Reviews in this issue:
- Ælian - A Tree Under The Colours
- Ozric Tentacles - Waterfall Cities
- After Forever - Prison of Desire
- Spock's Beard - Don't Try This at Home
- Progressive-Rock Bastards - The Marvellous Adventures of King Anselm and his Paladines
- Chiaroscuro - Brilliant Pools in Darkness
- Teknikolor - LNA's Dream
- PPz30 - Beautifuel
Ælian - A Tree Under The Colours
After releasing their debut album The Watcher seven years ago, Italian band Ælian returns with a new album. Ælian are Mark Aixer (vocals), Giulio Palamenghi (guitars), Maurizio Antognoli (keyboards), Paolo Benozzato (bass) and Paolo Negroni (drums).
Record label Musea describes the album as 'Imagine Yes' vocals and structures (from the eighties era), mixed with Marillion's guitar, and a strong FM touch ala Foreigner, Styx, Saga or Journey, and you'll have a good idea of this excellent music, enhanced by a very professional production'. And indeed, I couldn't have summed it up any better myself.
This album is filled with enjoyable radio-friendly songs with various interesting influences. The songs range from slow atmospheric ballads to mid-tempo tracks and uptempo toe-tappers. Some of them do indeed remind me of the 90125/Big Generator period of Yes. Some guitar solos are indeed a bit reminiscent of the ones you hear in work by Marillion or Fish, although they often are relatively short and do not carry the same emotional load.
The slightly hoarse vocals are great and without a single trace of the Italian accent that normally comes with Italian vocalists. The band uses a lot of backing vocals and harmonies as well (besides the lead vocalist three other band members also sing).
The keyboards present lots of interesting and original sounds and effects, often in the breaks that are present in most songs.
Need some more words on the various songs ? The Flame of Love (probably my favorite from the album): bombastic and melodic. Hearing the Wind: uptempo and swinging. Dreaming What You Feel: long and diverse. A Tree Under The Colours: a mid-tempo song, enjoyable and peaceful. Underground: mid-tempo track with a slightly oriental melody and lots of vocal harmonies. Fine acoustic guitar and close harmony in the very Yes-like Sweet and Sour. Come to Me: experimental rhyhtms and interesting sound effects. Finally, the keys/vocals-only ballad The Old Man in the Garden reminds me of Casino's Drunk.
The 16-page booklet features all lyrics and pictures of the band and it's individual members.
Certainly not a prog masterpiece, but still a very enjoyable record. Well written, arranged and recorded. Very well produced (although I wouldn't have minded if the soloing instruments would have been more in the front of the mix). Prog fans that don't mind the more straightforward and commercial cross-overs should check this one out ! Especially recommended to fans of Eighties period Yes.
Click here to download an MP3 version of the opening track from the Musea Web Site.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Ozric Tentacles - Waterfall Cities
Two years after releasing the wonderful Curious Corn album, the Ozrics were back in 1999 with Waterfal Cities, a new album with 7 tracks. The music by this band is very enchanting and conjures up lots of moods and mental pictures. At one time you feel like you're a guest of the Japanase emperor, at another time you're floating through the clouds, only to come down again in an oriental temple or a dance club !
Coily is a typical Ozric Tentacles track that features a strange time signature and a wonderful pumping bass. After the guitar solo in the first section, the middle bit brings us lots of oriental rhythms and instruments like flute and something that sounds like a sitar. The song ends with a heavy synth section and a rather abrupt ending. Nice track, but nothing really new; standard Tentacle stuff.
Xingu is an atmospheric piece with a good groove. There's a nice bass line and a good guitar(-synth ?) melody. Unfortunately there's not enough happening to keep the song interesting for 7+ minutes. After a couple of minutes it gets a bit boring. The slightly annoying loud keyboard twiddle that continuously gets repeated doesn't help either.
