Reviews in this issue:
Death & Taxes - Paradigm For A New Quarter
Named after a Benjamin Franklin quote "....the only thing we can be certain of are death and taxes", Death and Taxes describe themselves as a progressive jazz fusion metal band. Though this title might be a wee bit bombastic, this trio does manage to incorporate a vast array of styles though the predominant factor is that they are very very metal. Emerging from the South Bay in Los Angeles, the group was formed in 1987 with only bassist Tom Shannon remaining from the original lineup. The remaining two members are Tony Martinez (guitars, vocals) and Mark Hanson (drums, percussion).
Straight from the onset, Cyberpunks From The Galactic Core is a broad indication of what the group's music deals with. Fast and furious, this style is more akin to the most technical of speed/trash metal bands that were so popular in the eighties. Unfortunately the sound is a bit muffled at times with all instruments bunched together with little or no delineation between individual sounds.
Munchkins From Hell keeps up the tempo, yet there is more musicianship involved in this track. The riffs remain decisively in the speed metal vein with the guitar licks reminding me of Testament, that is until the tempo changes. This track shows the first hint of progressive influences as the speed dies down to an almost complete standstill with Shannon able to wander off into some great bass runs with the remaining two musicians just backing. Paper Thoughts is in my opinion one of the highlights of the album. Starting off like a track that could have easily slotted on 'Master Of Puppets' (Metallica) with a delicate Rush-like intro which gradually piles up into a double-bass drum led rhythmic romp. This the 90's King Crimson playing heavy metal!
Invisible Man is one of the oldest tracks presented on the album. Originally written when Shannon was in a group called New World in the late eighties, it still retains those speed metal influences from groups like Testament, Kreator and Death. Short and straight to the point. The instrumental Fighting The Bromides on the other hand has a more funkier touch to it though it soon descends into that bone-crunching riff that this group can create to then return to the funk! To hear is to believe!
The music just keeps on hitting you between the ears. On Genuflecting Derelict you feel that the group is moving in a Red Hot Chili Peppers direction to then diverge into an almost Slayer like onslaught, Circle Song sounds like pre-keyboard Rush while Man Machine is easily the most commercial track on the album. Not that the music moves away from its complexity, yet this is the first ear-friendly chorus.
Swirling Serling's Baragin Matinee and My Silent World, which is anything but silent, are an excellent showcase for the more jazz-tinged influences the group possesses. On the other hand Sexual Intellectual is fast and furious with great playing from all the band members and The Woodpecker Song is a great complex prog-metal tune. Acid Bath, another track from the eighties, sounds slightly outdated and could have easily been left out of the album in my opinion.
Undoubtedly if you have no affinity for metal in any sense let alone speed metal, then it would be difficult to even conceive you liking just one of the tracks here. On the other hand if you like progressive metal this group will go down superbly. The only drawback that this recording had was the mixing which on certain tracks sounded a bit muddled with the vocals in parts recorded a bit too way down the mix.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
National Health - Playtime
Last year, Cuneiform Records released Arriving Twice by Gilgamesh, a collection of unreleased live tracks from this seminal Canterbury band. This Cuneiform have done it again with another legendary Canterbury group, National Health. Recorded live in 1979, this recording has live tracks taken from a period in the bands history that till this day has remained undocumented musically, at least until now.
The lineup for this album include Alan Gowen (keyboards), John Greaves (bass, vocals), Phil Miller (guitar), Pip Pyle (drums) and guest Alain Eckert (guitar on tracks 1, 3 and 4). Of further interest is the ability to witness certain tracks that would find their way onto a studio album in later years as there are only two tracks on this album that had previously appeared on a National Health album, the Greaves song Squarer For Maude and the Miller song Dreams Wide Awake. Both tracks taken from the second National Health (NH) LP, 'Of Queues And Cures'. Flanagan's People would make it to the third NH album, 'D.S. Al Coda' while Nowadays A Silhouette would appear on the 1981 album 'Before A Word Is Said' credited to Phil Miller, Alan Gowen, Richard Sinclair and Trevor Tomkins. Rose Sob, a Greaves/Blegvad track, would surface on John Greaves' second album Parrot Fashions and Play Time was a Gilgamesh composition.
With this line-up, Alan Gowen was trying to move in a more free jazz direction and move further away from the constraints of a rock band. This is evident throughout the album as the group indulge in some wonderful playing, and is possibly the main reason why Dave Stewart would opt out of the band before the tour from which these live dates were taken. As always the playing is extremely sharp and tight, showing the musical levels these groups had reached bordering that fine line between jazz and Canterbury Progressive Rock.
Unfortunately the band folded in 1980, with members going their own way. Alan Gowen died of leukemia in May 1981and the material on this album (edited, mastered and sequenced by pip Pyle and Phil Miller) is a tribute to this musician. The album comes complete with a 16-page booklet with liner notes by Aymeric Leroy, which tells the story of the last period of National Health with Gowen. Illustrated with rare photos, it includes interviews and comments with all surviving members of the band.
