Reviews in this issue:
Magellan - Impossible Figures
Tracklist: Gorilla With A Pitchfork (1:24), Killer Of Hope (10:03), Bach 16 (2:46), Late For Church (6:15), Confessor’s Overture (2:24), Hymn For A Heathen (3:15), A World Groove (6:30), Counterpoints (5:59), Feel The Cross (6:36)
What a difference a year makes! A few months ago I reviewed Magellan’s 2002 offering, the sporadically excellent but infuriatingly patchy Hundred Year Flood. I must admit that, given the band’s usually tardy release schedule I expected the next outing to sneak out sometime in 2007, with minimal fanfare. However, following an acrimonious split with former record company Magna Carta, the band appear to have been handed something of a second chance, both artistically and commercially, signing a new deal with the excellent Inside Out label, and wasting no time in recording a new album.
One listen to Impossible Figures shows that there’s a newfound confidence and enthusiasm flowing through the band’s sound. Vocalist and keyboard player Trent Gardner has written as strong a set of songs as I’ve heard from him here; in my opinion the material benefits from not being set around a concept, or featuring a multitude of special guests, as Gardner’s recent work (both with Magellan and in various extra-curricular projects) has tended to be. Here it's just Gardner, brother Wayne (guitars and bass), and drummer Jason Gianni, which appears to have given the material and performances a new focus. Gardner states that on Impossible Figures the band have ‘cut out the waste’ and I couldn’t agree more – this doesn’t mean that there aren’t lengthy songs (excellent opener Killer Of Hope runs in at over ten minutes), or that the songs are simple verse-chorus-verse affairs; what it does mean is that there is a greater emphasis on melody and concise song structures.
Magellan’s musical style is often described as progressive metal, though this is a little misleading. Sure, tracks like Killer…, Late For Church and Counterpoints feature sharp cutting riffs, pounding drums, fantastic guitar-keyboard duels and various other facets you’d expect to find in the genre, but these are balanced by more traditional progressive rock elements such as quality melodies, strong choruses and great vocal harmonies. In addition, whilst there are numerous lengthy instrumental sections, these are never subservient to the song. In fact, the sound the band get here, and indeed the structure of the songs (if not the actual music) bears some similarity to that achieved by Rush in the early 80’s (circa Permanent Waves/Moving Pictures).
Magellan balance these lengthy, harder-edged tracks with shorter pieces which show another side of the band – Bach 16 is a classical piano solo (presumably in the style of said composer), followed by a trombone fanfare – sounds foolish and pretentious, but it works. So does A World Groove, a potentially embarrassing track which sees Gardner chuck clichéd samples of various world music styles into a funky hard-rock framework, yet such is the vigour and confidence of the playing and strength of the songwriting that the song overcomes any potential pitfalls and is an enjoyable (if lyrically somewhat cheesy) piece. Hymn For The Heathen meanwhile sees Gardner’s vocals at their emotional best, and is something of a three minute mini-epic, building wonderfully from a simple piano opening to a stirring finale.
Performances throughout are top-notch, with Gardner’s vocals in particular sounding far more powerful than on Hundred Year Flood. The production is excellent, allowing the band to rock out in explosive fashion when called for but also allowing the nuances and subtleties in the quieter sections to come out.
In conclusion, this is an excellent and much improved effort from Magellan which, combined with a new deal with a sympathetic label, should see their profile within the prog community rise considerably. Impossible Figures is recommended particularly to those who like their progressive rock with a harder edge, but with strong melodies and well constructed songs as the focal point.
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
rc2 - rc2
Tracklist: Obertura (3.04), Joroprog (6.36), Nada (5.33), Sombras (5.18), RM (2.32), Fria (14.19), Gira la Tierra (7.10), Soledad (8.09), Voz de Tempestad (2.00), Se Pierde el Sol (14.14)
Very much a first for me - a progressive rock band from Venezuela - but yet again RC-2 proves that it really can pay to be brave and try something new.
RC2 was formed in Caracas during 1999 following the collapse of Radio Clip who released four albums in Venezuela between 1988 and 1994. Wanting to be more than a Radio Clip spin-off band, Felix Duque (vocals), Eduardo Benatar (drums), Arturo Torres (base) and Demian Mejicano (guitar) contacted keyboardist Rafael Paz in a bid to create a complete change of musical style.
