Reviews in this issue:
Dream Theater - Distance Over Time
With full disclosure in mind, I admit that I went into Distance Over Time with a heavy amount of skepticism. There are a number of Dream Theater albums that I enjoy, but their post Mike Portnoy discography has left me wanting. I won't belabor that point because it is old news, but Portnoy brought elements to the band's writing that I missed. That said, with the level of talent in Dream Theater, hope remained that they could return to the form of albums like Metropolis Pt. 2, or Train Of Thought.
I wouldn't place this new release quite in that category, but it is easily their best work of this decade. There is a cohesiveness to the material that has been lacking in their more recent recordings. It is hardly surprising that the musical performances are top notch throughout, but it is the strength of the songwriting that truly confirms the artistic success of Distance Over Time.
According to the publicity notes, the band lived together during the creation of the album and were completely focused on it. That commitment shows as there is a confidence and quality to the material that is impressive. The best moments (Fall Into Light, At Wit's End, Out of Reach and Pale Blue Dot) showcase the band's significant ability to effectively mix metal and prog in a highly melodic style.
Jordan Rudess does some of his best work with Dream Theater here and amazingly, the same could be said for John Petrucci. The instrumental section of Fall Into Light, where Petrucci's understated guitar leads into Rudess's frenzied keyboard solo is particularly inspired. Some of the more predominantly metal tracks such as Paralyzed and Room 137 prove to be a little less compelling, but they are certainly enjoyable. Also, it is fun to hear the band dabble in an old-school neo-prog style on Barstool Warrior.
Ultimately, what makes the album so appealing is that it is a true return to form for Dream Theater. Whether intentional or not, there is a harkening back to the musical style and unique elements that made them so popular. It is unlikely that fans will be surprised by anything that they hear, but it matters little when the results are this entertaining.
Only streaming copies of the album were made available for review purposes, so it is possible that my opinion will improve even further upon hearing the released version. Regardless, I was able to assess the album and come to the conclusion that Distance Over Time is a triumph for the band. I had honestly written them off over the last few years and that was undoubtedly premature on my part. Thirty years into their career, this album proves that Dream Theater still has a lot to offer.
Colin Edwin and Lorenzo Feliciati - Twinscapes Vol 2: A Modern Approach To The Dancefloor
The ambient soundscape, bubbling rhythms, electronic crackles, rich textures fuzzed effects and wildly-throbbing bass rekindled memories of the past; air-light feet gliding on sweat-stained floor, hooded gentlemen, laughing, slapping and blinking in packs, sweet-perfumed ladies jog by.
I shuffle hypnotically, roll my head, extend my arms, and shake my legs; everybody there, presents as a beating mass. They shuffle, shake their heads, roll arms and extend legs. The music plays on, and the twisting throng rhythmically sways to its pulse.
Colin Edwin and Lorenzo Feliciati's homage to dance music of the 80s brought home the intensity of those youthful nights where low-end rhythms were king. The ten pieces on offer in their latest Twinscapes release range from slowly pulsating ambient tunes to heavy-footed danceable rhythms as in the case of Twin Cans. However, this album should perhaps, not be regarded as dance music. Its links to 80s dance music is sometimes tenuous to say the least.
Nevertheless, some of the effects, ambient washes, pulses and bass heavy grooves that frequent the album evoke, if not the music of the 80s, but at least signpost, some of the technological changes to music that occurred in that much maligned musical decade.
The album can be heard as a full on experience, where you will find yourself nodding and tapping in appreciation of its intricacies and lyrical bass parts, or it can form part of a musical backwash whilst doing other tasks. It works equally well in both listening contexts.
Colin Edwin's fretless bass is particularly melodious throughout and provides some glorious low-end flourishes. Feliciati, on the other hand is often responsible for establishing a stinging, strident groove on his fretted bass in tunes like the evocative Bedroom Corner. However on the occasions when Feliciati also chooses to use a fretless bass his singing contribution is similarly melodic. This combination works well and the style and sounds created by the duo of bassists offers a surprisingly varied range. The two players exhibit a great chemistry and their performance on this album displays that they possess a great empathy and understanding of the manner in which they each approach their instrument.
