised Jon Edmund Hansen (guitar), Bjørn Viggo Andersen (keyboards), Geir Tornes (bass), Morten Tornes (drums, vocals) and Tom Uglebakken (guitar, vocals, flute). In the autumn of 2002 the quintet independently released the criticially acclaimed Water EP following which they expanded their sound by adding cellist Leif Erlend Hjelmen to the line-up. Back in the studio three new songs were laid down which, combined with the EP tracks, are now released as debut album Watch The Umbles.
Kicking off with the instrumental Ties, Gargamel set out their stall and clearly display what is to come, keyboard-dominated 70s style progressive rock. Ties comes over like the bastard progeny of Starless-era King Crimson with Van Der Graaf Generator being cited as strong candidates in the paternity suit! The sound of analogue synths blend well with the angular guitar phrases and evocative cello to produce a hybrid song that borrows heavily on the past yet manages to maintain a sense of its own identity. Strayed Again utilises Mellotron and Hammond organ to set generate a rather dark and foreboding intro. The introduction of the vocals is rather disappointing as they are not really that strong and are a distraction from the music. Fortunately they don't go on for too long and are replaced by some delightful interplay between cello and flute that captures the spirit of 70s music perfectly. Moving on, the always pleasing (to me anyway!) sound of the Fender Rhodes electric piano adds some jazzy inflections before a reprise of the opening draws the piece to a close.
Below The Water, one of the tracks from the debut EP, has a musical theme similar to Strayed Again although performed at a slower tempo. It is on this track that the vocals are at their most annoying and quite marred my enjoyment of an otherwise quite engaging piece of music, even if it was very sombre. In contrast, Into The Cold is rather more upbeat with a sprightly flute and rather dreamy keyboards. The cello is once again prominent doing a great job in adding to the overall tonal quality while an unusual sounding sax provides variety. The vocals again provide a bit of a distraction, not that they are inherently bad, just rather inappropriate, somewhat superfluous and lacking in any real melody line. They do seem to be out of place, perhaps if they had been used in the faster sections of this song rather than dominating the more slower and atmospheric sections it would have been preferable. Nice final work out with electric piano amongst the instruments once more coming to the fore. The abrupt ending somehow didn't feel appropriate though. Final track Agitated Mind, the other EP number, is a sprawling monster of a song with myriad twists, turns and tempo changes throughout its almost 18 minutes. On this one the band have got it just right, the instrumentation is varied, the arrangement interesting and thought provoking and even the vocalist seems to get it right! With hints of Focus (well with Hammond and flute prominent, how could there not be?!) and even some Camel, this song shows what the band is truly capable of.
On the whole, Watch For The Umbles is an enjoyable album that gives notice that explorations into the 70s style of progressive music are not yet redundant and there is more to be drawn from this inspirational well. Although it is not the greatest debut album to be foistered upon the world, it is a statement of intent with more than enough promise to ensure that Gargamel will be a name to watch out for.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Chardeau – Hors Portée Instrumental Selection
Tracklist: Introverture (4:42), Mort Alternative (5:23), Galaxies Alternatives (5:25), Pacific Piano/Violon (3:57), Cyberwaltz (3:18), Cycle 1 (0:50), Si Tard (2:02), Tard Instrumental (5:26), Déambule (1:28), Route Alternative [4:55), Cyberspace Data (3:58), Ouverture Anll (2:57), Préambule (1:31), Trafic Nocturne: Introduction, Question, Ballet (4:47), Tres Tard/Cycle 2 (1:50), Mac Gigue (3:12), Data Pulsions Web Mix (6:31), Cycle 3 (0:41), Home Rythm (1:28), Home: Hope, Resolution, Joy, Sanctuary (10:10), Mes Nuits Instrumentales (2:23), Cycles (0:42)
Hors Portée by Chardeau has to be one of the most intriguing collections to come my way for some time. Released towards the end of last year, it is available in two versions, Instrumental Selection reviewed here, and Highlight reviewed below. They retail separately which explains the two reviews. The main difference between the two discs, as you may have guessed, is that Highlight has added vocals. However there’s more to it than that. The running order of the tracks is different, and there are certain songs that are unique to each disc. In some cases the instrumentation and mixes vary which are often in the form of an edited version of the main track. Whilst they are interesting enough, these short extracts have a tendency to disrupt the flow of the album. It would have made more sense placing them at the end as bonus tracks, or better still leaving them off altogether.
