Reviews in this issue:
Rush - Vapor Trails
I must admit that I had given up all hope of ever seeing (let alone hearing!) another Rush studio album. In the six years that have elapsed since their last studio foray, everything that would point to a possible dissolution of the band seemed to happen. First we had the much publicised tragedies of Neil Peart which brought the whole Rush machine grinding to a halt. Then we had the release of Different Stages/Live, which seemed to be an indirect way of the band saying "Thank You and Goodbye" to their legions of fans. The only thing that could have possible whetted the appetite of Rush fans was the release of Geddy Lee's solo album, Mr Favourite Headache, which though an excellent album was hardly the material worthy of a Rush album.
Thank God, time and Rush have proven me wrong and some weeks ago Vapor Trails, the trio's seventeenth studio album was released. One of the few progressive rock bands from the early seventies still surviving, one would expect the passage of time to have had a mellowing effect on the band. This was something which seemed to be creeping up on the latest Rush albums, yet Vapor Trails dispels any notion that the band have hit a mellow chord. In fact they seem to have dispelled of all hints of synthesizers and keyboards and resorted to crunching distorted chords and somewhat more simplified but more powerful approach to their songwriting.
The powerful drum intro to One Little Victory which merges into a barrage of guitar and bass immediately shows any progressive metal hopefuls how it should be done. "Slowing" down to a merciless riff, Lees voice breaks in. No longer is it the squeal that one was used to hearing in years gone by. Instead it has matured into a more powerful, slightly tuned down instrument which complements to perfection the deep musical drone constructed by the band.
Ceiling Unlimited has more of the characteristic Rush with Lee's bass taking the spotlight with even the occasional solo thrown in. One of the more remarkable noticeable absentees on the album is the lack of lengthy guitar solos on Leifson's part. There are various instances on the album, such as on the chord filled Vapor Trail when one expects him to throw in one of his classic solos, and instead we get endless riffage which also helps fill in the void created by the lack of keyboards. I must admit that this approach has left me slightly miffed. The band may be trying to approach the younger generation of metal fans whose favourites would include bands such as Staind and System Of A Down, yet the overall Rush music seems to have lost something and it is Lee who is left to do all the filling in.
Ghost Riders, a track whose lyrics deal with the recently troubled past that the band has undergone is one of the few instances were the band let down their guard allowing space for a breather without resorting to a barrage of sound to convey their musical message. The only other track on the album which has a somewhat similar approach would be The Stars Look Down which makes us of some delightful shifts between open and distorted chords together with great vocal harmonies.
Musical complexity has always been part and parcel of Rush music and the so Yes-like Peaceable Kingdom is a perfect example to this as it comes replete with abrupt changes in time signature as well as style. Though the strong guitar approach is definitely a characteristic of the "new" Rush, the band manage to re-evoke memories of their mid-era albums with tracks such as How It Is. One of the album candidates for a hit single, the band manage to adopt a U2 approach with Lifeson exchanging distortion for acoustic guitar.
One of the album highlights has to be Secret Touch which sees the band playing at their loosest, with an almost jam-like feel. Lifeson impresses with some great riffs, as the track swoops into one hell of a drive to the switch to a funkier groove towards the end. Where Secret Touch showed off the power of Rush, Earthshine shows the level of complexity vis-a-vis time signatures the band is capable of attaining with the time shifting at an almost constant rate. Once again one notices subtle changes such as Peart's drumming which in another time would have been full of rolls and tom-toms on tracks such as this. This time the drumming still retains a high degree of complexity, yet there are no frills in the delivery, just a solid backbone.
Another notable absentee from this album, when compared to previous Rush albums are the highly futuristic lyrics of Neil Peart. Instead most of the album sheds a more personal light on the drummers' life. The most autobiographical lyrics on the album can be found on Sweet Miracle acknowledging "Love's sweet miracle of life." Sometimes the subject dealt with verges on the absurd, such as on the Tarot-based Nocturne, though this is mad up for by Peart's full use of the tom-toms and Lifeson's chops.
