Arlekin — The Secret Garden
Arlekin is a side-project of Kiev-based musician Igor Sydorenko, who, in his parallel musical life, made a name for himself with the stoner metal band Stoned Jesus and the post-rock outfit Krobak, both not previously known to me. Igor is responsible for the vocals, and plays every instrument on this release, except for the drums, which are "outsourced" to Yuri Kononov. Vadym Lazariev (piano on tracks 2 and 3) and Eugene Manko (flute on track 3) also act as guest musicians.
Arlekin is described as "a love-letter to the British neo-progressive rock scene of the 1980s". Having listened to Marillion's debut Script For A Jester's Tear, and also having become familiar with similar bands of that era, such as IQ, Pendragon, Pallas, Twelfth's Night, and Collage from Poland, Igor decided to express his affection for this type of music by writing some material of his own.
The tracks on The Secret Garden, like the ones on its predecessor Disguise Serenades, released in 2014, and reviewed here on DPRP.net, seem to date back some 15 years. Being busy with his two other band projects, Igor found the time this year to go through the demos of that time, and rework them in order to bring The Secret Garden to life. There is a fairly well-known children's novel of the same name by British novelist Frances Hodgson Burnett, but in terms of the lyrics, there seems to be no connection. The cover artwork with its prog-typical elements such as harlequin, chessboard and mystical plants serves a certain nostalgic genre cliché.
I was curious to find out how an artist, who is "at home" in stoner metal and post-rock, gets along with venturing into a different musical territory such as neo-prog. I got the impression that by-and-large he masters this musical balancing act. The music on this release clearly has a reminiscence to the beginnings of neo-prog, with the ingredients typical to this genre such as walls of keyboard sounds, pounding bass, guitar arpeggios, melodic synthesizer and guitar solos, and a well-balanced interplay of guitar and keyboards. Everything stays at a moderate technical and rhythmical complexity, with only small doses of rough edges, making this release sound accessible right from the first spin.
Besides the musical influences mentioned by Igor himself, I found similarities with some early German prog bands (Novalis, Jane, Ramses, and Shaa Khan), but also representatives of the Dutch prog scene came to my mind (Egdon Heath and Taurus), all of them standing for mid-tempo, melodic, catchy, not too complex arrangements.
I am less critical than my fellow DPRP reviewer of Arlekin's predecessor, so far as the vocals are concerned. Igor's voice still neither shows an enormous range of tonality nor great diversity, but the warm and mellow timbre often goes well with the music. Interestingly, with Stoned Jesus, his delivery is much more "metallic", and almost indistinguishable from Ozzy Osbourne's.
There are no really weak moments on this release, but quite a few strong ones. My favourite track is In Possession Of The Moon, a mellow, gentle, melancholic song with a beautiful flute solo in the middle section. I also liked Mirror Of Shadows due to the catchy guitar hook in the second part of the song and the guitar outro solo. The airplay-suited short track It Wouldn't Last, is more akin to post-punk à la early U2 and The Cure, than prog.
This is an album full of catchy harmonies, melodic soloing and atmospheric singing, easy-listening (in a positive way), without undue complexity. However, I struggled a bit with the approach that Igor Sydorenko has adopted in realising this album. In my opinion, if he makes it clear right from the beginning that his main motivation is to emulate his role models, then he must take for granted to constantly being measured against them. I can't shake the impression that musically, the tail is wagging the dog here. It may just be the way this release is marketed that I am challenging, but I think that it would have given Igor's music a higher degree of originality if he had proceeded the other way round. Why doesn't he just write his music without arousing certain (high) expectations beforehand and let the listeners make their own comparisons and draw their individual conclusions.
Mine is that the love-letter mentioned above could have been a bit more emotional and emphatic. However, although sometimes falling slightly short of the quality of his influencing bands, this release adequately captures the mood and atmosphere of the beginnings of neo-progressive rock. It thus appeals to listeners being a bit nostalgic about this era, as well as those looking for catchy, accessible, and no-frills neo-prog rock.
Albert Bouchard — Imaginos II: Bombs Over Germany (Minus Zero And Counting)
This is one of the most difficult reviews I've ever had to write. When I saw that Albert Bouchard, one of the founders of Blue Öyster Cult, had taken yet another stab at remaking the legendary Imaginos album (that's at least one way to look at what he's done), I couldn't wait to get my hands on it. I now wish I had never heard it.
I ought to qualify that last statement. I'm not saying that Imaginos 2: Bombs Over Germany (Minus Zero And Counting) is an outright bad album. However, I am saying that it does a disservice to the original BÖC version of Imaginos (even though several members of the band contribute to this version). To say that Bouchard has re-imagined the album would be understating. To say that he has obviously devoted a tremendous amount of time and effort to making a thoroughly unnecessary album would be accurate.
