Reviews in this issue:
AtmOsfear - Inside The Atmosphere
Tracklist: Inside The Atmosphere (9:18), Circumcision (6:08), A Cry Of Dismay (7:18), Mysterious (6:25), Feardrops (6:23), Patience (7:40), Thinking Progressive (6:58), Eleanor Rigby (5:07), Zephaniah (12:01), There Is Love At The End (8:29)
Atm0sfear is a German band that has been on the same stage as a number of better known names in the field: Vanden Plas, Evergrey and Pain of Salvation and while I don't necessarily think they should be included in this same list, there music is quite enjoyable. At first I was thinking along lines of: "not too bad, not too original" etc. But now I think: "what where you thinking, you fool", "this album is very good". It took some time for me to acknowledge this though, as I did not fall in love with this album immediately, but did like it from the start. While listening several times, so I could write this review, I tried to pay special attention to the separate instruments and began to realize this album was a real gem. Although the tracks are very progressive in nature all have a dark metal sphere. But then there are breaks in some of the songs that are not at all metal, some are even funky and most of them are melodic progressive. This album certainly has a heavier edge, but it is not just loud guitars and is very well thought out.
The vocals are really great, but you will have to forgive Oliver Wulff for the first three sentences of Inside The Atmosphere. It is as if all the nasal German accent, that so many German bands suffer from, have been accumulated in these first notes. It might be a good trick because the rest of the vocals are really good - highlights can be found throughout the complete album but the chorus of Inside The Atmosphere and Thinking Progressive really stand out. His vocal range is very large and I like how the high pitched parts don't become just a woozy scream. The bass guitar played by Burkhart Herberle is also pretty darn good, just supportive and rhythmic in some parts while taking the lead in other parts. Once you own this album (and you should) turn up the bass to see what I mean. The same can be said for the lead guitar, (played by Boris Stepanow) spreading a wall of sound in some parts, whilst very capable of melodic solo's, some of which are in duet with the keyboards. The keyboards are also very pleasant throughout the complete album - Stephan Krusse knows his game. All of this is kept together by Olaf Sorgenfrei playing drums. On a critical note however: all the songs are well played and the compositions are good but Atm0sfear does not really bring innovation to Progmetal.
Inside The Atmosphere is one of the reasons that this album went down so easy: keyboards at the beginning, with the guitars taking over and a number of well placed tempo changes throughout the song. The progressive sound is delivered by the keyboards while the metal edge is filled in by the guitars. The next track Circumcision deals with the cruelty of female circumcision in Africa: the lyrics really grab you by the throat. The dark guitar sounds dominating up till the break that to me seems a bit out of place. A Cry Of Dismay starts of like an Iron Maiden song but soon leaves that path, it gets a much darker sound but that predicate does not describe the song as a whole, as it would be ignoring the complex keyboard solo's. Eleanor Rigby is indeed the Beatles song played in a metal-way kind of way. I cannot really appreciate covers unless something is added to the original which Atm0sfear succeeded in this I think, I like how it is done.
And then Zephaniah. This track is somewhat of a mystery to me, the first 3 minutes of this song have had me confused for over 2 weeks now. From the first note this song is a reference to (as far as I can make out) three other songs that just get stuck. The atmosphere of the first few notes in this track are very similar to Metallica's (One) and then there is a piece of Pink Floyd (The Wall). And although I am not really sure about those two (it might be that I am just imagining things) at exactly two minutes into the song a part of Dream Theater's (Change Of Seasons) is literally copied. This one is so obvious that I cannot imagine they have done this by accident. And that then makes me wonder about the other two. Strange thing is: nothing of it is mentioned in the credits. However I should mention that Zephaniah is one of my favourite tracks on the album because the other nine minutes of this song are a real original work of art.
After playing this album every day for two weeks, it still is not wearing out, on the contrary I enjoy it more with each new spin. Atm0sfear plays complex metal in the vein of Dream Theater mixed with some Iron Maiden influences, complex enough to keep it interesting but without getting too complex in a way that you cannot really grasp it. Although Atm0sfear is not the next progmetal revelation, this is a very good album. It would be a pity (and shame) if this band goes by unnoticed.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Arena - Radiance
Every now and then The Cage, the Arena fanclub, release special fanclub-only albums with Arena recordings. There have been three so far (Welcome Back to the Stage, The Visitor Revisited, Unlocking the Cage) containing demos, live recordings and acoustic versions of songs. These albums range from 'hummm ..... interesting' to "quite good" and have gotten better over the years.
The latest fanclub release is called Radiance and contains a 50 minute acoustic gig that was performed for the fanclub on November 7th 2002. As many people know, I'm not a big fan of the quality of the average live performance by Arena but these acoustic sets tend to be very nice. This specific gig is no exception. Rob Sowden (vocals), John Mitchell (Guitar and Vocals) and Clive Nolan (keys and vocals) perform a selection of Arena songs in stripped down format.
