Reviews in this issue:
Quidam - Time Beneath The Sky
It's been no less than 4 years since the second Quidam album Sny Aniolow. I was almost beginning to think that this DPRP favourite had slipped into obscurity when I heard about the new album a few months ago and was offered a review copy by their record label. Having been a great admirer of the band, I could hardly wait to get my hands on this new CD.
The English song titles might give you the impression that Quidam have stopped singing their songs in Polish but (with the exeption of the Led Zeppelin cover No Quarter) all lyrics are still in Polish. To make it a bit easier for us Western folks, they have however printed the song titles and lyrics in the booklet in English, which does make it a whole lot easier to actually remember (and pronounce !) a song title.
Letter From The Desert I is an absolutely enchanting piece. It starts with 2 minutes of atmospheric chanting by Emila, followed by one minute of eastern flute and string instruments which would not have been out of place on an Ozric Tentacles album. Than the pounding drums kick in and we are treated to a powerful piece of flute music that reminds me a lot of the album version of One Night In Bangkok from Chess. A very surprising track and one of my favourites on the album.
As on the previous album, Time Beneath The Sky contains quite a few ballads. Whereas this brought the Sny Aniolow album down a bit, the melodies of the ballads on the new album are so incredibly beautiful that I find most of them absolutely adorable, especially Still Waiting and New Name.
Kozolec, on the other hand, is a joyful folky tune with some fine melodies shared by recorder and guitar.
I have never been a big fan of Led Zeppelin. The reason is not that I think they made bad music, on the contrary, they have made some classic stuff ! It's just that I really dislike Robert Plant's vocal performances. I have therefore for instance always preferred the Far Corporation's version of Stairway to Heaven above the original. And now Quidam present another cover version of a Zeppelin song. I wasn't really familiar with the original of No Quarter, but I did check it out before writing this review. And again I have to say that I prefer the cover version. For those of you who know the Zeppelin version, imagine that it would get the Pink Floyd treatment. Lots of Gilmour-like guitar, vocoded voices, and a middle section with solo spots for flute, guitar and keyboards, the latter having that typical seventies Richard Wright sound. And of course there's Emila's marvellous vocal performance, once again proving that she masters both loud, agressive parts as well as tranquil, quiet parts. Her marvellous singing quickly makes you forget the Polish accent in her performance. Another highlight !
The center piece of the album is The Time Beneath the Sky, which consists of the last 5 tracks of the album. Although this might give the impression of a seamless 30+ minute epic, that's not the case here. Basically all of the tracks are separate compositions (with the exception of Credo I & II) and personally I can't really figure out why they are presented as one whole.
Credo I is a wonderful opener for this 5-piece, going through different moods and styles in it's 8 minutes and containing some brilliant vocal performances. This is probably the track that reminds me most of the bands debut album.
Credo II is a very dark instrumental tune which reminds me a lot of Porcupine Tree. It's got the same spooky effects, effective bass line and riffs and Barbieri-like synths. Being a big PT fan, this immediately became one of my favourites on the album.
You Are, the next part of the set, is a whole different style. It is a very smooth and laid back jazzy kind of piece. Quite a new style for Quidam, and takes a while to get used to.
Quimpromptu starts in a way similar to Marillion's The Slide, with a bass line around which the rest of the band builds up towards a climax. The style is comparable to the mentioned Marillion track, as well as some of the earlier instrumental work by Porcupine Tree. The last minutes of the track consist of a beautifully emotional guitar solo.
The 5-piece composition ends with the title track (Everything Has Its Own) Time Beneath The Sky, another gentle ballad-like song. Although it certainly isn't a bad song at all, it isn't the most remarkable track on the album either. The vocal overdubs, layers of backing vocals and flute play are a delight though.
The production of the album is extremely good and sounds very professional. There´s some very interesting percussion effects (not unlike Spock's Beard's experiments on their last two albums). Furthermore, the album features some interesting instrumentation. For instance, Still Waiting contains a flugelhorn solo, while the folky Kozolac features mandolin and accordion and Letter from the Desert 1 contains oboe. The jazzy You Are features some delicious upright bass playing.
The production is far better than on the debut album and the overall quality of the compositions is higher than on their second album. Overall, the thing that immediately became obvious when playing the album the first time was the fact that this new album is a lot more darker and mysterious than the previous two albums, which tended to be quite lively. Whereas the previous albums seemed to lean more on Camel and Marillion, this new album moves more in the direction of Pink Floyd and Porcupine Tree. And since I like dark and mysterious this third Quidam album might well become my favourite. Individual tracks might not be as strong as Gleboka Rzeka or Plone from the debut album, but as a whole Time Beneath The Sky is probably the most enjoyable of their three studio releases so far.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10.
