Reviews in this issue:
- Combination Head - Combination Head
- White Willow - Signal To Noise
- Hermetic Science – Crash Course
- Akacia - This Fading Time
- Eloy Fritsch - Past And Future Sounds
- The Black Noodle Project – Play Again
Combination Head - Combination Head
Tracklist: Clover Rd A B C (9:52), Devonshire Crescent (2:58), Combination Head (5:03), Blue Waters (2:34), The Bonk (5:03), Clover Rd D E F (4:23), Fourteen (3:52), For What? (4:18)
What do M People, S Club 7, B*Witched, The Corrs, Blue, Geri Halliwell and Cher all have in common, apart from the fact you never expected to see any of their names on this site? The answer is producer and keyboardist Paul Birchall, who has recorded singles with them all. Now, before you scroll down to the next review and I lose you, I’ll quickly redress the situation with the names Keith Emerson, Jon Lord, Eddie Jobson, Gary Brooker and Vangelis. To my knowledge, Birchall has not worked with any of them, but his affinity for their style is captured on this debut album. He is one third of Combination Head, with Keith Ashcroft taking care of both guitar and bass duties, and Paul Burgess on drums and percussion. Ashcroft and Burgess have been around a bit themselves, with the drummer being best remembered for his work with 10cc, Jethro Tull and Camel. Birchall has a creditable side to his past as well, having worked extensively with jazz-fusion guitarist Gary Boyle (ex Isotope) and Jim Diamond. Combination Head are proclaimed as a prog rock fusion trio, which is a fair description I guess. Obvious comparisons would be ELP and UK, but this work has a more modern sound thanks to Birchall’s slick and glossy production.
This is an all-instrumental album with Birchall responsible for all compositions, with the exception of three tracks co-written with Ashcroft. Several tracks curiously take their titles from street names, references from Birchall’s past perhaps, or did he simply flick through the A to Z for inspiration? The opener, Clover Rd A B C is as the title suggests split into three parts, each with their own distinct mood, providing a perfect start to the proceedings. A short atmospheric piano introduction blossoms into a stately symphonic sound with digital keys against a hypnotic widescreen organ backdrop. The bass and drum playing is suitably understated but at the same time clear and prominent in the mix. The music is so smooth it wouldn’t be out of place on the soundtrack of the next Bond movie. It flows seamlessly into the up-tempo middle section with sweeping guitar taking over lead duties and a strong melody. Mellotron like washes provide an atmospheric soundscape, with dynamic organ flourishes and Vangelis flavoured spacey synth sounds. Another change of pace for the final part, which features bluesy Clapton style guitar and a laidback Hammond sound that brings the work of Gary Brooker to mind.
The mid tempo Devonshire Crescent lays down an incessant guitar melody doubled by organ. This develops into a jazzy Hammond solo, and features some impressive proggy keys and guitar interplay. Dramatic cascading keys introduce Combination Head, with its rich rhythmic organ sound. An aggressive Jon Lord Hammond sound dominates offset by bubbling synth atmospherics evoking Vangelis’ Spiral album. An inspired lightning fast guitar solo with bombastic metal overtones demonstrates its not all one-way traffic in favour of the keys. The only down side is the drum sound, this time courtesy of Phil Knight, which is energetic enough but lacks dynamics. In complete contrast, Blue Waters is a pastoral classical solo piano piece providing a gentle, reflective mood. Purple to Chopin in one bound! The crisp and sprightly tone of The Bonk is supplied by swirling synth sounds and a repetitive organ riff that comes close to Jethro Tull’s Living In The Past. Tranquil interruptions are provided by moody jazz like guitar and warm bass lines. The only drawback for me is the mechanical drum sound.
