Issue 2007-015: Sylvan - Presets - Round Table Review
Round Table Review
Tracklist: One Step Beyond (7:16), Signed Away (4:29), For One Day (3:49), Former Life (7:13), On The Verge Of Tears (3:28), When The Leaves Fall Down (4:57), Words From Another Day (2:26), Cold Suns (4:27), Hypnotized (4:01), Heal (3:25), Transitory Times (4:09), Presets (12:42)
Ed Sander's Review
Initially Presets was an album that Sylvan had planned to release simultaneously with last year's highly acclaimed Posthumous Silence concept album. It was a wise decision to postpone the release of this album to 2007 since it might have been totally eclipsed by it's brother, which would really have been a shame because Presets, although not a masterpiece, is an album that shows a different side of Sylvan well worth your attention.
Now, I think that after the success of last years Posthumous Silence you were probably expecting something along the same lines. Well, that wouldn't really be fair to the band since they released four other albums prior to that album, which a lot of you might not even know. To set the right expectations I think people must have heard some of the band's other albums, especially Artificial Paradise and X-rayed.
If there's one album that comes closest to Presets it would probably be Artificial Paradise. Both albums contain a very strong opening track, epic closing track, a short piano-vocal tune and overall a more accessible sound than the two albums that were released in between. The big difference is the length of songs; Presets contains shorter, compact songs. Still there's two 7+ minute tunes and the mentioned epic for the 'long song' freaks among us.
Most of the songs on the album are short compositions with very catchy melodies. Especially For One Day, Cold Suns and Hypnotized have melodies that really stick in your mind. A disadvantage of more shorter tracks that Sylvan bring us on this album is the danger that by the end of the CD it all starts too sound a bit too much the same. Take for instance Heal, a good song but it's not all that different from Cold Suns. The same goes for Transitory Times, which sounds far too much like other material on this or previous Sylvan albums. The shortest song on the album, Words from Another Day, is a sensitive piano/vocal ballad that - like Souvenir on Artificial Paradise - sounds a bit lost on this album. It might have worked nicely as an interlude on a concept album but it feels too much out of place between the songs on this CD. I personally could have done without these three songs and the album would probably have been (even) stronger without them.
Fortunately there's a real treat at the end of the CD in the form of the title track. It features an emotional opening, a heavy middle section with great metal riffs that lean towards grunge and a majestic climax including a female backing choir, reminiscent of the end of Artificial Paradise. The two other longer songs are other highlights of the CD. I especially like One Step Beyond with which the band continue to deliver brilliant opening tracks along the lines of No Way Out and Deep Inside (which is good since in hindsight So Easy really failed to do that on X-rayed).
Although Presents is very different from its predecessor I have to admit that recording this album in the same year as Posthumous Silence has left echoes of that concept album on Presents as well. Especially the vocal style that Marco Glühmann developed in recent years, in which he varies the tones of his singing several times within one sentence is very recognisable. It's one of the things I admired him for and has become one of the trademarks of the sound of Sylvan, but at the same time it starts to become a bit of of a formula. What's more, some songs on the album almost sound like variations or more uplifting renditions of the emotional music on Posthumous Silence and some of the breaks in the longer songs remind me a lot of tracks like Timeless Traces from the Artificial Paradise album. As such this new CD is not the most surprising and innovative of the band's releases, prompting me to rate it slightly lower than these two albums.
To sum it up, Artificial Paradise was a marvellous album, very melodic and featuring the band's best composition to date (the title track). On their next album, X-rayed, the band tried a much heavier and darker approach. If I listen back to the album I can only come to the conclusion that they didn't quite succeed. There's too many mediocre songs on the album and the great catchy melodies of the previous album were very absent. On Posthumous Silence the band finally succeeded in combining the melodies of Paradise with the heavy edge of X-rayed. Presenting it as a concept album was the icing on the cake and a masterpiece was born.
As an album Presets reaches the same height as Artificial Paradise and the average track is much better than the ones X-rayed. So, as far as I'm concerned this album doesn't disappoint me at all, considering Sylvan's longer recording history. Think of Afraid of Sunlight following Brave or The Seventh House following Subterranea. Highly recommended for those who want to know more about the band or who (like me) have fallen for the Sylvan virus years ago already. Let's just hope Sylvan has new surprises for us in store with band's future work.