The highlight of the set are the 7 songs of their latest album Contagion, which hadn't been released yet at the time. This 23 minute sneak preview of the album works exceptionally well in an acoustic format, especially considering the heavy sound of the studio versions of some of these songs. In these songs it became very obvious how much the Contagion material leans on Rob Sowden's vocal performance. The same goes for Butterfly Man from the Immortal? album.
As strong as he might be on these tracks, Rob's performance does fail several times during the pre-Sowden songs. As happened on the Breakfast in Biarritz live album a couple of times, Rob seems to be unable to reach some of the notes and therefore (unfortunately) opts for some silly high pitched squeaks. This time it happens during Crying for Help IV. Very annoying. Rob also has problems performing the up-tempo end section of Jericho resulting in him destroying the vocal melody.
As on Unlocking the Cage I'm not much impressed by the acoustic version of State of Grace. I just don't think that it works well acoustically. (Don't Forget to) Breathe also lacks it's normal power. The other songs played after the Contagion songs work much better. The Butterfly Man ends in a bit of chaos but this is more of a hilarious moment than a spoiler. The set closes with the audience starting the "Heeeeeeeelp me !" chant of Crying for Help VII which is quickly picked up by the threesome and performed wonderfully.
The artwork of the CD is very nice with a painting of the Contagion virus spreading over a dying earth, done by the same artist that designed the Contagion artwork. The four page booklet includes full credits and liner notes by Clive Nolan in which he confesses how special this performance was to him. Strangely enough I can't find a trace of the 'pictures' mentioned in the credits tough.
All in all a fine item for Arena fans. If you want a copy you will have to subscribe to The Cage though, but that gives you access to many other fanclub-only items. Please visit The Cage Website for more information.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Somniae Status - Cassandra
Tracklist: At The Gates Of Heaven (0.57), Oracle Dream (6:55), Pleasure Essence (5:54), Nowhere Run (5:51), Where My Thoughts Sleep (6:55), Tongues Of Flame (5:12), Cassandra (5:14)
Somniae Status are an Italian band who first formed in 1996, starting out playing live sets littered with Queensryche and Iron Maiden covers, but since have concentrated on their own material. Whilst Cassandra (their debut album) isn’t in the same league as the best work from their heroes, it’s certainly a decent, above-average effort within the overcrowded progressive metal genre.
Cassandra is apparently a concept album, although I couldn’t really discern from the lyrics what it’s actually about – its not that they are bad, just occasionally a bit confused in meaning; the story just seems to be about a character moving from one landscape to another and having a variety of strange encounters. I’m sure there’s a deeper meaning that I’m missing…
The real strength in Somniae Status’ sound lays in the work of guitarists (and songwriters) Randy Mion and Alex Danieli. Instead of going off on obscure tangents like many players in the genre, they concentrate on providing memorable melodies and carving out some incisive riffs. The guitarists work together well, using the fact that there are two of them to some advantage, getting a nicely layered sound that adds strength and texture to the songs. Producer Alex De Rosso (also a guitarist, at one time for Dokken) should also be congratulated in capturing a nicely raw, powerful sound, whilst allowing for some subtleties.
Somniae Status keep things interesting by varying the song structures considerably – Oracle Dream and Pleasure Essence are both well-structured mid-paced tracks with plenty of emotion, melody and the requisite changes in pace and mood that you’d expect; Nowhere Run and Tongues Of Flame are at the heavier end of the spectrum and with a faster pace, perhaps a little reminiscent of the Screaming For Vengeance era Judas Priest whilst Where My Thoughts Sleep is a well worked ballad which builds well without descending into bombast.
As with many bands of their ilk, ultimately Somniae Status will be measured by the quality of their vocalist. Well, Breeze Danieli (excellent name!) isn’t the strongest singer in the world, seeming to lack some confidence in his delivery and struggling on pronunciation occasionally, as well as being somewhat exposed on the balladic parts, but generally his voice is fine; above average for the genre and certainly not presenting a handicap to enjoying the album.
Overall, this is a good album within its field – its still early days for Somniae Status, and Cassandra is certainly not essential, but it does represent something that the band can build on in the future.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Arilyn - Tomorrow Never Comes
Tracklist: Alpha (1:21), New World (3:46), Far Away (4:54), Foreign Shores (4:35), Nightmare (3:29), Adventurer (4:43), State Of Desperation (5:19), Nameless (5:28), Return (4:43), Rescue Me (7:42), Reach You (7:15), Mindeater (3:47), Tomorrow Never Comes (6:43)
This is the debut album from Arilyn, a four-piece band from South-West Germany, who describe themselves as playing space rock.
After a short selection of synth warbles and spacey pads, things kick off with New World - an up-tempo rocker, in the style of Uriah Heep during the 80's. Guitar power chords and a fast, but unintrusive drum beat rush along, with strong vocals which stand out well in the mix. Thankfully, this frantic pace is not maintained throughout the album, and the remaining tracks have a better balance in terms of tempo and dynamics. Far Away features a clean, echoing tremolo guitar riff, and the verses sound like they could fit in well on The Stranglers' Stranglers in the Night album. The chorus returns to power chords and catchy hooks, 80's stadium rock style.
