Reviews in this issue:
- Strangefish - Fortune Telling (Duo Review)
- Various Artists - Odyssey
- Ray Wilson - An Audience and Ray Wilson
- Jean-Luc Payssan - Pierrots & Arlequins
- Tony Garone - Big Star Way
- Magnesis - L'Immortel Opéra
Strangefish – Fortune Telling
Tracklist: Happy As I Am (8:48), It Could Be Me (7:02), Random (5:04), 360° (1:18), Keep The Exists Clear (6:32), Have You Seen The Light? (5:51), Lightswitch (0:37), Ignorance Of Bliss (8:28), Reflection, This Is Me (7:02), This Is Me: Part 2 (6:35), The Lighthouse Jig (7:38)
Geoff Feakes' Review
Let me start this review by saying a big thank you to Strangefish. If that sounds a little sycophantic then l shall explain. The prime concern of several prog CD’s that has come my way recently have been constantly changing time signatures and frequent displays of virtuosity. In comparison this album comes as a welcome breathe of fresh air. That’s not to say that the music lacks depth or that they are less than capable musicians, far from it. Along with everything else the band injects into their music they never loss sight of the most important factors, the melody and the song. This album captures a band in a rapid state of development with a strong future ahead. That’s assuming they can overcome the musical apathy that exists out there. It’s actually their second official release to date, following 2003’s Full Scale. That album was well received both here at the DPRP and by the Classic Rock Society who’s continued support for the band is well known, and in my opinion well deserved. Fortune Telling builds on the foundations of its predecessor, and displays advances in all departments.
I should point out that the review copy of the CD came in a plain case minus any information so if I make any technical errors my sincere apologies. If I’m not mistaken, with the exception of the final track, this is a concept album. Each song flows seamlessly into the next, and in terms of structure and feel a comparison that comes immediately to mind is Marillion’s Misplaced Childhood. The songs follow a journey of personal identity, compulsive gambling, consumerism, the trappings of wealth, and self-discovery. The perceptive lyrics are that rare thing; they combine intelligence with a refreshing lack of ambiguity. I’m not convinced by the spoken parts sprinkled throughout the album though. To my mind they are unnecessary, but fortunately they do not prove to be a major distraction. Apart from the drum sound, which could do with a bit more weight for my tastes, full marks go to whoever is responsible for the silky smooth production.
In addition to vocalist Steve Taylor sounding like Fish in his quieter moments, the first thing that struck me was the cohesive guitar and keys work courtesy of Bob and Paul O'Neil respectively. I’m willing to bet that given his adopted name the guitarist is a Blackadder fan! The interplay between the two follows in the footsteps of the pioneering Hackett and Banks in the 70’s, Rothery and Kelly in the 80’s, and Stolt and Bodin in the 90’s. It may be too early to say if they are the heirs apparent for this decade, they have stiff competition in the neo prog world. This album makes a very convincing case however, especially when the strong bass work of Julian Gregory and solid drumming of Dave Whittaker are entered into the equation. To prove the point look no further than the opening track Happy As I Am, which actually feels like three songs in one. The melodic instrumental introduction serves as the albums fanfare where the probing exchanges between guitar, organ and synth have all the hallmarks of early Genesis. This surrenders to an up tempo gritty vocal part with a punchy bass backing, followed by a reflective vocal section accompanied by delicate guitar.
The haunting piano theme that opens It Could Be Me sounds remarkably like the Stairway To Heaven theme (not to be confused with the Led Zep song) from the classic movie A Matter Of life And Death. Guitar and synths develop a polished Camel like soundscape with strong support from a meticulous bass line. A rare glimpse of mellow acoustic guitar before electric guitar builds the tension to the final vocal refrain. The mood changes for Random, where pulsating guitar power chords and dynamic synth punctuations dominate. In contrast, the vocal delivery is smooth and relaxed. In the short instrumental 360°, the sweeping keys and strings display a level of orchestral sophistication that would not sound out of place gracing the soundtrack of the latest Hollywood romance. Keep The Exits Clear is possibly my favourite track, distinguished by an excellent and fluid guitar solo. Synth strings compliment the crisp piano and striking bass work. The majestic vocal during the middle eight is a highlight with the significance of the songs title explained in the lines “I’m your voice inside, I’m your easy way out when dangers near, if we need to get out of here, keep the exits clear”.