Citing Marillion, Yes, Rush, Genesis and Camel as major influences, with a new bassist in Pedro Misle they soon formed under the RC2 name and after producing a few demos, attracted the interest of Alexis Lope Bello, a talent scout who has introduced various Venezuelan bands to Musea. After learning the news, the five musicians and producer Francisco Diaz entered the studio to begin recording their debut album.
The album begins with a three-minute Obertura (Overture). This has a nice melody that builds from piano introduction to a synth orchestral arrangement of the pomp variety. Unfortunately the melody is a bit wasted as the track just fades out, instead of building to a climax.
Into the album proper then and the energetic Joroprog is a great opener and my favourite track. As in most of what is follow, it's nowhere near heavy enough to qualify for Prog-metal. Mejicano doesn't ride the crunchwagon. His guitar being used more for background rhythm than being the main attraction. However this track really does show the quality of songwriting that the band has produced - the listener is switched between two musical themes; there's some clever interplay between guitar and keyboards in the solo department; there's a nice atmospheric midsection and most importantly the instruments (including some traditional south American ones) are varied throughout, giving an ever changing sound to the band.
Duque's delivery is great. I just love the way the Spanish roll certain words off the tongue. On the very high notes his voice is a bit strained but thankfully he doesn't go in that direction too often - sticking to a level where the warmth and energy of his voice shines through.
Nada (Nothing) is another favourite. Duque croons delicately over a slightly dark, programmed backing. Then a third of the way in, enters the full band and a captivating guitar solo, before Duque refrains the opening hook, but at a more urgent pace.
The one track I can't stand on the album is Sombras, mainly because I just can't get away from the thought that it sounds like something out of the Eurovision Song Contest. The phrasing, heavy use of the synths and the general corny vibe to it, just reeks of the sort of thing that some eastern European country would get 'Nil points' for.
RM and Fria (cold) is a pair of very different instrumentals. The first is Mejicano's showcase, a delicate finger-picked acoustic guitar number. The second is Paz's chance to shine and since he's the primary writer then it's quite a bit longer. It opens with a dirty, 60's organ lead before the rest of the guys join in to recall burn it up with some roller coaster, whirlwind pairing. Again the interplay between guitars and keys is great as is the development of a couple of nice melodic themes.
I call this an instrumental, as the vocals on Fria actually don't come in until after a complete fadeout at six minutes - eventually running to a whopping 14 minutes in length (really the first six minutes should've been indexed as another instrumental). The vocal portion is a more straightforward classic rock number - featuring a lovely Mark Knopfler-style solo - that eventually builds into the heaviest track on offer.
So far so good - especially, in that the band is not following any set formulas. They are happy to mix up the styles and the mood but somehow manage to keep a central theme and style of their own that holds it all together.
More rabbits are pulled out of the hat on the last four tracks. Gira la Tuierra takes a more neo-prog approach that brings to mind Sylvan and Ricocher. The song is based in a beautiful rolling piano melody with more great interplay between guitar and keys in the instrumental mid-section.
A spacey atmosphere with electronic percussion greets the start of Soledad (Solitude) before Duque's somewhat pained vocals come in (I guess it's quite a sad lyric?). Quite balladic, it doesn't stray to far from the opening melody - although the backing gives it quite a grand, Floyd-ian sound.
Mejicano's second brief solo spot is Voz de Tempestad (Voice of Tempest) before we close with the album's longest track Se Pierde el Sol (Losing The Sun). If epic, symphonic, progressive rock is your scene, then this will have more than enough to hold your interest though its 14 minutes - it's quite bluesy in a Led Zep sorta way as well.
I've read a few other reviews that have pinned the obligatory Dream Theater label on this band. Don't be silly! While there is the occasional rockin' moment, there's not a crunchy guitar or screech to be found here. Plenty of hot playing - Rafael Paz must be up there in the 'Tinkling the ivories league table' - and the songwriting and musical arrangements are from the top draw. And as it's all sung in Spanish, then I'm sure, for those who can understand, there's a whole extra dimension to be had from the lyrics as well.
The band has self-produced this disc and top marks for a sharp sound. There's also a cool picture of a lunar eclipse taken by Spanish photographer Juan Carlos Casado to brighten up the sleeve.
So overall, a great surprise and a very enjoyable listen. If Musea can get themselves behind this band I'm sure they will soon be a big name, much further afield than their home country. They're not easy to pidgeonhole for me, but fans of Arena, Enchant, Satellite and even old school Marillion and Genesis should find enough rewards if you're brave enough to try something new. Impressive stuff!
