Reviews in this issue:
Saga - Marathon
Tracklist: Marathon (4:59), How Are You? (5:22), Breathing Lessons (4:24), Hands Up (3:44), Streets Of Gold [chapter 14] (5:11), The Blind Side Of Your Heart (4:35), Return To Forever (4:26), Too Deep (4:35), You Know I Know [chapter 12] (4:19), Rise And Shine (3:32), Worlds Apart [chapter 16] (6:10)
These Canadian prog rockers have been around for more than 27 years now, and they still know how to rock and they certainly know how to make an excellent rock album. Of course this band has had its ups and downs over the years, but with their previous wonderful album House Of Cards, Saga proved that they could still be innovative and progressive, but on the other hand maintain their very recognisable, typical sound. On this album there is that classic Saga sound that we know from the early eighties and they ride the wave of success with three new Saga chapters, which will certainly please the “old” fans. Saga’s trademarks are all over the album, the lovely keyboards of Jim Gilmour and the melodic guitar riffs and solos of Ian Crichton are still wonderful to listen to, and Michael Sadler’s vocals on this CD are the best I've heard from him in a long time.
The album starts with the title track, which could be a prog rock hit for Saga, an outstanding composition with a very catchy chorus, which will remain in “your ears” for a very long time (“it takes time to get to Avalon, that’s why we’re on this Marathon….). Breathing Lessons is a track that rather reminds me of good old Roxy Music and Hands Up is a song that Saga could have recorded in the early eighties. The Blind Side Of Your Heart is a wonderful ballad, with extraordinary vocals of Michael. The best tracks however are the three new chapters; Saga at its best there, melodic, progressive and very emotional sometimes; especially the longest track Worlds Apart is an absolute beauty. I am sad to say that are also two rather mediocre tracks on this album. Namely: Too Deep and Rise And Shine, two “fillers” that are unworthy of the rest of the Saga material on this CD. But, hey, 9 great songs out of 11, that is really not too bad, is it? Needless to say that for Saga fans this album is a must and let’s hope that these guys will make more albums like this one in the future.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Equilibrio Vital -
Equilibrio Vital (Tributo A Marcos Chacón)
Tracklist: Guerra (10:56), El Emigrante (4:38), Aliento Y Esperanza (6:53), A Mi Padre (4:56), Armonias Con El Infinito (4:39), Madre (4:17), Momentos (3:54), A Mis Amigo (6:21)
Originally released in 1983, the eponymous debut album by Equilibrio Vital was unfortunate to miss out on the resurgence of progressive rock that was at its pinnacle at that time. The fact that they were from Venezuela, several thousand miles away from Europe (or to be frank, the UK) where the revival was strongest, and that internet communities were a thing of the future, did not bode well for international acclaim. This is a shame as the album shows a lot of promise and is, to be blunt, of a quality that exceeds a lot of the material that bands of that time were producing. Fortunately, those of us that missed out first time round now have the opportunity, courtesy of Musea Records, to find out what we missed out on. Originally formed in June 1980, Equilibrio Vital, more of an art collective than a straight forward band, played their first concerts just under a year later and soon after made their first tentative steps in the recording studio resulting in the album which is the subject of this review. Between 1983 and 1999, the band recorded four more albums (although information on these albums, with the exception of 1984's Kazmor El Prisionero, are hard to find, they are not even mentioned by name in the liner notes which charts the band's history!) but suffered a major blow when in December 2001 guitarist, vocalist and main composer Marcos Chacón died from a chronic stomach disorder. It is as a tribute to Marcos that the reissue of this album is dedicated.
The album is not a direct reissue of the original album, for some reason the track Tras El Sol has been omitted and three 'new' tracks recorded between 2000 and 2003 supplement the release. Despite being undeniably a progressive album, the music tilts to a more aggressive, and in places heavy, sound. The abundance of electric guitars provide a good, albeit somewhat traditional, rock basis upon which the arrangements are built. This is none more so evident than on the epic album opener Guerra, which, structurally at least, resembles classic rock bands of the early 1970s. No bad thing as it is a slightly different approach to progressive music compared with what many other bands of the period were taking. One only has to think back to the early days of bands such as Deep Purple or even Uriah Heep, both doyen's of hard rock who were once considered to be progressive bands, to realise that sometimes the lines between heavy and prog rock can be successfully blurred. The album also features more traditional progressive tracks, such as Aliento Y Esperanza which starts as a gentle ballad and ends sounding like Camel who are in a rush to be somewhere. Although the vocals are all sung in Spanish this doesn't detract from the listener's pleasure, particularly when the male vocals (shared by Marcos Chacón and bassist and flautist Guillermo Gonzalez) are joined by Elena Prieto who, as well as female lead, provides high harmonies on such tracks as El Emigrante and A Mi Padre. Original album closer, Armonias Con El Infinito, is a lively instrumental with group vocalisations that instantly bring to mind some of the more adventurous folk rock of Renaissance.