Before I continue, I should make clear that I have been a fan of BÖC and an admirer of Bouchard (who was not only a co-founder of the band but also the original drummer, one of the songwriters, and one of the singers) for about four decades now. Blue Öyster Cult still easily ranks among my dozen favourite bands. But the 1988 album that attempted (admittedly, with mixed success) to make some sense of the whole mythology surrounding the “blue oyster cult” (which was the subject of many of the band's songs) has, to my ears, been ever-so-mildly sullied by Bouchard's new interpretation.
The album has several new songs, but half of it consists of reinterpretations of classic BÖC songs like Dominance And Submission, Cities On Flame (With Rock And Roll), OD'd On Life Itself, and perhaps my favourite of all Cult songs, Quicklime Girl (Mistress Of The Salmon Salt). As I started to listen to this album for the first time and became increasingly dismayed, I said to myself: “He'd better not ruin Quicklime Girl.” Well, he doesn't, not quite, but he doesn't improve on the 1973 original, not by a long shot.
The same has to be said, unfortunately, for all the other BÖC songs he's tackled here. Without exception, the originals were better and these reworkings add nothing to our understanding or appreciation of the versions from nearly 50 years ago.
At this point, I have to talk about the performers and instrumentation. Excluding Bouchard, there are 15 guest artists on the album, including the three current BÖC members, two of whom, Eric Bloom and Donald “Buck Dharma” Roeser, were also founding members. We also have Ross “The Boss” Friedman from The Dictators and Manowar, Albert's brother, Joe, who was BÖC's original bassist, and Greg Holt (or is it “Holtz”?) on violin.
Here's the bad news. There are violins and there are violins, but I know the sound of a fiddle when I hear it, and I don't want to hear a fiddle on a Blue Öyster Cult song, even a reworked version of the song. There's lots of fiddle on this album, and that fact may be all you need to know about the general sound. The new versions of old songs are loosened up, rearranged, and weakened, and the originals, while not bad, don't improve this over-long album. And about the vocals; I'll say only that they just can't bear the weight of the songs. What was Albert thinking?
I ought to pause, however, to give Albert well-deserved credit. Although Eric and Donald have kept BÖC alive all these years, it now seems clear that, while those two have continued playing the music, it's Albert who has kept the (mythological) dream alive. He's been trying to tell the story of the “oyster boys” since well before the official BÖC version of Imaginos was released in 1988. In fact, he had wanted his own version of that album to be an Albert Bouchard record, and one that would be only the first of a trilogy! I have true respect for someone who has so long pursued a vision, even if the vision wasn't his alone. Sandy Pearlman, the band's original and long-time producer, wrote many of the lyrics that created and developed the mythology of the “blue oyster cult.” And in 2019, Albert released an album called Re-Imaginos, which I just can't bring myself to comment on here, making this the second album of his trilogy. So presumably there's more to come.
As it happens, Blue Öyster Cult released their first studio album in 19 years, The Symbol Remains, just last year, and it's fit to stand alongside some of the greater albums of the band's initial and most fruitful period. Eric and Donald are good sports to participate in Albert's seemingly unending attempt to explicate the Imaginos legacy, but can they really be happy with a version of OD'd On Life Itself with a fiddle on it? Or with the new and decidedly inferior (I might even say watered down) versions of many of the other songs they absolutely nailed decades ago? I'm sure not.
Before I received this album, I'd hoped and expected to give it a 9. As it is, I can't recommend it either to BÖC fans or to those who've never heard the band, and for that I am sorrier than I can say.
When I was notified of Albert Bouchard's release of Re-Imaginos, I was very interested to hear what he had made of this. I have been a Blue Öyster Cult fan for many years and the 1988 Imaginos is one of my all-time favourite albums. I realised founding member Albert Bouchard left BÖC in 1981, and Imaginos was only released under the BÖC name because of the record label. Truth be honest, that album was already a bit removed from what BÖC in the 1980s was about.
Bouchard moved on doing his own projects, most notable The Brain Surgeons, that showed the blues, rock, and early metal foundations but definitely exploring different musical areas. I remember hearing their song Capuccino for the first time and it took a while before I recognised it as a new arrangement of an Imaginos track.
I have enormous respect for the guy. He co-wrote so many awesome songs and sang several of them as well. The man is almost 75 years old and him taking on a project like this is ambitious. I expected a change in style, and although at first I was a bit underwhelmed by the mostly acoustic performances, thinking it lacked power, I started listening to the album in its own right. This album Imaginos II is a logical successor, the sequel in the trilogy. So now, my expectations were much closer to what's on offer here.