If we awarded points for presentation alone then both of these releases would deserve 10 out of 10. Each disc comes in a stylish digipack with extensive sleeve notes. It’s all in French, which put this reviewer at a disadvantage straight away. The literal translation of Hors Portée is “except range” which sheds no light. Judging by the song titles the concept behind the collection seems to be travel. You don’t need to be a Francophile however to recognise the long list of Chardeau’s musical inspirations printed on the inner cover. They include such diverse names as the Mahavishnu Orchestra, Frank Sinatra, Beethoven and Prodigy!
I can tell you very little about the man himself, except that his full name is Jean Jacques Chardeau, he plays keyboards and this is his sixth album release since 1990. He is joined by a large group of musicians giving the music a lush, big band sound. In addition to the usual suspects of guitar, drums and bass, the instrumentation includes piano, violin, flutes, saxophone, synths, Mellotron, sitar, mandolin and a variety of percussion. The presence of violinist Jerry Goodman reinforces the Mahavishnu Orchestra connection, and bassist Bernard Paganotti from French fusion band Magma is another recognisable name. Stylistically, the sound created includes progressive rock, jazz, classical, ambient electronics, techno, and world music influences. A bizarre combination for sure, but it works for the most part.
Introverture provides a fair sample of what Chardeau and his band have to offer. Piano led, it has a light jazz sound with classical flourishes featuring sweeping violin, distinctive bass work and symphonic keys. The majestic Mort Alternative continues the mood with haunting choral effects in the same vein as I’m Not In Love by 10cc. Chiming acoustic guitar, percussion and lyrical violin develop a sound similar to Jon Anderson’s To The Runner from the Olias Of Sunhillow album. The mellow Galaxies Alternatives is reminiscent of Genesis’ Driving The Last Spike to begin with. It develops into a stunning display of Fripp style atmospherics from guitarist Basile Leroux and a breathtaking extended violin solo courtesy of the maestro Jerry Goodman full of sharp and discordant notes. Pacific is a tranquil duet featuring Goodman again and the beautiful piano work of Bertrand Lajudie. In contrast, Tard Instrumental is a dynamic fusion of inspired piano and strident guitar with heavy rock overtones. It’s not all good news however. The prim Cyberwaltz will test the patience of most listeners unless you are a Richard Strauss fan, and the Jean Michel Jarre flavoured Cyberspace Data sounds like background music in search of a movie.
Ouverture Anll is more successful, recalling Vangelis at his most grandiose. A symphonic soundscape is created with orchestral keys, soaring choral effects and dramatic percussion. Route Alternative and Mac Gigue are both multi-layered guitar extravaganzas with Leroux assuming the role of a one man California Guitar Trio. The former features sparkling acoustic guitar and Floydian dynamics, and the latter echo effects with inspired Steve Howe style sitar moments. Things take a turn for the worse with the overlong Data Pulsions Web Mix, an unconvincing combination of techno dance rhythms and aggressive vocals that frankly left me cold. The inspired Home is the albums longest piece, with shades of the Mahavishnu Orchestra. A fast, repeated piano melody is joined by violin, which really takes off when sparkling Phil Collins style drumming comes on board. As wordless vocals take up the melody, the piano takes a more percussive role, leaving Goodman to turn in some fine soling. The piece is linked melodically to the opener Introverture, effectively bringing the album full circle. Unwisely in my opinion, Chardeau adds Mes Nuits Instrumentales, an otherwise pleasant acoustic guitar solo spoilt by loud snoring throughout. This I would guess is an in-joke between Chardeau and his producer, but by committing it to CD ultimately the joke is on the listener.
