Roundtable Reviews in this issue:
Pendragon - Acoustically Challenged
The music sounds great in this toned down version. All songs are played with twin guitars (Pete Gee plays acoustic guitar, instead of bass) so you get a very warm feel, plus that Nick Barrett gets to do lots of his guitar solos this way. Clive Nolan's keyboard also sticks to more 'basic' sounds, like piano, organ, strings and bass chords.
I have to say the band decided on a rather interesting setlist. You might expect the emphasis to lie on Not Of This World, but this is not the case. Almost every Pendragon album is represented, and they didn't go for the most obvious tracks either. Whereas And We'll Go Hunting Deer and Fallen Dreams And Angels are songs that already had a rather acoustic feel, they also opted for some more epic tracks like the first half of World's End or fan-favourite The Voyager. Especially the latter is a real treat, as almost the entire track is played, including the five-minute guitar solo!
Another interesting track is The Pursuit Of Excellence which, to my knowledge, had never been played live before. I'm not too fond of the original off Masquerade Overture, but in its acoustic form it's quite a nice ditty. Another special track is Unspoken Words, which is from Pete Gee's first solo album Heart Of David.
The album is rather short, as this is just a radio show here, it had to fit within an hour (actually, Unspoken Words was recorded later on, so it was just a 50-minute show) but the rest of the disc is filled with a great multimedia section, containing liner notes, a photo gallery, tour dates and an interesting 9-minute interview with Nick Barrett, which is altered with live images.
Nice to see how in this interview Nick comes straight to the point how he doesn't understand the modern trend of some bands getting so defensive, or offended, when they hear the term 'progressive rock'.
Even though the MTV unplugged formula has worn out a bit by now, I think this is a very nice release, which comes in a cool package too. If you like acoustic music, or rather, acoustic versions of very electric songs, then this album is definitely worth a try.
The terms acoustic is a little bit misleading, since Clive Nolan cheats a bit and does play
keyboard (adding the necessary background string tapestries etc.). The setlist has been picked with care and
style, as not all Pendragon tracks would have survived a strip down. It is a bit strange however that mostly very melancholic tracks have been chosen and there is no real "rocker" present (something like Nostradamus, or even Red Shoes ;-).
On this album we also hear the quality of somebody like Peter Gee more clearly then ever before. He plays the second guitar and does a marvelous job of it. Pendragon is normally a kind of battle or interplay between Nolan and Barrett, but here Gee's backing work is more constructive than ever.
In terms of tracks played there are a few surprises, like Fallen Dreams And Angels (originally featured on the SI Compilation Disk 2) or 2 AM (which I also didn't suspect to hold up in an acoustic set, and it does sound somewhat bare, but due to the
jazzy treatment it gets it keeps its character).
Of the more well-known tracks, The Voyager and Alaska are the most impressive and longest pieces (which they are too in their electrical versions). Unfortunately the outbursts of the electrical guitar in Alaska cannot be mimicked easily with acoustic instruments, and therefore this particular treat of the song is lost. But it does give Nolan the chance to get a bit more in the spotlight with his subtle (yes he can do that!) piano playing. Add to this the fact that Alaska is one of those tracks that I have carried with me through the years, one that represents progressive rock for me, and you can understand that I particularly enjoyed this acoustic version. The same goes for The Voyager, which in my opinion is the first "modern" Pendragon track, the archetypical track from which the next three albums are derived. This song represents the core of the music of Pendragon nowadays and as such should not have been left out of the set.
Barrett has to stretch his voice in The Pursuit Of Excellence, and as a result this track is not one of the strongest. Dark Summer's Day is a track from their very first album and is also featured on 9:15 Live. In fact it is a very good track, definitely recognisable as Pendragon, but with a bit more tempo than most other tracks, and especially the swinging keyboard work of Nolan is refreshing here. The album ends with a track by Peter Gee, Unspoken Words, from his The Heart Of David album. It is a melancholic, melodic track, with some Spanish influences, but which fits in seamlessly with the Pendragon repertoire.
For Pendragon fans this is an absolute must-have. It is a kind of best-of album, but with the advantage that you are treated to nice alternative renditions of those classic tracks. The multimedia section with a small interview (in Quicktime, small screen low sound quality), some small pictures and some notes on the album is redundant. I would have preferred another track (if possible The Black Knight, still one of my all-time Pendragon favourites) in its place.
Personally, I have never been a great fan of Pendragon's music. Still, I was quite curious about their new CD. Mainly because I like "unplugged" albums, as they give you a good opportunity to hear a different side of a band. In this case I was pleasantly surprised, because the acoustic format works out very well for the band. There are unplugged albums in many sorts, from "guitar/vocal-only" to very big with strings sections and stuff. This album is somewere in between. The instrumentation is mainly acoustic guitars (played by Nick Barrett and Peter Gee) and some keyboard (Clive Nolan). There are no drums on the album. The sound is extremely good, and the performance is very disciplined and never messy.