The three additional tracks generally reflect the softer side of the band. Momentos, the weakest track on the album, but as it is also the shortest one can't have too many complaints. A Mis Amigo is the most modern sounding of the songs and also stands out for various other reasons: it is the only song recorded without Marcos Chacón and is the only time that saxophone and keyboards are featured. It is a bright instrumental with a catchy refrain although to my ears the sax sound tends to grate, it would have benefited, in my opinion, from being a lot smoother. The song also has a very weak ending, which is a shame because the album deserves a stronger close. There is one other additional track, the moving Madre. Although the acoustic guitars of Jacinto Gonzalez and Jorge Luis Ayala, which form the entire instrumentation on the piece, were only recorded last year, they have been added to a vocal track by Marcos Chacón which was recorded some three years earlier. The result is a very moving song and a more fitting tribute to a missed friend one can't imagine.
Packaged with a booklet containing detailed sleeve notes and lyrics, printed in both Spanish and English, and a cover that resembles the work of Roger Dean, Musea have done a great job with this reissue. I am sure that the band will find many new fans now that this album is more widely available and their greater recognition is fully justified. It is just a great pity that it came too late for Marcos, but I'm sure he would be proud that the album has been reissued in tribute to his obvious performing and composing talents.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Natural Science - This Side Of Paradise
Tracklist: On My Own (6:59), Just Before Dawn (7:12), For Better Days (4:54), This Side Of Paradise (4:47), Match Made Up… (8:04), Meltdown Marvin (4:57), May You Live In Interesting Times: In Our Times (1:13), Soundbite Symphony (8:17), Men At Arms (1:30), Novska (4:33)
Natural Science are a band from the Netherlands, and this is their first full-length release. I must admit that, from the (to my mind) rather uninspiring CD artwork and the rather clichéd album title I wasn’t necessarily expecting too much from this disc, but thankfully this was a pleasant surprise.
We’re certainly in the realms of prog metal here, with the main points of reference being (surprise, surprise) Dream Theater (especially the earlier, When Dream And Day Unite era of the band), Rush (unsurprising given the band’s name!) and Threshold, the latter influence showing itself in the combination of chunky, heavy riffs overlain with effective keyboard melodies. Sticking with the Threshold influence, I could imagine Damian Wilson delivering many of the vocals here. Actual vocalist Roy Wassink certainly lacks Wilson’s range and power, and occasionally he seems to waver out of tune, but he does have an appealing, fairly rich voice which suits the music (especially the heavier stuff) well. Whilst the accompanying musicianship is uniformly good, bassist Vincent Wassink deserves a special mention, coming up with some flowing, sometimes almost funky bass-lines which really add to the band’s sonic palette. Keyboardist Patrick Groot Nuelend, meanwhile, employs both delicate piano melodies and vast layers of symphonic keys depending on what the song requires.
The album kicks off very strongly with the forceful On My Own, which clearly illustrates the band’s ability to come up with well structured songs, heavy on melody and capped with memorable choruses. Pace and mood changes are always well handled, and whilst there are many instrumental sections these are generally short and to the point, and are high on melody and atmosphere.
This is probably the strongest track on the album in my opinion, but that’s not to say the quality takes a nosedive. In fact, each of the six individual songs contained here are pretty strong; the likes of For Better Days power along almost effortlessly, Just Before Dawn exhibits a symphonic sweep and some, er, enigmatic lyrics (‘the chair is on the grass, the chair is on the lawn, the chair is just a love affair’ indeed!), whilst the title track is a powerful ballad which provides a nice contrast with the generally heavier nature of the rest of the material., and Match Made Up features an excellent instrumental closing section which is the equal of anything on here.
The centrepiece of the album is the four-song suite May You Live In Interesting Times. Clearly going for the ‘prog epic’, at times this is perhaps a bit over-ambitious, some of the links seem a little forced and Roy Wassink’s voice is really stretched beyond its natural limits on parts, but there are again some fine moments here, and the emotional grand finale Novska is a powerful closing statement.
Overall then, this is a good debut release – not without its flaws, but progressive metal fans should certainly find much to their liking here. Armed with material of this calibre, Natural Science should get some record label attention sooner rather than later.