Had the standard of the opening twenty minutes been maintained throughout then this could have been an exceptional release. Many of the tracks have a rich, almost romantic quality, and it is these that work best. In an album of exemplary performances, it is the violin of Jerry Goodman and the piano of Chardeau and Bertrand Lajudie that really shines. True, the album feels overlong and there are moments of self-indulgence, but the many outstanding moments nudges it within a hairs width of the DPRP recommended position.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Chardeau – Hors Portée Highlight
Tracklist: La Route (4:26), Cycles 1 (0:51), Trafic Nocturne Intro (1:12), Trafic Intense: Introduction, Questions, Ballet (4:12), Mac Maudit Chéri (4:17), Pacific Sud (4:03), Caoutchouc (4:19), Cycles 2 (0:33), Si... Tard (1:59), Tard (5:24), Mortelle Mort (5:36), Galaxies Alternatives Final (1:43), Le Cinglé Des Galaxies (5:20), Déambule/Cycles 3 (1:29), Cycles (0:46), Home Rythm (1:24), Home: Hope, Résolution, Joy, Sanctuary (10:10)
Hors Portée Highlight is the companion album to Instrumental Selection reviewed above. It provides alternate versions of several of that album’s tracks, with the additional vocals of keyboardist and songwriter Chardeau being the most obvious difference. He hails from the French-speaking city of Quebec, so not surprisingly the lyrics are performed in his native language. For me personally the words are often of secondary importance so I didn’t find this a problem. The delivery is half spoken, half sung, and his warm, easy listening style is suited to the laidback atmosphere of many of the songs. This is clearly evident in the opener La Route. This takes the warm guitar textures of the original and adds relaxed, breathy vocals and is none the less effective for it. In Trafic, the strong Ian Anderson style flute work of Michel Gaucher and commanding bass lines of Bernard Paganotti are compromised in this version by the domineering vocals. Sounding curiously like Lou Reed to start, they are less effective as the tempo builds.
Mac Maudit Chéri combines the world music ambience of Peter Gabriel complete with ethnic chants, and inspired violin work from Jerry Goodman. Pacific Sud takes the beautiful piano/violin duet and actually improves upon it with a plaintive vocal backed by lush harmonies. The unique Caoutchouc is led by a solid Bill Bruford style snare sound with sweeping violin and edgy guitar interplay. The vocals are suitably confident with a strong uptempo chorus. Tard lacks the effectiveness of the instrumental version, with the percussive vocals sounding overbearing. The guitar, drums, piano and a compelling bass line still have the necessary bite however. Mortelle Mort is probably my favourite track on the whole collection. Delicate acoustic guitar, flute, piano and strings support the reflective vocal. It has a slightly different mix, which provides a more lilting feel, and this, combined with the thoughtful vocal gives it a slight edge over the instrumental version.
The melodramatic vocals work hard in Le Cinglé Des Galaxies, but its still the violin and guitar work that impresses. An extended electric guitar part replaces the violin solo towards the end and is equally as stunning. To these ears, Home sounds identical to the instrumental version with the meticulous cymbal, snare, and kick drum work of Francois Laizeau standing out. It would have provided a fitting conclusion to the album, but Chardeau may have felt that his audience were being short changed because he includes two hidden bonus songs. These are Data Pulsions Web Mix and Introverture from the instrumental album, which doubles the length of the track to over twenty minutes.
