Album Reviews

Issue 2006-054

Reviews in this issue:

Iona – The Circling Hour

Iona – The Circling Hour
Country of Origin:UK
Record Label:Open Sky Records
Catalogue #:OPENVP11CD
Year of Release:2006
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Empyrean Dawn (7:49), Children Of Time (5:33), Strength (5:59), Wind Off The Lake (11:02), Factory Of Magnificent Souls (5:02), Sky Maps (6:39), No Fear In Love (5:59), Wind, Water & Fire - Wind (3:30), Wind, Water & Fire - Water (3:00), Wind, Water & Fire - Fire (7:14), Fragment Of A Fiery Sun (2:45)

Six years have elapsed since Iona’s last studio release Open Sky so expectations were running understandably high with the arrival of The Circling Hour. 1990 saw the release of the self-titled debut album, and eight recordings later their blend of Celtic and progressive rock remains intact. Although the prog elements seem more obvious this time round the band has not abandoned their folk origins. Traditional instruments including whistles, bodhran (Celtic drum), bouzouki (acoustic guitar) and uilleann pipes especially are still very much to the fore. The band has undergone personnel changes in the intervening years with the current line up remaining stable for the three most recent studio releases. For the record they are Dave Bainbridge guitars and keyboards, Joanne Hogg vocals, Phil Barker bass, Frank Van Essen drums, percussion and violin, and multi instrumentalist Troy Donockley uilleann pipes, whistles, guitars and backing vocals. Since the release of the last album Bainbridge and Donockley have kept the Iona banner flying through solo and duo projects with the formers 2004 Veil Of Gossamer being the cream of the crop in my opinion.

Several of the songs here have already been road tested as evidenced on the recent DPRP recommended Live In London DVD recorded exactly two years ago. On the DVD the band discuss their Christian beliefs and the first two verses on this CD are adapted from the hymn "How Wonderful This World". The song in question Empyrean Dawn is as good an album opener as I have heard all year. Joanne’s fragile opening vocal sooths and calms before unexpected crashing chords launch a swirling fusion of uilleann pipes, guitar, drum rolls, celestial organ and choral voices. Stunning stuff. The rhythm of the bodhran launches the song proper joined by low whistles, vocals, acoustic guitar, a solid bass line and the more familiar sound of the drum kit. In true Iona style and a firm grip on a strong melody instruments and voices are layered, building to one climax after another. The mood relaxes each time to allow for a tranquil section before the next development. The majestic finale, following a beautiful violin and acoustic guitar passage, comes courtesy of soaring pipes doubled by wordless vocals and inspired drums and bass work.

The mid tempo Children Of Time is built around a spacious drum pattern with striking contributions from piano, vocals, pipes, symphonic keys, and a solid bass line to enhance the modest chorus. The infectious Strength is one of the highlights on the recent DVD and is just as effective here. Following the ethereal Enya flavoured opening, Joanne’s expressive lines and sensuous chants are carried by an uncomplicated arrangement of bodhran, bass, bouzouki and heavy guitar punctuations. A change to a higher key provides an energetic conclusion incorporating a flourish of organ and synths. Wind Off The Lake is an epic slice of pure Iona with more than a nod to some of their previous works. The cinematic introduction of synth strings and choir like voices blossoms into a compelling reel with uilleann pipes skating on a driving rhythm and punchy guitar riff. Rippling keys and stately Steve Hackett inspired guitar signals a change of atmosphere with superb a cappella harmonies that builds until scorching lead guitar is joined by the pipes for a rocking finish.

Factory Of Magnificent Souls is a lucid song with a bright bouncy rhythm and a memorable chorus from Joanne. Bainbridge provides some fine moments of lyrical lead guitar with superb tin whistle colourings from Donockley. The mid tempo Sky Maps includes some graceful lead moments contrasting with an urgent rhythm, which demonstrates the drums and bass work of Van Essen and Barker at their intricate best. The melody is a strong one with a beautiful vocal, violin and piano interlude proving to be the songs highlight for me. Following an ambient Clannad style vocal and symphonic keys intro, No Fear In Love develops into one of the albums strongest vocal melodies. A march like drum pattern and dramatic piano/synth punctuations add their weight behind the towering stop-start guitar dynamics.

