Reviews in this issue:
Evergrey - Recreation Day
This will be a rare review. You won't see any 'sounds like this or that' comparisons coming onto your screens. No other band's name will appear - but Evergrey. The reason? Simple. In an increasingly crowded marketplace Evergrey's music is truly unique.
Putting my cards on the table from the start, I'll admit that I've been a big fan of these Swedes since their promising debut The Dark Discovery. From the opening strains of Blackened Dawn, it was clear they had that special ingredient to set them apart from the pack. With the genuinely awesome In Search of Truth they created a true classic of the Progressive Metal genre - an album that more than two years after its release, still regularly finds its way onto my decks. Combined with a move onto the bigger Inside Out label, it was an album that immediately took them from cult favourites, to the Prog Metal elite. A reputation that, for me, was firmly cemented by a stunning set at Progpower 2.0 in Atlanta.
After the critical acclaim of 'ISOT' the follow up was always going to be dogged by comparisons. Expectation has been building for what seems like ages - with the big question, being whether the band could ever reach such heights again.
Recreation Day has certainly endured a tricky birth - the band losing two keyboardists in quick succession and plans to use Neil Kernon in the studio were blocked at the last minute by immigration problems. As a result, vocalist Tom S. Englund and fellow guitarist Henrik Danhage took the controls, along with the talented Fredrik Nordstrom (In Flames/Hammerfall). So, with 10 weeks in pre-production and nine weeks in the studio, has all the waiting been worthwhile?
Having lived (and once or twice slept) with this album over a couple of weeks - the result has to be a resounding 'YES!'
We open at full pelt with The Great Deceiver. It's a real belter that must be a dead cert for the live show. It has all the Evergrey trademarks - chugging riffs, driving bass, swinging keys, those lovely, merry-go-round guitar licks and a hook that sinks deeper into your conscience with each listen. There are no fillers on this disc and in a few months time you will be hard pressed to find two fans who'll pick the same three songs as their favourites. Mine all come in the second half of the album.
Visons combines a glorious keyboard riff and a sublimely subtle hook and then builds and builds to its climax with Danhage adding a lovely rolling guitar solo (one of his best ever). Your Darkest Hour, with some striking vocals from Mrs Englund, also combines the full range of progressive moods, while the closing track Unforgivable stands shoulder to shoulder with The Masterplan as a classic of the genre.
Elsewhere, there's an acoustic song Madness Caught Another Victim; Fragments has a monk choir; while the big acoustic ballad I'm Sorry is actually a cover-version. The original was a Swedish pop hit that remains one of the most played songs on the nation's radio. Thankfully it is given the full Evergrey treatment and fits in snugly with the overall album.
I've always admired bands that deal with difficult subject matter and again the lyrics do not disappoint. Unforgivable takes six minutes to strike at the heart of the Catholic church over the revelations of its hidden child abuse scandals. The title track deals plain and simply with death. The acceptance that everyone has to deal with it but after that, you need to just get away - you need a recreation day. As usual, Englund's more chopping, deep riffing style, is perfectly balanced by that of Henrik Danhage. His soloing is some of the most fluid and melodic in the business and deserving of far more credit. As ever though, it's the performance of the lanky, long-haired vocalist that is the highlight here. His ability to move from coarse rasp to silky tones within an instant, matches the ever-changing mood of the music perfectly. From bitter aggression, to heartfelt emotion it's all there. This again is a stunning performance by Tom.
So, does this album match In Search Of Truth? While its quality is certainly growing on every listen, I will have to say it is never going to quite reach that level. What's slightly missing for me is the keyboards - they're certainly much lower in the mix and Sven Karlsson was always going to be a loss to the band. The melodic sensitivity he was able add to the band's sound, was a major ingredient that hasn't quite been replaced.
More significantly, Recreation Day is far and away the band's heaviest album to date. Beautiful and hard hitting? Sure! However the contrasts of light and shade that ran throughout ISOT gave the platform to fully showcase Englund's passion-drenched voice. The platform is not quite so well utilised here. But it is a happy conclusion that I have come to. Happy because Recreation Day is not In Search of Truth Part 2 but an album by a band that sees the need and has the talent to keep the basic ingredients but take their sound to another level. There is nothing here that won't delight existing fans, while the slightly more metal direction has clear potential to draw in a more mainstream audience.
For any self-respecting fan of dark, brooding ProgMetal this will undoubtedly be the album to beat this year. The King's of Morose Metal have more than done enough to retain their crowns.
Finally, I must mention that there is a very worthwhile limited edition version, that, in addition to a top-notch extended booklet, has the nine-minutes of Trilogy Of The Damned which was previously only available as Japanese bonus track but has been long requested by fans for a wider availability. Well worth the extra cash.