There is a refreshing directness to Have You Seen The Light? with its down to earth driving Deep Purple like guitar riff. This is offset by the melodic chorus with a backdrop of sweet sounding synth. The overall feel brings Marillion’s Incommunicado to mind. The lightning guitar solo adds drama and impact. The all too brief Lightswitch is a keys drenched instrumental that would sound very much at home on a Tony Banks solo album. The slow burning Ignorance Of Bliss benefits from a weighty drum pattern with a symphonic keys backdrop, and a potent chorus. The rare exercise in jazz guitar with its sparse piano backing, and the rich synth ending standout. Following a gentle rippling guitar introduction, Reflection, This Is Me fittingly reprises some of the albums main themes during an extended instrumental workout. A driving rhythm section supports the lyrical guitar and sweeping synth runs. The triumphant vocal during the chorus has all the confidence of Roger Daltrey. Thankfully with This Is Me: Part 2, they resist the temptation for a grand finale and instead produce a beautiful and melodic song to end. The vocal is suitably uplifting, floating on a wave of soaring guitar and keys. The achingly beautiful closing chorus, with its classical piano and violin backing, reminded me of one of my all time favourite vocalists Graham Nash.
The Lighthouse Jig is not part of the main concept, or at least it doesn’t feel that way, and serves much the same function as the Sailor’s Hornpipe at the end of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells. Following an atmospheric keys lead introduction, the folk violin of Julian Gregory takes the foreground, backed by a march like rhythm from synth and drums. A touch of mandolin, also courtesy of Gregory, and the violin takes flight in a jazz direction with solid guitar and synth support providing a spirited ending to a memorable album.
In my opinion the band has delivered a finely crafted and mature work on a level with IQ, Pendragon and Mostly Autumn for which they can be justly proud. Even more of an achievement when you consider that this is only their second album. The song writing is superb and they certainly know a thing or two about arrangements. I’m guessing that Taylor wrote the lyrics, whilst Bob, O'Neil and Gregory were responsible for the music. I must confess that it took me a long time to write this review. Each time I played the CD I was content to just sit back and listen to the music. I strongly recommend you purchase a copy from the bands website and do the same.
Tom De Val's Review
Manchester’s Strangefish impressed me considerably with their debut album Full Scale, a high quality outing that was one of the stronger neo-prog releases of 2003. Following a bunch of accolades from the Classic Rock Society, things may appear to have quietened down a bit over the last couple of years, but now we can hear the reason why – a spanking new album, Fortune Telling. The band have laboured long and hard over this release (and judging by some comments on their website, the recording process was not without its problems) and thankfully their toil has paid dividends, as this is another fine effort.
Fortune Telling is a concept affair, but rather than go for something over-ambitious Strangefish have instead chosen a relatively straightforward storyline (and one people living in our consumerist society should certainly be able to relate to) based around a man who is (perhaps unfashionably) un-materialistic, yet falls into a coma-like state whereby he sees what life would be like were he to be bestowed with fame and wealth; when he awakes he rejects this vision – as the first song title would put it ‘happy as I am’. The concept is dealt with well, and with some humour, meaning that this comes across as interesting and thought-provoking rather than (as is so often the case) po-faced.
Fortune Telling kicks off with Happy As I Am, a track which the band have been playing live for some time (I saw them play it at 2004’s Progeny festival in London). Starting with some gentle keyboard work and whistling, the band succeed from the off in obtaining a very warm sound, something that’s retained throughout the album. The track moves into what amounts as the album’s overture, introducing musical themes that are revisited throughout – here the keyboard work is reminiscent of Neal Morse-era Spock’s Beard, whilst guitarist Bob’s first foray into the action is akin to the style of IQ’s Mike Holmes. When the song proper starts, vocalist Steve Taylor initially delivers the lyrics in a half-spoken style with which he seems a little uneasy, but matters improve markedly when we get to the chorus, which has a mellow feel which I’d compare to the seventies ‘Canterbury’ style. This section is embellished cleverly as the song reaches its conclusion. The way the heavier verses segue into these more laid-back chorus section is very well handled, and there’s some almost jazzy guitar and keyboard work towards the end, which has a distinct Steely Dan feel to it.