Drummer Roberto Gualdi joins the two low-end specialists and his performance throughout the album helps to ensure that the music does not hover relentlessly in one particular mood for too long. It is clear that he is able to follow the duos improvised parts, lie down and complement the frequent odd time signatures that the band employ in tunes like The (Next) Level Think and bring the bassists back into a groove when required. His solid yet creative performance is one of the strongpoints of the album. His showcase piece is Ghost Of Tangier, which has a myriad of bass textures and some incredibly complex. Powerful and smooth drum parts.
The most interesting composition and probably one of the most challenging tracks on the release is Severing Suns. It is a rich and varied piece, that offsets vocal Gregorian chants and lush warbled choral chording against the bass and a variety of electronic effects. It probably is the most experimental and progressive piece on the album and it works particularly well within the context of the release as a whole because it is so different to anything else on the recording.
Precipice is one of the most atmospheric tracks, and employs a variety of high-pitched electronic effects. It has a main melody that hints towards the fusion that used by bands like Passport in the eighties. It features Reuben Balch on flute and his contribution provides the piece with a different voice to other tracks on the album and offers some enjoyable variation.
The slow burn moody ambience created by the spacious and sparse instrumentation of In A Haze is also a highlight. However, my favourite piece on the album is undoubtedly The (Next) Level Think. I just swoon after one and half minutes, over its insistent and hypnotic thrusting bass line that dominates proceedings in a cheek twitching mix of fuzzy distortion. What makes the piece even more interesting is the excellent percussion of Gualdi, which invigorates and underpins the whole thing with a twisted calypso feel.
Overall, Twinscapes Vol 2 is an enjoyable album. It offers great depth if listened to intently, but can also be enjoyed superficially whilst swaying to its pulse. It is particularly satisfying to listen to, whilst leafing misty eyed through well-worn copies of albums by eighties icons such as Level 42, The Human League and Japan.
Focus - Focus 11
Dutch institution Focus return with their their first studio album in seven years. Alongside main composer, keyboardist, flautist and occasional vocalist Thijs van Leer are long-term drummer Pierre van der Linden, guitarist Menno Grootjes and newest recruit bassist Udo Pannekeet. Considering both Van Leer and Van der Linden are in their early 70s, the band maintain a healthy touring schedule and show no signs of letting up as they approach the band's fiftieth anniversary. What is more, Focus 11 doesn't sound like a band in their twilight years being one of their most consistent album in many a year. All but one of the tracks were composed by Van Leer and the relative lack of improvisation leads to a much tighter collection of songs.
In Grootjes, the band have found a guitarist who is every bit as good as Jan Akkerman, not a comparison easily made. Pannekeet is the perfect bassist for the band and his playing really lifts the rhythm section, not that Van der Linden needs much excuse to make his presence felt, his performance throughout is excellent. Take Palindrome for example, you won't believe it is a 72-year-old man hammering away on the drums! Pannekeet is also the writer of the one track van Leer did not compose, Mare Nostrum. Ironically it is probably the most traditional Focus-sounding piece on the album, with a quiet introductory section, a manic middle part, where Van der Linden again excels alongside some fine soloing from Grootjes, before returning to a closing section that mirrors the opening.
Although not as overt as in Van Leer's extensive solo career, there have always been classical influences in Focus' music. On the current album Clair-Obscur caries the classical flag in a tasteful piano, guitar and flute led composition underpinned with some delightful bass playing. But the band maintains their rock credentials. Opener Who's Calling? gets things rolling at a frantic pace, with Van der Linden seemingly playing three times as fast as the other members of the group. Incidentally, this is a totally different piece from the track of the same name that appeared on the 1985 Focus album by Van Leer and Akkerman.
There is a vaguely medieval feel to parts of Heaven, based on a theme that Van Leer composed in 1955 when he was seven years old! This track also features a brief bit of yodelling - got to keep the traditions alive. The only real vocal track is How Many Miles?, sung in perfect English (with the exception of the word 'ecstasy' in the chorus, although I'm not sure the pronunciation isn't deliberate). Although the presence of the voice does differentiate the track from the rest of the album, I actually really like the piece!
