Reviews in this issue:
- Dead Air Radio - Signal To Noise Ratio
- La Desooorden – La Isla De Los Muertos
- La Desooorden – Ciudad De Papel
- Big Sleep - Bluebell Wood
- Maze Of Time - Tales From The Maze
- XCross – Kadath: The Dream Quest
Dead Air Radio - Signal To Noise Ratio
Tracklist: Unbalanced (8:36), Unified (6:00), Evidence (6:09), Prelude (1:04), Immaculate Rhapsody (4:15), Everchanging World (4:27), Humankind (5:19), Liberation (8:10)
Every year at least one band will come from out of the progressive nowhere to claim the title of newcomer of the year. For me previous years have included the likes of Riverside. This year I already have three contenders: Austrian ProgPower metallers Serenity; the stunningly powerful Darkwater, and now American newcomers Dead Air Radio.
They're not so new in the sense that the band can trace its roots back to 1999 in Nashville and released a self-produced EP, Strange Frequencies five years ago. This however is their debut, which has been out independently a little while in the States, but has been given a European release by Germany's Just For Kicks. Quite how this wasn't snapped up immediately by one of the bigger labels suggests that a lot of people ain't looking in the right places.
Signal To Noise Ratio offers which together form a mesmerising blend of older progressive roots especially Rush with more contemporary bands such as Pearl Jam, Sieges Even and Dream Theater.
I won't bother with a track-by-track breakdown as every song drifts in and out of so many styles that I'd be here all day. Let's just say that together with soaring melodies that occupy more traditional song structures there is always a brief , complex guitar burst or some odd meter just around the corner. Neither element ever dominates the other and everything is brought together in a totally cohereant and convincing manner.
The band's foundation is lead vocalist and guitarist Bill Givens. He possesses a voice that should fill stadiums to bursting point, and plays the bass and synths too! He is ably joined by guitarist Dennis Thompson. The pair's differing styles and sounds adding an ever-changing groove to each song. Drummer Anthony Kratky, was the first person to answer an advert pinned up in their local music store, and add the perfect level of complexity to the music.
There is a freshness, energy, self-confidence and excitement that just pours out of every note here. Combine that with superb melodies contained within the likes of Imbalanced and Liberation, and you have an album that with the right promotion really could reach huge audiences. The crossover potential here is massive. Everyone from fans of classic rock (Deep Purple), mainstream rock (Nickelback), alt rock (Pearl Jam/Soundgarden), progressive metal (Rush/SymphonyX) and progressive rock (Riverside/Sieges Even) should be able to take hours of enjoyment from this album.
Be it music to drive to, or music to sit down at night with the headphones on, this really has the making of a classic album. Very highly recommended.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
La Desooorden – La Isla De Los Muertos
Tracklist: Transformación Del Mito (3:18), Pardos Fueron Frente Al Mar (7:31), Algo Tenía Que Ver La Luna (3:14), Pero Dios Los Visita (3:22), Me Pregunto Entre Todas Las Preguntas (2:02), En Los Ojos De La Muerte (3:49), Caleta Tortel (Puente) (3:27), Seguramente Encontraremos (5:25), Las Palabras Viajan En El Viento (5:25), Bajo Pisagua (Puente) (4:20), Lo Que Ha Quedado Es Sólo Esto (5:49)
La Desooorden – Ciudad De Papel
Tracklist: Fumarolas Del Alma (7:32), Ciudad De Papel (6:56), El Llamado Del Totoral (2:28), El Gran Acuerdo (3:50), Migraciones Eternas (7:23), La Voz De Los Niños (2:50), Acción Por Los Cisnes (6:51), Tralcao (Lugar De Truenos) (3:08), Homínidos [Historia De Seres Nerviosos] (3:51), Los Trabajadores (6:12), E•N•E•U•J [Esto No Es Un Juego] (4:10), Boletos Para Ir (6:40)
This review covers the last two albums released by fascinating Chilean group La Desooorden, 2005’s La Isla De Los Muertos and this years Ciudad De Papel, but first a brief bit of history. The band originally formed in Valdivia, Chile, in 1994 performing widely through the rest of the decade with variations in membership before independently releasing an album of compositions from this period, El Mounstruo De 7 Cabazas, in 2001 with a second album, Ensayo, arriving in 2002. The first of the albums reviwed here is 2005’s La Isla De Los Muertos, which is based on an incident in early twentieth century Chilean history where 200 men, women and children died. A DVD to support the album was released later. The band have received awards in their native Chile and followed up a tour to Argentina by recording their latest album, Ciudad De Papel. Between these last two albums there has been one change in the line-up, the consistent members being Alfonso Banda (guitar), Rodrigo Gonzalez (drums & percussion), Francisco Martin (bass & piano), Peter Pfeifer (sax) and Karsten Contreras (vocals) with Fernando Tagore (vocals) on La Isla De Los Muertos while Fernando Altamirano (vocals) replaced him for Ciudad De Papel.