It Could Be Me sees the mood change, both lyrically and musically; as our hero becomes more questioning and doubtful of whether his ‘take me as I am’ course is the right one, so the music develops a slightly darker and more serious feel. Although still relatively mellow, there’s a nicely dark symphonic section worked in which adds to the sense of drama. The solo guitar work is again interesting – nothing overly fancy, but it works well. There’s some heavy guitar chords mixed with very early 80’s Mark Kelly style keyboards at the songs conclusion. The track segues (via a rather stilted spoken word section which echoes that of Marillion’s Chelsea Monday) into Random, which again showcases the bands heavier, darker side – some similarities in the opening instrumental bravado can be made with IQ’s Overture (the opening section to Subterranea), which has a similar dynamic thrust to it. Again this is nicely contrasted by mellow verse sections, which this time feature some pleasing vocal harmonies.
360° is a short instrumental which sees bassist Julian Gregory playing the violin – with some aplomb, I might add. The melody line here echoes that of Happy As I Am, keeping the thematic consistency intact. 360° gives way to one of the album’s centrepieces, Keep The Exits Clear. Starting quietly, it soon kicks in to an IQ-like groove, and scores highly with a very plaintive and effective melancholy chorus. Bob unleashes an excellent extended solo on this track (evocative of Francis Dunnery in his It Bites days), and Steve Taylor’s vocals are at their best, showcasing his ability to move smoothly from an aggressive and authorative style to a mellow, tranquil one in an instant.
Have You Seen The Light? kicks things up a gear again, an up-tempo rockier track featuring some crunchy guitars, its in the same vein as Take A Holiday (from Full Scale). There’s another strong guitar solo here, this time more in a hard rock vein, which suits the song well. Following this, Lighthouse provides a nice breather, a short instrumental with Paul O’Neil coaxing some soothing melodies from his keyboards – think of Pete Barden’s work on late 70’s Camel records for a point of comparison. The next main piece, Ignorance Of Bliss, is another of the records standouts. It builds well around a marching drum beat, with other instruments gradually seeping in to the mix and Steve Taylor’s vocals getting more and more determined as the song progresses. The mid-section sees the track go off on a slightly jazzy tangent, with Bob’s subtle guitar work fluttering over a light piano backing – once again I found myself noting down Steely Dan’s name here. From here the song builds again gradually, eventually arriving in rather dark territory reminiscent of The Visitor-era Arena.
Reflection/ This Is Me sees Strangefish revisiting a number of earlier themes, both lyrically and musically. Things stutter a little in the mid-section, where the music stops and starts rather uncertainly, but soon get back on track as the music builds, in a stately and grandiose manner, towards a grand finale where all the themes are nicely tied together, with Taylor’s rather world-weary vocals perfectly suiting the mood set by the music. The solo violin at the album’s conclusion is a nice finishing touch.
Except… it’s not quite the finish of the album, as we still have The Lighthouse Jig. Unrelated to what’s gone before, this is instead something of a concert favourite that the band have finally got around to putting down on record. Best seen as a bonus track, it’s an enjoyable enough instrumental – a jig, funnily enough! – but perhaps works better live than in the studio; its not going to give any traditional bands (or even the likes of Mostly Autumn) any sleepless nights.
In conclusion, Strangefish have shown that the high quality material on their debut was no flash in the plan, and have at least equalled (if not bettered) it with this new release. A good sense of continuity is achieved and maintained throughout, with strong melodies and a good balance between heavier and more mellow sections being particularly worthy of note. Yes, its not perfect – for instance, some of the tracks go on a little too long, the influences are still very noticeable and there are occasions where the joins between tracks are a little forced – but these are minor niggles in the scheme of things. Fortune Telling is particularly recommended to fans of British neo-prog outfits such as IQ and Pendragon, but certainly has the potential to appeal to a wider prog rock audience.