David McCabe's Review
Sylvan follow their 2006 concept album this year with an album of shorter songs. The intention of Presets appears to be Sylvan's equivalent of Pallas' The Wedge, being a collection of shorter, rockier songs to counterbalance their sweeping masterpiece of Posthumous Silence last year. That said, with three songs over seven minutes long and some surprises in the rest, this isn't all pop music.
Opener One Step Beyond certainly doesn't disappoint. Sylvan's trademark melancholy and complex bass riffs present a stark introduction, before giving way to a captivating chorus reminiscent of A Kind Of Eden from the last album or Brave-era Marillion, back when they still had dynamics. The atmospheric middle section just concretes this track as a pure slice of quintessential Sylvan. Which makes a difficult backdrop to evaluate Signed Away. With dub influences straight from The Police, as a showcase for Marco Glühmann's melancholy voice it would work well were it not for that Mellotron sample at the start. Repeated listening reveals that it's still an enthralling listen with a classically Sylvanesque lyric. For One Day, by contrast, is possibly the closest Sylvan have gotten to a three-minute pop song. This isn't meant to be prog; this is a track to be played live, or sung along to in the car (loud).
Former Life is another Sylvan trademark track, and the layers of carefully prepared instrumentation - particularly from keyboardist Volker Söhl - envelop the listener in an atmosphere reminiscent of late Pink Floyd. Poignant and dynamic, it's seven minutes well spent. It's followed by On The Verge of Tears, one of the shorter tracks, but one that still builds nicely. The lyrical repetition in the middle section is clever and memorable. When The Leaves Fall Down is a more difficult track. Drum machines and effects mean this could come from a modern metal band - a toned down Linkin Park or even Slipknot - and yet two and a half minutes in Sylvan marry it to a complex harmony that rewards multiple listens. It's followed by the entirely unmemorable Words From Another Day, which at two and a half minutes may be a relief for some, but doesn't belong on an album of this quality.
Cold Suns is another 'more accessible' track, but the chorus is so singable and melodic it's hard not to like. Hypnotized ploughs the U2 furrow quite efficiently on the theme of blind faith, and is another track I'd love to hear live. Bassist Sebastian Harnack is the unsung hero here, providing much of the energy. Heal brings to mind Marillion's Marbles which Sylvan weave seamlessly into the tracklisting. The only flaw here is that at three and a half minutes, it's too short! More, please. Transitory Times evokes a similar influence but falls a little flat in comparison. It is, however, one of the few songs here to feature a 'proper' guitar solo.
Which leaves us with the 'epic' for this album, the title track. Presets is everything we've come to expect from Sylvan - a multi-layered epic production and melancholy vocal giving way to a powerful spine-tingling melody. Halfway through guitarist Kay Söhl finally lets loose with a complex riff-driven interlude strongly reminiscent of Hamadryad. The climactic end chorus is particularly memorable, bringing to mind the recent Wetton/Downes album in the female harmonies and melody.
On the whole, Presets is an excellent collection of songs, and the finest album I've heard for some time. Sylvan have carved out a distinctive style and sound that works spectacularly well. Trimming a couple of songs from the playlist and extending Heal would probably be my only wishes. Fans of the more proggy end of music may wish to start their Sylvan experience at Artificial Paradise or Posthumous Silence, but anyone with a taste for melody and emotion will find Presets much to their taste.
Tom De Val's Review
Given that Sylvan’s previous album, the excellent Posthumous Silence, only came out last year, many may be slightly surprised that the follow-up is here already. However, fans of the band will have been aware that Sylvan always intended to produce two albums, recorded at the same time, each of which showcased a different side of their music. Well, one things for sure, they’ve certainly achieved that aim. Whilst Posthumous Silence was a dark, dense concept album which moved from shimmering melancholic atmospherics one moment to some heavy, raging emotionally-charged sections the next, Presets is a very different beast indeed.
Opener One Step Beyond (not a Madness cover!) shows the band’s modus operandi for this album. The snakey bassline, subdued piano and shades of sinewy guitar, building tension within the verse, coupled with Marco Glühmann’s instantly recognisable vocals leave you in no doubt of the band you are listening to, but, where I was expecting a big release on the chorus, instead there is a pleasant and vaguely memorable MOR-style chorus that lacks real bite… and this is one of the edgier tracks!
