Chimpan A — The Empathy Machine
While recently talking with Robert Reed, I joked with him about him being due to experiment with dance and trance beats like Mike Oldfield. I should have taken heed of his wry laugh at the time. When I first popped The Empathy Machine into my CD player, I suddenly realised I did not just have egg on my face, I had a whole damn omelette poured over my head.
I have followed Robert's musical journey since becoming enchanted with Cyan at an early age, and having The Fyreworks album he appeared on, being one of my all time top ten records. I have dabbled with Magenta over the years, but until recently not really invested any time in Rob's other projects; something I am currently putting right. So when the opportunity to review another of Robert's projects arose, I jumped at the chance to give Chimpan A a listen, and boy, was I in for a surprise. What was waiting for me was not the classic prog of Magenta, or the subtleties associated with many of Robert's other works, but dance like electronic rhythms, drum machine beats and a whole lot more which I could not take in on the initial listen.
I have probably invested more time in listening to The Empathy Machine than any other album of which I have written a review for, and the problem is I am still struggling to pigeon hole what Chimpan A have produced. This is a record which really defies having a label attached. If all was fair within the music industry, then The Empathy Machine is the type of album which should be included in the Mercury Prize Award. But, as most people who read these reviews already know, a snowball has more chance of surviving in hell than this happening.
Robert is accompanied on this musical journey by Steve Balsamo, another amazing Welsh talent who, before playing this CD, I had never heard of. Well, Steve has quite a long musical pedigree, one highlight, and probably the most high profile, is playing the lead in Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar rock opera. If a singer can recreate Ian Gillan's original vinyl interpretation of the role, then you can be assured they are a damn fine vocalist.
The album's bookend tracks feature spoken word narration provided by Tony Dallas, whose ennunciation has you hanging on every word, and listening to what he has to say will have you thinking about many aspects of life. These passages add to the journey the album takes the listener on. I will not divulge any information relating to these passages, only to say they were unexpected but essential to the albums overall effect.
The music of Chimpan A has had me struggling with how to describe what they have produced. Taking the track It's So Real, it begins in a mellow way, similar to Enya, before one of the catchiest hooks of this year grabs you, all the time bringing to mind M-People being interspersed with a Pink Floyd atmosphere. It was while listening to this particular track that The Buggles came to mind. This reference is apt, not just for the music, but Robert Reed's production of the whole album. Trevor Horn is one of my favourite producers, and what Rob has done with The Empathy Machine on, I imagine, a considerably smaller budget is simply awesome.
What was surprising was the liberal use of other, female vocals, throughout the album. Rob's regular musical cohort, Christina Booth appears, and if it is her vocal on Stars, then she has produced one of her most vulnerable and fragile performance on this track.
The first track publicly released from the album, Speed Of Love, begins with a synth riff akin to Vangelis or Jan Michele Jarre, then Shan Cothi's exquisite soprano voice takes you on a memorising journey. All of this is excluded from the single edit, leaving the listener with a homage to the '80's in a way only Muse have seemed to have credibly tapped into.
Included with the release is a DVD which features a 5.1 surround sound mix of the album, promo videos, including The Calling, which is directed by Mr Reed (do his talents have no limits?), interviews and bonus tracks.
As I said earlier, I have spent more time with this release than any other I have reviewed, this because what the listener is presented with is something I have found difficult to describe. Family members, who are not prog fans, have passed by while I have been listening to The Empathy Machine, stopped, sat down and listened to the album. They to have been taxed by what they are listening too, but in a way I have never seen with any other album, and that includes all musical genres. What Messrs Reed and Balsamo have created is an album that is covered in pure beauty, it challenges the listener, but not in any snobbish musical way, but with its constantly changing musical landscapes. I can only sum up by saying I have been taken by surprise, and have been presented with a musical gem which I can only sum up as stunning.
