Reviews in this issue:
- Mystery – Beneath The Veil Of Winter’s Face
- The Gourishankar - 2nd Hands
- Andy Tillison-Diskdrive - Fog
- Anton Roolaart - Dreamer
- The Future Kings Of England - The Fate Of Old Mother Orvis
- Eric Minen – Melodies Urbaines
- Far Corner - Endangered
Mystery – Beneath The Veil Of Winter’s Face
Tracklist: As I Am (5:41), Beneath The Veil Of Winter’s Face (5:58), Snowhite (4:07), Travel To The Night (8:38), The Scarlet Eye (5:35), The Third Dream (6:11), Voyage To The Other Side (6:24), The Sailor And The Mermaid (5:23), The Awakening (11:12), The Preacher’s Fall (3:30)
I won’t recap this Quebec band’s rather convoluted history; if you’re interested, you can find out about it, as I did, on the label’s site. However, it’s important to know that the band formed in 1986 and that this is its first album of new material in nine years. It’s also the first with singer Benoit David, and, although I’ve not heard any of the band’s earlier material and thus can’t speak about the previous singer, this is the kind of music that needs a singer who’s both powerful and distinctive, and David is both those things, for sure.
So what kind of music is it? Look at the lengths of the songs: all but two are between five and twelve minutes long. That fact alone usually means that an artist is interested in more than writing a pretty pop tune, and it sure means that here. Mystery’s music can be perhaps not unfairly categorized as progressive pop-metal. The Unicorn Digital promo letter claims that the album will be “Great for fans of Rush, Journey, Genesis, Styx”; and while that assertion is worth about as much as such marketing assertions usually are (if I were a member of this band, I’d be pretty upset by the mention of Journey!), the last named band is useful as a sort of touchstone. Mystery is more typically progressive than Styx ever was, but the music does have the brash metallic gloss of Styx’s best progressive-lite epics (think Suite Madame Blue, for example, or Pieces Of Eight). More importantly, though, Benoit David’s voice reminds me of nobody’s so much as of Styx’s Dennis DeYoung, absent a few of DeYoung’s more egregious histrionic excesses (and I say that as someone who was a huge fan of both Styx and DeYoung in the day).
But Beneath The Veil Of Winter’s Face isn’t Styx recycled for the twenty-first century, not by a long shot. The band betrays influences far broader and more significant. As I Am, the album’s first track, begins with a chord progression that, how shall I say it, fondly and accurately alludes to that of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds; and it may well be that this surely conscious tribute to The Beatles declares Mystery’s allegiance, an allegiance born out through this album, to melody above all other features. Then there’s the opening rhythm guitars in Snowhite. Any Pink Floyd fan will be put immediately in mind of the metronomic guitar that begins The Best Days Of Our Lives on The Wall. And in fact the band has good reason to have studied the venerable Floyd, having recently contributed a version of Hey You to a Pink Floyd tribute album.
Nor, of course, is this fine album simply a series of musical quotations or allusions. Guitarist/bassist/keyboardist Michel St-Père, who wrote everything on the album save the lyrics to one song, is both inventive and expansive. The songs are so long because St-Père needs the space to paint big pictures with sound. I’m typically suspicious of very long songs and very long albums in our day, having found that (at least to my taste) too many artists will put 75 minutes’ worth of music on a CD just because they can, just because that space is available to them. I’m thinking by contrast of the good old days (yes, I’m dating myself here) of LPs, when a band had to be damned sure that its eleven- or twenty-minute epic was worth such a huge chunk of the record’s available space. However, I can’t fault St-Père for his expansiveness. These are melodic, engaging compositions, even the longest of them managing to sustain interest all the way through. Part of the reason is the variety of each song both in music and in instrumentation, but part is Benoit David’s gorgeous, powerful voice, which unifies even the longest songs here.