Note: Natural Science were taken up by Lone Wolf Music in October 2004.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Molly Bloom - Molly Bloom
Possibly an unknown name to many, as it was to me until just a few weeks ago. A name that conjurs up Victorian England, Dance Halls or perhaps a victim of Jack the Ripper, who knows? Alas there are many references to the name Molly Bloom to be found on the internet, but none of a famous heroine bearing this name here - the name only referenced once as wench and dancing partner. Our Molly Bloom hail from the Manchester area of the UK and comprise of Stephen Dundon (flute, whistles and vocals) Tyrion Moses (guitars), Derek Smith (bass & mandolin), Christion Jacobs (drums & percussion) and Danny Ashberry (accordion, keyboards & vocals).
As you may be unfamiliar with the band, then the music will also carry new mysteries. The nature of the instrumentation and the splendid flute work all tilt the scales towards comparisons with Jethro Tull. Both MB and Tull have very idiosyncratic, distinctive and recognisable sounds, but here after the corellation changes, making two distinctly different entities. The music of Molly Bloom is steeped in the traditions of folk, but folk with a bite and a distinctive edge. Their music seldom moves into folk/rock, no heavy guitar or protacted instrumental sections, but still managing to embody passion and fire within the pieces. I must admit that it did take a couple of listenings to adapt to MB's sound, mainly in the area of the vocals. However once accepted I found them to be observant, cynical, cutting, tinged with a wrye sense of humour and on ocassions totally over the top :-). Fleetingly conjurring memories of the late Viv Stanshall.
Of the musicians - all have a strong command of their instruments and the delivery is laudable - the music having a very natural live feel to it, at times perhaps to the detriment of some production - but nothing to write home about. Combined with the strong element of fun - this is music to be enjoyed. For fans of Ian Anderson's flute, then a worthy adversary can be found in Steve Dundon.
Of the music - the more immediate material were those tracks that had a 'Tull-ian' feel, as with the delightful instrumental Molly Bloom. The end instrumental section of the OTT and 'vampire-istic' Blood, with its biting lyrics (sorry), shimmering classical guitar, subtle changes in rhythm, trilling flute and driving accordion. Excellent. Then there are the even more tongue in cheek offerings Stevie Winwood Haircut and the bawdy A Merry Band Of Lads - surely this must be a crowd pleaser in their live set. Last but not least is 50,000 Camels which opens with a Roots To Branches Eastern vibe, however from then on its all just great fun. Wonderful words. I really disliked this track on the first listen through - but it eventually ended up as one of my favourite pieces.
Molly Bloom have been a really pleasant find and I hope that this article may stir greater interest in the band. My thanks to the DPRP visitor who suggested I should track down the band. It will appeal to those with a liking for edgy Folk music, but with more than enough variation so as not to attach only a folk tag to it. At times Dundon's flute bore the hallmarks of Ian Anderson's indefatigable style, but this just made the listening more enjoyable for me. Well worth checking out!
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Molly Bloom - Green Fence
Tracklist: Green Fence (3:08), Leave Me Alone (1:36), Waxworks (4:06)
We see a slightly slimmed down line-up for Molly Bloom's 2003 EP the Green Fence, however their now familiar sound is still in full bloom (sorry again ;-), and none of the quality or quirkieness seems to have been lost along the way. Still much in evidence is Stephen Dundon's fine flute work - complimeted by both the guitar of Tyrion 'Terry' Moses and Derek Smith's mandolin.
Green Fence opens at a spritely pace with the flute interspersed with harmonised electric guitar passages, both serving as a precursor to the succinctly cutting lyrics, which lay uneasily across the choppy, vamped acoustic guitar. MB purporting the notion that perhaps life is not always greener on the other side of the fence. Leave Me Alone is a brief track which might well conjur some early Gabriel/Genesis notions, if the mandolin were changed for the guitar. Again nice twists in the lyrics showing different layers of perception and meaning. The last song for this outing is Waxworks, which tells us of the passing of time and a man's fondness for a waxwork model. Although the clock is always ticking for him, his 'wife' remains as beautiful as ever - until the end of course! Once again the mandolin works really well here and I was reminded of Led Zep's The Battle of Evermore during the verses. A nicely constructed track with all the instruments playing their parts admirably and again the flute is compelling and beguilling.
A nice taster for anyone curious about the band and well worth investing in, especially if you are purchasing the first Molly Bloom album. I believe these three tracks will eventually surface on the next Molly Bloom album.
Conclusion: I'll wait for the album !