Degen Herb Mroszczok Schleicher — Theories In The Absence of Definition
The music that we hear on this release is the result of a process of Neuss (Germany)-based musician, composer and producer Sebastian Schleicher to come to terms with his musical past and likings. Having been and still being active playing guitars in various German art and alternative rock bands such as Beside and Amberfield, he wanted to fulfil his ambitions of separately and individually publishing some of his songs which, according to his assessment, were not fully compatible with the repertoire of his other bands. Hence the decision to gather some musical friends, namely Chris Herb (bass, touch guitar), Dennis Degen (drums), and Karsten Mroszczok (keyboards), whom Sebastian had been playing with in various other bands and projects before, and to record an EP with three songs.
Two of the songs date back to Sebastian's time with Beside, whilst the third one (The Sky Must Be The Limit) has especially been composed for the purpose of appearing on this release. However, the music is so coherent overall that one does not realise that this song has been written several years later than the other two ones. Besides composing, playing guitar and taking over parts of the vocals, Sebastian Schleicher assumed responsibility for producing and mastering of the entire EP. The fact that he is also the owner of a professional recording, producing and processing company is reflected in the flawless quality of mixing, mastering and production. Additionally, in his capacity as session musician and producer, he has been involved as a guest guitarist in numerous bands and projects, amongst others in the most recent release of German progressive rock band Force Of Progress called A Secret Place.
How to describe the music on this release? For me, it sounds like a blend of ambient, art, straight, and psychedelic rock, with the clearly recognisable tag "prog" on it. Spacy keyboard sounds provide a melodic foundation for the guitar to elaborate its solos. I tend to assume that someone like David Gilmour must have played an influencing role for Sebastian Schleicher, as his playing and especially the soloing bears the signature of this prog rock master, just as the entire music cannot deny a certain Pink Floyd influence. It also makes me think of RPWL and Italian proggers Moongarden.
The music is catchy, melodic, easy to listen to and avoids unnecessary complexity. I liked the warm, organic sound of the guitar. The rhythm section is discrete, but very efficient with fluid bass lines and precise and accurate drumming. Vocals are soft and mellow, and fairly laid-back, sometimes polyphonic (that's when the Pink Floyd similarities become the most evident to me). Sampled telephone and especially answering machine messages appear in all three tracks. What I found particularly appealing are some of the rhythms accompanying the guitar soloing: so electrifying, repetitive, and pulsating, sometimes almost mesmerising (especially on Find Me) that it is close to impossible not to shake one's head and tap one's feet.
No weak moments appear on this EP, each of the three tracks having its particular characteristics and individual strengths: upbeat and catchy (Find Me), subtle and delicate (The Sky Must Be The Limit), symphonic and diversified (Theories In The Absence Of Definition, which in fact is a three-part suite: two vocal pieces, linked by a spacy, lengthy Floydian guitar solo).
This is an album which I very much liked listening to. It is accessible, relaxing, unpretentious, well played, arranged and produced, with melodic guitar and keyboard work, catchy grooves and rhythms, simply feel-good foot-tapping music. I saw myself driving in a car on the shoreline towards sunset whilst listening to Find Me. Alternatively, the songs also are very much suited for a relaxed after-work half an hour with a pair of good headphones on and a glass of wine. Sit back and enjoy!
Glass Hammer — Dreaming City
Glass Hammer was formed in 1992 by Steve Babb and Fred Schendel. Though the band has earned a long standing, devout fanbase, the amount of press they've received pales in comparison to some of their same era musical peers (ie: Spock's Beard, The Flower Kings, Big Big Train, Echolyn, etc.). This is unfortunate because Babb and Schendel have consistantly released quality albums and always strive to present a diverse range of musical styles.
Dreaming City is their eighteenth studio album and it continues that tradition. There is a potent harder edge to some of the material, such as the the title track, Cold Star, Pargana, and the Rush-like epic, Watchman On The Walls. Two instrumental tracks (At the Threshold of Dreams, The Tower) employ an effective electronic sound that makes one wish that the band would record a whole album of this type of material. Electronics also drives the synth pop stylings of the darker toned, A Desperate Man.
The remainder of the album consists of more standard Glass Hammer fare, but these tracks are nonetheless entertaining. Terminus is a great homage to 80's AOR and This Lonely World is an infectious jump into psychedelic waters. The engaging October Ballad is a highlight and features the fantastic Susie Bagdanowicz on lead vocals. Lastly, there are shades of Jethro Tull in The Key, a good old school, organ infused prog rocker. Babb and Schendel are again accompanied by an impressive group of musicians and singers who make a significant imprint on the finished product.