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Tomas Bodin - Sonic Boulevard
Tracklist: The Prayer (2:29), The Hero From Cloud City (8:41), Back To The African Garden (6:36), Pictures (4:19), Walkabout (6:03), The Horses From Zaad (5:27), A Beautiful Mind (5:57), The Happy Frog (6:35), Morning Will Come (8:45), The Night Will Fall (9:28)
As a key member of the Flower Kings, Tomas Bodin needs no introduction to readers of this site. His sophomore solo release Pinup Guru was conceived and composed during a period of intense personal upheaval and change and was, appropriately, a tumultuous, frenetic romp through some fiery, keyboard lead instrumentals. Backed only by his FK colleagues Reingold and Csorsz on bass and drums respectively, Bodin was very much the star of the show.
A year on, and it’s all change once more. Sonic Boulevard began life as an Ambient project, designed only for sale on the Internet. Positive feedback and encouragement from Roine Stolte and Bodin’s record company lead to the present recording. Featuring an expanded band line-up, including most of the Flower Kings, and also Anders Jansson on (wordless) vocals, Jocke JJ Marsh on guitars and Jonas Knutsson on saxophone, the ambient roots of the project do show through, but the end result fits more into the Jazz Fusion category, albeit a very relaxed take on that genre, and with plenty of progressive rock touches to keep the diehards happy. Sonic Boulevard sounds like the work of a man who has rediscovered himself and has found time and space in his life for some quiet reflection and contemplation.
Sliding comfortably into a slick and relaxing Jazz Fusion groove, Bodin is content to provide keyboards in a mainly colouristic role, providing elegant and accomplished backing for a variety of guitar and saxophone solos. He provides some excellent and tasteful piano on the meditative Picture, which has something of a classical vibe. Jocke Marsh contributes some outstanding guitar to The Hero From Cloud City, which is probably the rockiest track on the disc, and surprisingly sounds the most like the Flower Kings.
Anders Jansson’s wordless chanting (consisting mostly of elongated oooh’s and aahh’s) adds an almost spiritual atmosphere, particularly on the short opening track, but recurring throughout the disc. Walkabout is a cool, funky tune, notably for some scat singing by Lars Bjurhall (earning him the nickname N’nogo) and some remarkable scat guitar from Marsh.
The Horses from Zaad is one of the highlights, having a tribal feel and some chugging guitar, backed by phenomenal drumming from Csorsz. He lays down some fiendish beats with a lightness of touch that has to be heard to be believed. His work throughout the album is quite superb, and as I don’t pay that much attention to the drums usually, this is high praise indeed.
The low point of the disc, if there is one, is the opening section of The Happy Frog, which has some nice soprano saxophone by Ulf Wallender, but is a little too sweet and muzaky for my tastes. Thankfully, the track picks up steam about halfway through, becoming much more interesting, and featuring Roine Stolte with some fairly atypical, ferocious guitar. Bodin weighs in with some noodly keys, recalling Chic Corea’s work with Return To Forever. Magic!
The disc concludes with the strong pairing of Morning Will Come and its opposite number The Night Will Fall. The latter is especially nice, with some lovely gentle vocalising from Jansson, delicate piano filigree from Bodin, and a haunting soprano sax solo, this time provided by Jonas Knutsson. Reingold is also excellent here, with some delicious deep and sonorous bass playing, to retain the jazz feel to the last.
This CD came as something of a surprise after the “sock it to ‘em” kitchen sink approach of its predecessor, but it complements that disc nicely in highlighting Bodin’s talent and versatility. Here, his strength as a composer and arranger shines through, and he leaves plenty of space for his colleagues to stretch out and improvise. This makes for a satisfying listen, which explores a cool jazzy sound whilst retaining enough of his main band’s feel to please everybody. Sometimes it feels like the market for releases from the Flower Kings prolific stable has reached saturation point, even though the quality is always high, but Sonic Boulevard has enough of it’s own identity to justify its place on the shelf.
Sometimes, the fact that one has a certain expectation of something spoils the actual experience. This happened to me when I first heard the third solo album of keyboard wizard Tomas Bodin. Admiring this Flower King for his virtuosity on the black-and-white keys and his strong live persona, I expected a CD filled with keyboard fireworks. I was therefore somewhat disappointed to find that the man is actually showing his softer side on Sonic Boulevard.