Clover Rd D E F will strike an instant chord with ELP fans. The nimble organ and synth work brings Karn Evil 9 to mind, with Burgess playing his part laying down a rich Carl Palmer like tom-tom sound. It develops into a glorious wall of sound created by muscular keys work and guitar straight out of the same stable as Manfred Mann’s Earthband and Argent. A compelling slice of prog that ends all to quickly. Fourteen is a modern light jazz and orchestral fusion piece in the same vein as the work of Craig Armstrong. A spiralling harpsichord like synth sound and programmed drums dominate. The album closes on a high note with the majestic For What? Unselfishly, Birchall allows the lyrical guitar work of Ashcroft to take centre stage from the start. The soaring melody of this mid tempo piece put me in mind of Andy Latimer’s work with Camel. Lively drumming, this time from Carl Hutchinson, and inspired bass work feature strongly. Not to be completely out done, Birchall produces a cool Jan Hammer style keys solo to provide a fitting conclusion.
A promo copy of this disc first came my way in March of this year and I’m happy to report that in the intervening months my opinion hasn’t changed. True, it may seem a little on the short side by present day standards, certainly for followers of The Flower Kings at least. However, at 38 minutes it has the same playing time as Yes’ Close To The Edge, and there can be no finer endorsement in my book! I believe Birchall has made a wise decision here, with the economical timing allowing the band to deliver a potent musical punch before you even begin to miss the vocals. Birchall, Ashcroft and Burgess play with consummate skill throughout, and the production quality blows just about everything else I’ve heard recently clean out of the water. The sound is mature and sophisticated, and given half a chance, it could even give prog a respectable name once more amongst the uninitiated! If you like prog with polish, where vocals are not a prerequisite, then this is for you. If you yearn for the days when the sound of the Hammond was keyboard king then it’s an absolute must!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
White Willow - Signal To Noise
Tracklist: Night Surf (4:12), Splinters (8:36), Ghosts (5:49), Joyride (4:19), The Lingering (9:25), The Dark Road (4:17), Chrome Dawn (7:13), Dusk City (6:06), Ararat (1:35)
I certainly haven’t been badly-off for promo CDs to review in recent months. Normally that would mean that the arrival of an album from a band like White Willow, would mean it simply getting passed on to be reviewed by someone who knows a lot more about this sort of thing than me.
However the cover provoked my curiosity and so I slipped the promo into the CD player just to see exactly what White willow sounded like before I pooped them into the post. Almost an hour later, I was still there listening to the fantastic music that was coming out of the speakers!
On that basis, the album never made it into another envelope and Signal To Noise has been a favourite selection for my quieter moments of musical endeavour ever since. What follows therefore is a review from someone who has next to no reference points for this sort of music and someone who has never before heard a single track of White Willow's music. I hope therefore, that my recommendation at the end, holds even greater weight.
To set this in some sort of context for existing fans, according to the band:
‘The album was recorded in three weeks, in contrast to our usual one-year-of-recording policy. This is reflected in a leaner, more band-oriented sound, and more focused song-writing. The band foregoes some of the hard rock elements of the previous record, while still retaining the force and intensity typical of the band's current incarnation, and blending distinct symphonic arrangements with a contemporary, direct attitude.’
Signal To Noise is White Willow's fifth studio album and the first to feature new singer Trude Eidtang. She is the first big attraction to this album for me. Her voice and especially the use of harmonies is absolutely fantastic. The musical love-child of Tori Amos and Kate Bush, her command of the melodies on the first two tracks in particular, provides an awesomely beautiful listening pleasure.
The keyboard work from Lars Fredrik Frøislie will be the reason to buy this for progressive fans. He certainly uses the full repertoire of atmospheres, tones and textures from (according to the notes) a Mellotron M400S, Hammond C3, Mini-Moog, ARP Pro-soloist, Fender Rhodes and Hohner Clavinet, as well as some modern pieces of kit.
The constant presence of flute and other woodwind instruments gives an intermittent folky feel to the album. The sound is as clear as a Norwegian winter’s sky and producer Tommy Hansen has really given a lovely warm feel to this disc.
Song-wise there really is a huge variety on offer. The fantastic Night Surf starts off all mysterious, before twin harmonies and flute builds the song slowly but very surely, sucking the listener into a powerful and addictive chorus. Track two opens with a Marillion-esque guitar run and continues to offer neo-prog guitars and keys around another beautiful melody. In sharp contrast Ghosts is an oddball instrumental that, from all the electronica present within, must have a few reference points to King Crimson.
