Gunter Werno — Anima One
Kaiserslautern's own Vanden Plas probably needs no introduction, as the band long ago established itself as one of the leading prog-metal acts based in continental Europe. There was always something, that put the quintet aside from the majority of the genre for me – which is concentration on songs (in earlier years) and storytelling skills (in later period), rather than shredding and pushing technical barriers to extremes. I hold this band quite dear to myself, because I grew with them and enjoyed their music since I bought my cassette copy of “The God Thing” back in 2002. My attention drifted elsewhere after The Seraphic Clockwork, which I didn't really get into, but after discovering their great twin album The Ghost Xperiment I was again struck with how mature their art became. The drama, the recording, the compositions – everything seemed to be in the right place and to a purpose.
Anima One is not precisely the follow-up Vanden Plas effort, however, I personally prefer to think of this record as a new step in the career of the entire band. Sadly, this is also a swan song for the keyboardist Gunter Werno, the composer and arranger of this musical piece, who quit the band early this year. The parting of ways seems to be amicable, as Werno confirmed his intention to continue playing with the rest of the band in theaters and collaborating on musicals. Anyway, the album is a symphonic test of skills, both for the band and for the Kaiserslautern Philharmonic, which joined the quintet to perform the piece.
There's no need to be an erudite to compare this effort with Deep Purple's Concerto For Group And Orchestra. There are many similarities indeed: both were composed by keyboard players, both involve an orchestra and a rock band, both were recorded as a live show. But differences are also there: while Jon Lord back in 1970 embraced his classical education and love for symphonic music, Werno's approach is a bit different. The symphonic arrangements on Anima One are more cinematic, soundtrack- or even theater-oriented, and the amalgam of hard rock sound and orchestra is more profound here. From the flow of first themes and melodies, even before the bass and drums hit, any Vanden Plas fan would easily recognize the band's mode of musical thinking.
Here lies, by the way, the single factor that may cause some criticism: at times, jumps from symphonic mellowness to heavier material sounded a bit too abrupt for me. All the other aspects are very skillfully crafted: the melodies are interesting and catchy, musicians' professionalism leaves little room for doubts, the largely instrumental concert never lost pace, and the pinnacle of the show was the third part of the symphony, when the performers are joined by Andy Kuntz and Astrid Vossberg (they did some nice job on Abydos project back in 2004).
I am not a big fan of blend of metal and sympho, myself, but Anima One shall stand high in my rank, surely above the more popular efforts of Therion, Rhapsody or Dream Theater. Worth checking, if you prefer cinematic symphonies with less accent on bombast fantasies and more attention to nuances and subtlety.
Ape Shifter — Monkey Business
Monkey Business is Ape Shifter's third album; the follow-up to their eponymous 2017 debut album and Ape Shifter II from 2018. Led by guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Aug the band brings "rockin' 70s riffs played with punk rock ferocity to creeping metal grooves and all out bashers". Or as my colleague in his review of their debut so bluntly puts it: instrumental rock with guitar shredding. I must admit his review and the albums artwork made me somewhat hesitant to pick the album for review, but mentioned influences of Thin Lizzy on other sites did convince me to check the album out. I'm sure glad I did, for next to slow emerging values of prog the band mean business by displaying excellent entertaining ROCK!
From the off it's evident Aug indeed plays a ferocious guitar and delivers his A-game with tasty licks, riffs, hooks and an abundance of speedy melodic shredding magnificence. Together with a powerful dynamic A-team consisting out of bassist Florian Walter and Kurty Münch on drums, both perfectly sensing the need of a song in terms of interpretation, this in MPU instantly conjures up powerful impressions of Steve Morse Band playing on a fast train fuelled by a punk attitude heading towards Chinatown.
The vigorous energy of this robust opener is surpassed in Stampede. Played with full dedication, the opening reminds me of Rush, and what follows is a raging storm of organic heavy rock in which vibrant dynamics, tightness and structural variety are all ace. This song could have paraded much longer. I love it when a song like this comes together! The same goes for the album's gemstone Ahab which unleashes mammoth elements of metal and infectious groovy melodies as found in mid-70s Thin Lizzy. A gentle break gallops into an excellent coda of outstanding guitar work.
Alternating playful light jazz with heavy explosive bombast, Ape Shifter's approach in Promises Of A Progressive Future shortly shifts towards a more traditional song structure. Instrumental refrains and choruses plus a mighty solo. The short Purple adds a princely funk vibe sprinkled with spices of Red Hot Chilli Peppers, Cure offers the perfect remedy for those into energetic heavy rock with a dash of Y&T attack, and Mind Of You lets its presence be known by threading into royalty of punk with fierce riffing and energising elementary rocking motifs fit for a Queen.
In Misery, Aug and co happily retreat to NWOBHM basics, opening with heavy metal Saxon riffs. Melodic grooves with Metallica hooks dive deep into a nirvana of punk postures set aflame by banging guitar play. Moments later, Dregs Of Doom, how could it be otherwise I hear you ask, showcases a melodic fusion similar to that of The Dregs / Steve Morse in a hard rocking style that meets the darker side of Moxy and Black Sabbath.
Next to a slip of bananality (sorry, couldn't resist) in Gucci's Baby, Ape Shifter's bag of rocking treats continues to impress with Shitkicker, a song that steps into stimulating, brooding rock that shines of Lenny Kravitz and ZZTop sleaze from a time before they became the sharp-dressed men we all know. A delightful surprising twist, as is the song's relieving bridge that perfectly demonstrates the band know how to insert subtlety and restrained play into their predominant potent executions.