Djamra - Transplantation
Tracklist: Time Flies Like An Arrow [Two Horns Version] (4:19), Channeling (0:40), Assassin In Sin (4:23), Neo Skin (4:11), Mood (5:50), Nest (6:43), Time Flies Like An Arrow [3 Horns version] (4:59), Hz (6:00), Pliable Clockwork (2:08), The Cave (6:20), To India (15:42)
This is yet another release from Japanese Fusion specialists Poseidon, receiving wider distribution courtesy of Musea. This particular offering is much more jazz based, with less progressive rock leanings, than most of the others in this series.
The slightly unusual line-up consists of Masaharu Nakakita – bass, Shinji Kitamura - alto sax, Dai Akahani – trumpet and Akihiro Enomoto – drums. The absence of guitars and keyboards may start to ring alarm bells for some of you. Although both these instruments show up in guest roles on Mood and Hz, the keyboards only add random, strange effects, and the guitarist lends a Henry Cow avant slant to the still very jazz oriented proceedings. These two adventurous, dissonant tracks aside, the majority of the CD is slick, well played modern jazz, heavy on the horns, with the emphasis on ensemble playing rather than endless solos. The important twist is the rhythm section, particularly the incredibly fiery fretwork of bassist Masaharu Nakakita. His demonic playing drives the music with an almost unbelievable power. He is a very versatile player, veering from the hot and funky (The Cave, Assassin In Sin) to the fuzzed up and ferocious (Channeling), via the bluesy stroll, which opens Mood.
Time Flies Like An Arrow appears in two versions, and whilst there are differences, I’m not sure why we really need to have both. As an added bonus track, maybe, but smack in the middle of the album??
The lengthy closing track To India, opens (perhaps unsurprisingly) with a solitary sitar, but after a couple of minutes its back to the strident squawking jazz. Although there are some interesting change-ups, the promise of cross-cultural exploration is largely unfulfilled, unless you count the vaguely Mexican feel to the trumpets in places.
Whilst there are many intriguing twists and turns to the compositions, the overriding feel is still that of brassy- jazz (spiked with a measure of avant-garde strangeness). If you don’t like that, you will not like this disc. I found it to be an enjoyable change, but it began to wear on me over the full length of the album. At the end of the day, however, this is never going to be my favourite kind of music. I am sure that the trumpet player is an extremely capable player, but it’s not really my cup of tea.
It’s probably worth hearing this disc just for the bass alone, but this is not going to find favour with many fans of Progressive Rock in general. If you thought Soft Machine, Henry Cow and Magma weren’t quite jazzy enough, this could well be a major hit with you. Parts of the disc remind me of a more strident version of the straighter jazz elements found on Robert Wyatt’s records (The End Of An Ear), but less restrained than that. I appreciated the technique, and the spirit of adventure, but it’s not the kind of thing I really enjoy. Jazz buffs and avant rock / RIO fans may care to try. The fairly low rating I am giving is not an indication of poor quality, but a measure of the narrowness of the album’s potential appeal.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Like Wendy - Homeland
Tracklist: The Crossing Cloud (5:41), Back To Earth (5:33), Homeland (12:52), Last Day Of The Butterfly (8:44), Flood (8:03), The Days Remaining (6:26), Live Forever (2:54)
Like Wendy is the Neo-Prog Project of Dutch musician Bert Heinen, and Homeland is his fifth Album. Aside from one track on the The Reading Room - Various Artists Concept Album (also on LaBraD'or Records), this is my first exposure to his work.
I found it to be an enjoyable, if unsurprising example of its genre. The mood is relaxed and refined, and remains pretty consistent throughout. Heinen builds layers of keyboards underneath melodic electric guitars, with generous helpings of warm acoustic guitars and some appealing harmony vocals adding a more personal twist on the standard Genesis/Marillion template. Most of the tracks are mid-tempo, mid-length pieces and show that Heinen has full control of his material, as nothing outstays its welcome or feels padded. He knows how long to stay with a melodic idea, and when to bring things to a natural end. This is a truly solo project, so that means programmed drums, but they are tastefully done for the most part, and not particularly intrusive.
Things get off to a promising start with The Crossing Cloud, which has a very Hackett-like intro, before bright synths chip in, creating a very Lands End feel. Some delicate acoustic guitar lends a classical edge and the vocals are appealing and easy on the ear.
Back To Earth is essentially a soft pop/rock tune, with a nicely hummable chorus. The melody has a nagging familiarity, but I can’t place it. There is a Pendragon quality to this track, which has a soaring guitar solo towards the end.
The title track is the longest track on the disc, but its twelve minutes pass by very quickly. This one reminds me of Magenta’s recent work, being a skilful recombining of tried and tested synth sounds and guitar riffs, into a new and interesting work. The second half of the song develops an engaging and memorable chorus, with a delightful vocal performance. The acoustic textures help create a nostalgic ambience and simple but effective piano parts add to the charm.