The penultimate piece is a three-part suite with a total time of just under fourteen minutes. The introductory Wind is an evocative symphonic soundscape conjured up by haunting keyboards and mood enhancing violin. Water adds haunting chants with first bodhran then drums skilfully building the tempo and tension which finds a dramatic release in the grandiose Fire. Thundering bass and a bombastic drum pattern propel the song with wordless vocals, sparkling keys, fiery lead guitar and majestic pipes to a grand sweeping finale. Fragment Of A Fiery Sun brings the album full circle in a reprise of the opening vocal melody with Joanne’s heavenly tones this time joined by orchestral keys, violin and piano with hypnotic results. Special guest Heather Findlay from Mostly Autumn sings the floating closing lines providing a tranquil conclusion.

As with previous releases, Iona brilliantly showcase their ability to combine melodically strong and tuneful songs with soaring flights of instrumental creativity. Joanne’s voice has lost none of its charm and poise and remains one of the most beautiful and purist in rock music. Bainbridge and Donockley continue to weave their magical spells with the impressive guitar and pipes interplay in particular transporting this listener at least to musical heaven. The rhythm work of Van Essen and Barker is rock solid with that rare combination of power, grace and invention. This is a superior release by anyone’s standards and may possibly be Iona’s best album ever. Their last Open Sky is such a firm favourite of mine that the juries still out on that score. I can say however that this is almost certainly the bands most accessible release to date. So if you’ve yet to experience for yourself the remarkable world of Iona then there’s been no better time to take that trip.

Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10


OSI - re: free

OSI - re: free
Country of Origin:USA
Record Label:InsideOut Music
Catalogue #:IOMCD262
Year of Release:2006
[excluding video]

Tracklist: Go [Console remix] (10:32), Kicking [Kevin Moore remix] (8:05), Home Was Good [Kevin Moore remix] (7:53), Free [Video]

Earlier this year OSI, a project by Jim Matheos of Fates Warning and Kevin Moore, ex-Dream Theater & Chroma Key, released their second album, Free. Both within the DPRP team and among the prog rock public in general the album was received with mixed opinions. It's actually quite simple: it's a matter of taste. Many people will simply dislike the experimental nature of the band in an area where prog metal meets ambient synth electronics. At the same time, people that liked OSI's debut album might dislike the even more electronic and at times minimalistic approach of Free. Finally, many people will be put off by the mumbling, spoken vocals of Kevin Moore. So this leaves a small group of people that will like OSI's second album. And I'm one of the few in this case. For me the combination of all of the above factors works brilliantly. It might have failed miserably if the vocals would have appeared in any other band or if OSI would have a different singer. Now the sum of all parts simply creates a very authentic style which is offensively in your face at times while spooky and haunting at others.

I was quite surprised to hear that the band was releasing an EP with remixes of three tracks of the album. Since this isn't something you come across a lot with prog rock bands and since I've always been a sucker for remixes my interest was fired up immediately. The three tracks that appear on this CD are among the more ambient and minimalistic of the Free album, where Go and Home Was Good were among my favourite tracks. The EP is advertised as containing three radical remixes. I beg to differ. This sets an expectation of getting something completely different from what you hear on the album. Well, you won't. The atmosphere of the three songs is maintained. I would personally say the original songs have been broken down, rebuilt and rearranged and expanded. Still, the results are very interesting. At least they are if you liked the originals. If you didn't like OSI at all or if you disliked the electronic side of Free you will not find anything of interest on this EP (with the possible exception of the video of the album's title track - more about that one later).

If you, like me, found the original album versions very enjoyable you should definitely check out these versions. Consider this a companion to the album which completes the Free experience. You might also find some interesting material here if you are interested in electronic music or if the third and fourth phase of Porcupine Tree's Voyage 34 are your kind of thing. Go was remixed by Martin Gretschmann, AKA Console, keyboardist and programmer of the indie rock band Notwist (don't worry, it didn't ring a bell with me either). The other two tracks were remixed by Kevin Moore himself.

Go has been expanded to 2.5 times its original length. It's not too far removed from the original, but feels even more minimalistic. The guitar melody appears in a sampled and processed arrangement in the first half of the song, while the Gary Numan-like keyboards have been removed. The main characteristic of this version is it's expansion. The song moves and flows slowly as a mesmerizing lounge piece. It takes 2 minutes for the vocals to come in and the last 3.5 instrumental minutes are dominated by washes of keyboards.
The live rhythm section of Kicking has been replaced by a stomping beat and synth bass. There's also a lot more synths and sequencers in this version. As such it is probably the most 'radically' different. I personally like this new version better than the original.
Home Was Good was definitely spooky on the album. The remix on this EP has an added urban jungle rhythm, giving it much more of a groove. As with Kicking this track has also more added electronics compared to the original.