To rate this album in comparison to Instrumental Selection is a close run thing. Many of the tracks on that album have the tag “alternative”, and given that this version includes vocals then I guess Highlight could be considered to be the more mainstream of the two. This would suggest a wider appeal, but in my opinion the instrumental album has the edge by a nose. There is no denying the potency of Chardeau’s vocals however. Also worthy of special mention is the massed choral voices, although to be fair these are a feature of both albums. At the end of the day however it’s all a matter of taste and preference. I’ve made references to the excellent performances throughout both reviews, but a final mention has to go to the sophisticated compositions of Chardeau and the superior production by Richard Aubert. They give a polish to both releases that is hard to ignore.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10
Moonlight - Downwords
Tracklist: Spy (7:56), Irreversible (6:08), Pati (5:42), Into My Hands (6:40), Insomnia (6:10), My Own Words (3:59), Pill (3:09), Circus (9:29), Downwords (10:43)
When I was a young man and my first exposure to rock music was underway, I was enthralled by categories. I was addicted to categorization and I loved assigning the various albums in my collection to a particular category: heavy metal here, British Invasion there, Southern rock in the bottom drawer, New Wave on the top shelf, etc. It wasn’t until I had nearly completed my degree in philosophy, having successfully moved from Plato to Nietzsche to Zen (if that was successful movement at all), that I realized categories were really pretty flimsy. I used to consider categories to be lock boxes or hermetic containers, and once you’d dropped something into that box or that container, it was eternally classified, codified, specified, and defined. These days, categories seem, not invalid, but a lot less absolutely applicable as they once had seemed. Now, categories seem like circles with very, very porous circumferences. In the classification of music, at least, there are definitely artists and bands that sit in the centre of a categorical circle (I mean, c’mon, Lynyrd Skynyrd does NOT go into “Art Rock” or “80s Hair Bands”) but as you radiate outward from the centre, the artists within the circle and those on the perimeter don’t always fall purely into the category under consideration. Where do you put Zappa? “Post Do-Wop Psychedelic Satire”? “Faux Fusion with Adolescent Content”? Where do you put Captain Beefheart? The Beatles? And which version of King Crimson is true “Progressive Rock”? Some art is fairly well set into a genre and some art defies genres. And with Downwards, the band’s tenth full-length release, Moonlight defies (and perhaps ignores!) my effort at categorization.
That’s not to say that there aren’t some familiar sounds. If I can’t categorize the band, maybe I can describe it. Imagine, if you will, a pinch of Björk, a dash of Morcheeba, a touch of Sinead O’Connor, and Portishead to taste, mixed nicely and then combined with a hint of King Crimson, a smidgeon of Univers Zero, a dab of Sigur Ros, and even a sprinkle of Pink Floydish atmospherics, and you get some sense of Moonlight’s savoury concoction. I almost want to call it “Postmodern Prog”…eh, no I don’t…
The band members are Maja Konarska (vocals, lyrics); Andrzej Kutyz (guitars, e-bow); Kuba Maciejewski (keyboards, piano, Rhodes, samples); Michael Podciechowski (bass guitar, Rhodes, guitar, samples); Maciej Kazmierski (drums); and Marcin Bors (guitars, e-bow, Rhodes, programming, bass guitar, drums, and "wooly mammoth"). Moonlight is joined on Downwards by special guests Lukasz Matuszyk (accordion) and Marta Sochal-Matuszyk (violin). The band has been recording since 1996 and has appeared with Pendragon, Arena, John Wetton, Jadis, Deep Purple, Mercyful Fate, King Diamond, and Megadeath, among others. Moonlight is prominent within the Polish gothic performance scene, and goth motifs are certainly a major element in its compositions.
I just want cite some of the standout tracks on Downwords.
Irreversible, the second track on the disc, is probably both the harshest and the most melodic tune on Downwords. Some of the passages feature Ms. Konarska’s lovely, breathy vocals, coy but not syrupy, and other passages are bombastic and hard-hitting: I certainly liked the tradeoff between the two styles. Ms. Konarska’s singing is impressive and saves this disc from being a fierce RIO blowout; she does a very good job of maintaining the proper phrasing in English, which I’m guessing is not her first language.
