Round Table Review
Pallas - XXV
Tracklist: Falling Down (7:29), Crash And Burn (5:28), Something In The Deep (6:50), Monster (6:21), The Alien Messiah (6:49), XXV Part 1 - Twenty Five Good Honest Men (6:08), Young God (5:17), Sacrifice (4:21), Blackwood (2:02), Violet Sky (5:07), XXV Part 2 - The Unmakers Awake (6:02)
John O'Boyle's Review
"Your knowledge has made you cynical not wise."
In 1984 Euan Lawson once sang, "Am I in heaven or in hell? Well personally I can't tell". Well let me say this, the standard for 2011 has been set by the rather excellent and gifted Aberdonian Neo Prog band Pallas. This is a band that has eight DPRP recommended releases, a band with a slightly chequered past with vocalists, each having brought something to the table. They are also a sensational live band, but more importantly a band that is revered in the prog world and XXV is their thirteenth release, which features Messer's Paul Mackie (vocals), Graeme Murray (bass, 12 string Taurus pedals, vocals), Niall Mathewson (guitars), Ronnie Brown (keyboard and vocals) and Colin Fraser (drums and vocals), for those not in the know. Remember these names, as at the end of this album they will be burnt in to your mind. To answer Euan's question, after hearing this album I am in heaven.
Now this is no ordinary or casual album by any stretch of the imagination. This is not a band that is fighting for its life. This is a band that has been punching far too long below its weight; XXV is going to change this, as this is by far the best album they have recorded. Unafraid to challenge, bombastic, symphonic and thought provoking are just a few words that spring to mind when I think about this band. The mood is dark, the sound more modern, heavier and ballsier without losing its melodic approach, which will appeal to fans both old and new, being a very clever move indeed. This is a concept that needs to be turned into a book or placed in the right hands, turned into a movie. I'd settle for both.
In 1984 some stunning albums were released, some where even genre defining; along with I.Q, Marillion and Twelfth Night they were defining and writing the rules for the prog genre of the day. The Sentinel I believe should be included in that category, as it was an album created by the band which had it all, it was their landmark recording, an album that should have seen them hit the big time, it was the album I recommended anyone unfamiliar with the band to buy. Not anymore. Fast forward to 2011 we see XXV, (part 2 of The Sentinel) exceeding the deliverance of that album by a mile; make no mistake of that.
The soundscapes that have been created here are both thematic and cinematic; the delivery of the music layered with the lyrical content really heightens the emotion of the pieces presented. The last time such a balance hit me so immediately was Floyd's The Wall and The Final Cut. Pallas has hit the exact and perfect musical combination, a balance which gives this album its exuberance, its vitality and personality, allowing it furrow into your mind, sending shivers down your spine, repeatedly giving you that wow factor, every time you listen to it. Melody and hooks are not something that the band have struggled with here or ever for that matter, the music is just enriched, so alive, caressing the soul, lovingly, creations that need to be embodied by all, participating, being the forth dimension of the creation, that final ingredient for perfection.
"Hear me, see me as I step to your stage
I talk to everyone of you so I subdue your rage
Your leaders have failed you. Your world sits on the edge
Here and now before you, I make this pledge"
From the highly charged and powerful opener Falling Down, which sees the band going into overdrive, before Ronnie Brown’s bombastic keyboards kick in, with the piece being underpinned by Graeme Murray’s Rickenbacker bass tones, enter Paul Mackie, who runs the gamut firmly stamping his mark and vocal intention. Such is the hook and melody here, you will be singing along before the last notes ring out. Crash And Burn steps up to the plate, having to follow Falling Down, but such is the power of the creation, it steps the pace up a notch as Niall Mathewson’s guitar really ignites the piece. His lead and rhythm work here is outstanding, perfectly placed, the delivery and interaction of the band is impeccable, which helps to reinforce the lyrical message being delivered. Something In The Deep slows the pace down, its heady swirling atmospheric sound structure and dreamy lyrics really offering a different dynamic approach. Paul’s vocals really tug at the heart strings, dragging you right into the centre of the piece. Towards the end we are presented with an orchestral industrial soiree which adds solidity and power to the piece. Monster is just punctuated with power, stalking mankind and the listener, offering its malevolent view,
“Tin pot dictators chase their own atom bomb
While this planet is melting and no one cares for help
We argue over nothing my head is really hurting
Take it to the wire...”