Last Day Of The Butterfly is my favourite track. I was reminded of Barclay James Harvest (particularly in the harmony vocals), an influence that crops up on other tracks too. From a low-key beginning, it builds to a gorgeous refrain, which is guaranteed to lodge in your brain. I found this to be a very beautiful and emotional number. If the rest of the album were as good as this, it would be a potential classic.
Flood opens with drum machines and sequenced synths, followed with a moody vocal. It’s not a bad track, but feels a trifle humdrum and pedestrian after its shining predecessor. The Days Remaining is Hogarth era Marillion, with its jangling guitars and soaring vocals. It’s nicely done, all very tasteful, but you could all probably name a dozen songs in this vein without too much effort.
The CD concludes with Live Forever, a short acoustic based number, with more of those BJH style plaintive harmonies and symphonic keyboards. It’s a lovely finish to the album. I wouldn’t say I was a huge fan of Barclay James Harvest, but it was the parts of this disc that reminded me of them that really got to me. With the sad news of the recent passing of Mel Pritchard, this conjured up bitter/sweet nostalgic feelings.
If you are looking for startling new ideas or challenging music, this is not the disc for you, but if you can appreciate well-crafted, melodic Neo Prog, and want to be soothed and relaxed by gorgeous harmony vocals, this could be just what the doctor ordered. I often want a more challenging musical diet, but my collection has plenty of room for well-crafted music like this, and I shall be looking out for the other Like Wendy discs.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Neronia - Nerotica
Tracklist: Fast Way (4:57), In The Mirror (7:11), One Moment (7:26), Frost (8:50), Naked Pale (6:17), Snow Angels (3:25), Feeling Blue (5:58), Drenched In Tears (6:07), She Cat (10:41)
In 1998, three years after German prog rock band Ulysses split, bassist Robert Ender, drummer Robert Zoom and guitarist Mirko Rudnik were reunited in the band Neronia who took their name from the sole album recorded by their previous group back in 1993. They were joined a year later by vocalist Falk Ullmann and then entered a period of not doing much at all really. It was only at the beginning of 2002, when Joerg Schaufert replaced the departing Robert Ender, that the band got their act together, returning to live performance that May for the first time in several years. A four track demo CD soon followed before work was started on the first album proper. Recorded at the band's own studio between August 2002 and April 2003, Nerotica has been released independently by the band who are currently in negotiations for distribution deals across Europe. Until the ink has dried on any such deals, the CD is available from the group's website.
I have to state up front that I am not a particularly great fan of modern rock music and the so-called prog-metal acts do nothing for me at all. Although Neronia could not be classified as a metal act, they are rather too far out of my 'comfort zone' in terms of the limits of prog music that I get off on. There, that's my position, all comments that follow have to be read with that in mind! Album opener, Fast Way, sets the tone. A mid-pace rocker that combines driving guitars and somewhat histrionic vocals. There are some nice double-tracked guitars on the chorus but overall the track is not all that memorable. And that is the problem I have with the whole album, I found it very difficult, even after repeated listenings, to remember any of the individual tracks. It is extremely hard to pin down exactly what it is about the album that makes it bypass those areas in the auditory cortex that set the neurones alight, maybe it is the style of singing, or the seeming lack of variety, but even then that is not strictly true as tracks such as In The Mirror do contain different musical sections played at different tempos. Having said that, the music, which is faultlessly played, just seems to coalese into a background wash. It is hard to find a suitable comparator group, to an extent it reminds me a little of a keyboard-less Arena but that may be somewhat off the mark as not being a fan of that band (or Clive Nolan in general) I haven't really heard much of their material for years!
However, occassionally things do come together, there are some very good instrumental moments on One Moment and the intro of Feeling Blue, which features a rather more sinister vocal performance from Falk Ullman appropriately accompanied by a Fender Rhodes electric piano (played by guest musician Rainer Teucher), adds variety. Rainer also features on album closer, the large-scale She-Cat. A simple and repetitive piano refrain opens the song and is expanded upon in the middle of the piece which contrasts well with the heavier elements of the song, particularly the closing guitar solo (which at over three minutes may be deemed by some as a bit excessive but it does work well and is, for me, the highlight of the album).
I am sure there is a large market for the music that Neronia write and perform, it is just unfortunate that it did not click with this reviewer. There are no complaints over the musicianship or the quality of the recordings. The CD is also beautifully packaged (the website is a treat as well) and I suggest that you check out the samples on the website and make up your own mind!
Conclusion: 6 out of 10