On the whole, I think we need a different style or even genre. The structure of most songs is quite progressive, like BÖC has always shown. With acoustic instrumentation being an important part we're nearing folk territory, but in an American way, so a little bit of country but mostly the blues shining through. Take that to the desert (always a nice topic or setting for a haunting atmosphere) where you see a fire that could mean both refuge or danger, and I think we've reached something that is in need of a name. In other words, I think the dirty blues of ZZ Top mixed with the prog-heavy approach of BÖC might give you an idea.
As you can see from the titles, there are many re-makes of BÖC tunes on this album. Some are nearly complete new compositions with well-known lyrics and vocal lines. Before The Kiss is an example of that. Some follow the original melodies of the song with changed lyrics. I guess this is the perfect time to say, "some of them were new, but mostly they were old"!
Independence Day is a remake of some work from Imaginos but not just one song. It seems like it collects several elements, and since Imaginos was not in chronological order (why wasn't it?!) destroying anything of a storyline, I start to think that the 1988 version might be more of a collection of different ideas than what Bouchard is releasing now. But that's guess-work from my part. I really love Joe Bouchard's vocals. The same warmth as on one of my favourite tracks, Nosferatu.
I was looking forward to Diz, one of my favourite BÖC tunes. Knowing not to try and compare it to the original, I started listening this with an open mind. And the dark touch, the mysterious atmosphere that I love in BÖC's music, that was started in the previous track, is continued here and taken to another level. This is one of the tracks that are, in parts, very familiar to the original version. Bombs Over Germany is a remake of ME-262 and is quite close to the 1974 version.
In songs like OD'd On Life Itself you can hear Bouchard did not make it himself easy. The arrangements are very different, it's really a re-composition, as applies to almost all songs. The lyrics are different as well, in some places adding a lot more words, making the vocal lines more interesting. While the original is a little more rockier, and simpler (thought with that nice BÖC weirdness), the darkness in this version is palpable. Shadow Of California is like this, as well. This could be on the soundtrack of a Stephen King novel, like The Stand.
There are two misses here, for me at least. To start the album, When War Comes is one of the weirdest songs, even on an album like this. The title already suggested a link to a likely-named track from the Club Ninja album, which happened a couple of years after Bouchard had left. It appears his brother Joe co-wrote that (same as Shadow Of California, which appeared in 1983). I am not a big fan of brass, and the simple marching rhythm, although probably fitting as the intro to this album, doesn't do much for me musically. However, near the end comes a guitar solo that makes you forget all that happened before, courtesy of Jack Rigg. And, although well-performed and having a menacing middle break, Il Duce is a bit off-putting with its simple verse and chorus. I was never a fan of the straight-forward rock and roll songs like Cities On Flame, or Godzilla, but that was also a part of BÖC. This version of Cities On Flame is growing on me, by the way, mainly because this whole new genre is kind of growing on me. Finally, This new version of TR&TB doesn't do it for me either, as it's too much country for me. I have always preferred I Am On The Lamb!
Three Sisters is, like the aforementioned Il Duce, one of the few tracks that is not a plain re-make of an old BÖC tune. The structure is, again, very BÖC but the arrangements is very fitting for this release. Buck Dharma is on vocals and guitar here. Since he is also co-author, I assume this is an older but unused track. The last track, Half Life Time, which is good but overshadowed by other tracks on the album, is also a "new" track. Or not? Bits and pieces remind of different things from the 1988 version.
Quicklime Girl does the same. If you forget about the BÖC reference, this is still a very dark and haunting song, with a great progressive structure.
When you are going to listen to this, don't expect music in Blue Öyster Cult style. Expect the dark, gloomy tales of Imaginos, told by an aged storyteller, that still has the chops to write music fitting the story.
Al Kryszak — Murmur Rations
Originating from Poland, but residing and following his artistic career in the United States, Alan Kryszak is a composer, guitarist and photo artist. His former works include not only albums, but also classical pieces for a range of instruments, including pianos, strings and full-scale orchestra. Not reviewed on DPRP, his Codex Suburbia from 2016 is my favourite work by Alan (and his most ambitious one) which lovers of modern classical / chamber music should definitely pick and enjoy.
Murmur Rations stands nowhere close to those experiments, instead bringing memories of such prog icons as 80s era KC, Fred Frith and to some extent Steve Hackett. Unlike the concept-based Codex, this album revolves around standalone tracks.
Hyper Murmur begins with an almost post-punkish rhythm section and a (deliberately?) ugly, distorted guitar. As soon as the Quasimodo phrases are over and wusses have hit the STOP button, the composition moves to a more atmospheric kind of organised chaos, with the guitar dreamily-wandering around and not giving a lick about what the bass and drums are doing. Sounds somewhat close to the 80s Crimson / Fripp experiments.
The two most beautiful compositions on this CD are Murmur Rations I & II and they are almost Hackett-esque, incorporating abstract acoustic and bass lines, which build back the order out of non-rhythmical chaos, to finally grow into a very lyrical theme. Lovers of Nordic jazz (see Terje Rypdal, for instance) might also like to take notice.