I think this an excellent album. I can imagine that fans devoted exclusively to more complex progressive rock might find it a bit light (and in that respect, the promo letter’s mention of Rush is unfortunate, because these guys sound nothing like Rush, either as that band sounds now or as it did at its most progressive), but in fact it’s a compelling and engaging album not afraid to show its composer’s and its performers’ fondness for the “big sound”. In fact (and I’ll end here with my sole criticism, which doesn’t even really amount to a criticism from my perspective), some listeners might hear as grandiloquent what I mostly hear as grand – might find the ambition of some of the songs and of the album as a whole as being inflated. Personally, I like a band willing to make the big gesture, so long as it has the music and the chops to back that gesture up. Mystery does.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
The Gourishankar- 2nd Hands
Tracklist: Moon7 (10:12), Endless Drama (7:46), Queer Forest (6:31), Taste A Cake (1:46), The Inexpressible Chagrin (6:56), Syx (11:09), ...End (8:40), Marvelous Choice (18:03)
Every now and then a release is sent to us that is very different from all the things that we have heard before. The Gourinshankar's 2nd Hands is one of those releases. It is without a doubt progressive rock in it's most pure form but that does not make it easy to describe the music of the band rooted close to the Ural Mountains. This is music that borders on jazz, uses the same instruments as some fusion does but then again: also knows very well how to utilize drum computers, synthesizers and other electronic equipment. It is a mix of The Flower Kings and Emerson, Lake and Palmer, topped with an icing of eastern music. The music borders on being to complicated, too far fetched with too many tempo changes, but stops just before going there. I realize this is the kind of music that could make me very, very nervous but it never does.
It is not all praise for this release though: the lyrics for some of the songs are completely incomprehensible. In fact I had to get out the booklet to make sure they were singing in English. The lyrics on this album are all very spiritual (or at least try to be) which means that most of it, is gibberish. But that should not be a reason to overlook this fine band as their music is far too good to let it be spoiled by that.
The melody lines are genius and complex but in a very pleasant way. There is a strange contradiction in the fact that music rooted in the early seventies of prog rock can be made using so many modern instruments and sounds. Especially because these are combined with a number of "more traditional instruments" like violin and saxophone. It is safe to say that this is the kind of music that exemplifies the progressive rock label, progressive rock among the best available today. Easy recognizable and easy to love.
Moon7 starts of with a strange voice but turns into a real progfest within minutes, keyboard melodies, rhythm breaks, and a slightly heavier guitar pour out of the speakers, the violin breaks are brilliant! Endless Drama again uses a lot of keyboards but again accompanied by guitars and a creative rhythm section. Queer Forest is a track with a number of tempo breaks and again but it is one of the most straight forward tracks on the album. Taste A Cake is a small piano filler, whilst The Inexpressible Chagrin is a track with an electronic drum computer sound. Syx has a start that sounds like Ruby Tuesday! But that is soon shaken off and then becomes one of the more complicated tracks with violins and all.. ...End strange enough is not the end of the album, again a very electronic sound, accompanied by drum computers. Marvelous Choice, an 18 minute tour-de-force track that combines synthesizers with piano, synthesizer with guitar a great track.
The fact that this album lasts over 71 minutes and has 3 tracks of over 10 minutes long should say it all. This is progressive rock like it is supposed to be. So for those who like complex structure and are not put off with too many tempo changes this album comes highly recommended!
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Andy Tillison-Diskdrive - Fog
Tracklist: Nebel (i Dense Macabre [5:52], ii Visibility Threshold [6:00], iii Sink [3:40], iv Dandelion Clock [3:20]), Ersatzgebäude (20:00), Abendspaziergangamrhein (18:08)
Andy Tillison-Diskdrive, the main man behind Gold, Frankincense and Diskdrive, Parallel Or 90 Degrees and more lately The Tangent, has finally got round to releasing a solo album. For anyone unaware, the first Tangent album originally arose out of a putative Tillison solo album which moved away from the original intent when other musicians got involved and took the original idea to a whole different level. The success of that band further delayed the idea of a solo release. Until now that is. A purely solo, and instrumental, endeavour, the album displays a whole new side to Tillison.