Waterfall City is quite something different. It features loads of electronics and after some guitar sounds it starts of with synths and fast sequencers. It evolves into a very uptempo dancey track that probably wouldn't do bad in clubs. In the second half the volume dies down and a quiet atmospheric part with xylophone-like keyboards starts. After lots of trance-like sounds the volume builds up again with more sequencers and the snirping sounds we got to know from Sploosh. It's a long track, but it succeeds in staying interesting. People that love both prog and electronic dance music will love this one.
The pace slows down for Ch'ai?, which brings us lots of Japanese keyboard melodies, interrupted by short breaks of silence. The track also features some a-rhythmic sections and an Ozricish guitar solo. It's not one of my favorite tracks because it misses the energy I like so much in the music of the Ozrics.
Things go a bit down the hill with Spiralmind. It starts of rather slow, but with some great bass soloing, followed by something that sounds like an acoustic guitar. Unfortunately this long track sounds like a spontaneous live jam that misses a good structure and in which not much is happening. The volume increase and nice guitar solo in the end section cannot save this long track.
Sultana Detrii is an interesting piece that starts with a reggae/dub melody on bass and keys. More atmospheric keyboards and flute follow. After some weird animal noises the track moves into a second half that has a more Floydian or Porcupine Tree-like feel.
The album ends with Aura Borealis, a rather boring new age-like track with a spacey, trance mood. Probably nice for relaxing but nothing to get excited about.
I really like the music by Ozric Tentacles, but unfortunately some of the objectives I've had in the past regarding their music are all too present on this album; some tracks are too long, too repetitive or there's just not enough happening to keep them interesting. Coily, Waterfall Cities and Sultana Detrii are okay, but the rest is rather mediocre. Nowhere does the music reach the level of some of the old classics that can for instance be heard on Spice Doubt. Besides the more electronic approach in Waterfall Cities the band seems to repeating itself; most of the stuff on this new CD has been done in the past already.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10.
After Forever - Prison of Desire
Wolverine, eat your heart out! Here is Dutch Prog-Dark-Metal band After Forever, from the Arjan 'Ayreon' Lucassen stable Transmission Records. Combining the darkest classical music influences (think Wagner), with pounding bass, female soprano crystal-clear vocals and melodic grunts, makes this one of the best debut albums I have heard recently. Gothic symfo pur sang, from a band with very young members.
The classical choir opening on Mea Culpa sets the dark tone for the album, and gave me a good change to pick up my Latin again. That may be a little critisism on the album: the lyrics are over-pretentious, using words that I have never even heard of (and trust me, I have had plenty of education in that respect). This track seemlessly flows over in Leaden Legacy, and together they make a perfect pair. In fact, I was so impressed that, before playing the rest of the album the first couple of times I listened to it, I just replayed these two tracks over and over. The perfect voice of the female vocalist, the beautiful dark melancholic melody, the excellent grunts and the perfect production of the tracks astounded me.
Semblance Of Confusion is proggier in style, with lots of rhythmic variations, and very
classical ornaments to the melody. A somewhat more complex track that takes a bit longer to
get used to. Some Iron Maiden influences in the guitar playing cannot be denied.
Black Tomb opens calmly, with some melodic keyboard chords, and acoustic guitar. Then a Threshold-like part follows, with pounding guitars and mildy dissonant keyboards, to enter into a very fast part, almost Dream Theatre-esque, intertwined with heavy grunting. Again a very well worked out track.
Follow in the City features an Middle-Eastern melody line in its opening. The classical choir, singing a duet with grunting and howling deep vocals, is particulary effective in this track.
Then, to my opinion, the albums collapses somewhat. Their box of tricks has been used up and the rest of the album does not bring any surpises any more. Silence From Afar is a ballad, quite straightforward and in the same atmosphere as the rest of the album (quite bombastic). A nice symfo-ballad though, with some (keyboard)-flute and a heavy faster middle part. The next couple of songs feature the same ideas as the previous ones. The guest appearence of Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation and the 'Indian' on Ayreon's Into the Electric Castle) on the last track is worth mentioning. A powerful ballad to end the album. One advantage of getting a deal with Transmission Records: vocalist Floor Jansen will do a guest appearence on the next Ayreon project as well.