The other tracks on the album are all solid and there really isn't a duff track amongst them. The title track maintains the quality of previous compositions sharing the band's name and rounds off an album that kicks off the band's half century in fine style and easily sits among the classic albums of the seventies. A magnificent album that shows Focus are still having fun and are as significant in the progressive rock field today as they were in the 70s.
Rikard Sjöblom’s Gungfly - Friendship
Rikard Sjöblom is a prolific artist. Apart from releasing albums under his own name he played in Beardfish, Big Big Train, and Bootcut, while leading a band of friends called Gungfly. In that way he was involved in 20 records since 2002.
In 2018 the Gungfly fourth album was released, entitled Friendship. It comes with three bonus tracks but these were not available for this review for unknown reasons (not very clever to supply an incomplete album for review, I'd say). Former albums were critically reviewed here on DPRP.net (check it out here for Gungfly and here for Sjöblom) so I was quite curious to get to know the music of this talented musician.
On this album Sjöblom plays guitar, keyboards and bass and does all the vocals, supported by Petter Diamant (drums), Rasmus Diamant (bass on four tracks) and Beardfish colleague David Zackrisson (guitar on two tracks). All songs are inspired by Sjöblom’s childhood, centred around a large and foremost high treehouse where he used to play with his friends. He memorizes his adventures therein and the emotions and feelings that are strongly tied to these. He experienced that intense friendship but also the growing apart and the subsequent disappearances of friends and friendships, all being integral part of something that is simply called life.
Opener Ghost Of Vanity starts with a nice bass melody and soft keys, quickly taken over by guitar riffs, keys, piano, organ and pumping drums, turning this tune into a rocky affair. After a minute the vocals come in and I must admit that it took me several spins to get accustomed to Sjöbloms rather thin voice. It fits the music though.
The long intro of the title song takes the listener to many musical levels, starting off as a rather cheerful, synth driven up-tempo song that heavily drives on the recurrent guitar riff and melodic bass playing. Around the 5-minute mark the pace slows down and the song develops into a sort of lament, an melancholic ballad with very attractive piano and guitar melodies. Musically this song is very varied and manages to never loose grip on the listener. Great song, great short piano coda.
Unfortunately the band doesn’t succeed in keeping up that high level of variety. They Fade has a strong Mark Knopfler-type Americana-feeling with an easy-to-grab melody and a sing-along chorus. Not bad at all, actually quite nice but less appealing than the title track. Surprisingly, A Treehouse In The Glade, a title that suggests it to be a central song in this song cycle, turns out to be an instrumental. Again a nice and cheerful one with nice guitar, organ, synth and piano that made reminded me strongly of Focus and Caravan.
The mood changes radically in Stone Cold, a straight-forward rocker with hints of Thin Lizzy (guitar riffs), Procol Harum (organ) or Wishbone Ash (vocals). Not bad but also not special. Towards the end Sjöblom sings higher and higher because of which the song loses much appeal for me.
The second epic If You Fall Pt. 2 doesn’t do it for me either. It is rather nice but not exciting, it flows but never sparkles, it goes on and maybe should have been stopped after five minutes or so. Towards the end, Sjöblom screams and yells and the music becomes a bit chaotic which gives the song the energy it lacked until then. But it doesn’t save the song. Musically, too little happens to justify its near-thirteen minutes. The title song proves he can write a good epic, this one illustrates that he should have been a bit more critical.
Closing song Crown Of Leaves is a jazzy affair with a blues flavour. It has some improvisations on piano, some nice guitar sounds working against the piano melody and a fantastic bass to glue it all together. It could have been a nice laid-back end of this album but the fade-out is truly gruesome: far too quick and sudden that doesn’t do justice to the song at all.