Various Artists - Odyssey
Nathan Mahl Of Longings, Suitors, Deities And Quests (24:07), Nexus El Regreso The Return (27:50), Glass Hammer At The Court Of Alkinoos (21:32)
XII Alfonso From Ismarus To The Land Of Death (26:01), Simon Says Minds Of Mortal Men [Meander Tales] (25:40), C.A.P. Sulle Ali Del Sogno Odissea: Libri XIV, XV,XVI (28:15)
Tempano Chapter VII (24:14), Minimum Vital Etranger En Sa Demeure (22:22), Aether Chapter IX (21:31)
The Finnish Prog Fanzine Colossus has teamed up with Musea once again, to commission another mammoth Prog Epic, following on from The Colossus Of Rhodes and The Spaghetti Epic, to tackle Homer’s Greek masterpiece The Odyssey.
This time 9 groups, from 8 countries, have taken on the challenge to each produce a suite of around 25 minutes, which together tells the story of Homer’s classic. The brief is to work in the style of the 70’s greats like Genesis, Yes, and ELP, using Analogue instruments to produce vintage sounding symphonic rock. If you’re looking for experimental, forward looking stuff, you won’t find it here, but what you will find is an absolute feast (3 hours & 40 minutes or so!!) of top quality progressive rock which pays homage to, but avoids dryly reproducing, the very best the prog genre had to offer. It’s the spirit which is captured here rather than any particular group’s sound or style. Flashes of the aforementioned bands, along with Camel, Mike Oldfield and PFM etc may be discerned throughout these magnificent and abundant tracks, but there are plenty of original flourishes as well.
I don’t want to do a track by track analysis as there’s so much music here, and each group includes many moods and textures, chopping and changing as the story demands, that to describe it all would take far more time and space than I could hope to have.
Likewise, I don’t really want to single out any group for particular praise, as, really they’ve all come up with some stunning music. Individual tastes will of course mean that each listener will have their own particular favourites, and there may be a few sections which you don’t particularly take to, but generally, any sympho fan should enjoy every group and every track in this sumptuous package.
I will add a few brief comments about the contributors, just to indicate some of my personal preferences, and to strengthen my recommendation.
The French contingent, XII Alfonso and Minimum Vital shows its strength with folk influenced prog, which is smoothly flowing and evolving. Both French groups are sure to please Mike Oldfield fans –I wish I could say that he’d done anything this good since the 1970’s. Also, they seem to be the two most modern sounding pieces on this collection, sneaking in a few modern sounding beats and textures. XII Alfonso also manage to incorporate some Kate Bush style chanting and some Satie-esque piano
Nathan Mahl stick to instrumental work and Guy Le Blanc’s stint on the road with Camel has paid dividends- managing to capture the essence of that band’s greatest works without committing plagiarism. This track is a little more approachable and less complex than their Epic Heretic trilogy, and is very enjoyable indeed.
Glass Hammer are on top form – if they’d replaced the suite of short pieces on disc 2 of The Inconsolable Secret with something like this, it would have provided a consistency which made the whole thing a classic work instead of the flawed masterpiece they did issue. I admire their experimentation and stretching out, but I felt it disrupted an otherwise coherent and flowing work. This track would have fit right in, except for the lyrics of course.
I found that Tempano’s track started off a little messily, but it does quickly settle down to the high standard that fans of the band will expect, and I love the conclusion to the track – all acoustic guitars and Melotrons. The piece also features some surprisingly strong English vocals.
I am a big fan of Italians C.A.P. and they definitely don’t disappoint with their track. Very much in the vein of their Il Bianco Regno Di Dooah CD, fans won’t want to miss this.
Simon Says are the Swedish entrants and their track features lashings of organ and a vocalist who sings in English and whose voice and delivery recalls fellow countryman Patrik Lundstrom of Ritual. Believe me, that is some recommendation.
Aether is from Brazil, and is the only group I have not previously encountered. Their track holds it’s own against the other bands and I shall definitely check out their other work.
Argentina’s Nexus manage to improve on their Metanoia release, perhaps benefiting from the time constraints, curbing their wilder excesses. It’s powerful and impressive stuff!