Pati again features a sweet vocal and a slightly eerie, slightly fey mood that reminds me of latter-day Radiohead. However, the guitars come into the mix to provide a grinding, Frippian menace. These juxtapositions of extremely different passages can sometimes, in other recordings, be nothing but irritating but Moonlight really has mastered ambience well and all of the shifts feel natural and even necessary.
Into My Hands presents a funky, metallic bass line to begin things but soon gives way to Ms. Konarska’s angelic effort in the short choruses. I can’t say that Moonlight “swings” exactly, although there’s definitely an infectious groove here. It’s just very angular and methodical.
I can recommend Downwords without reservation, to be honest. I don’t see the album appealing to fans of more-traditional symphonic progressive rock, really, but there’s plenty here to appreciate if given a chance. Anyone who likes the bands I’ve mentioned above, and anyone who welcomes a well-managed balance of darkness and light in their music, will enjoy Downwords. I almost want to recommend the disc solely for the quality of Ms. Konarska’s vocal contribution, but that recommendation would shortchange the ensemble’s effort, which is fully noteworthy. In the end, the best praise I can give Downwords is that it improved upon each listen, even if I ultimately don’t know into which category of my CD collection it best fits.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
North Star - Extremes
Tracklist: Midnight Soldier (8:38), Star Child (4:02), Sometimes In The Suburbs (7:02), Battles Waged Before (10:13), The Form (6:57), Dr Pill's Backlash Ballroom (2:18), Unleashed (6:14), Live With Liberty (4:17), Stained Glass Door (3:41), Living On The Fringe (8:37)
Hailing from North America, North Star have been plugging away and their music endeavours for nigh on 30 years seemingly without troubling the compilers of lists of best selling albums. Indeed, they seem to have made little impact on the progressive world in general, even their own website is devoid of any in-depth information. This is a pity as Extremes is a decent enough album that is sure to find many a fan in the progressive rock world. This is the band's fifth album, the last, Tempest, having been released in 2000. The group has maintained the same line-up as on their debut release in 1982, namely Dave Johnson (guitars and bass), Joe Newnam (vocals), Glenn Leonard (drums) and Kevin Leonard (keyboards, bass).
First up we can confidently bypass the record labels comparison of Emerson, Lake and Palmer as being typically misleading and although similarities with Genesis may be a trifle more accurate, it is not a major comparator and Newnam's voice is far from Gabrielesque! So what do North Star sound like? Well, pleasingly, after so many years in the business they have forged their own sound, although whether Extremes is representative of their earlier releases I am not able to say, having not heard them. The keyboard sound is derived from older generation synths which may be dated but is not dating - the music maintains a freshness that is often lacking from some bands that try just a tad too hard. It is evident that the years of playing together has bought about a familiarity with each of the musician's style and technique. Hence the album flows, has plenty of space and is not littered with a surfeit of solos or attempts by band members to unduly show off their obvious skills.
Leonard, K's keyboards take prominence throughout the album, although that is not to say that the guitar is pushed out altogether, even in tracks like the instrumental Stained Glass Door which is predominantly keys and drums throughout most of the track has room for a rather engaging guitar solo at its end. Elsewhere Johnson makes his presence felt with important with some proficiently structured solos and rhythmic and melodic contributions, particularly on album closer Living On The Fringe and Sometimes In The Suburbs. I was not too enamoured with Newnam's vocals, possessing a timbre that didn't really gel with me. However, that comes down to personal preference, he can certainly sing in tune and although not possessing a wide vocal range he makes the best use of what he's got without straining outside his range. Drummer Leonard is quite busy throughout and tends to keep away from standard patterns and fills which makes for interesting listening.
At over an hour long the album does suffer from a dip in the middle. Nothing too drastic but one certainly is left with the impression that the beginning and ending are the strongest parts. Perhaps a bit of pruning may of helped. However, that is a minor criticism and overall Extremes is an enjoyable album by four competent musicians who have a trick or two up their sleeve.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10