This album is therefore a mixed bag. The title track and the instrumental are great tracks, the opener and the closer are very nice songs but the rest is, to my ears, mediocre. Honestly I had hoped for more, given his contribution to some interesting bands that have been around since the turn of the century. Yet it would be wrong to conclude that this is a bad album. It surely isn’t but it is simply less good than I had hoped for.
Walfad - Colloids
I remember it like yesterday. Traveling with my parents to a big shopping mall called Maxis (imagine Tesco’s or a 7-Eleven). Whenever we went it was like a day out, and we took our time, have dinner and biding our time. On numerous occasions you would find me on the vinyl section looking for new stuff and bargains. Especially bargains for I was 10-12 years old at the time so couldn’t afford much. And one day there it was, at the price of 2.95 Dutch guilders, roughly 1.5 dollars: A Tab In The Ocean by Nektar.
The artwork immediately stood out and looking at the flipside it mentioned a track of 16+ minutes. Whether this was any good I had no notion of at the time, but anything longer than 10 minutes was intriguingly long so the album was a quick buy. I never regretted it one moment and it’s still one of my favorite albums. I obviously had to track down their other albums, but proved to be no easy task. There was no internet or anything remotely like social media, in a way it was like living in the stone age. So it took the Goonies of Prog Scene Investigators Naarden (Netherlands) a while to compile a complete successful discography, and a pedigree of line-ups.
With nowadays' free access to the world with Google and numerous databases this shouldn’t be so hard anymore. A slight misconception in the case of Walfad (the artists formerly known as “We Are Looking For A Drummer”). The website hasn’t been updated on their releases and the extensive bio ends in 2014 right after their second album. It was Indiana Jones all over again, but well worth it!
To cut a long story short it’s Wojciech Ciuraj (vocals, guitars, mandolin) who in 2011 starts a college cover-band. The frequent absence of their drummer eventually leading to the abbreviated Walfad. In between 2012 and 2016 they released one EP (We Are Looking For A Drummer, 2012) and three albums: Ab Ovo (2013), An Unsung Hero, Salty Rains & Him (2014), and Momentum (2016).
Initially in Polish only, these quickly changed to bilingual versions including English. Colloids is no exception and follows the same procedure though evidence of the Polish version is only to be found on Youtube so the release is predominantly English. CSI extrapolate unaccounted facts differently sometimes so I could be wrong here. A smart move however, for the music gets a heightened international appeal and as a result gains a lot more response from other countries like France, Germany, the USA and Holland.
Now CSI is fun but more rewarding is the end result of finding emotive, atmospheric well played (neo) progressive rock, giving off bursts of glorious passion and warmth. And in this special case the warmth comes from the use and sound of guitar, which both reminds and touches me in the same way as Roye Albrighton of Nektar. It’s Ciuraj playing the intrinsic parts laying down the melancholic soft passages like desolate valleys, while Paweł Krawiec (lead-guitar) splashes wave after wave of refreshing solos.
Equally soothing is the vintage sound that adds a huge amount of melancholy and comforting feelings, especially on Rust. A wonderful, enticing piece of crossover prog, deductible to that defining moment of listening to the B-side of A Tab In The Ocean for the first time. Melodic, moving, naturally flowing and brilliant in its elegant simplicity, highlighted by a beautiful keyboard solo from Dariusz Tatoj.
This retro sound, responsible for adding a distinct roughness, works wonders on tracks like In A Powder Keg and To Walk On The Water. Both rockier intonated tracks live and breathe and at the same time gain strength from Mellotron / organ adding layer upon layer. Bass (Radosław Żelazny) and drums (Jakub DÄ browski) expertly lay down a safe, restrained and controlled environment with to the point precision, paving the way for guitars and keyboards to shine.
Sisyphus Sons sounds fresh, sparkling with open musical structures laid down by mandolin. The tempo slowly increases, guitars rock and Tatoj takes control with a tantalizing solo. A bit of krautrock emerges with soft touches of Barclay James Harvest, a reference picked up many times on several different tracks.