The selected songs are moody, melancholic, dreamy, and often dark. The acoustic instrumention gives the band a quite different sound.
No electric guitars are used, and the usual Floyd/Marillion-influences are almost completely gone. In fact, the music reminded me strongly of the 70's Genesis, mainly because of the duo acoustic guitar strumming, which sounds really beautiful. Also the solo's that are played on acoustic guitar are very good. Nolan's keyboards are not really unplugged (as purists will notice), but they're mostly set on piano and strings (or the occasional flute) and provide an effective and tasteful accompanyment.
As for Barret's singing: it sounds much better than I'd expected. His voice really seems to benefit from the quiet, acoustic nature of the songs. In fact I found his singing on the album very good; it's never forced and perfectly fitting the songs.
Acoustically Challenged is a truly great unplugged album! This is good prog rock music, even translated to a more subtle, acoustic format. The band sounds well rehearsed, and their virtuosity shines through in every song. The songs fit well together. It's also good to have a whole album of acoustic songs, and not just some acoustic bonus tracks on an regular electric album. The extra multimedia section and the booklet (with all the lyrics) are worth a special mention. Favourite track: A Man Of Nomadic Traits.
Ratings:Bart Jan van der Vorst: 8 out of 10
Remco Schoenmakers: 8 out of 10
Rob Michel: 9.5 out of 10.
Pendragon - Live... At Last And More
Extras: fully animated menu, Interview with Nick Barrett, Saved By You promo video (3.59), band history, band members profiles, discography, art gallery, photo gallery, desktop images
As this was recorded for TV and VHS release, the picture quality isn't really up to DVD standard, but that is also stated on the website (not on the DVD package itself however).
The audio has had a remix in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, but none too fancy if you ask me. Of course it sounds better than the original PCM stereo track (which is also included), but if I compare it to other recent releases like IQ's Subterranea, or Roger Waters' In The Flesh, this could have been done with a bit more creativity. The concert itself however, is quite nice to watch. Great if you're a fan of course, as this is their only concert video so far.
The DVD extra's are definitely a treat for Pendragon fans. To start with the animated menus - these are very nicely done, in the style of Simon Williams' paintings, who has done the artwork for Pendragon ever since 1991's The World.
For nostalgia there is a very rare promo video Saved By You (not Red Shoes as is stated on the DVD cover) in which you see a very young Nick Barrett doing the pop-star flirting with young girls looks and moves - classic!
There is also a very open interview with Nick Barrett, in which he talks about the history, the future and his personal life. As Metal Mind is a Polish label, you get the option to switch on Polish subtitles during the interview. A nice feat, even though they could have added some more languages for a wider audience.
Then there's the obligatory discography, photo gallery, art gallery (CD artwork) and a a biography which also includes very short biographies of each band member. And there's a nice DVD-ROM feat where you can find various desktop images of Pendragon. For some reason there is also the section "Logo" in which you find... the Pendragon logo! Duh, that logo has been on every page of the menu so far. A pointless filler.
But now my main concern about this DVD. It is encoded for region 0, which means it is region-free and can be played on any DVD player. Fine, I like it that at least music DVDs are exempt from region encoding. However, according to the website it will play on both PAL and NTSC systems, but that is a load of bullocks! My TV is *not* NTSC compatible and therefore it will not play this DVD. My player has no problem with it, and I do get the sound OK, but the image is horrible. I had to watch the whole DVD on my computer, which isn't too bad if you're writing a review about it, but normally I prefer to watch DVDs from my comfy chair, on a big TV screen.
A warning of some kind would not have been out of place if you ask me. It may well be that newer TVs can handle NTSC format as well as PAL, but this is something you have to look into before buying this DVD, or you may be very disappointed.
In conclusion I must say that it isn't a very good DVD release. It's nice for fans, but it could have been produced with a bit more care. Content-wise it is a treat for Pendragon-fans, but the production is quite disappointing.
Pendragon is a band of high musical standards and with great spirit, and that is something that shows clearly on this DVD. It is the same footage as the Live At Last video, and most Pendragon fans will have seen that video already. The big advantage of a DVD lies of course in two factors: the bonus material and the 5.1 Surround Sound. Unfortunately, I could not check the mix for the 5.1 carefully as my home cinema set I ordered hasn't arrived yet (which it will soon, I hope). But since I guess that the original recording is not done in 5.1, I think they have redistributed the original channels to 5.1, which probably will not result in an overwhelming sound. But please forgive me if I'm wrong. The normal stereo sound is fine for a live recording. Sometimes it seems a bit more clear and bright than on other moments. The intro of As Good As Gold and Breaking The Spell seems to flutter a bit for instance.