If you like the jazz leaning bands progressive rock, especially National Health, this album is a must for your collection.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Parallel Or 90 Degrees - Unbranded
It's been a long time since I heard anything by PO90. I remember I liked the first album when I heard it. They sounded very new, very fresh in a world where not much really happened. Maybe I should have heard it a couple more times to really make up my mind, but you just can't do that with everything you hear. I hope this lack of knowledge on the band's progression doesn't limit me in giving you my opinion about this album.
When I put on this new CD, it reminded me of what I still remember from that first album. But what I now noticed, is that since then, more bands have begun to play like this. I had to think of Spock's Beard and Flower Kings right away - the way of making songs of both, and the sound of the first. The way they use a Hammond organ and the way Tillison lets his heart cry out, make me think of Van Der Graaf Generator as well.
It's ambiguous. There are bits and pieces that I do like (and some I do like a lot). I like VDGG, so you know what parts I like. Other bits I don't like at all. These remind me of Spock's Beard and Flower Kings, which I personally don't like at all.
In the second part of Migraine, they remind me, for example, of VDGG's Killer. It's not only the heavier bits - also the title track has got very good moments. But songs like Gods Of Convenience sound like there's been too much thinking. And that's precisely what I think is missing in the music of Spock's Beard: the blues, the sadness, the agression, the happiness - the real emotion. Very well crafted, but not enough soul. I must admit that I like PO90 a lot better than Spock's Beard. Simply because there is more soul.
Space Junk was a nice surprise. Let's put a bit of Hawkwind here, they must have thought. Marvellous intro! Great contrast between heavy and softer pieces here. This could be be the modern VDGG! When piano playing and singing are warm and emotional, or when things get really heavy or intense - that's when I really like it. But when there's too much thought behind it, too much "let's do this and then that", I lose interest. And the mix of those two feelings makes this a very hard album to review.
Track 6 wasn't supposed to be on the album, or so I am told. Cyclops reportedly persuaded Tillison to include it after all, so here it is. Don't know why he didn't want to have it here, since it fits in very well. As accounts for some other tracks, it's way too long for me. I like some long songs, but this patchwork is not my cup of tea.
I like Andy's lyric writing. I share his wanting to let people think instead of follow others, think instead of losing yourself in religion. A long long time ago, I wrote a lyric about alcohol, written from the perspective of the drink itself. I had to think of that when reading the lyrics to Migraine - written about a person suffering from them, from the perspective of the migraine. Can result in original stuff, but I didn't think this lyrics was very successful. Shoulder To Shoulder is better, although I think Tillison is going from "observing" to "telling" or "teaching" a bit easily. But the great thing is that the lyrics are not pretentious. And the way he can write lyrics and vocal lines is impressive. In a song like Shoulder To Shoulder it's clear he loves Hammill a lot, and has listened to Hammill a lot. Not copying Hammill's way of writing (how can one ever?), but using the same level of freedom in writing.
I know there are a lot of PO90 fans out there. If you know the band well, this is probably obligatory stuff (although I can't really compare it to their other albums, because I don't know them), if you don't have it yet. To try out PO90, I can't tell for sure that this is the best album to start with. Well written, well played, so at least check it out. Definitely good moments, some very, very good moments, alternated with parts that don't make me close my eyes and feel the music.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Parallel Or 90 Degrees - No More Travelling Chess
Not a thing you see much - cover tunes of Peter Hammill and Van Der Graaf Generator songs. And since I have begun to learn about and appreciate the music of VDGG the last couple of years, I was very interested in how other musicians would treat those songs.
Before there was Parallel Or 90 Degrees, there was Gold Frankincense & Disk Drive, a two-piece consisting of Andy Tillison Diskdrive (vocals, keyboards, guitars, drums) and Guy Manning (guitars, keyboards, backing vocals). The project started in 1988, when Tillison lost his copy of VDGG's Godbluff album, he started to record the song Arrow from memory. Through the years, they recorded some more songs by Hammill and VDGG (well, written by Hammill anyway). In 1992, the results were released on a tape, together with two self-penned songs (the last two). Now this tape has been released on CD (well, back in 1999 that was, actually...). For this release, Tillison and Manning re-joined to record one more Hammill song (In The Black Room), so if you like the tape, you don't get just a CD issue of that probably by now worn-out tape, but also a bonus track!
With anticipation we (my girlfriend and I) put on this CD. Arrow is first. Of course, we immediately compared the music to the original. We didn't know what to expect, so it could be anything between one's weird interpretation and a serious attempt to a tribute. It was clear that the lever was set in the direction of the latter. Sounds nice, we thought. But when Tillison started to sing... the way he hits Hammill's original power is impressive. Not long after, I was listening to it without trying to compare. It was like a different version of the original. A modern version.