The EP also contains an MPEG version of the video the band made for Free. Those who have seen the experimental video for Horseshoes and B-52's know what to expect, although this one has colour and is somewhat less stressful to watch. It's still very weird and probably fits the music well. Think colours, skulls and decapitated rotating heads, TV screens, abstract figures, scribbled animations, a merged Moore-Matheos head and a lot of moving objects filmed in stop motion technique. Not something you'll watch over and over again unless this is really your cup of tea.

I'll conclude by saying that I personally like this OSI EP, but I understand that the audience for this release will be limited. You'll really have to like the electronic side of OSI to be able to 'get into' these remixes. As such I can't give this a DPRP recommendation but will urge those who have become curious about the EP to check it out.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10


Retroheads - Introspective

Retroheads - Introspective
Country of Origin:Norway
Record Label:Unicorn Records
Catalogue #:UNCR-5033
Year of Release:2006
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Rainy Day (5:28), Living In A Bubble (8:32), Black Hole Eyes (6:51), One World (5:36), Be Aware (6:21), I Turn To You (6:32), Slaves Of Gold (7:14), Tidal Wave (8:26), Karma (9:28)

I’m not sure if my esteemed peers at DPRP would agree, but I find the most difficult aspect of reviewing music to be (after, of course, the difficulty of simply getting the review done!) assessing the merits of a recording that really has nothing wrong with it…but that you still don’t enjoy.

It’s a quandary: What do you say when a CD is well made, has some degree of sparkle to it, isn’t offensive, isn’t pompous or pretentious, features intelligent arrangements, thoughtful lyrics, and impeccable musicianship, but still causes you to conclude unfavourably about its success? And that, for me, is the case with Introspective, which seems to be either a second release coming after or a concurrent release with the CD Retrospective.

The Retroheads are nothing if not a sizable ensemble, including Mike Mann (lead vocals), Ann-Kristen Bendixen (backing vocals), Deborah Girnius (backing vocals, flute), Tommy Berre (electric and acoustic guitars), Gry Anett Stordahl (Hammond B3, keyboards), Tore Bo Bendixen, (bass guitar, bass pedals, keyboards), and Trond Gjellion (drums). (I apologize if I’ve misspelled a name; the font on the CD insert was very hard to read.) The band was initiated by Mr. Bendixen in 2003 in an attempt to move out of a career in commercial media into a more artistic, less confining mode of musical expression.

To my ears, the Retroheads sound like full-blow neo-prog rock. There is sometimes a hint of early 70s American arena rock (in, say, the Styx mould) and there are definite nods to contemporary prog and prog metal (e.g., The Flower Kings, Tiles, Under The Sun). But most fully, the Retroheads echo bands like IQ, with its decided focus upon keyboards, sociopolitical themes in the lyrics, guitar solos straight out of the 1980s handbook (a la Satriani and Vai), and a lack of purely catchy, radio-friendly melodic hooks. If you love neo, and love the influence of neo that was trickled down into modern prog, than Introspective should work very, very well for you. I dislike neo, to be truthful, with the exception of Saga’s Worlds Apart, Pallas’ The Sentinel, and perhaps some early Marillion, so the Retroheads’ music didn’t ever move me vitally. It was mainly “ho-hum” throughout the disc as I waited for something upon which I could latch. I never found that “something,” but you just might.

Now, I want to be very clear: There is a vast difference between a subjective preference and an objective evaluation. Subjectively, it is fair to say that I don’t care for the sort of music the Retroheads offer. But, objectively, it is fair to say that the band is very good and that the album is well executed. The several sections that revolve around the female backing vocals are poignant and pretty; I could’ve stood more of them. The guitar work is sometimes too bombastic but there are a few superior moments (as in the introduction to I Turn To You). Introspective utilizes a few sweet flute passages (listen to the refreshing interlude on I Turn To You) and, throughout, well-placed and well-conceived keyboard fills. And lastly, I can even report that the lyrics are very effective (and I am generally a hard bastard about lyrics). On One World (which addresses the brutality of fascist regimes) and especially “Slaves of Gold” (a scathing attack upon the capitalist Zeitgeist), the lyrics are potent and sly. Bravo! And Be Aware is an ambitious, multifaceted tune that should impress anyone with its complexity and range of mood.