Enough said really.
The Alien Messiah funnily enough takes a messianic approach, being the statement of intent. Niall really drives those emotions with his climatic crescendo guitar work, whilst the band underpins his fret work. Colin’s drum work here is second to none, a powerhouse approach. XXV Part 1 sums up the total ethos of the whole album for me, powerful, thought provoking, almost a clever analogy of modern society, the band believe, breathe and live every beautiful note played here, one minute solid and pounding, the next cinematic, almost religious in approach, then wham... The power kicks back in. You could only dream of writing such music. Young God utilises a harder edged sound, repeating rhythmic and pounding drums and bass, aggressively punctuating Mackie’s delivery. The structure of the whole piece is very much layered, where again Mathewson’s guitar work is stunning. “I condemn your arrogance. I blame your procrastination. The twenty five are now in place. End of negotiation”. Sacrifice takes a more basic approach, which reminded me slightly of Blue Oyster Cult, which is quite a high accolade. Mathewson really grabs the whole piece, one minute quick runs, then slowing down the pace, orgasmic guitar runs, the back line reinforce his statement of intent, offering him the stage to show his prowess. Blackwood and Violet Sky segue into each other beautifully, being moody and melancholic, lyrically questioning the integrity of it all, with Melissa Allan guest vocals being perfectly placed, inspiring, offering depth to the piece, the orchestral pieces alone are just stunning. The whole piece showcases the beauty of Mackie voice, being a perfect prelude to XXV Part 2, the albums powerful and succinct closer. The whole grandeur of the bands approached is displayed here in the song, the climax, an apocalypse. As with the perfectly fitting opener Falling Down, XXV Part 2 just delivers the goods, powerfully closing the album.
“All that you are
All you have Done
Will now unravel
The countdown has begun
Take one last look
At all your mistakes
All your triumphs
Now seem out of place
For this is my mission and your destiny
So lift up your eyes and look at the sea
The Unmakers awake”
I can only believe that this is a social statement of humanity and mankind, being cleverly disguised. If not then it should be. Here is an album that will be talked about for a long time to come. I know the band road tested some of these tracks, which has allowed them to fine tune them, an approach that has paid off. There is absolutely nothing I don’t like about this album, which makes it album number two in my reviewing career to receive the highest accolade, being awarded full marks.
Pallas has just released an album that has brought modern prog home.
Mark Hughes' Review
I've been a long time follower of Pallas, buying the original cassette version of debut release Arrive Alive way back in 1981 and then again when it was released on vinyl; attending some of the band's earliest performances in England and buying all the albums and reissues as well as quite a few of the singles and DVDs. And yet, with all that I have never managed to become a committed fan. Obviously I have enjoyed their music over the years, I'm not stupid enough, nor rich enough, to spend my hard earned cash on stuff that I dislike! It is just that their albums are not ones that instantly spring to mind when people ask me for examples of great prog rock or even when I want to listen to listen to a classic album. And it is not just because I favour the music or earlier decades, there have been plenty of albums released since the early seventies that have become, and will remain, firm favourites. Maybe it is because of a fondness for the early days of the 'new wave of progressive rock', the spirit, excitement and adventure of the times down Wardour Street. And it is not just Pallas, I am in the same situation with Pendragon. Loyalty can be a strange mistress!
But back to Pallas, and their new album XXV and a return to the themes of their first EMI album The Sentinel. Like a lot of people I was shocked to hear of vocalist Alan Reed's dismissal from the band, a singer who I have admired since his days with Abel Ganz, and wondered if replacement Paul Mackie, would be a radical departure. I caught a large portion of the group's performance at the Loreley Festival (some of which is included on the limited edition release with a bonus DVD) and remember being somewhat less than impressed, although fatigue may have been a factor, it had been a long day and the festival policy of putting on an additional band after the headliners beat me into submission, resigning myself to a long journey to the hotel. So it was with some trepidation that I handed over the cash for the new album. First impression was that it was heavy, far heavier that most of what had gone before, the opening of Falling Down being a prime case in point. Guitarist Niall Mathewson really laying down his mark over large chunks of the proceedings. Not many qualms about Mackie, he is a good enough singer when his voice is not being messed about and manipulated (as on Something In The Deep in particular), although at times the strange thought that he sounded a bit like Bruce Dickenson did pop into my head! As you'd expect from a sequel album, musical passages and themes from The Sentinel are incorporated in with the new material, mostly in a quite subtle way and it is amusing to listen out for these snippets and place them in context with the original songs and story.