Another highlight is to be found within Joy Ride where one moves from a jolty verse (think Björk) to a smooth chorus (think The Corrs) and onto a beautiful bridge (think Kate Bush). The whole thing is wrapped in a plethora of moods but with a consistently happy vibe.
There’s another beautifully brilliant vocal melody and exquisite harmonic bursts as you liger through The Lingering, alongside some very tasty guitar work from Jacob Holm-Lupo. Then continuing the rich variety, you are taken along The Dark Road, which is a actually a pretty straight English folk song done in a singer/songwriter style. This touch of predictability adds a nice bit of stability to the album, being a clever piece of track ordering.
The only time my dislike of widdly prog makes a visit to the 'skip' button a possibility, is on the guitar-led instrumental Chrome Dawn. Combined with Dusk City, which follows, the album does go out with a bit of a whimper. The vocal melody here isn’t anything like as good as on the opening few tracks, and the short outro piece, Ararat, is a disappointing way to close what has until then been an amazingly high-quality product.
That apart, this is a hugely fulfilling album that will keep the progheads content, whilst having the potential to appeal to music lovers from a very wide field. This really is the sort of album that should be appearing somewhere in the end of year DPRP Top 10 – it’s that good.
If like me, you’ve never given this band a go before, then after a few spins of Signal To Noise, you’ll be wondering what else you may have missed from this White Willow back catalogue. Superb female-fronted modern Prog.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Hermetic Science – Crash Course
Disc One : Esau’s Burden (5:06), Fire Over Thule (9:27), The Sungazer (11:02), Fanfare For The House Of Panorama (4:00), Intrigue In The House Of Panorama (4:16), Trisagion (8:15), Barbarians At The Gate (4:38), Hope Against Hope (6:55), Last Stand (6:28), Lament (4:50)
Disc Two : Leviathan & Behemoth (9:51), State Of Grace (8:12), Mars, The Bringer Of War (7:08), Against The Grain: Part 1 (6:36), Part 2 (5:29), Part 3 (4:51), Part 4 (3:34), La Bas (7:55), Raga Hermeticum (8:54), En Route (6:44)
This gargantuan collection (running at over 2 & ¼ hours) is the ideal introduction to the American progressive rock group Hermetic Science. In fact it contains all the original material from their first 3 albums, dropping only the cover versions included on the first two releases, so unless you can’t live without hearing them tackle ELP, Curved Air & Rush, this souped up collection is your best bet.
This is my first exposure to the musical talents of Ed Macan, the Mallet Percussion / Keyboards player at the heart of the group, though I have read his entertaining and informative book Rocking The Classics which is required reading for the serious prog fan. This year also saw the release of Ed Macan's long-awaited, long-delayed ELP Musical Biography entitled the Endless Enigma: A Musical Biography of Emerson, Lake and Palmer.
Nigel Camilleri has already provided us with detailed reviews of Prophesies and En Route which I find gel nicely with my own experience of the material, so I will concentrate on the first, self titled album. Originally released in 1997, its tracks can be found as tracks 1 -4 and 6 on the first disc of this collection.
This debut work from the band is even more esoteric and individual in character than its two successors. I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have heard any other bands that sound quite like this. The primary focus of the music is Macan’s considerable skills as a Vibes player, with Marimba, Glockenspiel and Tubular Bells (now where have I heard those before?) all getting plenty of exposure. Bass and drums underpin all of the tunes and are provided either by Andy Durham and Joe Nagy or Don Sweeny and Michael Morris. On three tracks, an ethnic twist is added by Sitar and Macan occasionally adds a ten string Lyre to the mix. This can hardly be considered standard fare, even for progressive rock, known for its eclectic and adventurous nature. Most of my, limited, exposure to Vibes, is in jazz and jazz fusion, but what Ed Macan plays here is much more rooted in a rock based format. Stretching somewhat for a comparison, Hermetic Science sound a bit like an ELP from some distorted parallel universe.