Along with electric guitars, acoustic sections and sweeping orchestral backing, all of the groups find plenty of space for vintage keyboards and for any fan of organs and synths, there’s enough great playing here to last you for years.
The packaging is, as usual, outstanding, featuring story synopsis, storyboard artwork, full lyrics (in English and whichever language the band sings in, where appropriate) and more.
If anything, I enjoyed this more than The Colossus Of Rhodes, and that was, and still is, a favourite of mine.
Really, I can’t praise this enough, it surely must be an essential purchase. What are you waiting for?
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Ray Wilson - An Audience and Ray Wilson
Limited Edition Live Solo Album
Tracklist: Another Day, Along The Way, In the Air Tonight, Cry If You Want To, Shipwrecked, Change, Goodbye Baby Blue, Inside, Beach, Not About Us, Sarah, The Airport Song, Biko, Heroes, Ghost
"Ray performed this very special show in Warsaw in 2003 and regards this performance as the best solo performance he has done to date. The concert is a fusion of stories, humour and music and is enjoyed by a very attentive and respectful polish audience. The CD gives a special insight into Ray's career, character and humour and allows the emotion in his voice to come to the fore. With the inclusion of the stories, crowd interaction and a heartfelt performance the CD allows you to hear and feel the show exactly as it was on the night without edits or overdubs. It is not often that Ray performs a solo show like this but this is certainly one he remembers fondly."
Well, those liner notes in the booklet of this CD really sum it up quite nicely. I'm wondering if there is a further need to write a review...
The album is both different from the Live and Acoustic album and the acoustic section of his Live album in the way that this is just Ray and his guitar. No other musicians. Also, the audience is indeed much more attentive; you won't hear anybody shouting out or singing along out of tune on this album. As such, this is as pure as it gets. So even if there's a bit of an overlap with the previously mentioned two albums, this new CD is still well worth your while. A little word of caution though: I recognised some of the songs from downloads that were previously available on Ray's website, so you might already own some of this stuff in mp3 format.
The setlist consists of material from Ray's solo album Change, as well as tracks he recorded with Genesis (Shipwrecked, Not About Us), Guaranteed Pure (The Airport Song), Cut (Sarah, Another Day, Ghost) and Stiltskin (Inside). On top of this Ray throws in a couple of his old-time favourites in the form of Phil Collins' In The Air Tonight, Peter Gabriel's Biko and David Bowie's Heroes. All of these songs stand up extremely well in a vocal-guitar arrangement, although it took me some time to get used to Heroes, which is of course missing the trademark backing vocals and weeping guitar sound.
As an introduction to every song, Ray tells short stories about the meaning of the lyrics or the way a song came about. These stories create an intimate atmosphere and are either very funny including the necessary bits of self-mockery, or heartfelt emotional, including stories about a friend committing suicide or his depression after Genesis disbanded. The stories are indexed separately on the CD, so those who don't care much for the personal notes can easily skip straight to the songs.
I personally consider Ray Wilson one of the best singer-songwriters of our times and this CD clearly show his marvellous qualities in playing, singing and composing and picture him as a much more sympathetic guy than he might seem to be on first glance. As such, this CD is highly recommended to anybody with an interest in Ray's music or acoustic performances in general.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Jean-Luc Payssan - Pierrots & Arlequins
Tracklist: LA Fontaine (2:53), Arlequins (2:28), Pierrots (1:17), Etats De Joie (5:25), Danse Vivace Pour Six Cordes (3:02), Au Bois Variations (4:40), Le Manège Aux Songes (2:21), Les Trois Dames De Mantoue (I Prélude [1:43], II L'Enjôleuse [1:57], III La Rêveuse [4:35], IV La Fougueuse [1:15]), Gaillarde Napolitaine (3:00), Larmes Bleues (4:04), Complainte Ancienne (1:37)
Jean-Luc Payssan is the guitarist with Minimum Vital, a band not afraid to mix jazz, rock, prog, classical and traditional disciplines to create their own blend of highly individual music. It seems that DPRP's review of the band's last album, Atlas, in which our reviewer stated that "The only real criticism [of the album] is the fact that there aren’t more ‘traditional’ instruments used, hit a chord as on his first solo album Payssan, in addition to nylon classical guitar and acoustic guitar, also plays mandolin, the 14-stringed 16th century theorbo and the tear-drop shaped 16-string cittern which is familiar from renaissance (and later) paintings. Containing 14 short musical pieces, 10 of which are instrumental, Pierrots et Arlequins offers up a superb collection of beautiful music.