I can't compare Flight to its original, as A Black Box is probably the only Hammill album we don't have. But I can say that this song is definitely too long. The end is weird, and although I don't mind weird songs, it's too much for this one. The other two Hammill songs are good. Yes, simply "good".
As a bigger VDGG than Hammill fan, I prefer the first two songs, and especially Roncevaux is very good.
The album holds versions with a different approach towards the originals. On the one hand there's Arrow. Freaking, haunting, menacing like VDGG. On the other hand there's Modern (from Hammill's 1974 solo album The Silent Corner And The Empty Stage). Tillison and Manning play this song (originally played mostly on electric guitar only), and give it a VDGG treatment. The intro is so Hammill - you instantly know what it is, even if you don't know the song. The moments other instruments join in, it begins to start a bit electronic. Modern, you can also say. The way Tillison sings the lyrics and succeeds to create the atmosphere the original take you to, is really impressive. He has a different voice alright, Hammill's voice is even more tortured, frightened, and has a bit more air to press out of his lungs. But never for one moment I got the urge to compare these versions to the original - something I often have when listening to cover tunes.
The song is a bit longer than the original, made up by guitar improvisations. To me, these bits make the songs less interesting, but whenever the two musicians start to play again, more instruments join in, the music brings me back where we were before. It's not completely out of tune with the original VDGG way of making music, though!
The big difference between the original VDGG songs and these versions is the lack of saxophones. That instrument and the way it was played meant a great deal to VDGG's sound. Tillison and Manning had to use keyboards to reproduce that sound, and so it remains a bit artificial. But the power and enthusiasm with which the music is played makes up for a lot of this.
It is completely clear to me why there are such VDGG influences in PO90's music (see review above). He loves Hammill and VDGG! I do, too, and I really enjoy the treatment those songs got on this album. I'm going to hear this one a lot...
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.
Cast - Legacy
Legacy is the ninth studio album by Mexican Cast since 1993. Quite a highly
productive band therefore, and their studio experience shows. The production is
tight, the compositions complex and keyboard dominated. Unfortunately, the
website did not work at the time I checked, because my background on this
talented band is limited. The band plays progressive rock in a mixture of
Genesis (Tony Banks) and IQ-like guitar riffs.
Legacy is a concept album, apparently about the legacy every human being carries with him from his parents and ancestors, and the legacy he himself leaves behind. I think. Probably the website reveals more.
The opening track, with its rich keyboards, reminded me a bit of Dust and
Dreams (Camel). This song flows into the wonderful track
Legacy's Executor. The complex keyboards and rhythms are reminiscent
of early IQ (Tales From A Lush Attic). Prog rock at its finest. The
track is (very slowly) building up to a frantic climax. This is the type of
stuff you hope to hear when you buy a prog album, even though it is a bit
retro (you know, early IQ, early Landmarq like).
Key Of Life opens darker, even more early Landmarq-like, although the verse goes back to Nichols or Genesis' Gabriel years. Fantastic track also. Neo-prog fans will adore this album, I believe. Great keys to end the track.
Now the length of the songs become somewhat easilier digestible. The vocal harmonics and subsequent instrumental part of Celestial Garden are really wonderfully melancholic melodic. Magic of Love however, enters into a too simple melody. Somehow this reminded me of a childrens LP I once had from 'Barbapappa', who also sang such a tune. Fortunately the rest of the song is much better, but it doesn't reach the level of the first tracks, despite the heavy middle section. But I can imagine people disagreeing on that.
Personal Status is much more experimental, King Crimson-like. A fine instrumental. Slowly, the songs become more mainstream prog again. For instance Take A Look Back edges towards Egdon Heath in its approach. Some fine guitar work and a good crying (Arena-like) verse. This trend is progressed further in the instrumental Beneficiaries, a track that could only mildly interest me. That is a general impression I have from the tracks that follow, they seem a bit uninspired.
Cast has already produced a lot of albums (almost one every year) and I think they just can't keep up with themselves. The tracks with vocals are definitely better than the instrumentals, due to a better melodic structure. The vocals are quite all right, by the way. The final track, Conclution (no not a spelling error), is more based on classical music themes and features a flute as main instrument, giving it a folky undertone.
Summarizing, this is a fine prog-rock album. Maybe it sounds a little bit outdated, i.e. early nineties like. That could be a point of criticism. But for the rest it just sounds good. Unfortunately, it does not contain a killer track, all of them are nice, but there is not a track that really grabbed me by the throat. This is unfortunate since this would have lifted the album to a "recommended" level. Also, the sheer length of the album is a difficult point to me. When confronted with 13 tracks, and not containing particular highlights, it is hard to keep focussed on the music.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10.