But still, Introspective just isn’t my bag. I’m going to give it a 7 because it certainly doesn’t stink and certainly isn’t open to any kind of harsh critique. It’s well done; I just prefer a different kind of prog rock, that’s all. I’m guessing that you, DPRP reader, if you are at all a stalwart fan of neo-prog, will want to hear the Retroheads. If you are that fan, you should.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10


Dreamtone - Snowfall

Dreamtone - Snowfall
Country of Origin:Turkey
Record Label:Tavanarasi Media
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2006
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Promised Land (5:16), Pandemonium (6:22), Snowfall (4:25)

As we have already reviewed two previous releases by the Turkish progressive metal band, Dreamtone, I will let you find out more information concerning the band and their music from the reviews of Unforeseen Reflections and Sojourn. Both the releases received good ratings although you might see that after the promise of Unforeseen Reflections expectations for Sojourn were perhaps too high. In the Autumn next year Dreamtone will release their third album, luckily with this taster single we don't have to wait that long to get an impression of what's in store.

At the moment a lot is going on around Dreamtone. They are embarking on a project with a symphony orchestra and Iris Mavraki called "Iris Mavraki's Neverland". Next to that a couple of well known names in the progressive metal scene will also colaborate. For now only two names have been announced: Tom Englund (Evergrey) and Mike Baker (Shadow Gallery), but keep your eyes open as I am sure other interesting names will follow soon. It will be a long wait until Autumn 2007, as we have no idea what this collaboration will bring, but I am sure it will be worth while.

This CD single, Snowfall, contains three tracks of which one is a re-recording of the 2003 track Pandemonium, the other two are new tracks that will be on the forthcoming album. If this single is any indication for what the new album will bring it promises to be another good one. The raw energy, that made Unforeseen Reflection such an interesting release, is much more present on this CD-single than in Sojourn. It is a very good thing.

The intro of Promised Land immediately makes clear that Dreamtone has no intention of changing the musical direction chosen in their first releases. Their sound is still very recognizable: because of the speedy guitars but also because of the voice of Oganalp Canatan. Dreamtone describe their music as dark/power/progressive metal and that description fits the music, speedy and musical guitars riff with pumping metal rhythms, well.

The best track on this album is the re-recording of Pandemonium: it is this track alone that makes this a buy worthy CD-single. Although the other tracks are great this one is even better. The two lead guitars intertwine their melodies, coming together on some parts while wandering off on others. The sister of the band's bass player poppes in to do some keyboards and she does a great job, it adds an extra dimension to this track. Snowfall, the third track has a dark start and the same dark atmosphere remains throughout the track. The guitars are less speedy but still very present (of course, it is a two lead guitar band).

The great artwork has been created by the Efe Alpay, the bass player of Dreamtone. For me just another confirmation of the fact that this band is full of talent.

I will not rate this CD-single because it is hard to compare such a rating with a full album. But this single does come highly recommended, so use it as your chance to get acquainted with Dreamtone, you won't be sorry. Hopefully their next full album will be as good.

Conclusion: Unrated


Book Of Reflections – Chapter II: Unfold The Future

Book Of Reflections – Chapter II: Unfold The Future
Country of Origin:USA
Record Label:Lion Music
Catalogue #:LMC190
Year of Release:2006
Info:Book Of Reflection
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Unfold The Future (4:07), Bringer Of The Torch (4:35), Free My Soul (5:53), Heal Me (6:03), Uncover The Lie (4:05), Ashes To Ashes (4:13), Make Sure You Don’t Fall (5:25), Deep Inside (4:25), Blink Of An Eye (4:20), Got To Get Low (5:57), Love Conquers All (6:09)

The second album of Book Of Reflections opens up in a fierce display of progressive metal with the title track Unfold The Future. It takes some repetitive listening to follow the complex nature of this song mostly because of its speed. Surely I’m impressed with this raving foundation of galloping drums but the prospect of a whole album of this already makes me feel tired. It is the kind of music where the instruments are competing with each other to see which one will finish first at the end of the song. It sort of reminds me of the Finish band Sonata Arctica. The promo sheet of the label raves about ‘an almost impossible to play guitar solo’ which already says enough I think.