From a progressive point of view, album closer Lying In Wait is surely worth the wait. After a lengthy atmospheric opening with psychedelic elements and oncoming Jimi Hendrix weirdness surrounded by whaling reverb in spirit of Led Zeppelin's Jimmy Page, this dazzling composition continues to bring a wealthy offer of odd time signatures, complex breaks and frantic fusion of guitar play that leaves one dazed and confused, which all together makes this song a great memorable album finale.
A successful tour just finished, the band is currently looking into new dates and places to hit the stage, playing with the likes of Wucan and AC/DC's Chris Slade. Hopefully this will one day include a fruitful pairing with Little King as this is a stronghold combination I would very much love to see.
All of the above leads to the reductive conclusion that Ape Shifter's Monkey Business shows a massive appeal to rock-oriented guitar enthusiasts who simply need to check the album out, give their neighbours a warning shout and then play it LOUD!
Days Before Tomorrow — Now And Then Part II: Stories And Dreams
This New Jersey sextet Days Before Tomorrow make their come-back release (they disbanded after their 2009 debut) with an album somewhat enigmatically titled Now and Then Part II: Stories And Dreams. (A part 1 was apparently scheduled but has not been released yet.) Well, just like in that Mel Brooks's case, there's no other part yet, and we are “reading the book” from page 50 already, so to say. Well, some intrigue is always good, especially when there's essentially good material under the veils. Which is just the case here.
Music balances between neo-prog, hard rock and 90ies US prog, actually standing very confidently, without losing focus. Anyone who's interested can check the YouTube videos of the band live – they sound equally confident on stage and in studio. Solo guitar parts reminded me a great deal of Jadis, while the riffs are played in a much heavier way than what Gary Chandler usually comes up with. A lot of tunes echo Magellan or Spock's Beard's tradition, but actually the entire mixture of romantic melodies, heaviness and certain pomp leanings evokes memories of Enchant more than any other band.
Another factor that just screams comparisons with Enchant is the vocalist. Just like Ted Leonard, Eric Scott Klein is a formidable singer, who has a range, technique and attack. The music itself is surely above average, but Eric together with the rest of backing vocalists just takes it to the next level. The vocal lines are well-thought, intricate, at times being very close to the US branch of AOR bands – which is a matter of taste, of course.
The album is impeccably recorded, so none of the musicians are outshined by their colleagues. Guitar and keyboard parts are very well mixed, bass is nicely audible, adding to the groove and drums are professional-solid. Absence of virtuoso passages here results in the fact that the entire length of compositions is dedicated to shifts of moods and natural flow of music.
For me this shall be a contender for the newcomer of the year, so far. Those people missing Enchant and not minding a dose of cheesiness, shall not be left disenchanted (pun intended).
For Absent Friends — Disappear
Dutch prog band For Absent Friends were originally formed in 1986 and released six studio albums and a live album between 1990 and 2006. Their first two albums were released by the legendary SI-Music label and gained a lot of appraisal, even from the very critical Dutch OOR-magazine, which had always been, and still is, more critical on prog music than on any other rock genre. I've seen them live once in that period and thoroughly enjoyed that gig, although I really can't remember the venue. The band stopped for reasons I'm not aware of. Guitarist Edwin Roesen, drummer Ed Wernke and singer Hans van Lint regularly applied their musical talents in other bands, among which was the Genesis tribute band Squonk. In that band, they met keyboardist Clemens Steenweg and bass player Jan Nieuwenhuis and find out that there was a new prog spark between them that called for a renewed investment in their former band. The Covid period proved fruitful as it offered unexpected time to write and rehearse, leading to their seventh album Disappear that was released in the autumn of 2022.
But today it is 2023...
For some reason the band overlooked this website when sending out promo copies of their new album. But it's never too late to make up for such a regrettable omission, so we were offered that review copy eventually. And I feel privileged to do this review for no matter what the album sounds like, I'm just glad that the band took up their career again. And a new FAF album fits very nicely in 2022 which turned out be an extremely productive Dutch prog year with new releases by such fine bands as Knight Area, Timelock, Leap Day and Realisea.
So with a very open mind and full of anticipation I started listening to Disappear. Unexpectedly, it took me far more effort to get related to the music. The first reason lies in Van Lint's way of singing. That is fine in most songs but in some, amongst which are opener Magic and most conspicuously in the title track, he tends to sing in a sort of crying way which I found quite annoying. However, I got used to that. Another reason I have some trouble with this album is the inclusion of several poppy songs that spoil the overall prog character of the album. The Poet is a light-weight bluesy track while 58 People is far too repetitive to hold the listeners' attention. And four out of nine songs that contain elements that are not your cup of tea is quite a lot — while listening, I felt the rating dropping.
Fortunately there are also numerous positive things to say about this album. To start with, the title track is, apart from the vocals, a fine complex prog track with lots of rhythm changes, attractive drums and organ parts, an appealing chorus and some good guitar riffing. Random Draw is a very strong song with good interplay between the fine vocals, Roesen's guitar and the quiet but very effective keys background. The instrumental Keytar is a great song with heavenly guitar soloing by Roesen, while Conversation is a beautiful slow ballad played and sung over a melodic yet bluesy guitar. Closer Dreamer features the acoustic guitar as prime musical accompaniment and excellent harmony vocals by Van Lint, Steenweg and Nieuwenhuis, something they should do more often. More than halfway into the song the full band comes in and Roesen starts soloing with some vocal lines, leading the way towards the fade out that comes far too soon and is also far too fast; that's a real pity!
This album shows two faces of the band. As said I disliked the more poppy songs, which have always been part of their repertoire. Yet the band also illustrates their ability to write good proggy tunes and perform these with gusto and dedication. After I got used to Van Lint's peculiar way of singing, my rating for this album went up again.