Next song Signed Away further emphasises the band’s change in style for this album – a mid-paced ballad with the requisite emotional power in the chorus, it has a lot in common with the radio-friendly stadium anthems penned by the likes of Coldplay and Keane. For One Day is an up-tempo track along the lines of something Snow Patrol might come up with, whilst there is also a pronounced U2 influence at play, particularly with regard to the ringing guitar sound. Former Life, meanwhile, is a more downbeat affair which nods in the direction of The Bends-era Radiohead, and also features some Floyd-like atmospherics in the latter section of the song. Unfortunately both this song and the following one, On The Verge Of Tears, represent the albums nadir, being rather dull and aimless to my ears.
When The Leaves Fall Down introduces some programmed beats into the mix, and has a strong build up, although once again the chorus rather lacks punch. Words From Another Day is a stronger track, and in fact one of the highlights here – a well worked, rather sparse but effective ballad in the vein of Talk Talk circa The Colour Of Spring. The grandiose Cold Suns sees the Coldplay influence once again loom large, along with the oft-quoted similarity to latter-day Marillion – Glühmann’s vocals certainly bear more than a passing similarity to Steve Hogarth’s on this one.
Hypnotized sees the tempo raised again, and the chorus is a little more urgent than elsewhere on the album – although I have to admit I still miss the bite the band usually imbue their material with. The rhythm guitar lines bubbling away in the background again bear similarity to U2’s, in this case the memorable one upon which I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For revolves. Following this, Heal is a light, pop-inflected ballad which is carried over the finishing line by Glühmann’s strong vocals.
Following the mid-tempo and unspectacular Transitory Times we get to the album’s finale, the twelve-plus minute title track, which by virtue mainly of its length will probably be seen as the album’s centrepiece. Thankfully it probably lives up to this billing, building purposefully from a slow, piano-led verse section to an initial big chorus, replete with choir-like female vocals. About half-way through we finally get to what I would regard as one of the usual Sylvan signatures, the edgy, almost metallic stabs of guitar which serve to stamp some authority on proceedings. The latter part of the song perhaps drifts somewhat, but this is still one of the album’s highlights.
Overall then, the band have undoubtedly taken something of a risk here, as whilst the album isn’t a massive departure from what has gone before, it does dispense to a large degree with the darker, edgier, more complex side of their music and instead goes for a more middle of the road, contemporary radio-friendly sound. I imagine your take on this album depends on your liking for the music of Coldplay, Keane and their ilk. Personally, whilst I’ll admit to finding some of these above named band’s material pleasant enough, its not something I’d go out of my way to listen to, and that pretty much sums up my opinion of this album – enjoyable enough whilst its playing, but fairly forgettable once out of the stereo. Kudos to the band for trying something different, but it’s a very safe bet that this won’t be dislodging Posthumous Silence or Artificial Paradise as my favourite Sylvan albums.
Guillermo Palladino's Review
Last year I’ve discovered this great progressive rock band from Germany due to a recommendation by a close friend, and it was one of the more outstanding moments of 2006. I’ve listened carefully to this masterpiece called Posthumous Silence, and later Artificial Paradise gave me enough reasons to make Sylvan one of my favourite bands over the past years.
Presets is the sixth release of Sylvan, and it was recorded and produced simultaneously to Posthumous Silence, which was the first concept album by this band, and the success reached by it was the perfect excuse to keep us in suspense until Presets' official release. Over all these years Sylvan have maintained a balance between progressive rock and metal influences, with some neo-prog sounds and melodies accompanied with strong lyrics, all of this blended under a melancholic atmosphere. Probably many of you are wondering which influences or bands Presets might sound like, it is simple, it sounds like Sylvan in a very mature stage of its career, a band that has reached and established its own style through the last few years.
Some of you will notice that this album is less dense than Posthumous Silence, it is filled entirely with beautiful instrumental and vocal melodies that remain stuck in your mind and makes you listen to them over and over again. Marco Glühmann’s voice is in a very good shape and his expressive singing and vocal melodies are one of the more remarkable moments, the excellent job made by Volker Söhl on keyboards and Kay Söhl on guitars, who complement the melodic structure of this album. The rhythmic bass provided by Sebastian Harnack and Matthias Harder on Drums gives us an emotive, quiet, but at the same time an intense and powerful masterpiece.
In this review I’m not going to make an exhaustive analysis of each piece, however of the highlights of this album for me are Signed Away, Former Life, On The Verge Of Tears, Presets among others, however, it is better for all of you to make your own conclusions. I highly recommend this excellent album and I’m considering it as one of the best works for this year.