Of course, it is not unknown for progressive guitarists to take inspiration from the past. Anthony Phillips has many classical pieces in his repertoire and Steve Hackett (to whom LA Fontaine is dedicated) has released and toured several acoustic albums focusing on classical and classically inspired music. Add to that Steve Howe's acoustic mastery that is littered with traditional references and you have an impressive precedent for Payssan to live up to. Fortunately he does so, and with ease. Not only is Pierrots et Arlequins superbly composed and performed, it is also a complete joy to listen to. Although there are definitely many renaissance and baroque themes running throughout the pieces, the overall results are quite timeless. What is more, for an acoustic album there is a great deal of variety with each piece evoking different atmospheres and temperaments.
The vocal pieces, Arlequins, Etats De Joie, L'Enjôleuse and Gaillarde Napolitaine feature the voices of Payssan and his brother Thierry along with their Minimum Vital colleague Sonia Nedelec with the male and female voices blending effortlessly in exquisite harmony. Thierry also provides keyboards throughout the album although the electronic instruments are used to reproduce the sounds of traditional instruments, as on Le Manège Aux Songes where recorders and other renaissance wind instruments are faithfully reproduced. The only other instruments used on the album are violin (played by another Minimum Vital musician, Bernard Millon) heard to best effect on Au Bois Variations. The use of the traditional instruments is quite fascinating, discovering what sounds they can produce, in particular the mixture of bass and treble from the theorbo (listen to Larmes Bleues for example, a piece dedicated to Phillipe Cauvin, the man behind the avant-garde French group Uppsala who has also released classically inspired solo albums which, although I've never heard sound like they could be worth checking out).
Detailed descriptions of each piece are rather pointless, particularly as in my musical ignorance I could not possibly do justice to the intricacies and derivations of the pieces (I'm no musicologist, just a music fan!). However, if you've heard and enjoyed Henry: Portrait Of Tudor Times from Ant Phillips' amazing The Geese And The Ghost album, a suite of music reflected (in my head at least) in Les Trois Dames De Mantoue (the lute suite), or liked any of Hackett's acoustic albums (although it has to be said that Pierrots et Arlequins is far more diverse than any of Hackett's, admittedly excellently performed, classical albums) then this is an album that is for you.
Put simply, this is a superb album that demonstrates a mastery of performance and composition that is so sadly lacking in many musicians these days. It is not unjustified to state that Payssan is reaching virtuoso levels in his musicianship. This is an album that I will no doubt return to again and again and, as such, thoroughly deserves a recommended rating. Of course, it is somewhat counter-intuitive to label an album containing music with stylistic origins dating back over 400 years as 'progressive' but, hey, great music is great music in my book. Let's just call Pierrots et Arlequins the progressive rock version of a chill out album and leave it at that.
Conclusion: 9 out of 10
Tony Garone - Big Star Way
Tracklist: Big Star Way (5:52), Change The World (4:04), Without You (3:42), The Things You Say (3:19), Cowboys With Cell Phones (3:58), Pocket Change (4:22), If I Could (3:57), Oh No (4:13) My Little Grey (2:47), A Song For The MERS (Mars Exploration Rovers) (2:18), Ghost Crab (3:05), All Of This Time (3:32), Majestic (4:26), Would You Believe? (3:30), Big Star Way (Reprise) (2:50), There Is A Ghost (1:49)
This release follows not so closely on the heels of Tony Garone’s previous album The Epic Of Gilgamesh, reviewed by the DPRP back in 2001. On that occasion the reviewer advised not to expect lengthy solos or complex musical elements, and that most of the music was played utilising acoustic instruments. Five years on and a new concept with new songs, but in terms of style and structure it’s business as usual. The same applies to the recording technique. Garone employs what he calls the “musical quilt” concept, whereby musicians record their parts in different locations without ever meeting in some cases. Using digital technology, the album was then assembled by producer William Brown and son Anthony Garone. They have achieved a clean and uncluttered sound where the sometimes sparse instrumentation allows Tony Garone’s vocals and insightful lyrics to cut through. The intention was to write a musical interpretation of a Navajo Indian story titled "Big Star Way" which Garone came across whilst researching native American mythology. Concerned that the Navajo people might be offended, he abandoned the idea but kept the name. He turned his attention to the UFO phenomenon and the way it is treated both culturally and by the media, which became the foundation for this 16-song collection.