Freeze (Part IV of "Fear") comes across as one of the more technical and complex pieces on the album showing the bands great ability in playing around with time signatures and awkward choruses. However, this band have the uncanny ability of making the most complex sequences still sound so easy on the ear, a definite reason why the band have lasted so many decades at the top of their game. The album comes to a conclusion with Out Of The Cradle which is best described as an "in your face" rocker with all three members pounding away effortlessly in a most remarkable fashion. These guys really know how to rock, and what is best is that they sound as if they are enjoying every minute of it.
The band may have dispelled with unending solos and over complex arrangements to bring an album that has been stripped and laid bare. With Vapor Trails the band have shown that they have been able to move with the times. The lack of a commercial side to the album might be the main negative factor for the band in their bid to achieve maximum worldwide sales. However the album definitely shows that Rush are back with a vengeance, showing to all the newer bands how to do it. Vapor Trails may lack the epic tracks from albums such as 2112 or the commercial touches of Power Windows and Presto. Instead they have returned to basics and come up trumps, again. Taking a quote from Ceiling Unlimited, "Winding Like an Ancient River; The time is now AGAIN." Rush are back and you'd better take note!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
Dimension - X
The history of Dimension goes back as far a s 1990 when four Mexican musicians first got together under the name ‘Perturbator’. The band became a five-piece in 1993 and this line-up recorded their first demo Se acerca El Final. Further changes occurred before the recording of their second demo forming a lineup which recorded the band’s first CD Secretos del Tiempo in 1996 introducing a progressive slant to the music, for the first time. This enabled them to tour throughout their home state and the central region of Mexico in 1997 to some success. However the band desired International success and a decision was made to firstly sing in English and then to change the band name to ‘Dimension’. Further line-up saw the band revert to a four-piece, composed as follows: David Quicho (guitar and vocals), Aaron del Palacio (bass), Eddie del Palacio (keyboards) and Emmanuel Cabrales (drums).
So now it is 2002 and we arrive at the band’s first release under the ‘Dimension’ moniker. The disk opens with Strategy a lengthy tracks which impresses immediately in many ways. Here we see many of the elements of the band’s style which recur throughout the disk, as the band switches between moments of metallic heaviness containing some powerful riffing before either keyboards or guitar tear off on their own playing impressive runs and scales which sometimes compete, sometimes complement each other. When not impressing with their virtuosity, the band comes together as a solid unit producing nice melodies over which the voice of David Quicho generally lacks authority.
The following track Sailor is slower and less showy, though the guitar playing in parts indicates the influence of Yngwie J Malmsteen and while Forbidden Game is around the same length, it is by turns much heavier and more avant-guard. Universal Mind is perhaps the standout track and the keyboard and guitar playing is of very high quality during some of the long instrumental passages found here. The music is not devoid of obvious influences either, but this time it is the keyboards of Eddie del Palacio which one moment recall early Genesis and then later on, the runs of ex-Dream Theater man, Derek Sherinian. David Quicho also impresses with some ripping solos and some nice jazzy touches.
A lovely and strangely familiar sounding piano melody introduces the mellower Waiting yet once again, one feels that the tune is somewhat let down by the vocals which lack power and are strangely child-like in tone. Vanity Calls sees the heaviness return but once again the vocals, which appear to be processed at times, detract from the overall effect. The final 3 tracks follow a more conventional Prog-Metal style and contain fewer impressive instrumental passages. The heavy chugging guitar riffs are there, the fluid keyboard runs are present and the rhythm section remains solid and unfussy.
In trying to sum up this disk, I find myself likening it to the Swedish Band Andromeda and their 2001 release Extension of The Wish in that the band are very obviously competent musicians who have managed to create a very good progressive metal disk and one which has a certain freshness to it. One might also be tempted to liken them to Ark from the point of view of the jazzy influences and the strong playing, but unfortunately it is the poor vocals, which undermine this effort. The band’s influences are clear and they haven’t quite arrived at the point where the sound is completely their own, but the signs are good and I feel sure that with time, a slightly better production and more than anything, a good vocalist, these guys could well unleash a disk that is much better than this fine debut and one which really will put Mexican Prog-Metal on the map.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10.