People expecting music along the lines of that presented by The Tangent or Po90D will be sadly disappointed. Indeed what would be the point? The Tangent are still a going concern and Po90D are of an unknown status but I wouldn't consign them to the past what with a double CD and VCD of reworked, rerecorded and live tracks due out on Cyclops Records in the near future. Instead, we have almost an hour of more atmospheric music that is clearly, and readily acknowledged by the composer, influenced by the likes of Tangerine Dream and Klaus Schulze. Having just discounted similarities with The Tangent, I suppose those of you who have the special editions of the second and third albums may get some idea of what to expect from the bonus tracks found on those releases, namely Exponenzgesatz and Kartoffelnsalat in Unterseeboot .
The first track on the solo album, Nebel ('Fog') is split into four parts, the first of which, Dense Macabre, is very dreamy, a bit spaced out and totally atmospheric. Initially there is no really discernible tune or melody, the synths providing a wash and a very realistic bass guitar sound (all noises on the album are created by various keyboards) adds tension. Gradually the music starts to take form and coalesce with the introduction of a grand piano and wind synths. Visibility Threshold starts with a collection of jazzy piano bursts before a very accurate Tangerine Dream 'pastiche' takes over. This really could be an outtake from the band around the time of Force Majeure or Tangram. Sink features a B4 organ and is in a more characteristic Po90D style, more up tempo and adding a distinctive progressive air to proceedings. Final part Dandelion Clock takes things down a bit with a nice mixture of sounds including a wonderful "acoustic guitar" section. The piece ends with a flourish of piano and a brief reprise of a section of Sink
Ersatzgebäude ('Empty Building') is a twenty minute piece (the word 'epic' does not suit this kind of music!) which is a fine blend of 'ambient electronica' with jazz rock and progressive rock influences. Don't be put off by the word ambient, this is certainly not a piece to fall asleep to. There is a lot going on and the style, tempo and metre are in a near constant state of flux. Despite a twenty minute running time (one whole side of a vinyl album!) the piece seems to be over far too quickly!
Final track, Abendspaziergangamrhein ('Evening Walk Along The Rhein') is a different kettle of fish. completely non rhythmic, the piece does deserve the tag of ambient. Languid and very laid back, the music induces calm and allows one to drift off into the (as much as I hate the term) 'chillout zone'. One's thoughts on this track will depend on how comfortable one is with such music - atmospheric electronica or new ageish twaddle? It is certainly the piece that will divide opinions on the overall album. Personally it was a bit too ambient for me and, in my opinion, took all the bits I don't like about groups like Tangerine Dream and omitted the bits I do! It does fulfil it's intended purpose though - "to drift into - well, whatever you want to drift into.."
Tillison admits that the whole project is rather self-indulgent and, although he has been composing atmospheric music for years, for that reason has until now not released any of the recordings to the public. I am all for musicians breaking out into areas they are not normally associated with, particularly as the progressive field includes so many varied musical genres (much like classical music; you can't really compare the music of a string quartet with that of a symphony orchestra yet it they are lumped together as 'classical'!). Fans of the (largely German) style of electronic music will find a lot to enjoy on this album, even if they are not fans of typical progressive rock music. Others, largely one presumes fans of The Tangent, will not be disappointed by large sections of this release and it may even encourage them to seek out the music of bands they had otherwise not been aware of or had previously ignored. And that's the beauty of music, discovering the influences behind one's favourite pieces, expanding one's horizons into new territories and learning to appreciate just what can be done with the 12 notes of the chromatic scale. And so what if it is self-indulgent - it is, when all is said and done, a solo album!