To say that Bodin has taken his "business" entirely away from anything Flower Kings-related would be far from the truth. Apart from the fact that the band's trademark sound can be heard on many instances, have almost all of the other members added a few notes to Sonic Boulevard. Jonas Reingold (bass), Zoltan Csörsz (drums), Hans Bruniusson (percussion), Ulf Wallander (sax) and even Roine Stolt (guitar) have clearly left their traces on the album, although it is much softer and there is much more space for improvisation, which has given it a very jazzy feeling. Jonas Knutsson (sax), Anders Jansson (lead vocals), Jocke JJ Marsh (guitars) and N´Nogo Bjurhall (African scat on track 5) are Bodin's other brothers in arms, by the way.
Something which one either loves or hates is the fact that there is quite a bit of wordless singing, also known as scat, on the album. In the first track, The Prayer, Bodin's high wails make me think of Shankar's vocal performance during Peter Gabriel's Secret World Tour. In Walkabout guitarist Jocke JJ Marsch is humming along to the guitar solo, which gives the track an even jazzier atmosphere than it already had. Okay, I'll own up to it; I don't like the humming and vocal wahwah-ing at all. Bodin and the other vocalists on the album have great voices, no doubt about that, but wordless singing has never been my thing, neither in jazz nor in rock. Pink Floyd's The Great Gig In The Sky is one of the few exceptions to that rule, though.
Especially the middle section of the album sounds very improvised and many songs don't seem to go anywhere for a while until they suddenly end. We can hear Queen and bits of Genesis's Nursery Cryme in the rather okay second track The Hero From Cloud City, Kansas-like guitar bits, Ennio Morricone soundtrack cowboy humming and jazz guitars in Back From The African Garden.
The Horses From Zaad (a title which will probably make most Dutch-speaking people laugh) is a more pumped up track with western movie-like whistling and church bells. It also contains some nice bass moments and we can hear some keyboard sounds like Bodin's countryman Bo Hanson used on his The Lord Of The Rings album.
Genesis is actually a band which often comes to mind on the album. The sounds that Tony Banks used in their early years can be heard in the rather anticlimactic A Beautiful Mind and The Watcher Of The Skies strides around in Morning Will Come. The latter song features also a film soundtrack kind of feeling in the middle part of the track as well as some traces of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb and the vocals bring Frankie Goes To Hollywood's The Power Of Love to mind. There's an absolutely great solo in this song which reminds me of both David Gilmour and Stevie Ray Vaughan and makes it my favourite track on the album. The Happy Frog and The Night Will Fall, on the other hand, feature a rather Kenny G-like saxophone sound. This makes The Happy Frog way too sweet for me, although I must say that it works a lot better in the last track of the album.
Two beautiful, sensitive pieces built around the classical piano and containing hints of Genesis stand out among the other tracks (together with Morning Will Come). Picture and the much longer The Night Will Fall seem to be a lot more structured and have a better build-up in tension. It would have been nice if more of the songs had felt like this.
To sum things up, Tomas Bodin has with Sonic Boulevard delivered an album that displays a strong influence of the band he became most famous with, The Flower Kings, but leans much more towards jazz and fusion. For me, there is a bit too much sugar and too little "bite" to the material, although I can imagine that it is quite enjoyable as a background to a relaxed Sunday afternoon. Still, a lot of the songs lack structure and make it hard to stay interested as a listener. Recommended to the prog fan with a preference for softer material.
Pacifico - La Bella Epoca
Tracklist: Cancion para un pequeno ladron (7:03), No eras vos, no era yo (3:13), Ella es tu hermana (6:09), Mi magico amigo (4:37), Una estela sin final (4:07), Llanto de un Atardecer (4:12), Escapatoria (5:29)
This is a re-release of an obscure album by the short-lived Argentinean outfit Pacifico. La Bella Epoca was their sole album, and was released to little fanfare in 1972, with the band disbanding soon after.
Pacifico were a three-piece composed of Hugo Arbe, Eduardo Marti (both Spanish, electric and acoustic guitars, viola and percussion) and Miguel Pezzolano (Flute and percussion). All of the band contribute vocals, and there are several guests, the most prominently heard being Pedro Botti on Organ and piano.
Viajero Inmovil describe the music of Pacifico as ‘folk rock’ which I’d suppose isn’t far from the truth, once you’ve got your head around the fact that the ‘folk’ mentioned here is not of the Bob Dylan variety, but traditional Latin American music. However, many of the song structures will certainly be familiar to progressive rock fans, and on occasions comparisons to the more laid-back, pastoral material from the likes of Jethro Tull and Focus aren’t too far off the mark.