Big Big Train - Bard
Is there any term called progressive pop (rather than rock), I wonder while listening to Big Big Train's third album? I have not heard the band's two previous works, but I notice early on that they are a crew of well schooled musicians. This rather big crew (the sleeve notes are not really specific as to who are regular members and who are additional help as each track has a specific line-up) consists of Gregory Spawton (guitars, keyboards, vocals, and responsible for most of the writing), Andy Poole (bass, some vocals), Phil Hogg (drums and percussion), Tony Müller (vocals, keyboards, piano), Ian Cooper (keyboards), Martin Read (vocals) and Jo Michaels (vocals).
The music is very soft neo-prog with roots in 70s Genesis (lots of mellotron samples) with additional folky touches and well crafted pop music interwoven. There is, however, a tendency in certain songs to go for rather longish instrumental sections: Broken English, for instance, has an almost ten minutes long instrumental end segment, and For Winter not only has its own share but flows on into A Long Finish (which was originally written as a part of the former). Sections like these are, of course, not an evil per se; and in all honesty, Big Big Train does structure them really well... only, despite skilled musicianship, nice vocals and good melodic syntax, the music lacks that extra bit of bite, that little edge. Tracks like The Last English King and This Is Where We Came In are, in a way, really enjoyable. It is nice ear candy, but it never really moves me that much. Do not get me wrong, I can appreciate well written pop music as well as gentler prog as much as anyone else. It is just that this music does not get me going. And that annoys me. Seeing the qualities of the people performing the music, it seems like such a waste not being able to better appreciate the music, but that is how it is.
However, there is a way for those of you interested to find out whether this is your cup of tea or not. Big Big Train not only offers a selection of samples on their webpage, they also offer a free sample CD. So, to those of you into the poppier side of prog with the influences mentioned above, do try this one out, despite my comments. It was not my cup of tea, but maybe it is yours. And, as said, they are skilled musicians.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Poor Genetic Material - Leap into Fall
When reviewing Poor Genetic Material's Summerland in 2001, I was impressed by how the band managed to fuse various elements from the new wave eighties within a progressive rock context. The band then worked as an experimental project with just Stefan Glomb (guitar) and Philipp Jaehne (keyboards) as permanent members of the band. However the critical acclaim that Summerland generated, caused the four members on that album to modify their approach and work in a band-orientated way with the addition of Dennis Sturm on bas, a feat that has worked well for these five guys as Leap into Fall is a great step forwards in the right direction.
Starting off with the lengthy Rush Of Ages, the band show the new level of material they have achieved and the homogeneity that their sound has acquired, primarily because of their working as a whole unit and not as individual musicians getting together for an album. This track features everything that one would want to hear in a prog-rock epic. There are hints of New Age, electronica and even touches of blues-rock, accompanied by delightful guitar and piano solos which hark back to the golden days of prog. Glomb's guitar work sounds so much Howe-like while Griffiths' vocals combine power with feeling. It is unfair to single out individual musicians as this is a collective effort which resounds throughout the whole of the album.
Thin Red Line maintains the progressive touch on the album though the band seem to resort to a more placid style with watery keyboards and acoustic guitar coupled with some great vocal harmonies. A band whose reference rarely, if ever, seems to crop up in the music of Poor Genetic Material is Jethro Tull. Star Of Eden cannot be described as a typical Tullian work, yet the awkward use of the vocals, jaunted time signatures, and the occasional sound of the flute makes this track sound like a cross between Jethro Tull and Gentle Giant in twentieth century mode!
The title track Leap Into Fall has a strong commercial touch having more in common with the rockier side of bands such as Toto and the more commercial pieces of Marillion. Having said that, it still fits in snugly between the afore-mentioned progressive pieces and complex Antares. Antares is as complex as they come with strange chords intermingling with one another creating a backdrop of dissonance that gives way to strong syncopated rhythmic backing. This track has really blown me away and its complexity seems to increase with every listen as various intricacies become more and more apparent. In my opinion this is one of the standout tracks of the album.