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Anton Roolaart - Dreamer
Track list: Near Or Far (6:18), On To The Afterglow (8:29), Dreamer (6:15), Scary Monsters (4:33), Color Of Your World (5:48), Mid Summer's Day (7:40), Manon (6:09), The Spider (5:16)
Dreamer is the debut CD from Anton Roolaart, a native Dutchman who moved with his family to the United States when he was a child. Having taken up the classical guitar at the age of 13 he eventually branched out to his own musical explorations culminating in him playing in various cover bands to which he occasionally slipped in some of his own compositions. College studies in sound engineering and the discovery of an aptitude for computer technology has resulted in Roolaart becoming an accomplished musical engineer, a skill which is very obvious from the sonic quality of the album, recorded in his home studio. The album has been some three years in gestation, during which time Anton started ProgRockRadio, an endeavour that led to the discovery of a lot of classic and contemporary prog artists, a fact evident from the songs on this album. The main musicians featured are Roolaart (vocals, guitar, keyboards and programming), Rave Tesar (keyboards), Vincent Puryear (bass), Rich Berends and Charles DesCarfino, who both play drums on four tracks each.
The album is replete with neat hooks, nifty arrangements and some very fine playing. The variety of styles and moods is very broad, exemplified by On To The Afterglow. In the space of eight and a half minutes this piece manages to fit in an acoustic introduction, child-like backing vocals, some jazz-tinged piano, a vintage synth solo, a soprano vocalist and a flamenco guitar section complete with castanets! What's more it all hangs together very well. My major issue is with the vocals which can be a bit thin and weak in places, particularly on Scary Monsters and the opening of Color Of Your World. In addition the lyrics can tend to be somewhat elementary in places. These two factors combined being quite a big deterrent from my overall enjoyment of the album. This is a great shame as the musical ideas expressed throughout are very interesting and the performance of the musicians is very high. In particular, the piano and keyboard contributions of Rave Tesar are beyond reproach.
The diversity of the album may also be a drawback for some people, as the album doesn't tend to have an overriding theme or style. Listening to it I was drawn to individual musical passages, a very good guitar or keyboard solo here and there or some nice interplay between these instruments. However, when the album was over I found it hard to come up with an overall impression and, unfortunately, the only thing that really stuck in my mind where the bits I didn't like! Having said that, the variety may well be the strongpoint of the album giving it depth and durability beyond many albums.
So rather a mixed impression. On the whole I would have to say that overall I didn't really enjoy the album but there seem to be plenty of people in cyberspace who rate Dreamer very highly. Like everything it all comes down to personal taste so check out the samples and listen for yourself. Undeniably, Roolaart is a very accomplished musician and his debut displays great promise but doesn't quite get there for me. The cover painting, by Michael Phipps, is pretty fantastic though!
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
The Future Kings Of England - The Fate Of Old Mother Orvis
Tracklist: Dunwich (6:20), Mustard Men (7:12), Bartholomew's Merman (5:04), Children Of The Crown (9:12), A Meeting At The Red Barn (2:23), The Fate Of Old Mother Orvis (18:11)
They say you should never judge a book by its cover and in the case of The Future Kings Of England that’s certainly true. Given the band’s inspired name and the artwork I was expecting The Fate Of Old Mother Orvis to be a prog-folk offering or possibly even neo-prog. Had I done my homework it would have been apparent from the band’s bio and the 2005 debut The Future Kings Of England that they are in fact a throwback to late 60’s/early 70’s psychedelic space rock. With Pink Floyd as the most obvious influence it seems appropriate that this month is the 40th anniversary of The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn debut. TFKOE hail from Suffolk in the south-east of England and their mostly instrumental music is seemingly inspired by folk lore from the same region.
In his review of the last album a colleague said that “at some moments it is jaw-droppingly brilliant, while at other moments (too many) you almost fall asleep out of boredom.” Sadly there is nothing on this release that remotely qualifies for the first part of that statement but there is plenty that could be aptly described by the second part. The opening Dunwich is a good case in point. A laidback twangy guitar intro drags and only in the final minute does the track take off with some explosive drumming. Mustard Men seems to pick up from where the previous tune finished only this time with a gutsier guitar tone. Half spoken vocals and some very dated phasing effects do little to enhance the song. It does at least contain one of the albums best moments with a very effective ringing guitar coda.