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Spock's Beard - Don't Try This At Home + The Making Of V
Bonus Tracks: Day For Night Studio Sessions (total time: 5.52): [Gibberish (3.08), The Gypsy (2.44)], Space Truckin' (live in Lansing) (4.11), The Legend Of The Morse Brothers (6.45)
DVD 2: The Making Of V (total time: 101.47) [Introduction (4.04), At The End Of The Day (42.28), Revelation (7.01), Thoughts part II (12.52), All On A Sunday (6.42), The Great Nothing (19.22), Final Mixing (9.18)]
Bonus Tracks: All On A Sunday promo video (3.18), The Doorway (Border's In-store performance) (11.21), June (live in Chicago) (6.04), Go The Way You Go (live in L.A.) (13.30)
Bonus Audio CD (total time 51.21): Southside Of The Sky (9.11), Good Don't Last / Open Wide The Flood Gates (live acoustic) (11.26), Working On Devil / Fiddly / Disco (4.41), Looking For Answers (live acoustic) 4.59), Stranger In A Strange Land (demo) (2.34), 4 o'clock (0.24), Working On Ryo's Solo (7.42), Lost Bass Solo (demo) 2.01), The Light (live acoustic) (6.08), Working On I Will Go (2.10)
At the end of 2002, shortly after the departure of Neal Morse, Spock's Beard finally released their long-awaited DVD, more than three years after its recording in Tilburg during the "Day For Night" tour. The DVD can be seen as a farewell present of Neal Morse, with an astounding package of not one, but two extras packed DVDs *and* a bonus CD, with a total playing time of over five and a half hours.
The first disc is a registration of the entire gig at the 013 in Tilburg on September 28th, 1999, which was earlier released as two live CDs: Don't Try This At Home and Don't Try This @ Home Either. This is the same venue as where IQ filmed their Subterranea concert, and suffers the same problem: poor lighting. This is rather weird as this venue is widely regarded as one of the best rock venues in the world! It could be that it's the film company that is to blame (I think both bands used the same) but whereas IQ managed to create something decent out of the underexposed footage, the Spock's Beard footage is a rather dark affair. The fact that the band's enigmatic performance is filmed in a rather tame way doesn't help either.
The band played a fine performance that night, although the nerves of filming the gig were evident throughout. Also the strain of the very long duration of the gig becomes evident in the performance of especially the Morse brothers (Neal nearly loses his voice by the time they get to The Light.)
Highlights of the gig are those that would be the highlights of a Spock's Beard gig in general: the full twenty-minute version of The Healing Colours Of Sound, the improvised The Doorway (with a guitar trio) and The Light (with a drum-duet) and also the infamous Ryo solo, which always looks better than it sounds. One of the best bits of the concert was the final guitar solo of Go The Way You Go, where Al Morse decided to climb up the balcony to play his solo from up there, Yngwie Malmsteen style. Unfortunately it takes forever for the camera crew to actually find them, yet it is nice they put a shot in of yours truly instead :-)
Spock's Beard with Neal Morse was definitely the best live-act of the second half of the nineties and it strikes me that with four live albums and two videos they still haven't been able to fully capture that experience. As said, this DVD shows a great performance in a mediocre way and the same conclusion has been made by my fellow reviewers for every Spock's Beard live-registration we reviewed so far.
Among the bonus tracks on the Don't Try This At Home DVD consist two excerpts from the writing sessions of the Day For Night album: Gibberish and The Gypsy, which are interesting but a far cry of what you get on the second DVD: The Making Of V.
The other bonus tracks are live recordings from a gig in Lansing, of which The Legend Of The Morse Brothers is an absolute killer. It is an excerpt of the performance of The Doorway, the bit where Neal and Al Morse always fiddle around on their guitars for a while. This prompts Neal to tell the audience a story of a legendary camping trip they undertook as kids, when they only had one guitar with them and were forced to play together on that one guitar. They demonstrate how they did this by breaking into what best can be described as a quatre-main on guitar - not unlike the drum-duet-on-one-kit that is demonstrated in the Tilburg concert. After playing around with this for a while they break into Steve Howe's Mood For A Day, before Nick D'Vigilio comes to the front of the stage to sing the next verse of The Doorway. In all a very interesting ditty.
The sound quality of the gig is a decent Dolby Digital 2.0 mix (no 5.1 unfortunately), yet I had to really crank up the volume of my system (a common problem with some NTSC DVDs it seems) and fiddle around with the equaliser settings quite a bit to get some high tones. The funny thing is that the sound quality of the Don't Try This @ Home Either CD is far superior to this DVD, whereas this is the same gig and assumably the same sound recording.
As can be expected the sound of the bonus material is of lesser quality.
The interactive menu is nicely designed and effectively works with appearing and disappearing titles.