In my estimation, this is the best Glass Hammer album since 2005's, The Inconsolable Secret. Like that recording, the strong performances are matched by some of the best songwriting in the band's history. As unsung as I believe Glass Hammer to be, this is an album that deserves attention. Full of melodies that resonate, excellent performances and first class production, Dreaming City is the work of tenured prog rock professionals. I highly recommend it.
Bob Katsionis — Amadeus Street Warrior
Amadeus Street Warrior is marketed as "a retro soundtrack to a fictional 16-bit video game that could have been released in the glorious days of Amiga, Sega Master System, Commodore 64 and Nintendo days!". To be honest, I've never been a gamer, so I didn't heavily go into the album looking at it from that perspective. However, as part of the campaign for this release, there are some very cool retro packages available that I am sure fans of video games will enjoy. Katsionis put a lot of work into that aspect of it, including the creation of a storyline for his fictional video game. Also, the artwork by Kostas Tsiakos is fantastic. Putting the video game element aside, I focused squarely on the music.
In the 80's, I listened to a lot of keyboard/electronic instrumental albums. Works by artists such as Jean Michel Jarre, Anthony Phillips, Geoff Downes, Tangerine Dream, Synergy, Eddie Jobson, and David Hentchel just to name a few. Many of these releases are now dated, but they reflect the time and they have a definite charm. These days, most electronic albums fall more into the EDM category and I miss when music of this type was more melodic. For that reason, the retro aspect of Amadeus Street Warrior intrigued me. My interest was rewarded because the album proved to be a very nostalgic and entertaining listening experience.
In fact, listening to it is somewhat like entering a timewarp. Katsionis doesn't just reflect back on the period, he captures it perfectly. If I was told that the album was recorded in 1987, I would completely believe it. Nostalgia only goes so far though and ultimately, it was the fun of the album that won me over. Attempting to create a video game vibe, the songs are generally not complex, but they are effectively melodic. Because the tracklisting is set up in soundtrack fashion, the flow works well and helps to paint a musical picture. Listening to Amadeus Street Warrior was a entertaining trip down memory lane for me, but it also stands up as an impressive old school keyboard album.
The Opium Cartel — Valor
How many times have you heard just one song by an artist, which has developed into a life long passion for what they do. One song can give you an indication that they write in a certain way that draws you in as a listener. Over the years a band may develop, and many years along, may bear scant similarity to what first drew you to liking this particular group. But you yourself have grown with the band. Each album will usually be cohesive and have an identity of its own. Imagine if that was idea was ripped up and thrown away. What if that first song you heard bore no resemblance to any other song on the album? The singer on each song was changed, the style of each song was at odds with the previous song?
Well this is what The Opium Cartel have presented with their third album, Valor. The Opium Cartel is a project masterminded by Jacob Holm-Lupo, better known for his work with Norway's White Willow. Jacob does not hide his influences for The Opium Cartel, these are firmly grounded in the '80's pop, new wave sounds. The main sounds I pick up on are Japan, Roxy Music, David Bowie and Julian Cope's various musical ventures of this era. The sound is further grounded in this period by the use of vintage keyboards of the time.
The use of four different vocalists on the album is one major reason for the eclectic feel to the disc. Included is Jacob's 13 year old daughter, Ina A, who provides an exceptionally mature performance to Nightwing, which is a song reminiscent in places to the sound of A Flock Of Seagulls.
Numerous Norwegian artists provide a helping hand, adding to the individual sound to each song. Take for example the track A Question Of Re-Entry. This is primarily an instrumental which begins with the jingly synth sound reminiscent of the '80, which has sound bites from, I assume, one of the Space Shuttle landings. The Bjorn Riis' guitar cuts in, first providing a Dire Straits feel, before exploding into a melodic workout akin to Floyd.
While listening to the album you will find yourself hearing a section of a song, and getting frustrated trying to think what is sounds like. My advice is to put this to one side, and just sit back and enjoy the nostalgic trip back to a different time. Forget about what you usually get from most albums by one artist. Enjoy Valor for what it is, at times unique, at other times it is like listening to a Now That's What I Call Music compilation album from the '80's, or a soundtrack to a movie of the time such as The Breakfast Club. This latter analogy is reinforced when you watch the video to the album's first single, In The Streets.