As the album draws to a close with the ballad-like Fall, I cannot but admit that once again Poor Genetic Material have come up trumps. This is a band that deserves all the coverage that they can get from the progressive rock world. Their ability to blend classical progressive rock within a more commercial rock structure is something that few progressive rock bands have managed to create. Leap Into Fall is simply one of those albums whose music flows by the listener in such a way that what many times seems to irk non-progressive loving rock fans goes by unnoticed unless searched for. This album is made of great stuff. Go get it!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10.
R·U·D·Y·'s Journey - R·U·D·Y·'s Journey
Even though well-known prog names like Michael Sadler (Saga) and Michelle Young are connected to R·U·D·Y·'s Journey, the solo project of German guitarist Rudi Buttas, there are only a few traces of progressive rock to be found on this album. In fact, this release would probably not have been reviewed on this site, had it not been for the presence of those aforementioned people.
I do not think that the name Rudi Buttas will ring a bell if you are not from Germany; I know that at least I had not heard of him before. So, I was quite surprised to learn that the man is actually a member of a multi-platinum band! However, the fact that the band in question, PUR, uses German lyrics, explains their obscurity in the non-German speaking part of the world.
For his first solo project, Buttas wanted to go back to his musical roots, melodic rock and art rock. In my opinion, he has not really succeeded in that, because most of R·U·D·Y·'s Journey does not belong in these genres at all. So, what are we dealing with here? Well, apart from the somewhat mysterious sounding track Breath of Life and the clear wink at Pink Floyd's David Gilmour's guitar sound in Just Pink Friends, most songs are ordinary, middle-of-the-road melodic soft rock or somewhat over-predictable pop (the stuff that is called 'schlager' in Sweden), including the "obligatory" ballad.
Dutch pop buffs Piet Veerman, Gerard Joling, Frans Bauer and Marianne Weber (I am sorry, but since this kind of music is not really my cup of tea, I cannot name any non-Dutch equivalents here) come to mind while listening to tracks like Blindman, One More Chance, Fly and Harder Day. The particular combination of vocals and music in Pretty Lies, on the other hand, reminds me of ABBA's rockier songs, whereas the guitar sound in Mona is remarkably much like that in Dire Straits's Money For Nothing, and the backing vocals in Peter Pan resemble those of Buttas's countrymen Münchener Freiheit in their big eighties hit Keeping the Dream Alive.
Apart from in Just Pink Friends, the traces of prog I mentioned in the introduction can basically only be found in the guitar solos on the album. For example, Buttas does a nice imitation of the solo style of Marillion's Steve Rothery in One More Chance and that of the aforementioned Gilmour in Blindman and Peter Pan. Most of those solos are very good, but the way that some songs build up towards them gives me the feeling that they are more meant as a vehicle to demonstrate Buttas's guitar skills - which are impressive, that must be said - than as just a song.
For R·U·D·Y·'s Journey, Buttas has managed to get the co-operation of four different vocalists: Michael Sadler, Michelle Young (ex-American Flyer), David Hanselmann (ex-The Dudes) and Jochen Schild (eXact). I think that especially Sadler and Young manage to raise the quality of the songs they sing in by their performance. Radio and Breath of Life, for instance, would have been a lot less impressive if it were not for the expressive vocals of Michael Sadler. Michelle Young demonstrates the wide spectrum of her voice by sounding like a rockier version of Shania Twain in Mona, somewhat like Bonnie Tyler in One More Chance and a bit like Tracy Hitchings (Landmarq, Jabberwocky, etc.) in Harder Day.
As I already wrote in the introduction, R·U·D·Y·'s Journey is hardly a prog CD. It contains some nice pop and melodic soft rock tracks with good, slightly proggy guitar soloing by Rudi Buttas. Some of the songs sound above average because of the presence of Michael Sadler and Michelle Young on them, but otherwise I am not that impressed. In conclusion, this album is not really meant for you if you are a hardcore prog addict, unless you are a big fan of one (or more) of the vocalist(s). Still, if you like popular music, you might want to try this one out.
Conclusion: 7- out of 10.