La Isla De Los Muertos starts with the pastoral sounds of water and birdsong with piano and violin before Spanish voices set the scene. I shan’t comment on the lyrics, which are all in Spanish, as I don’t have a translation, but don’t let the Spanish vocals put you off as the music that this group produce is captivating and has an intensity rare within the prog/folk field. The second track opens with choral vocals before the band kicks in with a jazzy vibe. Overall the feel is reminiscent of early ‘70’s King Crimson in their more restrained moments, the sax conjuring up the In The Wake Of Poseidon/Lizard period. The use of two lead vocalists, either singing together or trading lines and complementing each other perfectly, is interesting throughout and the performances all first rate. I expect that this band would excel in a live setting. Nice bass work towards the end of the track adds to the intensity and raises the tension. Excellent stuff. The next track also moves into Crimson territory with a loping bass line and sax with some busy drumming and following this a plaintive violin adds emotion to the melancholy Pero Dios Los Visita. Much heavier is the brief Me Pregunto Entre Todas Las Preguntas with a darker vibe than seen previously and this track shows the depth and variety of material produced by the band. Metallic guitar, growling bass and heavier drums typify En Los Ojos De La Muerte but breaks are allowed for more tranquil sections. Truly progressive in the way the music sweeps through different variations without losing sight of the structure of the piece as a whole. Tabla is added for a new direction on Caleta Tortel (Puente), the violin again used to convey emotion over a forceful bass that gets progressively more metallic as the track continues before moving back to the natural beauty of birdsong and a more optimistic feel. The use of tabla and violin often brings Shakti to mind, but that doesn’t occur here, the use of ethnic instruments only adding to the variety on offer. Next up is a track more in keeping with jazz-fusion in feel if not in instrumental bravado. The group perform as a solid unit throughout without having to rely on individual histrionics. We get another jazz interlude on Las Palabras Viajan En El Viento with almost drunken rhythms from the guitar, the sax almost adding an Eastern feel and a great small jazz group feel to the end of the track. Bajo Pisagua (Puente) is a very pleasant low-key number, sedate and tranquil, again featuring tabla rhythms with sax and violin. Closing track Lo Que Ha Quedado Es Sólo Esto again starts with wildfowl and water giving a sense of the island of the title before adding a military drumbeat and some excellent vocals.
The second of these albums, Ciudad De Papel, focuses on the problems faced by the environment after the opening of a new factory in the bands hometown and is, if anything, better than the first. Amazonian rhythms and a sense of foreboding fill opening track Fumarolas Del Alma and after a short while it becomes apparent that this album has an added brooding heaviness that was only hinted at on its predecessor. The second track adds more metal to give an almost Tool feel while retaining the subtlety that the music requires, the bass being particularly good. Choral vocals are again used to good effect and there is more space for the guitar on this album than seen previously. The ease with which the band moves between styles is breathtaking and fascinating here. The sax appears and sweeps in and out of the music and is reminiscent of Mel Collins, particularly his work with Camel. Didgeridoo and ethic rhythms are used to open El Llamado Del Totoral, while El Gran Acuerdo is twisted acoustic jazz with brass, violin and peculiar vocals. There’s some lovely percussion work here and a nice guitar solo. Migraciones Eternas starts with a throbbing bass with trumpet before settling into an almost samba snare rhythm and then turning left into a screeching guitar section. Melody is kept as priority and the style changes all work within the context of the material. On La Voz De Los Niños tribal noises lead into a piano motif with children’s choir. Brass led jazz over a heavy rhythm is the order of the day for Acción Por Los Cisnes moving into tabla with distorted guitar. This really is good stuff. Tralcao (Lugar De Truenos) features Mouth Harp, tabla and distorted trumpet – now that’s a combination you don’t hear too often and it all works! The variety and breadth of the instrumentation, styles and sounds used is magnificent and all pulled off with aplomb. This is undoubtedly a band that needs to be heard in a wider context. Next up is a great driving track with sax and fiddly guitar. Los Trabajadores starts with sounds of a noisy crowd, chainsaw, scat vocal before the bass comes in to drive it along and the sax adds lots of melody. I stress again – it all works! E•N•E•U•J (Esto No Es Un Juego) is a metallic tour de force with the requisite excellent vocal and drums while concluding track Boletos Para Ir is calm and atmospheric before building to a fitting climax to an exemplary piece of work. These guys have to be applauded for the breadth of the music they produce and the performances that make it possible.
None of the artists used above as references to the music of La Desooorden go anywhere near describing the whole so put away any pre-conceived ideas of what this band are or might be and give them a listen. Even if you don’t love what you hear I’m sure you won’t regret giving it a go. Both of these CDs are beautifully packaged in gatefold digipak sleeves with booklets and striking images that belie the fact that they are self-released. There is an almost unbelievable variety in the music throughout these albums. Elements of prog, folk, jazz, atmospherics and local culture come together to provide a kaleidoscopic and multifaceted whole. The music does not stray into the use of South American arrangements or musical standards as seen in the work of some and even when using moments from local history as a backdrop the music doesn’t move towards the stereotypical. Highly recommended for the use of atmosphere and drama within the music. Please don’t be put off if you don’t understand Spanish as it is very rewarding stuff worthy of a wider audience and I will certainly be trying to find out more about this fascinating band. They don’t fit cleanly into any pigeonhole and let their music do the talking. Powerful and engaging without losing the organic qualities of acoustic instruments these albums are a very sophisticated and enjoyable listen. Check out YouTube for some video samples – they mainly seem to be dressed as birds, which just sort of seems right!
La Isla De Los Muertos: 8.5 out of 10
Ciudad De Papel: 9.5 out of 10
Big Sleep - Bluebell Wood
Tracklist: Death Of Hope (5:35), Odd Song (3:54), Free Life (6:29), Aunty James (4:44), Saint And Sceptic (6:36), Bluebell Wood (11:26), Watching Love Grow (2:35), When The Sun Was Out (3:42)
Big Sleep may not be a name that many people are familiar with but the group members play an import role in the history of progressive rock. The group originally formed in Wales in the mid 1960s and signed to the nascent Deram records releasing two singles, including the fantastic Supermarket Full Of Cans. The commercial, but not critical, failure of these singles saw the band being dropped by Deram resulting in a change of guitarist and drummer. The group carried on gigging around the UK and were picked up by Mercury records with whom they released two albums, The Crossroads Of Time in 1968 and, a year later, the slightly more progressive In Fields Of Ardath. Success still eluded the band who, on the suggestion of their manager, changed their name to Big Sleep signing to the Pegasus label (probably best known for releasing the first two Nazareth albums). Bluebell Wood was released in early 1971 although disillusionment had set in and the band split a few months later without ever playing live, promptly disappearing into obscurity.
So why the interest in the reissue? Well, as mentioned, the musicians in the band all went on to have a great influence in the emerging prog rock scene. Pianist, vocalist and bassist Ritchie Francis stayed with Pegasus to record a widely regarded solo album; vocalist and guitarist Gary Pickford Hopkins joined Wild Turkey, the group formed by ex-Jethro Tull bassist Glenn Cornick, and also went on to sing with the Rick Wakeman Band; organist Phil Ryan, drummer John Weathers and guitarist Ray "Taff" Williams all played in Pete Brown's Piblotko! and The Neutrons. Ryan was also an important member of Welsh stalwarts Man who in their later years was joined by Weathers after the split of the famous band he was associated with, namely Gentle Giant and who, at one time, had also played in Wild Turkey as well as appearing on the Neutrons album!
The album kicks off with a plaintive, orchestrated ballade with the pessimistic title Death Of Hope. By 1971, the blending of orchestra and rock band was quite an accomplished practice and consequently the piece works well, although probably not as an opening number. Odd Song continues the downbeat atmosphere with a lovely acoustic opening where the acoustic guitar is accompanied by some fine piano playing by Ryan. The switch to electric guitar and upping of the tempo results in a sound similar to what Man would later develop. Free Life, the second song to be penned by drummer Weathers (he also composed the opening number), features some dramatic, high register vocals and a structure that makes it understandable why Weathers was rapidly picked up by Gentle Giant. Again Ryan makes his mark with some fine organ work and Williams contributes a great solo.
The remainder of the songs on the album were all composed by Francis, which may explain why he was retained by the label for a putative solo career. Aunty James is the closest to the material that Eyes Of Blue recorded, particularly on their second album, while Saint And Sceptic is another orchestrated piece that displays the progressive attributes of the era. A baroque beginning introduces a brief section with a rather incongruent wah wah guitar before the orchestra comes in at full force to drown it out. A more jazzy section leads into a reprise of the opening section completing a fine song and fine end to what was originally the end of the first side of the LP. Title track Bluebell Wood is a 'lost' seventies prog classic, largely instrumental with some beautiful melodies played on saxophone, great harmony vocals and every member of the band contributing to a piece that is every bit the equal of something like Caravan's Nine Feet Underground.
Calming things down after the epic 11 minutes of Bluebell Wood comes another acoustic ballad, Watching Love Grow. Excellently sung by Pickford Hopkins it is very much of its time but that doesn't stop Francis inserting some rather fluid bass runs that one would not usually expect in such a number. Final track When The Sun Was Out is a poor way to end the album with a rather nondescript song that has none of the interest of what has come before. A basic rock and roll song that maybe should have been consigned to a b-side or left on the cutting room floor, but as it as the end of the album you can easily stop the album at the end of the previous track!
Bluebell Wood is an interesting album and one that is important in the history of the development of progressive rock, both in terms of the transition from the end of the psychedelic sixties to the golden age of prog and in the development of several groups that were important in the genre. On this evidence I would love to hear the Ritchie Francis solo album so until Esoteric get round to releasing it if anyone has a copy please get in touch!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Maze Of Time - Tales From The Maze
Tracklist: Tales (0:39), Here And Now (9:35), Distant Tomorrow (8:56), Ocean Of Dreams (9:17), Daydreamer (6:01), The Maze (8:18), Lady May (9:28), Under The Sun (9:58)
First of all I have to apologise to all concerned and interested for the long delay in finishing and publishing this review! At the beginning of this year, this album was recommended to me by a record dealer specializing in prog CD's, calling it "already one of the best CD's of 2007" and since I rarely have been disappointed by Swedish neo-prog, my expectations of this CD had already risen high even before hearing it. My curiosity was further strengthened when I read that this album was released by an independent Dutch record label called Art Performance Production located in nearby Amsterdam. Quite strange that a prog band from one of the most prog evolved countries in the world ended up on a Dutch label; was there really no Swedish label interested or is The Netherlands really becoming the new centre of the prog scene in the world? Whatever may be the case; at least this combination brought us this debut CD of this Stockholm based band.
Maze Of Time was formed in 2001 by Robert I Edman, composer and guitarist, who, after playing covers for some time, wanted to make his own contribution to the music scene. He specifically chose not to go on the endlessly flattened roads of the mainstream, commercial pop music and let himself be inspired by the obvious likes of Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and Genesis on one hand and also the heavier guitar and drum sounds of Deep Purple, Rainbow and Ozzy Osbourne on the other, at least according to his own statement, not mine. At first he started out with symphonic hardrock drummer Thomas Nordh and bass virtuoso Janne Persson, vocals were at first added in his home studio by his good friend Christer Lindstrøm and finally childhood buddy Alex Jonsson delivered the various keyboards and woodwinds thus completing the band. It still took two years of rehearsing in the basement of the local church before they recorded their first 3-track demo on a 1" tape. Responses from record companies were surprisingly (for a prog band) mainly positive which eventually resulted in the release of this album.
Although I must say the mentioned references are, as so often, too much pretentious name-calling, but basically there's something to it; Maze Of Time delivers very melodic and symphonic neo-prog with an occasional rough and heavier edge. But to find traces of the aforementioned hardrock bands would be a true accomplishment which I personally didn't manage, unless you would judge the few guitar licks as such. Although influenced by the also aforementioned prog giants, which is almost inevitable in this field, I think they do themselves short by referring to them and not mentioning they tried (and rather succeeded to my opinion) to create a modern symphonic prog sound of their own, even though similarities with other modern bands do apply.
The whole album provides a coherent sound and recognizable style with lots of variation and a firm overall sound. After the short intro of track one (Tales) with floating water, a barking dog, a keyboard building up noise and a voice that whispers the bands name. Here And Now directly presents the solid and fresh sound of Maze Of Time with a good smooth tune, decent vocals, plenty of keys and guitar to enjoy even though it seems to run out of energy and inspiration at the end of the song resulting in an unnecessary fade-out ending. Distant Tomorrow is a slower, ballad-like song truly attempting to throw in lots of variation, not a bad song at all again with a key role for the guitar, a little bit Steve Hackett style. Ocean Of Dreams has a Watcher Of The Skies-like intro but then goes over into a more heavier rock-guitar mode including some lush keys; the long instrumental intro is great. Then the song turns down and a vocal part follows resulting in the song directly losing some of its appeal, but that doesn't bother too much since the guitar takes over again quickly enough to bring the song back to its initial powerful sound. The chorus is actually the weak point of the song which is something that seems to be an unfortunate constant factor on this album. Playing a good solid tune with lots of variation, sounding almost like improvisation, this band clearly has mastered and displays very well, but composing real good and also more intricate vocal and chorus lines seems to be more the problem.
Daydreamer is, to my opinion, the weakest song on the album as it initially seems to drift a bit without a clear direction, it does have a spicy middle piece though, but doesn't really reach truly great heights. The Maze starts quite spectacular, but unfortunately doesn't manage to keep up that excellent level mainly again because of the disappointing and uninspired vocal and chorus lines. Even though it does include a great guitar solo the rather prominent poor chorus of the song gives it more a pop-like feel than a true prog-feel and sound. Just as other moments on this album this song reminds me a bit of the weaker moments of For Absent Friends, another group that now and then bothers me with weak song structures and vocal parts! Lady May suffers from the same defects, another too poppy song; the refrain is repeated several times and also this song lacks a decent amount of true symphonic elements. But in the second half it gains my appreciation after all with some juicy prog-rock, good guitar stuff and an alternate refrain. On Under The Sun the guitar takes the leading role again which is very pleasant to hear, but it also makes me feel the keyboard could have been given a bit more prominent role. The song is a bit monotone and almost tends to become a bit boring, but again the second half makes up for that when the heavy bass riff is overplayed by a nice guitar solo and an almost full-sound true prog finale.
With several songs the feeling creeps over me that it's basically a good song, absolutely enjoying, well worth to listen to and offering enough to discover, but that it just lacks the correct finishing touch, solid power and true brilliance. The vocals on most songs are actually pretty dull, technically alright and certainly not annoying, but just not exciting and not very interesting sound-wise. It's hard to lay my finger exactly on what's missing and maybe I'm just a frantic perfectionist, but this is how it all comes over me. Nevertheless this album provides plenty very pleasant moments and lots to enjoy, the instrumental parts on this album are excellent, so no complaint there, but more than once the song sort of breaks down when the rather unexciting and too dominant vocals kick in. With better vocal lines and song structures and more instrumental segments this could have been an excellent album, now it just comes a few straws too short for that; sheer excitement and true brilliance is what fails; still this isn't a bad album to listen to!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
XCross – Kadath: The Dream Quest
Tracklist: Intro (0:31), Dreams Of The Marvelous City (10:16), Seventy Steps To The Cavern Of Flame (4:54), Zoogs In The Woods (4:15), The Black Gallery (2:36), The Images Of The Gods On Ngranek (3:08), Pickman And Friends (1:59), Night-Gaunts (2:31), Kadath In The Cold Waste (9:33), The Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep (2:08), Falling Through Eternity (8:29), Boston (4:05)
An Internet radio site I would often have in the background whilst writing DPRP reviews was Progressive Soundscapes. Sadly due to the impending change in the US royalty laws they went off the air in May of this year. My reason for mentioning this is that along with prog rock, the stations staple diet was ambient electronic music. XCross are a band that would have fitted comfortably into the PS schedule. I say band when they are in fact a duo comprising Chris Wikman and Al Baldwin who both hail from Maryland USA, joining forces as recently as 2006. On this debut release they use a combination of different synth sounds and textures to produce evocative musical landscapes. Based on ‘The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath’ a fantasy story by H.P. Lovecraft, the American author is responsible for inspiring the exotic track titles.
Following a (thankfully) brief narrative introduction, Dreams Of The Marvelous City provides some of the albums more memorable moments. Layers of dreamy synths play host at various stages to delicate harp, timpani and piano to create a beautiful, haunting atmosphere. In contrast Seventy Steps To The Cavern Of Flame sets the tone for much of what follows with an eerie background drone and stark unnatural sounds that conjure up all kinds of desolate imagery. Kadath In The Cold Waste and The Images Of The Gods On Ngranek are in a similar vein with synths providing ghostly wind effects which rises to a storm like crescendo in the latter. The Crawling Chaos Nyarlathotep includes dissonant sonic effects reminiscent of the alien machines in Spielberg’s ‘War of the Worlds’, but it’s the nightmarish electronic howls of Night-Gaunts that prove to be the most unsettling.
It’s not all doom and gloom however. Zoogs In The Woods and Pickman And Friends are both upbeat sounding pieces, whilst the up-tempo The Black Gallery has an edgy synth sound that curiously brought to mind an early Human League before they embraced mainstream pop. Although I’m unfamiliar with the story, judging by the plot synopsis in the CD booklet I would say that Wikman and Baldwin have done an effective job in reflecting the narrative and capturing the spirit of Lovecraft’s writing. On a purely musical level it’s the last two tracks that work best for me. Falling Through Eternity includes some very bombastic sonic outbursts around the halfway mark before introducing lush synth washes that border on the romanticism of Debussy. It segues into Boston with gentle piano and crisp acoustic guitar against a majestic synth backdrop with a hint of tubular bells. A stately conclusion to a not always comfortable listening experience.
Unfortunately the CD gives no information regarding instruments and devices used by XCross, but nonetheless they create sufficiently varied sounds, moods and tempos to keep the listener engaged. At times the music is richly atmospheric and expansive making it ideal soundtrack material for any number of TV documentaries especially those on space exploration. I’m sure there are several electronic artists to whom the duo could be compared but for me their sound has its origins in early 70’s Tangerine Dream. The main problem I guess with this style of music is that its mood music, in other words you have to be in a certain frame of mind and situation to fully appreciate it. Having said that, it is extremely well recorded, which is appreciable even in the car. It was at its most effective however when I listened to it late one evening with headphones and a glass of my favourite tipple!
Conclusion: 7 out of 10