Colloids, the 10 minute epic is actually dividable into two parts. The first part is mellow with soft guitars and a light psychedelic feel to it. Strong, tuneful and sensitive vocals carry the intro onto a bluesy emotive section reminiscent of Pink Floyd, which halfway changes to a darker side. In the second part voices and sound effects interact with soloing guitars, intensifying slowly towards a crescendo of a superb krautrock blues-jam which could have lasted longer, but alas.
A marching rhythm, fleet-footed drums and vintage guitars gracefully flow on Jottings. The mood softly shifts towards a more psychedelic atmosphere depicting Anima Mundi converging into a lovely executed distorted guitar solo with a David Gilmour feel, effectively giving me a good day.
Thanks to the achieved sound and melodies Walfad stands apart from other contemporaries like Riverside and Satellite and gives them their own personality as a result. Rooted deep with early recycled progressive influences, but you won’t hear me complain. On the contrary, this is passionately done and with sounds like this it feels like coming home. A fresh satisfyingly summer breeze and a recommendable effort.
The Wrong Object - Zappa Jawaka
The Wrong Object began in 2002 as a Frank Zappa tribute band, since then the band have released a string of albums showcasing their own particular brand of progressive jazz fusion that draws upon a number of influences including amongst others Frank Zappa, Gong, Bela Bartok and Soft Machine.
The current line-up of the band is Michel Delville (electric guitar and Roland GR09, vocals), Antoine Guenet (keyboards, vocals), Marti Melià (tenor sax, clarinet, backing vocals), Fran Cois Lourtie (tenor and soprano Saxes, vocals), Pierre Mottet (bass) and Laurent Delchambre (drums, percussion, objects and samples)
Zappa Jawaka is an album that exudes fun, humour and excitement. The recording has a tangible freshness. The way in which the band inventively revisit and respectfully reform some of Zappa’s well known and lesser known compositions is never less than enjoyable.
Many of the arrangements strike a great balance between structure and improvisation. Rather than be restricted by Zappa’s original vision for his art, the sheer genius that lies at the heart of many of his tunes, act as a creative springboard for The Wrong Object. They are easily able to brush away any self-imposed compositional shackles, and are adept at invigorating the tunes with a succession of inspiring arrangements, superb soloing and magnificent ensemble playing.
The choice of material is excellent and many of the tunes memorable motifs lend themselves positively, to the combined strength that two saxophonists can achieve when used in powerful unison. Whilst the saxophonists supply a number of the tunes melodies, the alternation between tenor and soprano sax in a string of fine solos as the arrangements develop, provide a enjoyably varied voice. This contrasts exquisitely with the stunning fret work of Deville, flowing keyboard flurries of Guenet and frequent bubbly bass solos of Mottet.
However, it is arguably the fantastic and at times inspired performances of Deville and Guenet throughout that leave an enduring impression. Some of Deville’s solos are genuinely stirring. I could feel my fist clenching in appreciation and my tongue twitching in excitement, as I followed how his solo parts developed from the main body of a tune with stylish aplomb and then finally resolved back into the tunes arrangement.
Whilst the style and effects chosen by Deville created a sound similar to Frank Zappa's, the solos went beyond anything that was a merely an attempt to reproduce what had been done before. Consequently, their emotive pull and fresh inventive flair, was a consistent and thoroughly fitting tribute to Zappa.
Deville’s solo during the I’m The Slime is probably the most evocative on the album. It must have come from a place deep within him. Its wailing, snarling and whelping shrieks, lingers like a provocative perfume and clings to the mind like a sensory slime long after the tune has ended.
Guenet's contribution brings a lot to the album. His subtle playing in support of Motet’s deep toned solo, during the bands excellent adaptation of Sleep Dirt is lovely. However, it is when he takes the spotlight in a series of flowing electric piano solos in the midst of pieces such as King Kong, Chunga’s Revenge, and Wedding Dress Song / Handsome Cabin Boy, that his ability to ratchet up the excitement and tastefully brew things up is noticeable.
The selection of material for the album must have been difficult given Zappa's vast back catalogue, but it is interesting to see relatively obscure pieces such as, Wedding Dress Song / Handsome Cabin Boy chosen alongside well-known tunes such as, