Reviews in this issue:
- Rocket Scientists - Looking Backward
- Porcupine Tree - We Lost The Skyline
- RPWL - The RPWL Experience (Duo Review)
- John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest - Legacy [DVD]
- Thork - Nula Jedan
- Shadow Circus - Welcome To The Freakroom
- Random Touch - Alchemy
- SBB - The Rock
Rocket Scientists - Looking Backward
CD One: Looking Backward - [The 2007 Sessions]: Dark Water Part One (4:32), Earthbound (6:12), Picture Show (8:46), Pythagoras (Unbound) (3:54), Minstrel Saviour (7:28), When Sorrow Falls (5:13), Carry Me Home (5:18), Escape [remix] (10:01), Break The Silence [remix] (6:01), Mariner [2003 version with Kelly Keeling on vocals] (7:31), Earthbound Reprise (2:16), Dark Water Part Five (6:36), Dark Water Part Six (2:12)
CD Two: Oblivion Days [1999, remastered in 2007]: Dark Water Part Three: Neptune's Sun (1:46), Aqua Vitae (6:28), Oblivion Days (7:07), Archimedes (5:38), Banquo's Ghost (6:00), Space 1999 (4:38), Escape (10:02), Compass Variation [Extra track from Japanese release] (3:59), Break the Silence (6:01), Dark Water Part Four: Heavy Water (4:44), Wake Me Up [Live in Tokyo 1999] (6:22), Stardust [MM96 Mix] (4:55)
CD Three: Brutal Architecture: Dark Water Part One (4:12), Wake Me Up (5:44), Copernicus (2:53), Brutal Architecture (6:20), Nether (4:04), Dark Water Part Two (1:39), The Fall of Icarus (6:30), Resolution (7:31), Rainy Days & Pastel Grays (7:13), Millennium 3 (7:16), Mariner (11:31), Stardust [Extra track from Japanese release] (4:57)
CD Four: Earthbound: Earthbound (4:57), Down Trodden (3:30), Picture Show (4:59), No More Lies (4:28), Killing Joke (3:46), Avalon (4:05), Welcome To The Machine (4:48), Minstrel Saviour (6:09), When Sorrow Falls (3:46), Calm Before The Storm (4:27), Pythagoras (0:57), Temple Of Pain (3:58), Carry Me Home (4:12), To The Edge Of The World [1993 Demo] (3:42)
DVD: Looking Backward [NTSC Region free]: "LOOKING BACKWARD" (102:00) (Dark Water Part One / Main Titles, Earthbound, Interview segment, Picture Show, Interview segment, Pythagoras (Unbound), Interview segment, Minstrel Saviour, Interview segment, When Sorrow Falls, Interview segment, Dark Water Part Five, Dark Water Part Six / End Titles), AN AFTERNOON WITH EMMETT CHAPMAN (25:00), A BRIEF HISTORY OF ROCKET SCIENCE - Candid Studio Footage 1993-2007 (21:00)
Being new to the Rocket Scientists I was somewhat apprehensive about taking on the reviewing of their epic 4CD/1DVD collection, Looking Backward. But anything for a challenge! The reason behind this release is quite simple, original copies of the first three studio albums have either been long out of print or were becoming exceedingly hard to find. Rather than re-release the individual albums with a couple of bonus tracks added on the band decided to go the whole hog, re-master everything, add some bonus material, record an additional CD of re-interpretations of songs mainly taken from the debut Earthbound album and add in a DVD of the band in the recording studio. Package it up in a box, chuck in a 64-page full colour book, get a nice sleeve and slip case designed and unleash it on the world!
The CDs have a combined running time of four and a half hours, a big chunk of time in anyone's books. But I have to say the quality of the music has meant that I have been able to sit down and play the entire set through on several occasions! Obviously it was not necessary to listen to the albums all in one go but it gave a fascinating insight into the development of the band over the six year period (1993 to 1999) when these albums were originally recorded. Back in 1992 Mark McCrite and Erik Norlander started recording the first Rocket Scientists albums with assistance from various friends including Don Schiff a bassist who, after playing on the album's title track, was invited to play on eight other numbers and eventually joined the band. With a mixture of great progressive songs such as Earthbound and superior pop-rock songs such as Picture Show, the band were off to a flying start. Even the version of Pink Floyd's Welcome To The Machine has been imbued with a more ominous menace giving it an extra breath of life outside of the classic Wish You Were Here album. The remastering has given the tracks a clear and sharp sound that defies the age of the recordings. Bonus track, a demo of To The End Of The World, although previously unreleased by the Rocket Scientists, was reworked, re-titled On The Wings Of Ghosts and released on Norlander's solo album Into The Sunset.
The second Rocket Scientists album, Brutal Architecture, is the sound of a band getting it together. With the group consolidated by the permanent addition of Don Schiff, who by this time had set aside his bass and instead contributed his considerable Chapman Stick talents, and drummer Tommy Amato, who had also played on five of the debut album's tracks, the group eschewed any external musicians. Brutal Architecture not only enabled the musicians to become one of those nebulous of creatures known as a band, it also allowed them to solidify their own sound. This was no more apparent than on Wake Me Up when any doubts as to which side of the prog-pop divide the scientists fell on was well and truly answered. The album also saw the start of the Dark Water series of instrumental pieces, the first part of which provides a suitably grandiose introduction to the album. With tracks such as the great Mariner and Millennium 3 alongside the gentler Rainy Days And Pastel Grays (prog banjo anyone?!), the album cemented the reputation of the group. Bonus track included in this set is Stardust which, like two other cuts on Brutal Architecture, dated from some six years earlier. Originally released on the Japanese version of the album in 1996, the song differs from the rest of the album in that it features Lana Lane's guest vocals.
Four years was to pass before the band regrouped to release Oblivion Days, the DPRP review of which can be found here. The review stands up pretty well eight years on, if you can excuse the overuse of 'bombastic'! Certainly a heavier album than the previous two with the third part of the Dark Water instrumentals segueing straight into Aqua Vitae. Apparently Norlander had imposed an embargo on power chords for the Brutal Architecture album but this time the boys wanted to rock and managed to do so in a very effective progressive manner on track such as Escape! However, the musicians were eager to display their repertoire so we are also entertained by the complex instrumental Archimedes as well as a couple of lighter tracks such as Break The Silence and Compass Variation, the latter track having only previously been released on the Japanese version of the album. The other additional track on the box set version of this disc is the MM96 mix of Stardust.
Jump forward eight years, neatly skipping over the 2006 Revolution Road CD, we find ourselves at the last CD, the 2007 sessions. With ten brand new recordings, two remixes and a previously unheard version of Mariner with Kelly Keeling (Baton Rouge, Michael Schenker, Dokken and numerous others) on vocals the CD is over 76 minutes of 'new' material. Hang on, how can previously released songs be considered new, even if they are new recordings? I hear you cry. For the main these are re-interpretations of tracks from the debut album and a careful perusal of the track listings and timings at the top of this review will show the reader that the new versions have been substantially added to, take Picture Show and Pythagoras (which has gone so far beyond the original 60 second recording that it now has an 'Unbound' added to its name) as good examples. The album is closely linked to the main feature of the DVD recorded during these 2007 sessions. The new versions owe a lot of their vitality to the basic tracks being recorded live in the studio with overdubs added later.
This is cleverly handled in the DVD by great editing. The filming is also refreshing in that a lot of time is spent on close ups of the instruments and the performance rather than the performers. The overhead shots of drummer Greg Ellis are particularly thrilling. Between tracks on the DVD there are interview segments which allow the group to introduce the songs and mention a bit about how they came about. Wise to their audience, and knowing that although interesting and informative a watcher of the DVD would not want to listen to the interview segments each time they watched the DVD, it has been authored so that one can select to just watch the music items. Other features on the DVD include an interview with Emmett Chapman, the inventor of the infamous Stick, who gives a concise history of the instrument and is well worth watching if only for the lovely duet between Chapman (on Stick) and Schiff (on N/S Stick) at the end - Peace in Harmony indeed. Finally there is a collection of studio footage recorded during the making of all the Rocket Scientists albums which, like the photography in the booklet, give an amusing insight into the changing fashions, hairstyle and waist lines of the past 25 years!
So is this a worthwhile package to add to one's musical library? I would say absolutely so! A lot of care has gone into the remastering; the booklet is comprehensive with full lyrics, plenty of photos and band comments on each track; the new recordings of old songs stand up in their own right and add a lot to the originals; and the DVD is very watchable being much more personal and informal than, for example, any live recordings. The musicianship on display can't be faulted, these are talented players (and in McCrite's case a great singer) and what is more they come over as extremely likeable individuals, not hung up with pretention or artifice, just happy to be doing what they enjoy, revelling in each other's company and appreciative of the fact that there is an audience for the music that they make. Definitely a band you wouldn't be afraid to take home to meet mother on a Sunday tea time!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Porcupine Tree - We Lost The Skyline
Tracklist: The Sky Moves Sideways (4.02), Even Less (3.27), Stars Die (4.33), Waiting (3.52), Normal (4.52), Drown With Me (4.09), Lazarus (4.29), Trains (4.04)
A couple of weeks ago there suddenly was an out-of-the-blue announcement of a new Porcupine Tree live album. Well, actually it's more a Steve Wilson solo performance on vocals, electric and acoustic guitar with John Wesley joining in on electric guitar and vocals after three songs. The set was recorded live in store in Park Avenue, Orlando, USA on October 4th 2007 and seemingly it's been meant for publication all along, judging from certain remarks that the talkative Steve Wilson makes in between the songs.
I love live recordings that have versions that differ from the normal studio versions. Normally the biggest change is done by either stripping down the songs to acoustic versions or by changing the arrangements and expanding the songs. Porcupine Tree's Coma Divine works extremely well in the latter category and is one of my favourite live albums. Unfortunately however, the songs in the band's current live sets rarely differ all that much from the studio versions. Sure, Open Car has that nice middle section, Halo has an extended intro and Dark Matter was played slightly different, but an avid collector of PT live recordings rarely finds something extremely remarkable (version-wise) nowadays.
As such this new live album comes as a great surprise and a bit of a relief. Eight songs with only vocals and guitars, sometimes acoustic and sometimes electric, sometimes and extremely well done combination of both. Those who have had the luck to see the band play The Sky Moves Sideways on the band's last tour will remember how Steve Wilson played the second section (I Find That I'm Not There) on his own, accompanied by wonderful echoing guitar before the rest of the band kicked in for the third section. The rendition on this album is exactly that vocal-electric guitar version that is just heart wrenchingly beautiful to listen to. A short version of Even Less follows in which Wilson displays that a song does not have to be fully acoustic to still stand up. I have to admit though that I personally would have liked him to exchange the electric for an acoustic guitar on this one (like he's done before). In it's current form it's a bit too noisy to fit in with the intimate atmosphere. Then it's back to the Sky Moves era for a nice rendition of Stars Die. Unfortunately John Wesley's vocals are still missing on this track since he only joins in during the next song, Waiting. As you can imagine, both of these songs work marvellously in stripped versions.
Next up Wilson explains how he wrote a new song that's incredibly difficult to play and how he had to ask 'his buddy' Robert Fripp for advise on how to learn it. They're going to try it anyway and after a first failed attempt we are treated to 2.5 minutes of Normal, the highlight of the Nil Recurring EP. As you can imagine, it's not the full track but just the fast acoustic lick and the "wish I was old and a little sentimental" part. Unfortunately not the whole track but still an ultra-rare live version that doesn't fail to impress. John and Steve then pick up the pace for a great acoustic and electric guitar version of Drown With Me, the track that should never have been dropped of the In Absentia album, as Wilson admitted during the last tour. The set closes with two songs, Lazarus and the ever popular Trains, that continue to work very well with the combination of chords & rhythm played by Wilson on acoustic guitar and melodies by Wesley on electric guitar. As on the other songs this also enables Wes to play some of the solo's in the tracks. Combined with the close harmony vocals this results in an intimate yet full arrangement for duo performers that you will not have heard often.
Any complaints ? Well, sure. This is a great album, but it could have been even better. First of all it's a shame that John Wesley only joins it from the 4th track. Stars Die could have been even better in a multi-vocal rendition. As mentioned, I also wouldn't have minded if Steve Wilson had used an acoustic instead of an electric guitar for Even Less. Last and final remark would be the playing time of the album. It's only about half an hour of music. Now, it's completely fair that the CD is sold at a discounted price, but maybe it would have been a good idea to include another session on the CD. There surely must be more recordings of other 'unplugged' sessions. The unplugged part of the XM session comes to mind, but also Steve's solo recording of Sentimental that can be found on YouTube. Furthermore there have been more in-store performances (e.g. Newbury Comics, Boston 2006) and quite a few Steve Wilson solo performance (Mean Fiddler in 2004 with Ben Coleman, Tel Aviv 2003, Delft 2000 and 'supporting' Blackfield). Oh well, let's hope Mr. Wilson has more up his sleeve.
All in all a great set, packaged in the traditional Digipack for the band's own Transmission label, that comes highly recommended for all Porcupine Tree fans and lovers of unplugged sets alike. A welcome diversion from the more guitar-heavy approach the band has submerged itself in since In Absentia.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
RPWL - The RPWL Experience
Ed Sander's Review
I've been a big fan of RPWL ever since I heard their debut album God Has Failed and saw them live on the tours supporting that album, as well as the next two tours. For me the mixture of Floydian and Beatlesque influences combined with the band's own style and lust for innovation and experimentation have created a great admiration for the band. As such I couldn't wait to review their new album when it arrived in the DPRP postbox. Quite a few things have happened since the release of their previous studio album World Through My Eyes in 2005. Chris Postl, the original bass player, returned to the band, RPWL had a TV appearance in the legendary German TV show Rock Palast, they released an outstanding live album (Start the Fire) and to keep the anxiously waiting fans happy they released the 9 album with 5 live tracks and 4 solo compositions played by the full band last year. And let's not forget the debut of guitarist Wallner's other band Blind Ego, featuring an all-star cast of musicians. With all of this activity in the past 3 years, what would the new album sound like?
As with their previous full length studio album, World Through My Eyes, I was rather disappointed with the album after giving it a first couple of spins. However, whereas World proved itself to be quite a grower The RPWL Experience has left me rather underwhelmed and although there are some very nice tracks to be found among the 10 songs, the album as a whole is no match for their previous releases. At times the album sounds uninspired and as much a hotchpotch as the Stock and 9 albums were. It almost sounds like a half-finished album that was rushed because of contractual obligations. Some songs miss a good melodic hook that is normally present in RPWL's songs and some are too straightforward for a band that has become known for their adventurous compositions and explorations of near-epic proportions.
One would think how all of this came to be. The press release that came with the album informs us that the band thought their "last studio album was so colourful that it would have been impossible to top that aspect. (..) We simply made into music what we ourselves enjoy. We didn't hold back or apply the RPWL filter, but let our ideas run with musical lightness." In itself one could consider this a noble ambition but of course the danger is that the end result is far from what fans would expect or hope for. And I'm afraid this is the case with The RPWL Experience.
In the press release singer/keyboardist Yogi Lang also complains about being irritated that people didn't take notice of the lyrics on World Through My Eyes. Personally I'm very much of a 'lyrics man' and unlike others I consider lyrics to be an integral part of the compositions. I can however imagine that the sometimes symbolic and mysterious tendencies in RPWL's lyrics are not everybody's cup of tea. Furthermore, even though I myself am not too much bothered by Yogi's German accent I can imagine that this isn't the case for all listeners, and especially when grammatical errors pop up in the songs this can put people off. But what perhaps makes me most apathetic to this critisism on the listener is the fact that RPWL sometimes makes it so damn hard to actually understand what is being sung. The articulation is sometimes lacking and the effects and processed vocals that are sometimes being used (like in Silenced and Choose What You Want To Look At) make it a tough task to even figure out what a song is about. Still, taking heed of Yogi's words I have paid special attention to the lyrics of the new album.
Let's take a look at the individual songs. Silenced is as far as I'm concerned the only instant RPWL classic on this album. Just under ten minutes it goes through a heavy riff intro (that might actually have been better suited for Blind Ego, guitarist Wallner's other band), a typical RPWL verse-chorus section, a guitar solo, keyboard solo and best off all a breakdown halfway through the song. Here the rhythm is reduced to a synth throb over which the drums come back in. This is one of the best moments of the album with great tension building that I've come to expect of this band and is so very much absent from most of the other songs. Lyrically Yogi puts the finger on a sore spot with it's subject of how the 'first world' is ignorant to suffering elsewhere in the world and can sleep well in the night.
Breathe In, Breathe Out is a rather straightforward rock song that's not too far removed from some songs on the bands earlier albums. Nice but not overtly special. Where Can I Go has a real retro feel and also reminds me of early RPWL with it's Beatles meets Floyd style. Unlike the previous song we are treated to one of those trademark breaks with (movie) dialogues, this time one of those crazy TV preachers, before a Floydian guitar solo kicks in. All in all one of the best tracks of the album.
Masters of War is a Bob Dylan cover that has been given the Pink Floyd treatment, making it sound a lot like the second half of Sorrow. It drags itself slowly through its six minutes and while the subject matter of weapon manufacturers making money on other people's suffering is still as relevant as when the song was released 45 years ago, the lyrics also give the song an outdated an cliche feeling. What however surprised me most is that a band that dabbles in Eastern philosophy and concepts of compassion would subsribe to the lyrics in the last verse: "And I hope that you die, And your death'll come soon, I will follow your casket, In the pale afternoon, And I'll watch while you're lowered, Down to your deathbed, And I'll stand o'er your grave, 'Til I'm sure that you're dead." Well Bob, this doesn't really make you any better than the people you criticize.
The song that will draw immediate attention is This Is Not A Prog Song. Contrary to what you might expect this is not a PIL cover but a very uplifting song that sounds like a slowed down version of New Order's Waiting for the Siren's Call. Lyrically the song deals with tough criticism that the band gets from music critics. Being a music critic myself I found the exaggerated lyrics highly amusing ... until the chorus came up. Here the band seems to claim that all music critics are underrated musicians that think they could do much better themselves. A big misconception since they normally don't compare someone's music to their own abilities but to those of other bands and musicians out there. This delusion instantly turns and enjoyable song into something rather childish. Still, if you ignore some of the lyrics and the unnecessary chaotic climax with unintelligible ranting of and English bloke (what's the use if you can't hear what he's saying?), you still have an enjoyable toe-tapper.
Watch Myself is one of those Beatlesque ballads like Believe Me from the Trying to Kiss The Sun album. One of those ditties that has you automatically swaying your body from left to right and reach for your lighters. Unfortunately this specific one isn't all that special and rather forgettable since it doesn't have a catchy melody that sticks in your mind once the track is over.
Stranger is another song that deals with the topic of war and opens with the sounds of gunshots before a thick, aggressive guitar riff kicks in. Another moment on the album that has me thinking 'shouldn't this be on a Blind Ego album?'. Fortunately when the whole band kicks in the style changes. I especially have to mention Chris Postl's nice Rickenbacker sound. The song moves through heavy and more quiet acoustic sections in it's 8,5 minutes. The mid section features a long wah-wah guitar solo before we arrive at a break with a nice keyboard solo and a return to vocals. As such is much more of a prototype RPWL song than most other songs on the album. Maybe not the best track they've written, but certainly a highlight on this album.
River is perhaps the biggest disappointment on the album. It starts out as a vocal-guitar ballad. RPWL has done a couple of great tunes in this style but again a good melodic hook is missing in this one. What's worse, after 3 minutes of acoustic guitar and vocals, where one would expect the building towards a climax the song just changes into three minutes of utterly pointless soundscapes and random effects. Now, this might have been a cool thing to do in the days of Interstellar Overdrive and UmmaGumma but it's totally out of place here. I personally do not have the patience to wait until the song picks up with drums at the 6 minute mark ...
Choose What You Want To Look At is an aggressive rap-like song that again would have been much more suitable for a Blind Ego album. It's difficult to exactly follow what Yogi is signing because of the heavily processed vocals. Although I like energetic songs and the chorus isn't half bad, this one just does not seem to be a bit out of place. Besides, I fiercely dislike the high-pitched backing vocals and I'm not too sure about the presence of the theramin solo either ...
The album closes with another ballad, Turn Back The Clock, that suffers from the same lack of innovation and is a bit too close to a poppy boy band ballad for my personal taste (there you have your 'musical lightness'). The folky ending with military drums and Marillion/Fish-style guitar solo is a very nice touch but we have to sit through 4 minutes of sweetness to get to it.
All in all I'm not sure what drove RPWL to release the album in it's current form. Some songs do not reach the same level of quality we've come to know from them while others would be better suited for a Blind Ego album. Maybe it would even have been better to use some of the stronger studio tracks from the 9 album for this album. Conclusion: for RPWL a bit of a disappointing album but it does have it's occasional moment of brilliance (Silenced, Where Can I Go, Stranger). As such it deserves it's place in an RPWL fan's collection, but it's not the best album to start with for a 'novice'.
Martien Koolen's Review
I really liked World Through My Eyes (2005), but the new RPWL CD called The RPWL Experience is even a better release. The album kicks off with one of the best RPWL songs ever. The track is called Silenced and it features a couple of amazing guitar solos and lots of very melodic and sometimes even experimental musical passages. The heavenly, melancholic vocals of Yogi Lang add the superlative dimension; a real gooseflesh track indeed! In fact it is a true shame that not all the other songs are of that high musical quality, otherwise this album would truly deserve a perfect 10!
Another highlight is the song Stranger, featuring an almost “brutal” metal guitar riff, again excellent guitar melodies and a magnificent, almost brilliant, Manfred Mann-like keyboard solo. In the Pink Floyd-like song Turn Back The Clock RPWL also comes up with an Asia/Mike Oldfield-sounding melody and last but not least a staggering guitar solo by Karl-Heinz Wallner.
Unfortunately RPWL cannot keep up that high musical level during the entire album as songs like Breathe In, Breathe Out or Where Can I Go? are “just” nice melodic prog rock songs and nothing more than that... The absolute misser, in my humble opinion of course, is the song River, which is nothing more than a super boring semi-acoustic song.
The band covers Bob Dylan’s Masters Of War – a song way back from 1963!! – and the David Gilmour-like solo in the middle of that track gives me gooseflesh all over; brilliant!! Lyrically speaking the most interesting song is without any doubt This Is Not A Prog Song, where the band deals with bad press reviews in a rather hilarious way.
The southern German prog rock band certainly explores new musical horizons on this album as some songs even sound raw and unpolished. There is a lot to enjoy on this CD as at least three songs have magical compositional and highly technical class. Looking forward to hearing these songs in the flesh I can only say: buy or die, skip River and enjoy and a great prog rock album.
John Lees’ Barclay James Harvest – Legacy [DVD]
Tracklist: Valhalla [Introduction], For No One, Child Of The Universe, Harbour, The Iron Maiden, The Great 1974 Mining Disaster, Cheap The Bullet, Poor Man's Moody Blues, Galadriel, Suicide?, Medicine Man, In Search Of England, Poor Wages, Mockingbird, The Poet, After The Day, Hymn (95:43) Bonus: Access All Areas (17:18)
The lengthy subtitle Live At The Shepherd’s Bush Empire London 2006 says just about all you need to know regarding this DVD. That and the fact that it features one half of the original Barclay James Harvest lineup, namely guitarist and lead vocalist John Lees and keyboardist Stuart ‘Woolly’ Wolstenholme. They are joined on this occasion by Kevin Whitehead (drums), Craig Fletcher (bass) and Mike Bramwell (additional keyboards). Legacy is certainly an apt title with all but one song taken from BJH’s creative 1969 to 1978 period. Although I don’t have the time or space for a history lesson here for anyone that’s unfamiliar with the band you might want to checkout the Introduction to last year’s Barclay James Harvest feature. Recorded on 5th November 2006, the London setlist is virtually identical to the one I witnessed in Leeds just the day before which can be found in the Concert Reviews section. The only song missing is She Said and as I recall its performance in Leeds was a fairly ragged one which may account for the omission here.
Soundwise they’ve done an excellent production job with this DVD being sonically far smoother than I recall from the live show. The instrumental balance is spot on with Lees’ fluid guitar lines enveloped by Wolstenholme’s symphonic keys. The Whitehead/Fletcher rhythm section is rock solid without being overbearing and Bramwell adds some fine keys work of his own to ensure that the songs lush sounds are converted perfectly to the stage. The dapper Lees with his groomed silver-grey hair, waistcoat and tie looks like a businessman that’s called in after a day at the office. In contrast the bespectacled Wolstenholme with his lengthy grey hair and open necked shirt could be a college professor. Lees is in good voice throughout and Woolly sounds in much better shape than the previous evening where he was obviously suffering the effects of a head cold. In comparison with the BJH veterans the backing trio look very youthful indeed. No worries on that score however as they handle the classic material in style injecting some fresh energy along the way.
Taking to the stage to the strains of Wolstenholme’s Valhalla they launch into For No One, a genuine prog classic as is Child Of The Universe that follows. Both songs, like so many others here, were firm fixtures in the 70’s BJH shows. Three mellower and lesser known tunes follow in the shape of Harbour, The Iron Maiden and The Great 1974 Mining Disaster. The first two feature vocals from Wolstenholme who comes from behind his keyboard rig to add acoustic guitar to Harbour. In contrast the sets most recent song from 1990 Cheap The Bullet is a melodic foot-tapping rocker with a creditable lead vocal from bassman Fletcher. If there are three essential songs for any BHJ set list then one of those would have to be the infamous Poor Man's Moody Blues. Less a tribute and more a cheeky gesture, Lees and Wolstenholme come as close to replicating Nights In White Satin as is possible without plagiarism. Bramwell adds some fine piano arpeggios.
The elegant Galadriel is Lees’ homage to Tolkien’s fictional Elf princess and a welcome inclusion here. It was originally recorded 37 years ago when The Lord Of The Rings director Peter Jackson was just celebrating his 10th birthday. It’s manna from heaven for the fans as is the bittersweet Suicide?, possibly second only to After The Day as my favourite BJH song. The rendition here is excellent and the equal of any previous performance. The rhythmic Medicine Man gives the two leads the opportunity to indulge in some uncharacteristically lengthy guitar and synth exchanges. In Search Of England and Poor Wages both feature lead vocals by Wolstenholme who again picks up acoustic guitar for the latter. It’s the oldest song here and originally one half of a single. It has a catchy chorus with the bonus of a blistering solo from Lees. The seminal Mockingbird follows featuring John’s son JJ Lees adding cornet to the strident orchestral finale. It’s a convincing performance and arrangement even though I miss the choral majesty of the original.
Before the final two songs of the main set Woolly introduces the band members in a very funny and original fashion using a telephone that’s been perched on top of his keyboards throughout the show. He also can’t resist a sly reference to a certain other Barclay James Harvest that’s currently doing the rounds. Cries of surprise and delight come from the audience when Wolstenholme announces The Poet and After The Day. Producing a dramatic end to the third BJH album, the pairing provides a fitting finale to this part of the show. The orchestral magnificence of The Poet almost seems at odds with the image of just five people on stage. Although my list of favourite songs has grown immeasurably since I first heard After The Day some 36 years ago its haunting melody still sits somewhere close to the top of that list. As the faithful audience shows its appreciation the band take a quick breather before returning to the stage for the ever popular Hymn. It’s a triumphant performance with JJ Lees returning once more to add a brass flourish to the emotive finale.
In addition to the superb sound, the DVD boasts an excellent picture quality with images suitably clear and sharp. Special mention should go to the camerawork which in addition to some good high level crane shots picks out individual band members from a variety of angles. Although the stage lighting is modest compared with some bands more spectacular productions it’s still highly effective with the main visual concession being the band logo displayed large on a black backdrop. Woolly’s Mellotron (the genuine article) is also very conspicuous and really comes into its own during Mockingbird amongst others. Ironically however the onstage camera reveals that the strings for several of the other tunes emit not from the Melly but the digital synth sat above it. Set highlights? Well given that just about every song is flawlessly executed preferences are likely to be influenced by your existing BJH favourites. For me that would be Poor Man's Moody Blues, Galadriel, Suicide? and After The Day. For Barclay James Harvest fans this DVD is an absolute must and it comes highly recommended to anyone that has a soft spot for classic symphonic rock.
As a postscript I should add that this recording is also available as a CD, but be advised that due to space constraints Harbour and Galadriel are both absent from that format. I enjoyed the performance of both songs here so personally I would go for the DVD every time. You also get a bonus by way of a visual documentary, Access All Areas that follows the bands progress up and down the UK. It’s an engaging insight into life on the road with little dialogue save for the occasional humorous observation from Wolstenholme, Fletcher and Lees. Guitarist Jim Leverton, one half of the duo that played support is also caught briefly on camera. The black and white images of the band rehearsing in a working cotton mill in Lancashire are fascinating. The best part is a fan convention in Wolverhampton where Lees jokingly reveals the title of the song he most regrets writing. As you can probably guess it’s one of his most popular!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Thork - Nula Jedan
Tracklist: Ex-Slave (12:49) ICI (5:38) La Lumiere (9:10) J’Aurais Pu (4:39) Danse des Airs (6:23) Au Ciel (7:10) Revoir (7:53) 01 (8:13) Ces Reves-La (4:23)
Really though, Nula Jedan can be seen as the solo project of keyboardist Sebastien Fillion, with only Violinist Claire Northey and Bassist Samuel Maurin as holdovers from the previous line-up (and Maurin only features on two tracks here). Fillion reveals himself as a very capable multi instrumentalist, also contributing Voice, Bass, Guitar, Tin Whistle, Percussion and Programming. The musical palette is enriched by guests contributing Violoncello, Oud, Trumpet, Bugle, Trombone and Tablas.
Deserving of special mention is Violette Corroyer, whose dreamy female vocals add delicious atmosphere to several tracks, in particular to the lengthy opener Ex-Slave where a distinct Clannad type ethereal vibe holds sway. An excellent opening number, Ex-Slave demonstrates a more accessible side to the group, with strong melodies, tuneful guitar solos and yet retaining the darker edge of earlier works with the inclusion of chopping violins. With some delicate electric piano work and breathy backing vocals, this is a deeply atmospheric track and one of the best on the disc.
Listening to the disc, its apparent that Thork have cut away much of the experimentation, going for a more accessible sound, which mainly sticks to the formula of alternating long, quiet, ethereal sections, with occasional, shorter, more rocky sections, in a satisfying blend of Symphonic, Folk and Rock. It’s much easier to like than their other two albums, which contained a fair amount of challenging chopping and changing, and some more extreme elements. Having said that, ICI turns away from the folk side, for a rockier number, which opens with fuzzed electric guitar and a strong beat, backed by symphonic keys. Modern programmed beats comfortably nestle alongside acoustic guitars,
La Lumiere, starting off very low key with percussion and vocals, gradually builds to accommodate world music textures from the tablas and oud, with keys and violins adding a symphonic sweep. This is a gentle hypnotic number, with subtle melodies and inventive textures.
Danse Des Airs is the first number on this disc to almost, but not quite, reintroduce the Avant inclinations which were more prevalent on early Thork outings, but still they are presented in a more melodic context on this satisfying instrumental, which also carries on the influences of modern Electronica. Some great keyboards here too.
Dreamy, Folkish vocals and echoing guitar start off Au Ciel, which has a beautiful melody and is squarely in the symphonic folk tradition, with instrumental sections reminiscent of Mike Oldfield. This is my second favourite track on the album.
Samuel Maurin (of the superb Nil) makes his presence felt on O1, contributing fantastic bass work to underpin a crunching rock number replete with Brass arrangements, but still managing to inject a medieval folk feel and a splash of electronica, a surprising mixture which works really well. This is the track which sounds most like the Thork of yore, and it’s very good too.
Closing out the disc, Ces-Reve-La tops acoustic guitar with heavily processed vocals, an unusual juxtaposition, which doesn’t quite gel together, making for a disappointing end to the album. It might have been better to present the song in a straight manner, with unprocessed vocals.
On the stronger numbers, Ex-Slave, Au Ciel and O1, Thork prove they’ve got what it takes to make thoroughly engrossing, powerful yet delicate music, which should have a strong crossover potential in the Progressive and Folk Rock Fields.
Overall, this is a delightful, dreamy album, much more approachable than their two previous discs, and clearly their best yet. If you tried Thork before but were unsure, by all means, try them again now, you might be pleasantly surprised. Recommended for all fans of Progressive Folk Rock
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Shadow Circus - Welcome To The Freakroom
Tracklist: Shadow Circus (6:43), Storm Rider (7:50), Inconvenient Compromise (5:58), Radio People (6:16), In The Wake Of A Dancing Flame (6:39), Journey Of Everyman (A: So It Begins - B: Find Your Way - C: Journey's End) (12:00)
Shadow Circus is a five piece group from New York. Main man is guitar and keyboard player John Fontana. He also produced the album and participated in the writing of all the songs. Shadow Circus creates modern progressive rock but still very true to influences from bands like ELP, Jethro Tull, King Crimson and Genesis. The band plays in a relaxed style but still sounds very controlled, things will never result in a mess. With the album Sound Of The Apocalypse Black Bonzo proved that seventies music can be transformed into fresh modern music. Some parts of Welcome To The Freakroom could have easily come from that album. The music of Shadow Circus contains a lot of keyboard sounds but not as freely as for instance Beardfish provides. The biggest difference with above mentioned bands is that Shadow Circus sounds a lot more uplifting. Instead of dark topics and dramatic music this album puts a smile on your face.
"Step right up" is shouted when Shadow Circus starts. The audience is thrilled with enthusiasm as the circus noises swell. Ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages are soon presented an old fashion wall of keyboard sounds. The main theme of the song is a slow circus like melody with chords that make it sound like King Crimson. The theme is a slow swaying melody where you could imagine the circus people marching in a parade through the town. The guitar solo starts of with the most well known circus melody known to man. Very good opening song.
Storm Rider is the perfect example of ancient prog elements converted to a modern sounding song. Up tempo with strange rhythm changes and a keyboard and guitar melody that remind me of old Marillion. The chorus is very rock orientated. The solo part is very powerful and fast, guitar and keyboard alternate in this bit. As a bit of breathing space between this song and the next the end is played in a more atmospheric ambiance.
The start of Inconvenient Compromise is again of a high energy but on the hole it's more a blues song. Lots of influences from ELP in this song. Again a modern walk through progressive memories.
The song Radio People shows that Shadow Circus doesn't follow the serious subjects like several bands do. Radio People starts like a pounding popular eighties Genesis hit and holds many comfortable sounding keyboard melody's. The chorus is funny and of a high sing-a-long level. This song will put a smile on your face.
After a funny song like that In The Wake Of A Dancing Flame is a compete turn around. A ballad with hammond organ and long dark instrumental pieces. A beautiful song but just a bit to long because the instrumental center part doesn't seem to go anywhere.
Journey Of Everyman is a twelve minute epic song divided into three parts. Conservative structured song, long keyboard intro, sudden time changes and a recurring theme. The third part is the best. An instrumental burst of solos ending in a powerful recurrence of the central theme. This song will not go into the history books as a classic epic but it will be appreciated by many progressive rock lovers.
Welcome To The Freakroom turned out to be a very pleasant album with music influenced by seventies progressive rock played in a modern way. Black Bonzo accomplished the same with their album Sound Of The Apocalypse and Shadow Circus plays some tunes that could have come directly from that album. This is their debut album so it's only normal it can't reach the very high quality of above mentioned album, but I have enjoyed myself during numerous spins. Still a very good album that will be appreciated by people who dare to be surprised by this pleasant uplifting music that's a bit out of the ordinary. Maybe with their next album they will "step right up" along side the top league of progressive bands these days.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Random Touch - Alchemy
CD: Incompleteness Becomes Us (8:57), Cyborgs Of Unlimited Dementia (5:38), The Alchemy Of Turbulence (6:18), Stones Whisper In My Sleep (1:49), Beneath A Dreaming Moon (5:40), Abandon (3:08), Nocturnal Emissions (6:15), Crossing Expanses Darkly (4:37), Insectiva Hallucinogenica (3:33), As Above, So Below (2:38), Alchemy (9:15), Moonrise With Plane (2:02), Bound For Escape (4:47), Intimate Friction (3:28)
DVD: Music videos (50 mins), live/studio jams (25 mins), R&D at Wayside Studio Barn (15 mins), Words & Other Remnants. Includes: Beneath A Dreaming Moon, The Alchemy Of Turbulence (excerpt), Incompleteness Becomes Us (studio jam), Insectiva Hallucigenica (excerpt), As Above So Below (excerpt), Bound For Escape (excerpt), Nocturnal Emissions (excerpt), Graffiti Mobilis (excerpt)
Firstly, I think I need to say that I don’t consider myself to be an arty person. I like beauty in images and music and often find this beauty in unexpected places but always feel a little uncomfortable when music imposes its artiness upon me. I can listen to improvisational music and enjoy it. I can see some merit in the avant-garde but never seem to be having as much fun as the performers. This package is not an easy listen. It is often dissonant, often eloquent and beautiful but never easy; sometimes relaxing, often perplexing. Random Touch work hard to get to a spiritual place with their music and from some of the interviews included on the DVD seem to be doing very well at getting there. This is harder, I feel, for the listener
Random Touch were founded by percussionist Christopher Brown and keyboardist James Day while they were at high school in the early ‘70’s, the pair first collaborating with guitarist Scott Hamill in 1978. The other member of the group is cameraman Matthew Ebbin with whom they’ve been working since 1998. Alchemy is the seventh CD and second DVD by the group. Pointers as to what they sound like are fairly irrelevant as they generally sound like Random Touch but along the way flashes of the likes of Pink Floyd, early Tangerine Dream, Robert Fripp (at his most experimental), Michael Brook and Hans Joachim Roedelius can be heard as can Frank Zappa’s later classical work and the influence of his hero Edgar Varese. Ethereal guitar and washes of synth, strange sound effects and dissonant percussion are all here, often within the same track, with the overall sound offering synthetic soundscapes with stabs of disjointed melody from more traditional instruments, the rhythm often employed to give an industrial feel.
Chris Brown has said:
“When we play it’s like entering a trance. Visual elements and even drama materialize of their own accord, as if I’ve fallen into a waking dream. At times I have no conscious awareness that we are making music”
... and the result is often hypnotic, dreamy and otherworldly, the dreamlike qualities often turning dark and nightmarish unexpectedly. It took me a long time to take in this package in order to start reviewing it and ultimately the focus did not occur until I’d watched the whole of the DVD. The music may be the same but adding the visuals gives it additional depth and focus - even if some of the visuals used are just confusing, disturbing or head scratchingly weird. This music is probably at its most powerful when performed live in the right space. This is not for the concert hall, more the museum or art gallery. As Robert Fripp has played a number of church venues recently these may also be an interesting place to try and take it all in. As an artistic installation there seems to be much thought provoking material here; as a stand-alone CD this may be somewhat lacking.
Nine of the fourteen tracks from the CD have music videos (although they’d never make it to MTV!) on the DVD. A tenth is added by the inclusion of the non-CD track Graffiti Mobilis. A mixed bag they are too in terms of subject matter. All are heavy with video effects, time-lapse, split screen and jerky realism in which children, animals and insects move. Many involve forest locations and the moon, and some of the visuals are very striking, made more so by the music. Hail stones on a grass lawn; a room with water for walls; nature taking back and absorbing what humans have discarded. This is definitely a package that should be consumed as a whole. Many of the images are engaging and evocative fitting well with the music, some less so, but they all give the music a point of reference.
As far as the music itself is concerned, is this high art or muzak for lunatics? I suppose that depends on who is listening to it. Don’t expect tunes or melody in the expected sense of the word. Experimental throughout, often minimalist, sometimes rhythmic, the quality of improvisation here is second to none and the live performance clips included on the video give testament to this. These documented jams from 2004 and 2005 show the band in the studio and in a live setting and it is very interesting to see them in the process of performance. These are clearly talented musicians all playing from the same page – a page that no one else in the room can see – and they are clearly enjoying themselves. None of them seem to watch the others, just listen and immerse themselves in their own instruments which are generally guitar, synth/piano, drums and percussion, often heavily treated and laden with effects making it hard to decipher who is playing what.
The DVD also features additional features such as the R&D sessions filmed, again, during 2004/5. The first shows the band using “found sounds” to make music in the Musique Concrete method that Pink Floyd employed during Alan’s Psychedelic Breakfast on Atom Heart Mother. The next shows the lads in scientist’s white lab coats and this is probably your one and only chance to see someone playing a bed! Finally we have them shovelling snow in full-face ski masks just for the sounds they can harvest. Do not hire these guys to clear your driveway – they’ll take an age to finish but you’ll probably get an album out of it. You also get a section where Brown, Day and Hamill offer up musings and ramblings on many subjects. The most interesting are Day discussing what he likes about Random Touch and Brown talking about being able to hear “symphonies in white noise”. These give the listener another chink, which may slightly aid the understanding of the music. The DVD also has “secret” hidden menu options that aren’t visible but if selected give a video fragment of the guys doing something…strange.
Having spent some time with the music and thoughts of these 50-somethings you get the impression overall that they’re probably lovely but a bit crackers. Lovers of the experimental avant-garde should form an orderly queue for this one at their soonest opportunity. Everyone else would be well advised to approach with caution. This is not to say that it is an unpleasant listening/viewing experience. It isn’t, it’s just not an easy one.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
SBB - The Rock
Skala (4:54), Plonace Mysli (7:42), In Heaven And Hell (7:02), Silence (6:46), Sunny Day (7:03), My Paradise (5:17), Pielgrzym (8:16), Akri (7:27), Zug A Zene Mindenhol (7:06)
SBB have been around for a long time now, releasing a string of albums from 1975-1980 and were the most well known Polish band in the seventies. Nowadays there are a lot more progressive rock bands from Poland and maybe the rise of those bands encouraged SBB’s founding members Jozef Skrzek (keyboards, bass and vocals) and Apostolis Anthimos (guitars) to start recording again after releasing several live albums during the nineties. That has resulted in two albums in this new century (Nastroje in 2002 and New Century from 2006) with new drummer Paul Wertico. In November of 2007 they released The Rock with again a different drummer: Gabor Nemeth.
I like to refer to the review of SBB’s previous album New Century by Yalcin Inel as I agree with most of his findings about SBB. If you are going to expect epic songs, wild improvisations, complex arrangements or technical prowess then SBB is not a band for you. They are more about creating an atmosphere and sticking with that for an entire song. Sometimes they slowly build up the tension, like on In Heaven And Hell which sounds like a bluesy jam. In fact a lot of the songs sound like they have been written by jamming a lot. There are some definite blues (In Heaven And Hell and Zug A Zene Mindenhol) and jazz/rock (Pielgrzym) influences.
Another important part of the SBB sound is that they try to put a lot of emotion in the songs and especially Skrzek’s vocals are very heavy on emotion. It can be said that the vocals are not the strongest part of SBB but they are not too bad in my opinion. Also guitar player Anthimos puts a lot of emotion in his guitar work. Listen for example to his solo in In Heaven And Hell or his guitar playing on Akri. New drummer Gabor Nemeth is not a drummer who likes to show off, he keeps his drumming simple and straightforward most of the time. Skrzek’s keyboard work is subtle although I’m not always a big fan of his choice of sounds. In Pielgrzym, which again sounds like an extended jam, we can enjoy some his soloing.
You really have to like the three keywords that describe SBB; atmosphere, emotion and jamming. And that along with a mixture of rock, blues and jazz. If not (like me) you may find that the album sounds dull in places. Because most of the songs are of a more than average length and there are not many changes during the songs. It sometimes gave me the impression that they lacked good ideas. It’s not very varied.
However I’m certain that people who have liked SBB in past will certainly like The Rock but I don’t think they will win a lot of new fans with this album.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10