All in all a very good album, a bit in the vein of some of the Into The Electric Castle pieces. But where the Castle was pure genius due to the very varied music, After Forever focusses on a handful of ideas that are repeated a couple of times. Of course, they will develop further and in the future I hope they will develop a more varied style. But what lies here before us is something to be proud of. If you like dark bombastic, Gothic symfo, add this one to your collection! Just listen to the soundclips on their homepage to get an idea of their skills. And note the excellent production, both sound-technically and the thick, stylish booklet!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Spock's Beard - Don't Try This at Home
This live CD was recorded at the gig that Spock's Beard played in the 013 venue in Tilburg on September 28th 1999, a performance that was also filmed for release on video. The CD features part of the gig (the first 4 songs on the set and two other ones) with the emphasis on the material of the last two studio albums (four songs from Day for Night and two from The Kindness of Strangers).
The CD starts with an orchestral introduction tape, after which the band goes into Day for Night. This title track of the last album does not work as well as the version on the album. Especially the guitar and keyboards sound a bit dodgy at times. The vocal harmonies, bass and drums are good though. The same goes for Mouth of Madness. For some reason these two tracks do not flow as smoothly as on the studio albums.
Skin misses some of the power of the studio version as well. Gibberish works a lot better though, and I'm especially amazed how the band recreates the latter on stage.
June features an additional 1,5 minute acoustic guitar duet by brothers Al and Neil by which merges into the opening melody of June. Nice version, although not all of the high vocals during the harmony are 100% in tune. The sing-along section of the audience is rather tame (caused by the venue lights that had to stay on for the camera recording, which killed the atmosphere).
The real treat of the album is the full length version of Healing Colours of Sound. Since this one was missing from the Live at the Whisky and Nearfest album, this would be one of the main reasons for buying the album. The performance is done exceptionally well and the smooth flow of the track is a big contrast with the songs that open the CD. This track would be my only reason to recommend this CD.
For me, the main reasons to like a live CD are the dynamic sound (including audience) and the
presence of alternative arrangements or longer improvisations. The live versions need to offer
something 'new' compared to the album versions. To be honest, I miss both on this CD. Besides
the extended intro of June the album versions are copied note for note. Also, there's
not a lot that makes this sound like a real live performance. It could easily be recorded live
in the studio.
I was personally quiet put off by the sound quality of the Live at the Whisky and Nearfest 'official bootleg' CD that was seemingly knocked into shape to make a quick buck (or at least to finance the last tour ?). I was expecting something much better from this 'official' release. I do however miss a wide dynamic sound on this CD as well. Especially the first couple of songs sound rather compressed and flat.
On top of that, especially Al Morse's performance on guitar during the first couple of track misses the power it has on the original versions. In contrast with his brother Neil, I've always found that he's not really able to re-create his solos on stage. On the other hand, bass player Dave and drummer Nick are doing an absolutely marvellous job !
My final complaint is that almost 30 minutes of the CD stay unused. This is a great shame because the gig also featured great version of The Light and The Doorway. I would have loved to have some decent recorded and mixed version compared to the dodgy ones on Live at the Whisky and Nearfest. Seemingly the quality of the rest of the gig's tapes was not good enough for release. I find it quite hard to believe that the band couldn't have added some recordings from other sources to the 30 minutes.
All in all it's a nice album by a couple of brilliant musicians, but there's nothing here that makes it a must-have release. The marvellous Healing Colours of Sound cannot make up for the many shortcomings of this album. In JJ's review of Live at the Whisky and Nearfest he ended by saying "Live at The Whisky and Nearfest" was not Spock's Beard's "dreamed" live-album. Well, Don't Try This at Home - rather cliche album title by the way - isn't either.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Progressive-Rock Bastards - The Marvellous Adventures of King Anselm and his Paladines
A Comics-Fantasy Story in 10 Acts
Progressive-Rock Bastards are Harry Dunning (Bass, Acoustic Guitars, Vocals), Stefan Kuchl (Drums), Ari von Wolfsberg (Keyboards, Guitars, Vocals), Toni Brechner (Guitars), Fred Zuhra (Lead & Backing Vocals), Alberto Ambrosi of Asgard (Guest Flute & Vocals) and Elena Ambrosi (Artwork & Design).