Much as I admire the adventurous spirit, and instrumental dexterity at play here, I’m afraid that I never really warmed to the music all that much. There is a dry and academic air to much of the proceedings, and the tracks do begin to sound very similar to each other. What at first delights for its uniqueness and novelty, becomes at last a bit of an albatross around the group’s necks. I am reminded of a Monty Python sketch where John Cleese, at first enjoying some ethnic instrumentation, is driven finally to shout “Shut That Bloody Bazooki Up!!” I wouldn’t quite go that far here, and indeed on the later two albums, Macan does introduce plenty of more conventional keyboards into the mix.
To be fair to Macan and his group, I do think that Hermetic Science is a worthwhile project, and should be heard by any adventurous prog fan, but ultimately, it is perhaps best swallowed in small doses, and there’s far more here than I could stomach in one sitting. I do see myself hanging onto the discs and playing them once in a while, and I’m sure that a small amount of listeners will absolutely flip over it, but its appeal is surely pretty limited.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Akacia - This Fading Time
Tracklist: Mystery (9:46), DesCartes (5:38), Another Life (3:17), In The Air (9:11), Weatherman (10:16), Unfading Divine (9:02), January Sixth (3:37)
If I told you I’d been listening to a CD that blended the jazzier aspects of Yes’ work (circa Fragile), the more pastoral side of King Crimson’s early symphonic albums (In the Court of the Crimson King, In the Wake of Poseidon), and the balladry of E.L.P., you’d prick up your prog ears, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. And, if I told you that the CD art had been painted by Paul Whitehead (of Genesis album cover fame), you’d be convinced that I’d been listening to some tried-and-true progressive rock out of the good ol’ days, wouldn’t you? Of course you would. And you’d be right, because I’ve been listening to Akacia’s This Fading Time, and whatever its shortcomings (and there aren’t too many, really), at the worst, this is bona fide old-school progressive rock.
Well…it’s bona fide, old-school progressive rock, but it’s also CPR: Christian Progressive Rock, a genre for which we have, at least, Neal Morse and Kerry Livgren to thank or blame, depending upon your worldview. Personally, I’m not especially fond of Christian progressive rock or any Christian music (perhaps excepting Phil Keaggy’s). I’m not a Christian. I do hold an advanced degree in theology from a Christian seminary, but the truth is that I mostly dislike contemporary Christianity. It is largely fake, hollow, and very, very far removed from its Syrian origin. (As Nietzsche aptly remarked, “There has been but one Christian, and he died on the cross.”) I suspect that if most Christians took the time to learn Greek and attend a hermeneutics course or two, they might understand that a) orthodox Christianity is a fudge; and b) that the most praiseworthy elements of Jesus’ evangel are ignored in mainstream Christian doctrine. Howbeit, if the Christians of the world want to perform and/or enjoy progressive rock, I can only approve. And in the case of Akacia, although I feared differently, the lyrics are never preachy or proselytizing, which is a welcome relief. The few instances of dogmatic rumination are polite and earnest, so I can hardly object. And the music is in general convincing enough that the lyrical content (which is minimal anyway) never intrudes. If no one rails against my paltry poetry, with its references to Zen and Advaita Vedanta and neo-Platonism, I guess I can be tolerant, too, when musicians espouse religious views.
This Fading Time is Akacia’s third release, following An Other Life and The Brass Serpent (neither of which I’ve heard). The band has existed since 2001 and now includes founding members Eric Naylor (lead vocals), Mike Tenenbaum (guitars, keyboards, and vocals), Steve Stortz (bass guitar), and Doug Meadows (drums), as well as Trish Lee (keyboards). I am especially impressed with Mr. Naylor’s singing, which is uncannily reminiscent of Greg Lake, with exactly the same tone and timbre and much of the same dramatic power. As well, Mr. Tenenbaum has exceptional mastery over the guitar, often sounding very much like a more precise, less chaotic Steve Howe. The rest of the band is sturdy enough in its support; Ms. Lee adds nice touches throughout This Fading Time, keeping the proceedings firmly lodged in the progressive rock tradition.