However, at times, it seemed to me that the album had somehow been put together by a computer that had listened to a lot of Pallas and other modern prog and then tried to come up with its own version. That might sound a bit harsh, but really with the exception of the intense guitar soloing (listen to Crash And Burn for instance) there was not a lot to surprise me with this release. There are a lot of background effects and linking 'scenes' which I found rather more distracting than unifying and to me, several of the songs were over-worked, as with the aforementioned Something In The Deep, which is somewhat dreary for five minutes, gets more interesting with a keyboard string section, starts to become a tad overblown and then just stops. Monster has a decent chorus but I find the rest of the song strangely annoying. The band are incredibly tight and the production is as good as ever, plus the Pallas knack of coming up with a plethora of good hooks hasn't departed them as there are plenty of memorable moments, but these are fragments of the album, which does seem, to me, rather disjointed. And there are a few narrative sections (as in The Alien Messiah and at the start of the album, although getting Jerry Ewing to guest as a narrator couldn't have harmed the group's jostling for a spot on the High Voltage Festival line-up!). Perhaps I am approaching the album in the wrong way, and should try and absorb it as a combined concept piece rather than a collection of distinct songs. But I never found the whole Atlantis thing very inspiring and although the original version of The Sentinel as envisioned by the band might have been watered down at the request of EMI, it is hard to see where this album fits into the overall concept.
I mentioned a resemblance to Bruce Dickenson in the vocal department and on Young God that comparison comes to the fore, indeed the beginning of the song could be an Iron Maiden outtake with its crunching, riffing guitar. Again, the song is rather disjointed and doesn't to my ears, have a natural flow to it and is consequently quite hard listening. Sacrifice I found to be one of the weaker numbers on the album, although the section towards the end with harmonised guitars was nice enough. Blackwood is a brief introductory piece featuring the vocalisations of guest Melissa Allen that sets up proceedings for the obligatory ballad, Violet Sky. Mathewson lays down his electric six string in favour of an acoustic model and the change in tempo is very welcome, although I am not convinced of its value as a 'lost love' song. Graeme Murray does not have a lot of singing parts on the album which is a disappointment as the characteristic use of two slightly different vocalists is missed. It would have been interesting to hear this piece sung by both of them, different voices, same perspective. Final track, the second part of XXV, is another one that sounds overdone, trying to be all dramatic, mysterious and menacing all at once but not ending the album in a truly memorable way.
So, all in all not a great album for me and more retrogressive than progressive in pure musical, if not genre, terms. Sadly it is not an album that I would generally chose to play over other Pallas albums, who, as I stated at the start of this review, are not a band that are top of my playlist at the best of times. Still, what do I know, bet it becomes the biggest seller of their career!
Pallas will always be in my heart. I know this may sound just plain corny, and you’d be probably right, but they’re truly special to me, as they “came into my life” when I was going through a (let’s say) weird moment in my life. Maybe it’s their “Scottishness”, or their unique mix of neo-prog and hard rock… maybe is the unorthodox way their career has evolved. Unfortunately, the wait between releases is getting increasingly longer, their last studio album being the phenomenal The Dreams Of Men (2005), so XXV is a more than welcome (and much anticipated) addition to the “Pallas canon”.
Much has happened since that now distant 2005. After releasing their live Moment To Moment DVD in 2008, the band were apparently enjoying their most stable and successful period, and looked determined to bring their epic Sentinel tale back to life. Then, shockingly, singer Alan Reed abandons (sacked?) ship, and things take a turn to the unpredictable. Maybe was it time to call it a day? Would the band replace him, or maybe use Graeme Murray’s powerful (and systematically underused) vocals instead?