But luckily Book Of Reflections offers more diversity as next song Bringer Of The Torch is a mid-tempo hard rock song with a slight Eastern flavour through the use of a sitar. I like this much better especially due to the great vocals of guest singer Martin LeMar who is an excellent vocalist currently making waves in the progressive metal scene with the German band Tomorrow’s Eve.

He is featured on three tracks (Bringer Of The Torch, Ashes To Ashes and Blink Of An Eye) on this album. This brings me right away to a point of criticism: in comparison to Martin LeMar I find both other singers on the album, Björn Jansson (Tears Of Anger) and main man Lars Eric Mattsson, less convincing. It makes me kind of wish Martin LeMar had ended up singing the whole album. But that is a matter of preference.

A song like Bringer Of The Torch shows Book Of Reflections uses nice twists in the song structure to avoid being cliché. Apart from that the use of an instrument like the sitar offers more variation. The sitar returns again in the ballad Love Conquers All but I’m not really impressed by this song as at sounds a bit mundane. Better is the acoustic ballad Blink Of An Eye.

Creator of Book Of Reflections is Lars Eric Mattson who found collaboration with a couple of musicians from the stables of the label Lion Music. Apart from the vocalists we have Anand Mahangoe (Sphere Of Souls) contributing on guitar, Mistheria (Bruce Dickinson) on keys and Eddie Sledgehammer on drums. I think Lars Eric Mattson did a good job with the production of this album. Especially the drums sound excellent. Rather dry but overwhelming. There is not much left to be desired in that department. The artwork is great as well.

The track Ashes To Ashes is, just like the first song, another example of those raving drums franticly directing the alterations in speed. I think it would be wearisome to have a whole disc of this but the other songs give the listener enough room to breath again.

All over this disc there are these speedy keyboard solo’s which very tastefully enhance the quality of the tracks. Some parts remind me strongly of keyboard wizard Jens Johansson (Yngwie Malmsteen, Stratovarius).

I’m not overly excited with all the tracks on this album but there is enough to enjoy. Some of the ballads sound a bit lame but a track like Got To Get Low works very well. It has a groovy rhythm and a chorus that gets to stick with you after hearing it a couple of times.

Overall this album offers a neat mix of thoughtfully arranged progressive power metal that has enough to offer to keep the listeners attention. The musical qualities of the participants stand without dispute and the songs are very diverse. It suffers though by the inconsistency in strength of the compositions.

Conclusion: 7 out of 10


Ten Midnight – Ten Midnight

Ten Midnight – Ten Midnight
Country of Origin:Italy
Record Label:Independent
Catalogue #:N/A
Year of Release:2006
Info:Ten Midnight
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Intro (1:39), A Better Tomorrow (5:39), Storm (7:05), Illusion Of Mind (6:18), Mission (7:24), My Life, My Soul (7:23), Unknown Destination (6:45), Bonus Track: Io Cerco Te (6:02)

You may be forgiven for expecting a band named Ten Midnight to be an A.O.R. band, an image very much reinforced by the cover of this, their debut CD. Indeed the first real track (not counting the brief, inconsequential Intro) is a straight ahead rocker, and pretty forgettable at that.

Although Storm begins in the same vein, its middle section introduces the band’s progressive ambitions, with some nice flute and some tricky time changes. Most of the rest of the CD carries on like this, with some fairly nondescript Hard Rock/A.O.R. tunes being extended and stretched with some ambitious instrumental material, usually in the latter third of each song.

There are some nice symphonic style keyboards and quite a few biting guitar solos. I liked the vocals too, but the band’s tendency to mix Italian and English in the same song (which happens often) is a bit disorienting.

Unfortunately, an amateurish feeling pervades the proceedings, most notably in the thin production, and though the compositions strive to stretch beyond the confines of conventional rock, they remain disjointed and somewhat unsatisfactory. I doubt they are likely to make much of an impact with this CD, but it does have some nice moments.

I don’t want to be too hard on these guys, they’re clearly striving to produce something good, but on this showing, and particularly on the production side of things, they are still falling short by some margin.

Conclusion: 5 out of 10


Album Reviews