The music is, quite bluntly and as mentioned above, an admixture of the fluid Yes of The Yes Album through Close to the Edge, the stately symphonic leanings of King Crimson (from the debut through Islands), and Greg Lake’s full-throated tenor on In the Court of the Crimson King and throughout his career in E. L. P. Mr. Tenenbaum and Mr. Meadows both seem to be devotees of the Yes sound; Mr. Meadows even slips in a fair share of Brufordesque moments. If the music is mildly derivative (and it is), it is still always energized, well conceived, expertly arranged, and buoyant. The most fetching tracks on the album are Mystery, which really showcases the band’s obligation to Yes’ legacy, the technical acumen of Mr. Naylor, Mr. Tenenbaum, and Mr. Meadows, and the ensemble’s willingness to shift tempo and dynamic thrust to evoke mood; and DesCartes, a mostly instrumental reflection upon the impossibility of rationality (“proofs and axioms”) to assist in the living of human life, which includes a nice homage to Heart of the Sunrise. Another Life and In the Air are notably pretty, the latter of which is a meditation upon the psychic damage caused by the 9/11 attacks on the United States (and which, appropriately enough, logs in at 9:11).
The only negative charges I can lay against This Fading Time are very slight indeed. Though this is a melodic album, there are only rare instances of a truly enticing vocal hook or absolutely catchy refrain. Also, I felt that the keyboards were slightly underused. And finally, although I found Mr. Tenenbaum’s guitar work to be adventurous and adept, his lead vocals on January Sixth left me (ahem) ‘out in the cold.’ Mr. Naylor’s voice suffices for this band; Mr. Tenenbaum should confine himself to back-up vocals. I will say, too, that I was disappointed not to be able to see Mr. Whitehead’s art in greater detail. Of course, this is the reviewer cursing the CD era, because it is the size of the CD insert overleaf that prohibits a larger rendering of the cover art. (Weren’t albums just the ideal packaging format for prog rock?) The art looks tantalizing and the entire tableau seems to contain depictions of motifs from the songs: it’s a shame that there isn’t a way to see this art in expanded form.
THE BOTTOM LINE: Would I feel cheated had I bought this CD? No, not at all. It’s the real deal. Would I recommend that you buy this CD? I’m not sure. It is well done, but is it too derivative to command purchase? It may be, especially if, like me, you own a sufficient quantity of Yes, Crimson, and E.L.P. recordings. Would I recommend that you hear this CD via begging, borrowing, or stealing? Yes, I think this is the way to go. (Sorry Musea staff!) I think if Akacia evolves what it’s done on This Fading Time and grows it into something more singular, more idiosyncratic, while holding onto the fiery influences from the progressive rock masters, the band could be on par with The Flower Kings and Spock’s Beards of the world. Here’s hoping that they continue to develop and offer us their masterwork next time out.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Eloy Fritsch - Past And Future Sounds
Tracklist: Andromeda (6:05), Aphrodite (2:52), Floating Free Between Stars (4:30), Atlantis (5:50),Aurora Borealis (4:51), Lake Of Peace (5:55), Shiva (2:56), Ionosphere (4:56), The Motion Of Planets (3:30), Overture (1:27), Pity (3:09), Microcosmos (4:08), Frontiers (1:03), Heaven (3:01), Savage (7:16), The Garden Of Emotions Suite (8:13)
Vangelis. That is the first thing that comes to mind when playing the Eloy Fritsch album. Even though according to Wikipedia, Eloy Fritsch has a Ph.D. in computer music, his style does not differ very much from the Master's. In itself this is a compliment of course, and he is obviously a talented keyboard player. However, the compositions do not surprise. Time and time again you are reminded of some Vangelis track, especially in the first half of the album.
Andromeda is a fast opener, and probably the best track of the album together with the final track The Gardens Of Emotions Suite. As a piano player myself, I was also pleasantly surprised by the more delicate Aphrodite. Although it would go to far to compare it with e.g. Memories In Green of Vangelis, it does have a nice quiet feel to it. Floating Free Between Stars is a variation to Vangelis' Antarctica theme, almost on the verge of a being a copycat. But then the album slowly starts to collapse. I have played the album now for at least 20 times in the car on my way to work, but when I think back of it, I simply cannot recall how the middle tracks of the album sound. The only thing that stuck to mind was the overabundant use of thick keyboard tapestries to cover the melody in.