Trespass - In Haze Of Time
Israeli prog, now there's something you don't come across every day. Tresspass is an extraordinary trio consisting of three guys in their late twenties, each with a completely different background.
First there's the autodidactic drummer Gabriel Weissman, who started drumming when he was still in grade-school usings pencils and a table.
Then there is Roy Bar-tour on bass, who started out learning piano and organ, before switching to bass after hearing Charles Mingus and Chris Squire.
Lastly there is Gil Stein on the unusual combination of vocals, keyboards and guitar, as well taking care of the production and recording. Stein is the only educated musician of the lot, but he makes up for the 'lack' of the others in every possible way. Playing clarinet and touring through Europe and Canada with a folk group at the age of 8, studying as recorder, arranger and producer at 15 and winning various scholarships (among which was the prestigeous Berklee College of Music in Boston) in his early twenties.
Tresspass was formed when Weissman and Bar-tour, who had been playing in several bands together, saw Stein perform in a band, back in 1999. This album was recorded in 2001, but it took another year before it finally got released on the French Musea label. The band is currently working on a follow-up.
From the moment I hit the 'play' button this album grabbed my attention - This doesn't happen often, especially not with music as complex as this. The music is pretty much in the vein of Emerson Lake & Palmer, and even though that isn't exactly my cup of tea, I absolutely adore the playful music, and lovely swinging rhythms found on this album.
This could be because the band isn't exactly 'influenced' by ELP, or any other seventies' prog band for that matter. Weissman and Bar-tour knew of these bands, but the main creative force behind the band, Stein, had never heard any of these. In the biography that came with my review copy he recalls his reaction when he first heard Tarkus by ELP: "...I guess we didn't invent the wheel after all."
The album opens with Creatures Of The Night, which was the composition that saw Stein winning his (unused) Berklee scholarship. It starts very much in the vein of Jean-Michel Jarre (Rendez-Vous era), before turning into an ELP-style rock song. Stein's vocals are a bit of a mixture between Greg Lake and a young Robert Plant, but also manages to reach extremes such as a Jon Anderson and James Hetfield impersonation in just the one sentence. In a way it is admirably that he has such a wide range in his voice, yet it makes the song rather chaotic in some parts (especially the first verses).
The music of the song is just as much of a mixture. Genesis style bass, a very jazzy rhythm and fast Rick Wakeman style keyboard solos alternated with genuine Keith Emerson organs... in one word: stunning!
In Haze Of Time starts in a very bluesy way, which then turns in a happy folk song complete with flutes and all. Lots of mood and tempo changes in this track, and references range from classical to Genesis, but also with a couple of very Steve Rothery-style guitar solos (eighties' Steve Rothery, mind).
The next track Gate 15 is a cool instrumental fun track. Very jazzy rhythm and dito piano, while Bar-tour's bass seems to be everywhere. The free-style keyboard playing reminds me a lot of the work of French keyboardist Cyrille Verdeaux.
The track flows into the next one, City Lights, which continues in the same style, but sees Stein doing his Robert Plant impersonation again. By now there is no way you have not started moving along to Weissman's ongoing jazz rhythm, as he - and Bar-tour - just swing on and on.
Orpheus Suite is something completely different, this could be classical music, well, still played by a rock band though. Baroque style melodies, waltz rhythm... it sounds a bit like a movie soundtrack really. Halfway through it turns into a Genesis style rock track, only to come back to the classical theme, yet this time with flutes and electric guitar - a reincarnation of Mike Oldfield? The transition between the two styles is seamless!
Another instrumental follows, Troya and once again I must reference to Genesis, Los Endos mainly. It's once again another cool ode to seventies' prog, without ever sounding dated or strained.
The last track, The Mad House Blues is what the band calls their Are you ready, Eddie? and is somewhat misplaced on the album if you ask me. Even though it swings, like the rest of the album, this is the point where Stein's accented vocals start to irritate a little bit. "There in ze howzzzze, there in ze howzzze" sounds more like an Arnold Schwarzenegger one-liner than a sophisticated song. Perhaps this is intentional (the accent doesn't bother me in the other tracks) but it doesn't do the song much good.
As with so many other prog bands, the vocals are the weakest point of the music. However, as there are only very little lyrics sung on the album as a whole, they don't really irritate me (apart from the final track) but I wouldn't have minded if the entire album had been instrumental. Then again, fully instrumental albums are harder to digest.
In conclusion I'd say anyone with a liking to seventies' prog, in particular ELP or the swinging side of Genesis, should definitely check this one out.
Conclusion: 8+ out of 10.