The first thing I thought when I heard and saw this CD was, "Gosh, these folks must have watched Monty Python's Holy Grail a couple of times too many". Inspired by bands like Genesis, Deep Purple, Pink Floyd, Rush and Saga the musicians have written a concept album about a clumsy King that goes on a journey to conquer 'Musiland' (which by the way is shaped like a guitar). In this quest he is helped by the nymphomaniac Queen, who sleeps with everybody (on the album symbolized by a returning scratching sound), a megalomaniac spiritual advisor and a couple of drunk and joint smoking knights.
Irritatingly, the parts of the characters are done in very silly 'funny voices'. I find this
highly annoying. The narrative vocals aren't brilliant to begin with, but this really spoils it for me.
Now, if the story was funny then probably it would help, but the humour is very daft to begin
Musically and lyrically the album is filled with in-jokes and winks to other bands. Take for instance the Watcher of the Skies-like guitar riffs in Black Forest Tales or the title All in a Queen's Night. There's also some references to the band Ines in Madrigal, while the drawing of the Queen shows a striking resemblance to the singer in that band.
The music itself is interesting in parts, although based on many prof cliches (the whole thing sounds incredibly seventies-like and the band especially tries to immitate Genesis a lot). Occassionally you'll a nice guitar riff, a good keyboard melody or an enjoyable section when everybody just shuts up and plays some music for a change. Unfortunately the arrangements and the rather dodgey production and mixing (done by Asgard's Ambrosi) makes it sound very unbalanced and amateuristic. The lyrics sometimes rhyme and sometimes don't. Most of the times the flow of the lyrics over the music is very unnatural and forced.
It's probably all meant to be a joke, although I personally do not find it very funny. A piece of music that would be interesting at best (and even quite good in places) is destroyed by forcing the hilarious concept and funny voices on it. If you add the amateuristic production to this you end up with a completely forgetable piece of music.
The booklet is filled with the lyrics and some nice cartoons (both of which contain some spelling and grammar errors).
If the above sounds like good fun to you, then maybe you should give it a try. If you would rather hear a good, enjoyable piece of music than better ignore this one.
Conclusion: 5 out of 10.
For more information, contact Dragon's Music, Am Forstamt 18, 83486 Ramsau, German.
Chiaroscuro - Brilliant Pools of Darkness
American progressive metal band Chiaroscuro distinguishes itself by its harsher sound, far more like thrash than most established prog metal groups would produce. According to their bio, Chiaroscuro has transformed itself "from a cookie-cutter prog metal band to a tight, dynamic, original, punishingly-heavy-but-still-melodic live ensemble." Kind of makes you wonder how many of those 'cookie-cutter' prog bands you've got in your CD collection, doesn't it?
Chiaroscuro is Ian Dorsch (vocals, keyboards), Richard Chambliss (guitars), Cliff Chambliss (bass guitars), and Aaron Ellsworth (acoustic and electronic drums). Ian Dorsch on this debut CD shares credit for music with his colleagues for most songs, but has written all lyrics, which are pretty good. Chiaroscuro was formed early 1996 and prior to this CD have released a four song demo.
The opening track Broken Everything sets the pace for the first half of the album, with
punishing guitars and catching bass grooves. Ian Dorsch isn't shy about putting his vocals (and
keyboards) on display at the start, which make this one of the best tracks on the album. The
despressing purport of the lyrics even adds to its appeal. The Chambliss brothers create great
unision of bass and guitar as they do on most of the album.
On Crucifixion part of the vocals, a single, though repeated line, to be honest, sound very much like Rage Against The Machine, probably the only band in existence which I don't just dislike, but really despise. Apart from this slight irritation this is a good song, on which a simple, but effective solo on bass and great guitar work set the pace for the instrumental middle section.