The album is predominantly acoustic, with wistful flute, piano and organ melodies floating over simple acoustic guitar backing. The band are strongest on the laid-back, melancholic material, such as No eras vos, no era yo; occasionally the tempo is upped and the guitars plugged in, but this really just drowns out the subtleties on which the music’s impact relies.
The band’s main strength is perhaps the vocals; all three musicians have good but distinctly different voices, and vocal harmonies are used often and with consistently impressive results. The fact that the lyrics are sung in Spanish is certainly not a drawback; in fact in the context of this material it’s probably a strength.
Overall, La Bella Epoca can’t exactly be classed as a lost gem, but it is a pleasant, undemanding listen. Full marks for Viajero Inmovil in bringing this album to the attention of a potentially wider audience, and also for the high quality, ‘mini-LP’style CD design and packaging.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
The Sad Song Co - Miseryguts
Tracklist: Beginning To Wonder (3:34), Ghosts (3:30), Blind Man (3:08), Pleasure Babies (3:59), The Everlasting Mile (4:11), Directions (4:20), Deep Cover (4:33), Into The Hills (3:33), This isn’t What I Expected (3:50), Gulag Parenting (3:55), You Get My Best (3:53), Chasing The High (5:34)
Nigel Powell is a talented multi-instrumentalist, known (if at all) for his role in the Indie band Unbelievable Truth, which he formed with Andy Yorke (brother of Radiohead’s Thom Yorke). Miseryguts is the first outing for his side project The Sad Song Co, formed as an outlet for his own material. Aside from a bass player and a couple of guests (playing lead guitar on a track apiece) Nigel is solely responsible for the music. As he is primarily a drummer, you need not fear the dreaded programmed drums which blight many a one man project.
He professes to be a fan of Genesis, Marillion and IQ as well as REM and Radiohead, but whilst there are traces of the Progressive Rock approach here and there, the material remains firmly in the modern Indie Pop/Rock field. The songs are nicely crafted and intelligently structured but are, all bar one, confined to three to four minutes in length, which limits the space for instrumental development in any given track. This is not to say that Powell limits himself to “Verse Verse Chorus” structures, indeed, there is often a variety of moods or sections to be found in a single track, however brief it may be.
The album flows along quite nicely, being mostly in a downbeat vein, with no real clunkers to be found, but he hits his stride around track six, with that track and the two that follow being my favourites. Directions opens with acoustic guitar and has splashes of what sounds like a Mellotron (might be sampled). This is a feature of many of the tracks on the CD, and it is this which gives it a slightly proggy vibe, although it’s use also recalls that of The Beatles. His vocals are reminiscent of Neil Finn (Crowded House, Split Enz), and the melody has the same level of depth and subtlety characteristic of Finn’s work.
Deep Cover has a great Mellotron beginning and is one of several songs having a moody Radiohead aura. Powell employs a falsetto vocal in places to good effect. The chorus is particularly pleasing. Towards the conclusion there is some pleasant jazzy guitar, backed by swirling keyboards.
Into The Hills could be a Crowded House clone, but like their best work, the melody is effective and affecting. The shuffling percussion keeps the song jogging along nicely. This could have been lifted straight off CH’s Together Alone CD. Oh, and there’s yet more of those Mellotron sounds as well.
While those three are my favourites, both Ghosts and Gulag Parenting are worthy of mention for those seeking out the progressive elements, with the former featuring a piano driven tune, a Mellotron drenched melody and keening vocals, and the latter has processed vocals, inventive drumming and, out of nowhere a very proggy synth solo which is short but enjoyable.
Blind Man and The Everlasting Mile are strongly Radiohead influenced, having a similar haunting quality and featuring strong vocal performances.
This Isn’t What I Expected is even more down beat, and reminded me of Martin Grech’s debut album. (Grech is a young Englishman whose work was used to magnificently moody effect on a recent Lexus advert, and is also strongly influenced by Radiohead.)
The closing Chasing The High is back in Finn Brothers territory, but perhaps more akin to their Split Enz material, and infused with the spirit of The Beatles. It’s an agreeably warm melodic song to finish with.
Not that it should matter that much, but I don’t like the cover, it’s a drab, depressing daub.
In conclusion, careful listening does reveal a Progressive undercurrent (mostly apparent in the liberal use of Mellotron) but really this is intelligent, melodic Indie Rock. If you like either Radiohead or Crowded House, you may well like this, if you like both of those groups I would say you’ll be sure to appreciate this.
Conclusion : 6 out of 10