The smart lyrics reveal that the songs are not really about little green men from outer space after all. The perception of aliens is used as a metaphor for fear, ignorance and intolerance. Given the deep subject matter of the songs, the sound is often lightweight and relaxed with a sunny optimistic feel that permeates the whole album. A wry sense of humour surfaces on occasions when the lyrics are cleverly offset with a totally unexpected musical style. The acoustic guitar of Tony Garone leads for the most part, and this together with his warm mid range voice gives a folk ambience to many of the songs. He covers the majority of the keyboard duties and is strongly supported throughout by the solid drumming and percussion work of Casey Carney. Rather than being in your face, electric guitars provide a melodic backdrop with William Brown and Anthony Garone again sharing the honours. The Chapman Stick of third brother Kenny Garone dominates the bass work. Other family members are present amongst the host of backing vocalists, and additional keyboards are on hand to bolster the sound.
Some comparisons with other artists are detectable, without being over obvious. I felt the spectre of the Moody Blues present in several of the songs. Take the title track for example. The chord structure, acoustic guitar, relaxed drums, and vocals have that distinct Moodies sound. The reflective Oh No is a personal favourite with the lead vocal sounding very John Lodge like, with rich choral harmonies. All Of This Time is built round an insistent brooding bass line with Nights In White Satin style harmonies and excellent guitar and keys interplay. By way of contrast, the vocal style of Fleetwood Mac looms large over both Change The World and The Things You Say. The former is percussion led with a memorable chorus and muted but lyrical electric guitar. The latter would have sounded very much at home on the Tusk album. The spiritual and melancholic Without You is a folk tinged ballad and is possibly the albums strongest song. The lyrics of Cowboys With Cell Phones mixes old west and modern imagery, with an authentic country and western sound courtesy of steel slide guitar and accordion. Not my favourite style, but its skilfully handled. The bright, tuneful chorus of Pocket Change belies the subject matter, which focuses on the plight of the homelessness and inequality. The perceptive lyrics observe that one mans financial salvation is another mans “pocket change”.
If I Could has, dare I say it, a pop feel with an infectious chorus and sparkling keys work from Scott Harris. The bizarre sounding My Little Grey is an engaging pastiche of a 1950’s American pop ballad normally associated with teenage romance. A Song For The MERS (Mars Exploration Rovers) is another juxtaposition of lyrics and sound, featuring an easy listening 1960’s American folk feel in the vein of the Mamas & Papas. Following 10 songs, the instrumental Ghost Crab comes as a surprise. It is dominated by a repeated acoustic guitar riff, which is offset by a delicate melody half way through. This part sounds very close to the main theme from an obscure movie titled the Molly MacGuires scored by Henry Mancini back in the 1970’s. Majestic is another highlight, featuring a meditative and lilting sound throughout, with keys effectively simulating the muted sound of bagpipes. Mike Oldfield would approve I feel sure. In contrast, Would You Believe? is the heaviest song on the album with electric guitar sounding more upfront. A solid riff is supported by a fuzz guitar sound creating some blistering effects. A short reprise of the title song with the emphasis on rich choral harmonies, before There Is A Ghost featuring a chilling childlike vocal, brings the album to a spooky conclusion.