Bartholomew's Merman combines acoustic and electric guitars nicely but as is so typical of this disc it lacks direction or even a sniff of a decent melody. The band’s publicity claims that the album includes “acid tinged folk excursions and acoustic woodland eeriness”. I can only think that they are referring to the strummed acoustic guitar dirge that takes up half of Children Of The Crown. Otherwise the folk elements are very well hidden amongst those woodland trees. The second half is much better with shimmering organ and melodic electric guitar bringing Meddle era Floyd instantly to mind. The tranquil A Meeting At The Red Barn that follows put me in mind of 70’s ambient pioneers Jade Warrior especially the ethereal guitar sound.
The title cut The Fate Of Old Mother Orvis may be epic in length but regrettably not in content. Spacey sound effects and a spoken voice are reminiscent of The Moody Blues in their trippy period circa In Search Of The Lost Chord. A repeated guitar motif is joined by a strident synth that builds strongly only to be cut short for lengthy spacey guitar noodlings which in turn is replaced by a denser guitar and mellotron section. Unfortunately it all lacks cohesion and feels like a succession of disconnected pieces glued together to masquerade as an epic. The church bells that signal the end of the track and the album came as a relief I have to confess.
The band comprising guitarist Ian Fitch, bassist Karl Mallett and drummer Simon Green certainly all give credible performances throughout. Producer Steve Mann provides a touch of organ here, and a little bit of synth and mellotron there, adding flesh to the bands otherwise skeleton sound. Unfortunately that sound is too often reliant on psychedelic-rock clichés with cymbal heavy drumming being a prime example. The end result for me is an album that has its moments but is dominated by tuneless and repetitive meanderings that never really feel like their going anywhere and for the most part never do. You can judge for yourself by clicking the samples link at the head of this review. It will take you to the song Mustard Men on the bands website, which for some reason I couldn’t get to play so I hope you have better luck. Failing this try the bands MySpace site.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Eric Minen – Melodies Urbaines
Tracklist: Aube (3:48), L’odalisque (3:48), Memphis Dream (4:34), Midi (4:08), Autoroutes (6:47), Apres-Midi (6:31), Circulation (5;10), Crepuscule (5:31), Guitars (3:01), Nuit (4:08)
Eric Minen is a self-taught French guitar player and he is involved with various jazz, song-oriented jazz rock fusion bands, such as Anamorphose and Le Bocal, the latter being a Frank Zappa tribute band. Melodies Urbaines is his first solo album and his music can be compared to Pat Metheny or Jean Pascal Boffo. His guitar music is rather relaxed, cool and even provides some Oriental and Arabic musical colours.
The CD opens with the jazzy, cool, relaxed song Aube, a track that sets the tone for the rest of the album, as Eric Minen plays a limpid and peaceful music based on the wide palette of guitar sounds.
The two best songs are Circulation and Crepuscule, both filled with heavenly melodies, laid back solos and really cool to listen to. This is an ideal album for a beautiful summer evening, with some wine, cheese and a beautiful woman... Enjoy!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Far Corner - Endangered
Tracklist: Inhuman (3:47); Do You Think I’m Spooky? (6:41); Creature Council (10:17); Claws (5:14); Not From Around Here (8:57); Endangered (19:50)
Hailing from Milwaukee in the northerly US state of Wisconsin, Far Corner describe themselves as a ‘21st Century American Chamber Rock Ensemble’ playing music which bridges the ‘post classical and prog worlds’. A four-piece utilising keyboards, bass, drums and cello, in many cases on Endangered (their second release - first album reviewed here), the musicians invert their instrument’s usual roles, with the melodies often handled by the bass with the cello and piano being used to hold down the bottom end. In addition, the players utilise experimental techniques to coax ‘untraditional’ sounds from traditional instruments – e.g. a fuzz-distorted and amped cello, designed to take the place of rock guitar.