The Good News: Paul Mackie. I was concerned about the new vocalist since the feedback on the net wasn’t very positive, but I needn’t have worried as his voice sounds great to my ears: naturally powerful, with the right touch of drama and versatile enough to suit the twists and turns of the music. Alan Reed was (is) a wonderful singer, but I also understand both his voice and style are an “acquired taste” so, in that sense, Mackie’s more conventional hard rock approach might “help” the band to get wider attention.
XXV (which actually should be XXVII) brings the epic tale of the Atlanteans into majestic life, and updates the saga to match both 21st century ethos and aesthetics. This time around, it’s a well deserved ultimatum: Mankind has to choose between changing its behaviour dramatically and stop being a threat to planet Earth and itself, or face complete extermination and subsequently (just in case it wasn’t clear enough) the End of the World.
Does the music match such an ambitious plot? Definitely yes! The album sounds big, dramatic, intense, and goes for the full widescreen approach (bands such as Arena and Ayreon are being named in many reviews, though I think Pallas are a completely, more “organic” different kind of band). From bombastic opener Falling Down, Pallas make a vehement statement about their intentions: huge keys, aggressive but elegant drumming, and catchy melodies in spades. Crash And Burn isn’t as spectacular, but it is a very intense piece of (nearly) prog metal nonetheless. Something In The Deep slows things down, complete with “aquasonics” and, though it gets a bit repetitive, it is graced with a solemn and intense symphonic closing section. Monster is the “single” from the album, and in a perfect world it should be a hit, because it has all the hooks right in place. Some have complained about the apparently blatant commerciality of this particular track, but Pallas have always kept an ear on the accessible end of progressive rock, and this is a fitting (and infectious) example.
The Alien Messiah is another of the main pieces on XXV, a massive hard rocking behemoth of a song which might remind you of Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, mostly thanks to its arabesque guitars and keys. Before you have a second to catch your breath, the first section of the XXV diptych follows with again powerful and baroque stylings, then Young God gets the full prog metal treatment (and, by the way, the only slightly weak vocal performance) and Sacrifice closes the second act of the story in massive Rush style (this is a track that wouldn’t be out of place on Counterparts).
Not that the final act lacks intensity, but this time things get a bit more emotional and “intimate”; first, the short instrumental Blackwood, which in fact is a prologue to the ballad of the album, Violet Sky. I believe these two tracks should have been kept together and, though the latter’s lyrics might be a bit simplistic, it all serves very well as a prelude to the epic closing track, the second part of XXV, a great way to finish in spectacular dramatic style (think of Pink Floyd’s High Hopes), although in the end it is a bit underwhelming in the sense that such a grandiose sounding album should have finished with a great epic. That’s one of the few shortcomings of XXV: the absence of a massive centerpiece; there’s no Midas Touch or The Last Angel here.
Also, if you want to enjoy the full “XXV experience”, I recommend you to download the Atlantean instrumental track (which the band themselves offer on their site) and use it as a fitting prologue to Falling Down. For consummate fans, please get the Special Edition, complete with a live (if short) DVD filmed at the Loreley festival.
The Not So Good News: Busy and intricate as the music often gets in this album, I feel the mix sometimes doesn’t do it justice, and this is particularly obvious on tracks like Falling Down, where many details get slightly lost among the many layers of sound. Elsewhere, the album sounds big and cinematic, although not as crystal clear and well-rounded (at least to my liking) as The Dreams Of Men or The Cross An The Crucible (2001).
Elsewhere, all the Pallas trademarks are present and correct: Murray’s thundering bass lines, Ronnie Brown’s marvellous sense of drama and orchestration (what a criminally underrated musician he is!), great drumming from Colin Fraser, big guitars from Niall Mathewson… Also, tough it’s not Patrick Woodroffe’s, the sci-fi artwork is flashy enough to grab your attention, and it definitely makes the package all the more attractive.
All in all, XXV is an excellent piece of grandiose, intense symphonic hard rock, where the concept flows effortlessly, and a more than worthy sequel to the classic Sentinel album of the 80’s but, in a somewhat disappointing way, its biggest problem is that the two (great) albums which preceded it were a bit better.