Jumping Over is a short and melodic acoustic piece, which would be even better as an instrumental.
The post-punk-ish gloom-and-doom is back with Letter 133, and here's where my troubles with Murmur Rations start. The main trouble is the vocals, which are not very well sung by the mastermind himself. Alan proves that he is an inventive guitar player, but his vocal range is narrow, his delivery is raw, and he does not always hit the proper notes.
Please Don't Scare the Baby continues the same thread with a Belew-era Crimson take on guitar riffs, a combination of groovy bass and strumming parts with some rapid shredding on acoustics.
Rested and Strangersong melt into one calm composition, being two very similar tracks in terms of mood, with the former having the more interesting harmony and the latter seeming quite dull after a couple of listens, but with a good finale.
The longest track, Won't Be This Time, again with some Crimson atonal influences and fretless bass playing, but an unjustifiably long one, with the same (rather annoying) vocal delivery.
Instrumentally this is a great record by a very skilled and professional musician. However, I do not feel that some of these pieces should have been turned into songs. The vocals and melody lines do not bring anything worthy, and distract a listener's attention from the string / key parts of this otherwise interesting record.
Nektar — Sounds Like Swiss
It always amazes me that things can remain hidden and forgotten about for so many years and then are accidentally unearthed. Such is the case with the video and audio recording of a very hirsute Nektar taped for Swiss TV's Kaléidospop at The Palladium in Geneva on 14 February 1973 and broadcast just over a month later.
The previous week, the band had recorded the live album ...Sounds Like This, hence the clever pun of a title for this release. So they were in peak live form. Although the band performed for two hours, only one hour of the performance was recorded for broadcast and, understandably, five of the seven featured tracks were ones that would appear on the new album. The other two tracks were both from the 1972 release A Tab In The Ocean, although with a combined 20-minute playing time, it wasn't as if the band was ignoring their past.
The video is the only film in existence from the earliest days of Nektar, who at the time had been in existence for just under three years. As such it is a quite a treasure for fans, even if it is not an ideal recording. There are no problems with the quality, which is excellent, it is just that there is a large space between the band and audience in order to give the large cameras room to move around. The space is also filled with a large centre unit housing Mick Brockett and his array of special effects, liquid lights and other goodies that were an integral part of the band's performance back in the early days.
However, the positioning of Brockett means it was impossible to get a head-on shot of the band on stage. And although I am sure the lights and effects were marvellous, the impact is lost given that the filming was in black and white! It does take a while for the band to warm up a bit and the distance from the audience does tend to give a rather sterile atmosphere at first. However once they warm up (quite literally in the case of guitarist and vocalist Roye Albrighton who after a couple of numbers has to shed his jacket) they really hit a groove. There is no doubt that Albrighton is the group leader although that doesn't diminish the importance of bassist Derek 'Mo' Moore, drummer Ron Howden, and keyboardist Allan 'Taff' Freeman, who is quite a dab hand at coaxing all sorts of wonderful sounds from his Hammond organ.
Somewhat fortuitously, another live recording from Switzerland was discovered in the archives, a soundboard recording of a concert at the Pavilion des Sports in Lausanne some three months after the TV show was filmed. Given the closeness of the performances, it is not surprising that there is overlap between the set-lists. The two shortest tracks from the Geneva concert, Good Day and Cast Your Fate, have been dropped from the set, although the latter may have originally been on the set list as it is mistakenly introduced before Albrighton is prompted by another band member that it is no longer in the set! It is possible that these were included for the TV show to give a more rounded portrayal of the band and to break up the set between the longer numbers.
There were three shorter numbers performed in Lausanne, none of which would really have been suitable for the TV show. Odyssee is a more jazzy number with a decidedly odd vocal section (I have long been convinced that Spinal Tap's Jazz Odyssey was inspired by this number!), Ron's On is a drum solo and Never Never Never is not really a self-contained piece in itself. What we do get with the full show is a rather wonderful Journey To The Centre Of The Eye and what must have been one of the earliest performances of Let It Grow, a song that would appear on the band's next studio album Remember The Future. Again, the quality is excellent, although given the soundboard nature of the recording it does lack crowd interaction.
Overall, this is a really nice package for the Nektar fan. The artwork is great, although one wonders why the band elected to be photographed in a toilet standing next to a row of urinals! The sleeve notes by Mick and Mo add context to the recordings and clippings from contemporary papers prove that it was worthwhile maintaining a scrapbook of memories! I do feel however that the centre spread of the booklet could have been better filled than with recent fan comments, they are not at all interesting (to me at least) and have limited pertinence. Despite this, the package is a great addition to any Nektar collection.