Towards the end the album becomes more interesting again, with some of the best bars of the album in the final section: The Garden Of Emotions Suite. This seems to be a combination between a Heaven And Hell style piece and Journey To The Centre Of The Earth by Rick Wakeman. Especially the rhythmic section of this track is better and more progressive then anything else on the album. Talking about Wakeman: it is clear that Eloy Fritsch knows his way around keyboards, but definitely is no real finger-flashing wizard on the old black-and-whites.
All in all an album that has its quality but cannot compete with the works of more well-know artists like Vangelis, Jarre or Wakeman, to name a few, whose work is at places sometimes almost copied. I don't think I will ever play this album again, it lacks some real attraction in melody and rhythmic substance, which is needed in an instrumental album to make it an interesting listening.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
The Black Noodle Project – Play Again
Tracklist: Introspection (3:15), Tomorrow Birds Will Sing (6:50), Wave On A Soul (4:03), Not Yet (5:12), The Great Northern Hotel (6:24), Room For Everyone (5:11), Garden Of Delights (5:01), To Pink From Blue (8:03), Squares & Circles (3:05), 1(3Bute)2 [sic] (4:58), Happy End (7:58)
Pink Floyds, Porcupine Trees, Black Noodles – the connection is obvious. Musea’s promotional literature hits the nail on the head this once, mentioning Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree as providing “influence” and “inspiration” for The Black Noodle Project; and if I may add one more group – the mighty Opeth in their quieter moments (a couple of songs on this album remind me a bit of what we hear on Opeth’s “quiet” album Damnation) – I’ll have given you a pretty accurate idea of the kind of music featured on Play Again. The question then is, what does The Black Noodle Project offer that’s different from or better than what we get from those other bands (not even mentioning the regrettably silly name)? I’m sorry to say that the answer is “not much.”
Play Again is not by any means a bad album. The musicians are talented; the singer has a pleasant and expressive voice; the songs are melodic and well-performed. But the band wears its influences heavily, especially the Floydian one. Many of the songs are leisurely, depressing mid-tempo excursions, highlighted by tasteful guitar solos, heartfelt lyrics, and drumming right from the Nick Mason school of never-play-too-muchness. I might mention particularly Wave On A Soul and Room For Everyone as the most obvious post-Floydian workouts, though the influence of that band is glaringly clear everywhere. I’m almost tempted to gloss over the embarrassing 1(3bute)2 but can’t, because (and I think I’m reading the weird title correctly, substituting “tri-“ for “3”) this song is meant as their uncouched tribute to Floyd. The lyrics consist entirely of strung-together Pink Floyd song titles – for example, “A saucerful of echoes breathes on a pillow of winds / Is there anybody on the turning away? / If one of these days pigs and dogs are on the run / Speak to me. . . .” I don’t know why the band thought this nonsense a good idea, but, believe me, it isn’t. Their enterprise should have been to draw attention away from rather than to their indebtedness.
But that sort of foolishness fortunately isn’t the main business of the album. Chimey guitar arpeggios, soaring Gilmourian solos, ponderous but effective drums, mournful keyboards, tasteful bass guitar, the occasional violin solo – all in the service of the more-than-decent but far-too-derivative songs. For my money, the band is most effective when it strikes out on its own: The Great Northern Hotel is probably the best song on the album only because it sounds like nobody else – and I say that even though one of its distinguishing characteristics is histrionic, exaggerated vocals of the sort I generally dislike. It’s just good to hear the band doing what sounds like its own thing on this sometimes dissonant, experimental track, the only one on which the “inspiration” of Floyd doesn’t sit heavy.
Aside from that one song, though, and aside as well from the violin and the occasional use of female harmony vocals (a nice touch, that) on some songs, I can’t say that The Black Noodle Project has a lot to offer even fans mourning the absence from our future of any new Pink Floyd material and wishing for a facsimile. I’ll repeat that the album isn’t by any means bad, but it’s an album made by a group of musicians who are, in my opinion, very much trying to find their way past the omnipresence of their heroes. I’d like to hear what they might sound like if they can find a way to combine their own interests and talents with the sounds and techniques they’ve borrowed from others – but they haven’t done so yet.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10