The second DVD has been released before on video, but was never reviewed on DPRP before. It is a two-hour documentary about the recording of the 2000 album V. This documentary, shot mainly by Neal Morse using his home video and edited by Phil Shatterly, features lots of interesting inside information about the recording of the album, but with a running time of nearly two hours, it is a bit of a tedious watch. Strictly for fans only.
Personally I rate V as one of the band's weakest albums, so perhaps that is why I had problems holding my attention. I wouldn't mind a similar (yet perhaps shorter) documentary about Snow though.
This DVD also features some interesting live bonus tracks recorded during different tours (and therefore of different quality). A nice feature is the inclusion of the All On A Sunday promo video. A for prog standards very nice and professional looking clip, with clever use of split screen that feature mismatching mirror images. As far as I know the only promo video the Beard ever shot, so it is a nice inclusion here. Too bad they don't show this on MTV!
The only thing I can't understand is that the bonus menu has to be accessed through a hideous 50-second film clip of the band doing a pre-concert Banzai, led by Ryo Okumoto. Fun the first time you see it, but you have to go through it each and every time you try to access that menu.
The accompanying CD is in fact the same CD that was included in the Special Edition of Snow and features outtakes of the recording sessions, demos and a few interesting live tracks. The bonus CD is only included when you order the DVD through Neal Morse's Radiant Records.
This whole package is probably Neal Morse's ultimate farewell gift for Spock's Beard fans. The first DVD shows what an enigmatic performer he was with the band, and the second one demonstrates his none too small ego and strive for perfectionism. The three discs combined encompass the last three albums Morse did with the band and that alone makes it a must-have for all fans.
Quality-wise this isn't the perfect DVD, as the concert footage really is below par and the documentary, although professionally edited, is still a home-video. Hence my rating:
7.5 out of 10
Mostly Autumn - The Story So Far ...
Bonus Tracks: Which Wood, Out of the Inn
Better late than never, as I believe the expression goes, and prompted by a number of votes in this year's Poll (yes - coming very soon), we have a DVD review of Mostly Autumn captured in concert at the Mean Fiddler. Sadly as the release date of this DVD falls in 2001, it will not feature in this year's round-up. However there is no reason for us not to redress the oversight and undertake a review of this DVD. So with the cast of musicians gathered together to tell The Story So Far, we have Bryan Josh (Guitars & Vocals), Heather Findlay (Vocals, Recorders, Acoustic Guitar, Bodhran & Tambourine), Iain Jennings (Keyboards), Liam Davison (Acoustic and Electric Guitars), Angela Goldthorpe (Flute, Recorders & Vocals), Andy Smith (Bass) and Jonathan Blackmore (Drums). These seven musicians are joined for this performance by three backing vocalists: Rachel Jones, Mark Atkinson and Gina Dootson.
The Story So Far is not a lavish production video-shoot, but is very much in keeping with the band and is a warm and intimate recording, capturing them live and in concert. The editing is kept to a minimum, and again this works to good effect. Without losing any continuity in the performance, cuts are made to pre-concert sound checking and footage of some pre-recorded scenes. These segments comprise of rural and atmospheric settings (for effect), the band performing passages from the songs within the countryside, and finally brief discussions with each of the members follows.
Mostly Autumn's material combines elements from folk and rock music and perhaps therefore possibly best described as symphonic folk. The emphasis is placed upon the passion and the emotion the members have for their music - moving as it does from the walls of instrumental and vocal passages, to the delicate acoustic sections. The song structures are not overly complex, however this in turn does allow all of the instruments to empathise well together. The music is built upon many layers starting from the strong foundations of the rhythm section with Andy Smith (bass) and Jonathan Blackmore (drums) forming the solid roots. The core of the band derives from Iain Jennings with deft and effective keyboards and Liam Davison providing further depth with his acoustic guitar and vocals. The icing on the cake is the to be found firstly in the strong vocal harmonies of Josh, Heather and Angela and secondly by the mixture of soaring guitar interlaced with the textural flute.
I have chosen on this occasion not to offer any specific references to the band's songs or instrumentals, as a review of The Story So Far CD by Charlie Farrell covers much of this. Needless to say that most if not all their favourite tracks can be found here including a number of tracks not issued on the CD release. The bonus material, which seems to be almost obligatory now, consistes of two additional live tracks. Both these pieces are lively instrumentals and features Angela Goldthorpe's endearing flute work and countered by Heather on recorders and bodhran. Also to be found in this section is the band in rehearsing (Winter Mountain), a picture gallery and finally some of Classic Rock Productions catalogue (some worthy material here, to check out).