Foreign Shores has a gentle piano introduction and verses which sound very much like 1990 Marillion playing Comedy of Errors' Rule Britannia, with Christian Külbs adopting a very different vocal style from the rest of the CD. The chorus returns to the trademark heroic vocals and swelling keyboard pads. There is a flowing, melodic guitar solo, doubled effectively on synth, which could have happily lasted twice as long without causing offence.
Adventurer has an IQ feel to the verses with soaring vocals floating over sparkling keyboard pads, the effect of which is marred slightly by an over-insistent hihat cymbal which sits in the foreground. The chorus fits the usual pattern of power chords and vocals, less stadium rock this time, and more like Dweezil Zappa's Loser.
State Of Desperation initially appears to be the ballad of the album, with the chorus not fitting into the pattern set by the rest of the disc, and making use of Kathrin Sobetzko's backing vocals, which fit well although are perhaps not dissimilar enough to the lead vocals. Then the mood is shattered with a metal-like section, reflecting the anger of the song's character after the earlier sorrow. The gunshot at the end of the track is clumsy and unnecessary, and spoils the effect the lyrics have been working towards.
After four filler tracks which all follow the set pattern from earlier, but lack the variety in verses shown in earlier songs, we're back into space rock territory with Mindeater. Supposedly this started out as a parody of monster movies, but developed into something more serious. Well, perhaps not that serious with lyrics like "I'm the mindeater, the galactic repeater"?
Tomorrow Never Comes was the band's first song, and starts with a gentle keyboard and bass duet, gradually building up to the first verse. When the chorus comes in, it doesn't charge in like elsewhere, but builds up gradually to a crescendo, making use of a wide palette of timbres such as some frantic electric violin and the return of Kathrin's vocals. It may not be the most original track on the disc, but it by far the most complete, well-produced and enjoyable, reflecting the fact that it has been refined over the years leading up to the production of the album.
I found myself enjoying most of the tracks on this disc, which each had their own character and displayed a range of styles and musical textures, until the choruses kicked in, at which point I usually cringed. It's not that they're bad - in a Bon Jovi song they would fit in perfectly - it's just that they spoil the flow of the songs and seem to stick to a rigid formula. I would ask the band to look at the structure of the title track, and work out what makes it fit together so well, using it as a benchmark (but not a template) for future songs.
There are a couple of other things that could be done to improve this album. The mix is generally good, with all the instruments being reasonably equal, and working together rather than showing off. There are a couple of places, especially in the quieter sections where the hihat is too busy and too loud, which really spoiled the atmosphere being set up by the other instruments at the time.
Some of the lyrics need to be tidied up - I appreciate the time and skill it takes to write lyrics in a second language, and the lyrics are several orders of magnitude better than I could manage in German (or any other language), but if the band are serious about their music reaching an English-speaking audience then I would advise them to have a natural English speaker (preferably one with lyric-writing experience) check them over first. There is nothing seriously wrong with them, but there are a few places where things would usually be phrased differently in English. Personally, I would like to hear the songs in German - it's a great language for rock music (why else would Peters Gabriel and Hammill release whole albums in German?) and the English market is already overcrowded.
Parts of this album I really enjoyed, but too often I found that I was rolling my eyes at a missed opportunity or yet another formula chorus. This is a good debut album with lots of potential, and I think that if the band can focus on what makes them unique, and what makes Tomorrow Never Comes work as a song, then their next album could really be something to look forward to.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10
Las Orejas Y La Lengua [LOYLL] - Error
One year on and in front of me is the second release from Argentinean band Las Orjas Y La Lengua (LOYLL). In this interim period the band have slimmed down to a four piece. The rhythm section of Fernando de la Vega and Nicolas Diab remain unaltered as does the keyboard and sampling department in Diego Kazmierski. New to the band is Diego Suarez on flutes, although he was to be found guesting on the first album. Suarez is the only one of those guest musicians to have made it onto Error as the multitudeness cast has not been re-assembled on this occasion.
These changes appear to have had little overall effect on the music and sees the band treading in similar fashion to their previous release. To this end and not wanting to re-iterate what I have already written in the past, a quick read through of La Eminencia Inobjetable, will suffice as to the band's approach and style. This said, Error is a much more satisfactory and cohesive album altogether. Certainly I feel the band have grown in stature and the level of performance has not been affected by their diminished number. In fact the four musicians have formed a tighter and more concise unit.
Musically LOYLL have not forsaken any of their quirkiness (nor should they), or the challenging nature of the pieces. Sadly my tastes also have altered little in the past year and I still find the music difficult to comprehend and have only managed to listen to the album in short bursts. There is no question in my mind as to the abilities of these four musicians, the only difficulty I have is how they choose to display their talents.
In fairness to LOYLL, the RIO and to some extent Canterbury styles prevalent in their music, are an acquired taste, whilst the more avant-garde sections in many of the pieces tends more to frustrate me, rather than appeal to me. But as with La Eminencia Inobjetable there are some fine moments. Notable are the hypnotic Veronica G. and spacey textures of Ahora si, chau. For those readers with a liking for the experimental and challenging this could be the album for you!
Conclusion: 6 out of 10