Simon Says - Paradise Square
Hailing from Sweden, Simon Says is comprised of Mattias Jarlhed (percussion), Jonas Hallberg (guitars), Stefan Renström (bass and keyboards) and Daniel Fäldt (vocals and sitar). This young band has been around for a while now, though this release is the second to their name following the debut album, Ceinwen, which was released in 1998. Paradise Square is in itself a concept album dealing with ones search for God and the conflicts that this search brings with it.
The opening track And By the Water immediately shows that Simon Says are from the older classical school of progressive rock with their influences ranging from bands such as Genesis, Camel and Yes. This notwithstanding, the band have their own flavour of progressive rock within this concept album that fuses these relatively old ideas into a new and fresh approach. In fact there is a certain neo-progressive tinge to the music which has a very eighties approach, especially on the first two tracks. Paradise Square has more in common with "newer" bands such as Marillion and IQ as the keyboards play an important role within the track which in itself is divided into a number of various shorter pieces. The most radical change comes about midway through the piece which a dramatic change in rhythm and style which harks back to the glorious Peter Gabriel days of Genesis.
Though Striking Out A Single Note For Love starts off with a Hackett-like intro, this soon changes into a piece that conforms to a style similar to what one would expect from bands such as Spock's Beard. A strong rhythm amongst a modern sounding piece which also incorporates clever ear-friendly hooks makes this track one of the more prominent tracks on the album. Fly In A Bottle is sharp contrast to most of the album, firstly because of its relatively slow tempo and secondly because of the sonic aura in which it is set. The basis of the track features an acoustic guitar which is interrupted in the chorus by swishes of cymbals and choir giving a most dramatic effect. This effect is reutilised to great effect once again at the end of the album in the track Aftermath.
The only true instrumental track on Paradise Square is Darkfall, though one has to admit that the lengthy pieces of the album are full of instrumental sections. This track serves as an introduction to the album epic White Glove, with its Eastern instrumentation such as the sitar, a trait that is carried through White Glove. This fifteen minute plus track features all of the musical virtues that Simon Says possesses. Another band that comes to mind when hearing this track was fellow Scandinavian prog-outfit, The Flower Kings, who also like to utilise varying shades of acoustic and electronic instrumentation within their music. White Glove is definitely one of the album highlights and should it have been released in the seventies would most definitely have been hailed as one of prog's classic tracks with its soaring guitar work and keyboards complementing each other to perfection.
The album comes to a close with Aftermath which is sadly overshadowed by White Glove, yet in itself possess some impressively dynamic contrasts with some delicate guitar solos accompanied by deep orchestral chords and percussion as the vocals are "relegated" to a narrative format which further adds to the depth and intensity of this piece.
Paradise Square is not an innovative album, with most of what is present here a recollection of the glorious days of progressive rock. However Simon Says does manage to lay these down in a most refreshing manner merging both complexity and ear-friendliness with the various progressive rock styles from the seventies and eighties. For those who are nostalgic of the classical styles, yet wish to hear these played by a new band, I highly recommend this album.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10.
Deus Ex Machina - Cinque
Deus Ex Machina is one of the leading prog rock bands in Italy. Cinque is the band's fifth album, and their first to be released outside of Italy. The band plays this typical Italian mixture of prog rock, jazz rock and fusion, in the tradition of bands like P.F.M. and Banco.
This album took me some spins to get into, as the music is not overly accessable. It's not really "song based", and focuses on instrumental improvisations. Most of the pieces have vocals though. Even though I found the singer quite good, I must say his melody lines didn't strike me as particularly strong.
Deus Ex Machina's music sounds very improvised, but fresh and very much alive. It's never too polished, and quite energetic, sometimes even raw. I particularly liked the "natural sound" of the instruments, which works out very well for this kind of music. You really feel as if you're in the middle of a big jam session in the studio.
As for the musicians:
I'd say the keyboards are the main instruments. It's mostly organ stuff, and Fabrizio Puglisi plays them in a nice aggressive way, often pumping out power chords. His playing sometimes reminded me of a jazzy Keith Emerson (ELP), and when he plays synths, he gives them a jazzy Patrick Moraz treatment.
The guitars are played by Maurino Collina. Don't expect the usual melodious prog rock stuff here, as his playing is very jazz rock oriented: mean and dirty, a bit like Jan Akkerman (Focus) or Peter Banks (early Yes).
Very good are Claudio Trotta's drums. His playing is a good example of how well jazz and adventurous prog rock go together, and his "buzy jazz swing" sometimes reminded me of the early King Crimson.
Alberto Piras' voice is high, dramatical and powerful, and in fact not unlike Damian Wilson. He sings in Italian and Latin (which sounds very much like Italian to me).