One of the biggerst missers is that the images do not seem to follow the sound exactly. Especially in the vocal intro of Paintbox this is quite apparent. Fortunately it is not enough delay to be really disturbing, and it might be an effect of the DVD player in my PC (though I never had this with any other DVD's).
The extra material on the DVD consists of a relatively recent interview with Nick Barrett, some pictures, bio's 'n stuff that for some obscure reason need to be present on a DVD, and a rare video of Saved By You (even though the DVD backside tells you the video is Red Shoes, which I would have preferred, as this was a kind of cult hit in my student time ;-). This video contains much less bass than the concert, so it is a bit getting used to this much thinner sound after the bombast of the concert. As any good prog video should be, this one is also very silly, partially black and white and partially color, with girls in tutu's dancing, and no normal rock band would get away with it on MTV. Funny detail: we see Barrett a lot and also catch glipses of Gee and Smith, but Nolan is almost hidden. Was he about to leave the band at that time ? Wow, it's almost The Beatles this way ;-).
The DVD also contains some pictures you can use as a background for Windows, but for some reason the
resolution is 800x640 I guess, as on my monitor (with 1280x1024 pixels resolution) the images appear a
bit coarse and interpolated. But well, you are not buying the DVD for these extra's but for the music.
In terms of musicianship: all of the players seem to be on a good level this particular evening in Poland, even though Nolan does not kick his keyborads around as fiercely as he sometimes uses to. The material featured is mainly from The Masquerade Ouverture (which is a brilliant album, so no complaints there!) with Leviathan as the only really old track. Pendragon is not a very visually appealing band, the band members are not exactly beautiful, and in terms of show (lighting, background projections etc.) there is not much going on either (well, on some occasions there is quite some light action that is pretty neat, like in the fast instrumental section of the ever strong track The Shadow, in which Barrett by the way has to drop the vocals an octave in the "King Of The Castle" section). On the other hand, the joy of playing of especially Barrett is so obvious that I have watched the concert again from beginning to end without being bored a single moment. I have witnessed them live a couple of times and Pendragon is one of those rare bands that can send shivers down your spine during a live concert (and some of the tracks on this DVD actually do that too). It's the music that absorbes you and doesn't let go. In this respect, maybe it's a good thing that Barrett is no Fish, and does not entertain you with minute long anecdotes before starting the next song. And despite the little flaws on this release, the most important feeling this DVD left me with was, "Man, I love progressive rock!" For this fact alone it already deserves a recommendation. This DVD shows Pendragon at a peak.
The main content of the DVD is taken from a 1996 performance, also featured on the Live In Krakow 1996 CD and video. Also included are an interview, a video and short descriptions of their back catalogue. As for the concert: I must say that the music is better than I remembered. I'm not too familiar with the original versions of the songs, but the songs that are presented on the album are quite good. Some good melodies here, with lots of musical twists & turns that constantly ask for the listener's attention. The band seems in good form, and the playing sounds tight (only Guardian of My Soul is a bit messy). The music has a good live feeling.
As for the sound quality: I played the DVD on my regular audio system. I'd say the recording sounded good, but not perfect. Although it's never muddy, I think the overall sound could be a bit clearer, especially in the highs and lows (mainly the bass and drums).
As for the visual part of the show: There are some light and smoke effects, but all in all, the band is shown in a quite "natural" live-on-stage environment. This is just 4 musicians doing their thing, with no added fancy graphics or disturbing editing (which is good). The close-ups are effective, and done at the right time, showing the instrument and face of the musician involved (well in Clive's case it's mostly hair you see). The stage-wide shots showing the whole band are a bit less in quality however. I also noticed that Barret's singing is not always 100% lip sync (but just a very little bit off).
Having seen this DVD I must admit that this band is better than I remembered. The musical material is strong, diverse and well played. Particularly Barret's electric guitar parts are very strong, never too freakingly long, but exciting and quite varied (with lots of different sound, and of course lots of Floyd and Marillion influences). Nolan's role on the keyboards is quite supporting. He's playing some good parts, but I would love to hear some more dominant solo's, or some more keyboard/guitar interplay.
On a more critical note: I am not particularly fond of Pendragon's lead vocals. In a studio environment some "upgrading" might be possible, but I feel that - on stage - Barret lacks the power this kind of music needs. His vocal limitation become particularly clear towards the end of the concert (especially in the higher regions, and when the music becomes louder). For me, this spoils some of the magic that is created on stage. I think I will check out the studio versions to find out if the vocals are better there.
Ratings:Bart Jan van der Vorst: 7- out of 10
Remco Schoenmakers: 8 out of 10
Rob Michel: 6 out of 10