Three quarters of the band (keyboardist Dan Maske, cellist Angela Schmidt and percussionist Craig Walkner) are all classically trained, with Schmidt and Maske having written technical manuals on their chosen instruments. For Endangered they have produced a mixture of composed, improvised and quasi-improvised pieces, which are nonetheless designed to work in tandem to produce an album with a tangible linked musical theme.
What I’ve written in the previous two paragraphs may well have you coming to the conclusion that what we have here is the height of pretentiousness; a group of classically trained egg-heads getting their kicks messing around with conventional musical structures and getting their instruments to produce unusual noises whilst the rest of us stand around scratching our heads and getting bored. Well, to be honest there is an element of that, but that said Endangered does yield some interesting and rewarding listening.
The opening two (linked) tracks demonstrate both the improvised and composed sides of the band. Inhuman is a mostly improvised piece designed as an extended introduction; here, William Kopecky’s bass provides the lead melody (as it does in a number of tracks), with a slow pounding drum, haunting cello and sparse piano conjuring up a decidedly chilly atmosphere, even if the rather aimless ‘ambient noise’ aspect of the work will probably turn many listeners off right from the start. Its companion piece, Do You Think I’m Spooky, meanwhile, is a pre-prepared composition, with piano and harpsichord mostly deployed to provide bottom-end whilst the bass covers the mid-range and provides the majority (although not all) of the main melodies. There are certainly some catchy melodic themes conjured up here, and there’s good interplay between harpsichord, piano and bass. There is some seeming improvisation here as well, but a sense of rhythmic structure helps ground the song a little.
Creature Comforts is, apparently, the band’s attempt at a ‘progressive metal-style’ piece, and appears to have been semi-improvised, based on a 2 minute solo piano work. This is where Schmidt’s fuzzed-up cello comes into its own, carving out ‘riffs’ you’d usually hear from an electric guitar. This is still far from the sort of prog metal I know, but the piece does have a vague heaviness to it, not to mention an endearing and playful quirkiness. Come to think of it, there is quite a bit of aimless instrumental noodling, so perhaps those prog metal comparisons aren’t that far off after all…
Claws is a wholly improvised piece based on the theme of ‘scratching’; perhaps unsurprisingly I found it one of the less bearable tracks here. In contrast, Not From Around Here is a relatively conventional jazz-based tune with the main instruments reverting back to their usual roles; violin appears to take on the role that a saxophone or trumpet would in most mainstream jazz, with guest Jay Loughney performing a lengthy solo on said instrument. Parts of the track reminded me a little of the extended instrumental workout which closes the title track of Steely Dan’s celebrated Aja album.
This brings us to the final track, and centrepiece of the album, the near twenty minute title track. It’s a composed piece, but this being Far Corner there’s a twist – each band member composed their own part, and these parts were then passed to the next member to add their part, and so on. The first part of the composition is relatively pacey and fluid, with some memorable melodies and all the players locked into some tight grooves. This soon comes to an abrupt halt and makes way for some more contemplative sounds, with bamboo flute and harpsichord prominent in the mix. Gradually things get more abstract and experimental, and its Walkner’s insistent, gradually more and more propulsive drumming that keeps a check on things; this section of the piece very much reminded me of the title track of Pink Floyd’s first post-Barratt album A Saucerful Of Secrets. There’s some strong work after the crescendo has been reached, with Maske contributing some snakey keyboard melodies and fine trumpet playing, but to be honest some judicious trimming could well have been done on the latter part of the piece without harming its impact.
Overall then, it almost goes without saying that this is hardly likely to be an album that will appeal to all tastes; to many it will appear cold, clinical, pretentious and abstract, and lacking in the kind of emotional resonance they expect when listening to music. However I was impressed with some of the atmospheres the band conjure up, not to mention some surprisingly catchy melodies that stick in the head. Also, it almost goes without saying that the standard of playing is very impressive. If you have a penchant for the more experimental, adventurous and avant-garde side of progressive music, then Endangered would be well worth investigating.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10