About the album tracks: The album opens strongly with Convolutus, a melodious track with an unusual melancholic jazzy melody, supported some nice violin. Next are two energetic jazzy prog pieces, both of which are full of free form improvisations. Rhinoceros has the organ and jazzy drums as main elements. And in Uomo Del Futuro Passato, loads of weird pace changes are used (not unlike Gentle Giant). After that, there's an all acoustic piece, Olim Sol Rogavit Terrami I. Not an easy unplugged ballad, but an intricate jazzy piece, with several acoustic guitars.
Il Pensiero Che Porta Alle Cose Importanti sounds mostly like a jazzy Crimson-esk jam session (with restless aggressive melodies, and some nice violin lines). It is followed by a second acoustic piece, Luce (all instrumental, played on guitars and violin only). Then it's back to the proggy stuff on De Ordinis Ratione, another piece with lots of those restless Gentle Giant-style rhythmic changes, and some weird guitar and keyboard solos.
The last track is part II of Olim Sol Rogavit Terram II. The melody is quite lamenting, and the acoustic instrumentation is very sparse and transparent, with lots of classy violin, viola and cello. Then, after some silence, there's a 9 minute bonus collage of musical fragments taken from the band's rehearsals. Although the sound is quite low-fi here, it gives the listener an interesting idea of the making of this album.
To conclude: this album is a great mixture of complex, improvised jazz- influenced prog rock. I'm not too keen on jazz rock and fusion myself, but in this case I found the final result quite "rocking" and with enough prog relevance. The musicianship and pure energy of the album are great. Stylistically, I'd say the music comes closest to P.F.M., Banco and Focus. To a lesser degree, also Gentle Giant and King Crimson can be mentioned. If you are a more "traditional" prog rocker, you might be disappointed by the lack of really strong song material. Personally, I'd like the band to focus a bit more on writing melodies first, and then do their powerful improvisations.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Nathan Mahl - Heretik Volume III: The Sentence
With keyboardist Guy LeBlanc firmly established within the recording and touring framework of prog-legends Camel, I was somewhat surprised to see the relatively hasty release of the third and final installment in the trilogy of albums from Nathan Mahl. Those familiar with the previous two album from Nathan Mahl are well aware that the only piece missing from the story is the actual sentencing of the subject of the story who has been accused of sorcery. The lineup on the album remains virtually unchanged to the previous release with the exception of newcomer Guy Dagenais on bass.
Before actually reviewing the album one has to comment on the none too friendly layout of the album both for listening and reviewing purposes. The album is represented as one whole lengthy track without any subdivisions at all. I can understand that the author did not feel that the music warranted any subdividing in terms of titles but in a day and age when creating tracks has been simplified via CD technology, one would expect that some form of track system be employed. Apart from logistical problems to the reviewer, it can also be a turn-off to potential buyers who when listening to an album prior to buying it tend to listen to various tracks before taking a decision. In this case one has to be content with the initial part of the album, which is not the strongest section!
Well then, onto the music. Volume III - The Sentence sees Nathan Mahl actually improving on where they left off. Their previous album was somewhat disappointing and seemingly devoid of any new ideas. This time round there seems to be a fresh approach which has revitalised the whole album. Firstly one should mention the lack of vocals except for the initial segment which features Natasha LeBlanc and the final part which features Kaleigh LeBlanc. The rest of the album is purely instrumental combining segments of classical progressive rock with jazz-rock pieces. However the album insert features a story line which allows the listener to grasp what it is that the music is actually meant to convey.
With Guy LeBlanc composing all of the material here one would expect the album to be a keyboard whitewash. Surprisingly enough the music is played out in such a way that the guitars also play a prominent role in the solos interplaying delicately with LeBlanc's synths. The rhythm section is extremely tight though I must admit that the drum recording is slightly undermined by the recording which tends to dilute the bass sound giving the drums a synthetic touch at times.
The opening ten to fifteen minutes have a pretty homogenous sound with the music sounding like Emerson, Lake & Palmer with a guitarist added to the line-up. Following this the music takes on a slower approach with hints of a medieval music surfacing occasionally, betraying the point in history when this story is based. Midway through the album one of the problems I encountered that disrupted my attentiveness was the homogenous sound that there is present throughout most of the recording. This tends to create a tedious sensation because of the lack of variety within the timbre of the recording.
Having said that there are some interesting divergences such as the piano solo at the thirty five minute mark, though these are the exception rather than the norm. Once again I should mention that musically The Sentence is a step forward from Nathan Mahl after it seemed that their musical ideas seemed to be drying up. However the main flaw still remains the way the album was presented which really does not help at all due to the presence of one single track.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10.
Special thanks to Disque for providing the review copy of this album.