Tony Garone has written all the songs on the album with the exception of the instrumental Ghost Crab by Kenny Garone. The songs have a traditional American feel for the most part, with little in the way of European hard or progressive rock influences. They are however rich in melody, with strong hooks and a commercial sensibility. If it wasn’t such a fickle world where record sales are influenced by fashion and hype then tunes like Without You, Pocket Change and If I Could would have hit potential written all over them. Instrumentally, some may crave more flash and volume, but that shouldn’t distract from an excellent collection of crafted songs well worth investigating.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Magnesis - L'Immortel Opéra
Tracklist: Overture (15:40), Le Pacte (9:37), Le Voyage De La Diva (11:31), Le Fils De Mozart (9:02), Final (5:37)
After a gap of nearly five years, French band Magnesis return with their latest concept L'Immortel Opéra. Throughout their history the band seems to have had a rather fluid line up to the extent that only one original member, vocalist Eric Tillerot, remains in the group. This album sees the introduction of two new members - bassist Fabien Lo Cicéro and additional synth player Alexandre Moreau - who join band stalwarts Jean-Pierre Matelot (keyboards and acoustic guitar), Olivier Gauclin-Tétu (guitar) and Denis Codfert (drums and percussion). As is seemingly typical for Magnesis, the concept is a medieval/gothic fantasy involving pacts with the devil, the spectre of the grim reaper and even a guest appearance by the one and only Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart!
Split into five acts the album kicks off with Overture which, somewhat unconventionally, rather than providing an introduction to the various musical themes presented throughout the album, actually takes up nearly a third of the total running time! Being an extended piece there are plenty of changes throughout although in general the bulk of the track is used to set the scene. The first nine minutes or so are quite sedate and gentle providing a mood where the scene is set. Matelot, who has composed the bulk of the material on the album, provides some nice piano flourishes although Tillerot's narrated pieces are a bit pretentious sounding, although no doubt they do introduce the story (would undoubtedly help if I knew what he was saying!). The remainder of the piece sees the introduction of the rest of the band with Gauclin-Tétu having a couple of decent solos, particularly towards the end of the song where the mixture of the solo guitar and fretless bass works particularly well.
With the sound of a gothic choir gradually fading into the distance a more aggressive guitar riff introduces Act 2: Le Pacte. The harsh electric guitar gives way to a gentler acoustic guitar and keyboards with some rather sublime melody lines all underpinned by Cicéro's expressive, and impressive, bass playing. The tolling of a bell and spoken incantation adds dramatic tension which one expects to explode through the speakers but instead a keyboard choir and church organ (sounding like something from Phantom Of The Opera!) play out to the end. Act 3 is the musical representation of a voyage. Crisply produced (great drum sound!) the piece is well arranged and incorporates quite a few different styles. Tillerot has a strong and smooth voice which is pleasing to the ear (except for the narrated pieces and the section where the vocals have been electronically manipulated, although presumably this is to represent one of the stories characters, possibly Satan himself) However, overall, this song is rather too fragmented, a criticism that could be levelled at the entire album. It never really seems to get going. Yes the musicianship is high, the individual performances are strong and there are moments when everything gels very well, but overall things seems a bit disjointed - maybe it's a consequence of not understanding the lyrics - and the ending drags on a bit.
Act 4 sees the introduction of Mozart, or rather his son who appears to be a rock and roll star. A more up beat number based around a series of guitar riffs the song has a somewhat American sound, particularly in the vocals which are possibly pitched a trifle too high for Tillerot to handle convincingly. The somewhat superfluous guitar solo in the middle means that again the track is unnecessarily broken up. A jaunty piano solo accompanied by keyboard orchestrations (presumably we are back to Mozart again) introduce Act 5. The instrumental gradually builds with more dramatic keyboards and percussive effects. The music is very impressive, modern classical music that successfully integrates a rock band. Ironically, this piece would have made a perfect overture!
It seems that music by French bands rarely seems to travel well and I am at a loss to explain why that should be. Possibly the language is not suited to rock and roll, although on this album Tillerot's vocals (at least when he sings) are perfectly pleasing. Unfortunately L'Immortel Opéra is unlikely to be the album that raises Magnesis and French progressive rock to a new level. The performance throughout is fine and it is obvious that in Matelot and Cicéro they have two exceptional musicians but overall the album didn't really do it for me. Perhaps in concert the piece would come to light - if they are in your area check them out.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10