I do not mind admitting I found this review hard to write. At first my mind told me I should not like this as it was such an eclectic listen. But reason began to take hold the more I listened to it, as the nostalgia and quality of the work was so good. If you are a fan of any of the mentioned bands, give Valor a listen, I'm sure you will initially like one or two of the song, but bare with it as this is a real grower of an album. The more you listen the more you will benefit from a stunning musical adventure.
Tiberius — A Peaceful Annihilation
Tiberius hail from the fine city of Edinburgh, Scotland, and have unleashed this refreshing debut album after a string of ep's and singles dating back to 2016. Consisting of Jahan Tabrizi and Chris Foster on guitars, Ryan Anderson on bass, Nick Kelly on drums and Grant Barclay on vocals, the band play an interesting style of moderm metal, with inspiration running broadly, from the likes of Iron Maiden to the more storytelling vibe of The Deer Hunter, while crafting a sound that is entirely their own.
One of the things that I noticed on the first listen of this record was the amount of vocals, there is very little in the way of instrumental sections throughout this album. This band clearly recognise the talent of vocalist Grant Barclay. His voice is somewhere between Bruce Dickinson, Howard Jones and Jorn Lande and his lyrics are poetic, always painting a picture in the head of the listener. He's backed up by some absolutely outstanding musicianship through the whole of this album, while it has a fairly standard modern metal production, the playing is simply top of the line from every band memeber, the guitars are relentless, and dance around each other like Mastodon on heat, the drums are inventive and fill every space with new ideas. I'd say Nick Kelly's cymbal work is some of the best I've ever heard, just check out the song, Dissipate, and you'll hear what I mean.
This album is filled with so many brief, different moments of absolute brilliance, for example I initially found the opening of The New Subjugation to be rather cheesy, it begins with almost Nu-Metal levels of annoyance, yet the guitar melodies quickly evole into a beautiful harmony, giving it an epic feeling. This track reminds me of Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime with its politically charged lyrics and powerful, driving rhythms.
There are so many great little moments that it makes it difficult to pinpoint them all. The layers of vocals on Skylark, the ridiculously catchy Mechanical Messiah, the constant guitar finger tapping and inventive vocal techniques during Fidelity Lost, this is a record which you could initially consider to be fairly middle of the road, until you take the time to really play the songs over and over, then you start to fathom just how much is going on in every second of this album. There is not one moment throughout this entire experience that I don't hear absolute attention to detail and making every note, beat and vocal as good as it could be.
The amount of different influences this band make apparent are outstanding, yet they make everything sound like it's breaking new ground. Anchor brings to mind the musical insanity of Scale The Summit while remaining incredibly catchy and changing things up with a Judas Priest style chorus. The speed metal of Leviathan is perhaps one of the album's weaker moments, but still, you can't help but be blown away by the insane musicianship and the bands ability to change up each section of the song, so it at least keeps throwing surprises at you. Swansong was another track that blew me away, by far the most commercial track on the album, it has a radio friendly sound to it, despite being as heavy and musically challenging as anything else on the record.
But it was the closing track, Kaituma, that really sealed my opinion of this band. Here we have one of the best songs of the year, maybe one of the best heavy metal songs I've ever heard. Take the epicness of Iron Maiden's Fear Of The Dark add some face-melting euro metal that would send the crowd at Wacken into a frenzy, and top it off with some of the most inventive guitar playing and drumming on the whole album, and you have a damn fine song. Grant's vocals on this song are almost more aggressive, like he was just trying that little bit harder to be absolutely perfect in his delivery.
Tiberius have produced an album which proves they have the ability to be a very popular band. This album will appeal to the prog metal crowd, the traditional heavy metal crowd, the alternative metal crowd, the power metal crowd, even the folks who still think Nu-Metal is cool. If you give this record the time it needs to sink its claws in, you will be in for a very good experience, my fear is a lot of people will simply pass this album by because it's not initially that accessible.