All of Mostly Autumn's songs and melodies are easily accessible and grow on you with each listening. They also have a chemistry that works well and it is obvious from this footage why they are so highly regarded. Added to this is the warm and friendly nature of all the band (who I recently encountered). So should you have failed to notice the attention surrounding Mostly Autumn, within the Progressive and Classic Rock circles, then here's is your chance to put this to rights. The DVD pleasantly captures the band in concert and the footage is well shot and nicely edited, along with this the sound quality is very good, and therefore there is nothing to detract from sitting back and enjoying the performance.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Soniq Theater - A SECOND of ACTion
This is the second, home produced, CDR by Alfred Mueller, the former Keyboard player for Rachel’s Birthday. Their album An Invitation To… was a surprisingly excellent, song based, modern prog album, containing influences from Marillion and Echolyn amongst others, but displaying a high level of originality.
The first Soniq Theater album entitled Soniq Theater has also been reviewed by DPRP, and like that disc, A SECOND of ACTion is a collection of instrumentals performed solely by Mueller. Unsurprisingly, the keyboards are the primary focus of each track, everything else being either synthesised or sampled. It is this fact that deprives this release of a higher rating as, for all Mueller’s skill and dexterity, the input of living, breathing musicians is ultimately missed. Despite this, the album is a very pleasant listen and is well worth the attention of keyboard fans, particularly if you favour the bright, modern sounds of digital instruments.
On his website, Mueller gives a long list of influences, the most pertinent in my opinion being Rick Wakeman, Tangerine Dream, Saga and Dream Theater.
I won’t attempt a track-by-track guide here as the quality of the music throughout is very consistent and there are numerous changes of mood, style and tempo within each of the tracks. At all times, the arrangements are dynamic and sophisticated, with many different keyboard voicings interwoven and multilayered with great ability. Worthy of special mention, however, are: Centarus for the overt Dream Theater influences and crunching guitar sounds, Elephant Race which is far more sprightly than its title implies, and Halcyon Days which employs strummed guitar sounds, strident organs, fluttering synths and honky-tonk pianos in an intricately plotted soundscape that easily sustains ones interest over its six minute duration.
This is an easy recommendation for anyone who liked the first album and keyboard fans in general. Despite my reservations about the rhythm section (or lack of it), I have found that repeated listens have shown my appreciation of this disc to have grown considerably. That said, and not least because of my fond memories of Rachel’s Birthday, I sincerely hope that Mr Mueller sees fit at some point in the future to lend his considerable talents to a real band once more. Now, that I would like to hear.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Deep Thought - Somewhere In The Dark
I am a Douglas Adams fan, so if a band is named after the first super-computer in his books "Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy", then they have caught my attention. Deep Thought was formed in 1993, but after 3 members of this line-up left the two founders found themselves alone again. New members were found and this second line-up released a demo CD, but as the band did not have a singer at that time, this was an instrumental only demo. Some tracks from this demo have found their way to the first studio album of Deep Thought: Somewhere In The Dark.
I was content after hearing the first few tones of Clock, this could be a nice one. But the voice of Pat Merz stopped my initial enthusiasm. It is not really bad but it is just that I cannot get used to it and on top of that in some songs his Swiss (German) accent really distracts me from the music. However, I listened to this album more often than I had intented to, after the first listening. This could be that I was somewhat reluctant to write a bad review and therefore stalled writing it. Because of these extra listening hours I discovered that some of the songs are not bad, not bad at all, and slowly the album grew on me. On some songs the vocals fit the music very well.
Clock is a nice and complete song because of the original and well played tempo changes. This 10 minute track has some IQ elements, which can be accounted to the guitar sound, the distortion is the same as on IQ's Fascination. Changing the rules is not the strongest song of this album - it is too uneventfull. On Waiting For Darkness I even like the vocals and this is a good song. Simple Man again is a long song that is OK, but it does not have the allure of Clock. The end of Shadows of the Past nicely builds up to a climax that somehow does not come. Drive to me is the song which illustrates the problems I have with the vocals best. Ice was also part of the demo Shadows of the past and if it is an example of the band's music in earlier days they have certainly improved. This song is just not it. The same goes for Morphios which was also on the even earlier demo Morphios. Strange thing is: before mentioned Waiting for Darkness is also part of this first demo and I like that one. Mud On The Hill is a long composition, 14 minutes, and it certainly has its good moments which means I mostly skip the other parts.
I am still not certain on which grade to give this album, some songs are very very good while others on this album are just not doing it for me. Most of the material was technically good though and if all of the songs were like Clock and Waiting For Darkness, Deep Thought would have delivered a super album. I think I might be listening to Somewhere in the Dark again in the future but will stay clear of some of the songs. At times the material reminded me of early IQ - Tales from the Lush Attic and perhaps Nine in a Pond is Here so this has to be a positive sign and makes me certainly curious as to their next album.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10