No Need is essentially a slow melodic song, but has its heavier guitar driven parts. Drums could have been far better; what's with those annoying cymbals? Ellsworth on drums is surely the weakest link in the chain for Chiaroscuro, hardly ever venturing beyond providing an only descent background for guitar and vocals. As noted before, Cliff Chambliss on bass fares far better.
Waiting features great riffing on guitar, but stands out for some splendid (counter-)melodies on vocals. Winter Girls varies between harsh and subtle verses, with a melodic instrumental section. I consider Divinity one of the best tracks on the album, on which electronic drums and percussion work amazingly well. A very quite song, that differs immensely from the rest of the material.
The rhythmically varied Children's Crusade provides a perfect closing track to an album that showcases this band's potential as only a debut album sometimes can. Unfortunately it also is a perfect display for the failing skills of the drummer.
This is partially more thrash than I usually aim for in my progressive metal, so some tracks took a bit of getting used to. The quality of musicianship (by three of the four band members) was evident from the start. Dorsch's handling of the keyboards sometimes equals in style to the best out there, but is often buried below the onslaught of guitar violence generated by Richard Chambliss, which of course does have its own appeal. Recently a fifth member, Jeff Moses, joined the band on keyboards and backing vocals to strengthen the band's live perfomances and I must say that I think Chiaroscuro's material will do quite well live.
This album will be of interest to all who favor progressive metal, but it should have special appeal to fans of Digital Ruin, although Chiaroscuro's music relies heavier on keyboards. They seem to have made quite an impression at more metal oriented webzines, so if that's your niche in the music scene I'd advise you to check it out. The Chiaroscuro homepage is a pretty good place to start.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Teknikolor - LNA's Dream
Tracklist: Opening (1.56), White Moon (2.41), Lullaby (1.47), Nikopol (1.53), Teknicolor (2.02), Opening II (1.40), Celtic (3.48), Ascension (1.57), LNA's Dream (4.08), Planetarium (2.05), Russian Monk (1.36), Triangle (3.29), Discovery (0.56), Slender (2.09), Legend (2.27), Miniature (1.14), Oriental Tale (1.01), Minimalistik (2.46), White Room II (3.50)
Teknikolor is basically a one man project by French composer, keyboard and bass player Patrick Chartol. Contributions are added by two female vocalists and a flute player. Chartol mixes progressive with neo-classical music, adding some jazz influences and Amerindian style vocal lines. He supports this with orchestral samples, while pan-pipes perform some of the main melody lines. It is reminiscent of diverse styles, including film scores by such diverse composers as Elliot Rosenthal and Ennio Morrioconne, and work by Mike Oldfield and Robyn Miller, best known for his score for the popular pc game Myst.
All this is not meant to say Chartol is a copycat. He manages to invoke his own style throughout the album. There is also a lot of classical inspiration worked into it, of which Musea particularly lists Faure, Debussy and Ravel, and some jazz oriented fusion besides.
Opening has a keyboard intro remeniscent of Elliot Goldenthal's Alien 3 score, while the female vocals are more remeniscent of Era, as they are on White Moon, which, carried by keyboards, shifts into a more Amerindian inspired track. This inspiration is also evident later on, for example in Russian Monk (don't let the title fool you :), supported by strings from Chartol's orchestral samples. Male and female vocals make up the choir.
The orchestral samples play a large role, most notably the string sections. These are evident in the heavy handed Teknicolor, which thus sounds very symphonic, Ascension, Planetarium and Slender. Miniature is a dark piece, with orchestral samples and piano.
Another important part is played by the (unnamed) flute player, whose pan-pipes carry the main melody on Celtic. In LNA's Dream, at 4 minutes the longest track, the pipes again play a large role, along with female vocals, melodic rather than lyrical, and synthesized saxophone. Here Chartol mixes fusion with Jeff Wayne style keyboards. Nikopol is a more straightforward jazz track, featuring drums, trumpet, and additional percussion (all keyboard originated ?), piano and bass.
