Reviews in this issue:
- Ritual - Live
- Flamborough Head - Tales Of Imperfection
- Bright - Bells Break Their Towers
- Show Yen - II
- Thuja - Pine Cone Temples
Ritual - Live
Disc 1 [59:17]: Vision Quest (3:24), What Are You Waiting For (3:36), Typhoons Decide (5:41), Really Something (3:39), Moomin Took My Head (4:13), Infinite Justice (6:25), Humble Decision (4:03), Once The Tree Would Bloom (4:01), Did I Go Wrong (5:43), Think Like A Mountain (4:49), Solitary Man (10:08)
Disc 2 [55:40]: Dinosaur Spaceship (5:54), Explosive Paste (4:46), Acoustic Medley (8:38), Mother You’ve Been Gone For Much Too Long (10:31), Do You Wanna See The Sun (5:27), Big Black Secret (7:32), Seasong For The Moomin Pappa (10:45)
It seems almost common practice these days for a live project to be released in DVD format. Not so this set which comes in the form of a double CD, so there’s no need to sit in front of a TV screen for 2 hours to enjoy the show. The album was recorded during the band’s 2004 European tour, with the songs taken from different gigs. The set runs for just under 2 hours, and includes songs from the three previous studio albums, Ritual (1995), Superb Birth (1999), and Think Like A Mountain (2003). They are each fairly well represented here, especially the last album. The band’s music has been described as “Swedish progressive folk”. If that’s difficult to picture, then consider a style that includes elements of folk, hard rock, space rock, and progressive rock with Eastern and North African influences. This combination gives the band quite a unique sound, although I was often reminded of Led Zeppelin at their most eclectic as the album progressed.
Lead vocalist and guitarist Patrik Lundström is the band’s obvious focal point. His rapport with the audience between songs has warmth and sincerity; this is a man who clearly enjoys his music. He is possibly just as well known as vocalist with symphonic prog band Kapia, although I’m not entirely convinced that his voice works in that setting. Here, he is given far more freedom to express himself, which he uses to his advantage. His distinctive high vocal has been compared to several singers, and I would add Dave Lawson the original vocalist and keyboardist with UK prog band Greenslade to that list. If I give the impression that this is a one man band then I’ll redress that by stating that Patrik receives superb support from Fredrik Lindqvist on bass, bouzouki, mandolin, tin-whistles and backing vocals, Johan Nordgren on drums and percussion, and Jon Gamble on keyboards and harmonica. The album has a clean and clear sound, effectively capturing the atmosphere and dynamics of a live show.
Disc one gets off to a fairly low-key start with the ambient instrumental Vision Quest, full of mystical eastern overtones. It dovetails seamlessly into the rocking What Are You Waiting For from the last album. Patrick asserts himself from this point on with Robert Plant like vocal gymnastics and spirited guitar. The busy support from the rest of the band is one of controlled aggression. With its conspicuously catchy chorus, Typhoons Decide revisits the first album, and includes skilful interplay between guitar and violin courtesy of keys. A pounding riff, Freddie Mercury style vocal phrasing, and a U2 bell like guitar tone gives Really Something from the band’s second album a commercial edge. Moomin Took My Head has bags of charm and a childlike (as opposed to childish) quality. The heavy rhythm and proggy synth solo half way through contrasts strongly with the rest of the song. The forceful Infinite Justice has an infectious Jimmy Page style riff and a majestic chorus. This is possibly my favourite song on the set.
A brief introduction to the band members from Patrik is followed by Humble Decision. This is a melodic song resplendent with string samples, mandolin, and an excellent choral refrain. The band remains in acoustic mood for Once The Tree Would Bloom, although this time with an Eastern flavour. A return to the second album for the bass dominated Did I Go Wrong, with its edgy atmosphere. Think Like A Mountain has all the hallmarks of King Crimson at their most unsettling, but sadly the vocal effect used throughout becomes tedious after a while. The lengthy Solitary Man was the centrepiece of the band’s first album, and here it’s given an extended instrumental workout. Organ and a solid rhythm section impress, as does guitar for the most part, although the prolonged solo and repetitive chorus tends to drag towards the end.
Dinosaur Spaceship kick-starts disc two, as it did the second studio album, with its heavy and slightly disjointed tone. Another return to Zeppelin territory for the riff driven Explosive Paste, complete with a slightly off the wall chorus. The guitar solo has a memorable Steve Howe style slide effect. The Acoustic Medley is another highlight, made up of the folk oriented songs from the first album, including A Little More Like Me, The Way Of Things, and Life Has Just Begun. It features a beautiful instrumental section dominated by whistle and keys, followed by a glorious Gentle Giant style a capella vocal. Mother You’ve Been Gone For Much Too Long is another large-scale piece, with dramatic keyboard punctuations providing a sense a scale and drama. The playing becomes a little chaotic as they build an emotional wall of sound, but its rousing stuff with a distinctive prog edge.
Do You Wanna See The Sun is an aural delight, combining a warm sing along chorus with dramatic instrumentation. The highlight of disc two for me, and the audience clearly agree as they join Patrik for the chorus matching him note for note. Following a lyrically classical piano introduction, Big Black Secret takes off into a bombastic piece, propelled by a commanding bass line. With Seasong For The Moomin Pappa, disc two follows the lead of disc one and ends with an extended opus from the first studio album. After a graceful opening section with inventive harmonies, the song develops both musically and lyrically into a humorous variation on ELP’s Pirates. The joke starts to wear thin after a while, concluding with a Message In A Bottle Sting parody against a backdrop of Yes style atmospherics. A bizarre ending from a band that is anything but predictable!
Although the band integrates a variety of styles into their music, the approach to song development is straightforward, with the emphasis on songs that are concise and structured. The musicianship remains solid for the most part, with momentary lapses as a reminder that this is a live recording after all. It’s the changes in mood and style that catch the listener out, and is comparable to riding a rollercoaster blindfolded. It’s exhilarating stuff, but you’re never sure which way it’s going to turn next. If you’ve yet to sample the music of Ritual, then this release would make a good starting point.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Flamborough Head - Tales Of Imperfection
Tracklist: For Starters (2:24), Maureen (11:58), Higher Ground (6:55), Silent Stranger (10:29), Captive Of Fate (8:05), Mantova (8:37), Year After Year (3:12)
Tales Of Imperfection is the fourth album by Dutch band Flamborough Head, their first in over three years and the second featuring the line-up of Margriet Boomsma (vocals, flute and recorders), Marcel Derix (bass), Eddie Mulder (guitars), Koen Roozen (drums and percussion) and Edo Spanninga (keyboards). Although not familiar with their previous album, One For The Crow, by all accounts this latest release carries on in the directions first explored on that critically acclaimed release and taking it one step further. Good news for early 70s prog aficionados as there is a lot on this album that harks back to that classic era. One wonders how much influence the praise heaped on Spanninga and Mulder's instrumental side project Trion with its brilliantly retro look and sound had on the writing of the new Flamborough Head material?
With five of the seven tracks over the seven-minute mark, there is plenty of scope for the band to stretch out and develop themes and moods, particularly with two of those seven tracks being instrumental. Indeed, over a third of the album is instrumental. That doesn't mean that the band are having second thoughts over employing Boomsma as vocalist, she does an admirable job as a singer and, possibly more significantly, she adds texture to the music with her wonderful flute and recorder playing. Throughout there are overtones of Camel and Renaissance, although they are more a reflection of the style of music than overt pastiche. For Starters is an evocative instrumental opener with slide guitar and recorder setting the atmosphere. A piano leads into Maureen which expands into classic prog territory with flute, symphonic keyboards and a crisp and clear guitar. Lyrically linked to the cover art, it sets off the theme to the album, the 'imperfect' world we live in. Although Maureen deals with perceived imperfections, the impossibility of matching the (mostly false) images portrayed by the glossy media, the other songs touch on imperfect relationships (Silent Stranger), global inequalities (Captive Of Fate) and the arrogance of mankind (Year After Year).
The recorders are out again on Higher Ground which features a hauntingly beautiful melody line and nicely mixes acoustic sections with a fuller band sound. Cleverly, the arrangement transforms the melody line from sounding plaintive and rather subdued at the start of the song to concluding with a more optimistic air, adroit musicianship indeed! Final instrumental, Mantova is a more straight forward piece of music, very upbeat and nicely playing the guitar and keyboards off each other. Not too sure about the (brief) reggae-ish vibe in the middle though!
Silent Stranger is possibly the weakest song on the album, there is nothing inherently wrong with it, just that it simply doesn't flow as well as the other compositions. That doesn't prevent there being some fine individual performances on the song and the jaunty, Jethro Tull-ish section approximately seven minutes in certainly caught the attention. Much more cohesive is Captive Of Fate where Mulder really gets to display his talents both as a guitarist and as a backing vocalist - nice harmonies and altogether a very good song. Concluding song, Year After Year is a three minute wonder. Great keyboard sound and expressive guitar solo that seems to end on a question mark rather than a definitive statement making it all the more intriguing.
On the whole, Tales of Imperfection is a very strong album that carefully blends different styles. Falling just short of a DPRP recommendation is not any great criticism of the album, just a reflection of the general readership of the site. Personally I was sufficiently inspired to shell out hard cash to investigate their back catalogue, perhaps that is recommendation enough?
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Bright - Bells Break Their Towers
Tracklist: Manifest Harmony (5:29), An Ear Out (11:52), Flood (6:46), Receiver (4:29), It's What I Need (9:28), Secret Form Of Time (5:34), Bells Break Their Towers (12:16), Night (9:14)
Bells Break Their Towers is the fifth release, and the first in six years, for Brooklyn based "minimalist, melodic ambient rock" duo of Mark Dwinwell (guitars, vocals & keyboards) and multi-instrumentalist Joe LaBrecque - collectively known as Bright. Here joined by Michael Torres (guitars & violin), Mike Cory (guitars & bass), Jay Dubois (percussion & bass) and Nat Longcope (guitar & noise guitar). Now the term "minimalist, melodic ambient rock" may not immediately conjure up a great deal musically, but as I listened through the tracks on this album I found that it pretty much captured Bright's music.
According to the press literature Bright entered the studio for Bells Break Their Towers and literally composed and performed the music there and then - I suppose this is what gives the music it's organic and unconstrained sound. Some overdubs were added later, however the music's live feel is certainly retained. Built up around ambient drones, Krautrock rhythms, repetitive loops, and with a mixture of delayed guitars, worded and wordless vocals and the atmospheric drumming of Joe LaBrecque, each of the tracks builds in intensity. I assume for fans of this genre, that this trance inducing progression is a primary attraction, however I found myself longing for the "release" of this tension, and development along another path. With half of the album's tracks clocking in at around, or over the ten minute mark, there were times when the music became a strain to listen to. The saving grace for me was that it remained melodic and didn't just drift into a meandering self-indulgent jam session.
Pick of the bunch would be Flood and Night which were the less intense tracks and featured some nicely intertwining guitar motifs, played on acoustic and electric guitar and with E-bow like sustained sounds. Although the multi-layered, swirling vocals of the 60s tinged, psychedelic Manifest Harmony certainly has a charm; or the ever intensifying SpaceRocky An Ear Out managed to hold the attention throughout. And certainly the remaining tracks are not without their merits.
I do not profess to having any great knowledge in this area, however possible pointers would be Can and Neu!.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Show Yen - II
Tracklist: Sakura I (1:15), Life game (5:15), Ceremony For The Evil (5:22), The Moon Knows Everything (6:39), Insanity (4:17), Sakura II (1:26), Quappa (3:58), Kirin (3:58), A Thorny Path (4:48), Sakura III (1:31), The Power Of The Earth (8:25), Sakura IV (1:38), [I Can] Rock’n’Roll Again (4:56)
Show Yen are a Japanese trio who describe themselves as playing ‘instrumental progressive hard rock’. Actually this isn’t bad description of their sound, with the emphasis predominantly on the ‘hard rock’ side of things; however it should also be made clear that this is also very much a guitar-dominated album, so if the idea of an album full of a six-string virtuoso strutting his stuff leaves you cold, you had probably better jump to the next review.
Having said all that, guitarist Yasuhiro Nishio (who – I noted unsurprisingly after hearing just a minute of the first track - wrote all the material here) plays in a more melodic style than many guitarists within this genre; sure, there are more lengthy, soaring solo’s than you can shake a stick at, but – with a few exceptions (the rather tedious The Power Of The Earth being one) - these don’t sacrifice melody for showmanship, and tend to make for a relatively painless listening experience. Joe Satriani is an obvious influence, but perhaps a closer parallel can be drawn to the work of the lesser-known Michael Harris, not least because, like Harris, Nishio melds traditional hard rock style playing with an obvious love of progressive bands such as Rush and Dream Theater.
Nishio is ably backed by a tight rhythm section of bassist Hiroaki Fujii and drummer Naoki Itoi, and together the trio produce some solid hard rock grooves, with the likes of Kirin and [I Can] Rock ‘n’ Roll Again rather evocative of the likes of late 70’s UFO and Van Halen (both of course bands which featured a somewhat extrovert guitarist!). Elsewhere, Life Game has a slightly darker edge, The Moon Knows Everything is a slower, more considered piece allowing the band to branch out a little, and the short Sakura pieces see Nishio handling acoustic guitar, and playing in a more restrained style, a little reminiscent perhaps of Steve Hackett.
Overall then, not an album to get wildly excited about, but within its genre this is a solid, well played offering which for the most part steers clear of muso over-indulgence and is a pleasant, undemanding listen.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Thuja - Pine Cone Temples
Disc 1 [53:33]: Track (0:51), Track (10:27), Track (3:49), Track (18:38), Track (9:44), Track (10:02)
Disc 2 [39.57]: Track (13:26), Track (26:31)
Before embarking on this review I would just like to give some insight into how we at DPRP go about the task of reviewing the material we receive, and something I had to remind myself of prior to this article. In a nutshell - carefully listen to the material several times to become accustomed to the music and the style of the performers - make some notes. Try to offer some insight as to the musicians and their history, without merely quoting or paraphrasing their own literature. Write the article and leave it for a week or so. Re listen to the album and see if your thoughts are still the same.
Well on this occasion these guidelines have been thrown out the window. Why? Well as much as I tried there is only so much ambient plinky-plonky nonsense I can take in one go, and it certainly doesn't extend to one and half hours. Second rule infringed by way of the first quote from the literature which states Thuja are :-
"A loose-knit assembly of like minded sound ecologists who study the connections between their immediate environment and the music created by its players."
Well our ecologists are Steven R Smith, Rob Eger, Glenn Donaldson and Loren Chasse. No instruments are listed after the band member names as this is fairly superfluous to this creation. I have also avoided using the word music, purely as this does not IMHO apply to anything on these two CDs. Mr Smith appears to be the primary driving force here - he has been producing albums under his own name for circa 10 years and this is Thuja's 10th release (period 2000 - 2005). Along with this there are several releases with Hala Strana, Mirza and contributions to The Birdtree, The Blithe Sons and The Knit Separates. All of these are totally unknown to me. The recordings that make up this two CD set were recorded during the period 1999 and 2004. Right a little background on the band - done!
Now for my third digression and another quote:-
"By incorporating real-time recordings of natural sounds from their particular surroundings, the four members of Thuja play off each other and the space they inhabit with impeccable instinct, succeeding in creating eerie yet strikingly melodic compositions. The end result is a total immersion of the senses, for both the player and the listener. Across the grand expanse of Pine Cone Temple's two discs, implements such as piano, guitars, percussion, and well-placed contact mics are blended like pigments to conjure the subtlest of sonics, pulling every lost drop of their immediate universe into floating and buzzing cinematics. Minimalist hues are brush-stroked into being and slowly unfurl into the atmosphere. Improvised clouds of sound softly erupt to form compositions of such immense and precise detail, it would seem the music was written out rather than spontaneously developed."
Sounds impressive, well certainly the description is, however the resultant offering certainly isn't. Now I gather from the literature that Thuja record their work in different environments (outside, inside, in forests, streets, large empty rooms, etc) with ambient microphones capturing the outcome of their interactions (I avoid the word playing). Now it is possible, above the natural ambient noise picked up by the microphones, to hear occasional drones, or the odd sounds from such instruments as a piano, guitar, dulcimer (I think) and assorted percussion, along with "natural elements". However there is NO form, development or progression apparent in these seemingly random environmental experiences. And despite the inclusion of the word "melodic", which appears in the above descriptive, there is none to be found here. Lastly, (and from the write-up), if this "music was written out rather than spontaneously developed" then I'd love to see them score this out.
It should be noted that no track titles appear on the CD sleeve, hence each piece is noted as just - "track". Not that there would be much point in naming the tracks, although I can imagine they would be as impressive as the write up.
Personally I view this as a totally worthless piece of work, bereft of any semblance of musical integrity. Now I apologise to those who can see some value in this offering, but I just cannot hear anything remotely credible in Pine Cone Temples. Some may ask - why review it at all then? Two reasons, firstly to try and contra the numerous positive and well written reviews I've read about this drivel on the web, and secondly by way of a warning to any curious music lover. But even in my warning I sense those with an enquiring mind wondering - can it really be that bad?
Conclusion: 1 out of 10
Why 1 out of 10? Because we don't have a 0 in our ratings scale!