Triangle starts off as the best example of the use of Robyn Miller's style of music, but Chartol gives it his own twist with strings, percussion and vocals. Legend conjures up images of the jungle with some very interesting sample work. Some earlier themes return in White Room II, which, with flute, bass, vocals and percussion, lead the album to its close.
In writing this review, I found it very gratifying that there was so much to comment on concerning these 19 short tracks. While this is not progressive rock, LNA's Dream certainly appealed to the love of interesting compositions for which I particularly enjoy the progressive genre. The production value is also high, with excellent sound quality and neatly organised arrangements, that let each part of the instrumental and vocal package play it's role to the fullest.
At times very relaxing and mellow, at other times melodic but disturbing, this is a good mix of musical styles. Some common themes run the length of the album, though some tracks seem inserted in more ramshackle fashion, without really disturbing overall continuity. Chartol has managed to produce a fine package, which will appeal most to those who like music of the sort Bjorn Lynne, Era or any of the above mentioned composers produce.
Conclusion: 7+ out of 10.
PPz30 - Beautifuel
Tracklist: Ants! (4.26), PPz30 (Check it Out) (3.37), Ride My Bike (2.19), Eatage d'Ass (2.06), Meanwhile, Back on the Farm... (2.07), Tagadagapoum (2.46), Brokn Blues (2.59), Turbo! (2.33), Daddy Zoo (2.42), Reverend Nelson D. Rockafunky (1.23), People Say (3.04), Freak Juice (3.30), The Battle (3.10), You'll Go Blind (6.34), The Big Bag Theory (4.18)
A couple of weeks ago I received a CD by a band called PPz30. When I played it I decided that this clearly wasn't prog in the classical sense of the word. It was however quite interesting because it blended various styles of music, and besides that, it was also too damn funny to just ignore. The style of the music for some reason made me think of John Jowitt (IQ, ex-Arena, Jadis, Dirtbox) because this seemed like the kind of stuff he likes a lot (he's into the Chili Peppers, Mr. Bungle and such). So I asked John if he would be willing to check out this CD and write a review for us. "Sounds fantastic - put it in the post immediately", was the answer. So here it is: John Jowitt's review of PPz30. - Ed
PPz30 are a Belgium band with an American singer who I'd not heard of prior to being asked to review this album, which is apparently their fifth. However, I'm certainly glad I was asked, as the disc warrants both my and your interest.
All accomplished musicians, the album is well recorded and very tight, covering a wide range of styles without fear or favour. The inclusion of both a sense of humour and a brass section on the album are further essential and welcome ingredients.
The disc starts on a roll with the fantastic Ants!, which put me in mind of what might have happened if the late lamented Frank Zappa had ever met Infectious Grooves and got it on. A valedictory tale of the value of ants in a multi racial modern society which wears pants, dances and has picnics. And which sings its backing vocals in a stupid high voice. The track works its way through metal and reggae via brass in a most agreeable fashion and is to be thoroughly and heartily recommended.
Other highlights are the self titled PPz30 (Check it Out), Broken Blues, which throws in 2/4 and 5/4 bars into a 3/4 song in a way that'll make you realise that you haven't yet heard every blues formula possible, like you thought you had. Daddy Zoo is another corker - think Chilli Peppers with a twisted sense of humour. The Big Bag Theory takes Led Zep's Heartbreaker riff to places where it's never gone before. You'll Go Blind is a straight(ish) reggae track complete with traditional reverb from hell which reminded me just how much I like dis kinda music.
It's not all perfect, of course. I could do without the spoken track Reverend Nelson D Rockafunky, but then if I want to hear talking, I'll put on Radio 4 (sorry Damon). People Say didn't do much for me either, but generally the "hmm, let's hear that again" quotient is pretty high. In particular, the album gives a flavour that this must surely be a great live band, so take a tip from your old mate John and go and check 'em out if they're playing in your end of the neighbourhood.
And the name? Apparently PPz30 is the chemical formula for concrete.
Well you learn something every day.
Conclusion: 7,5 out of 10.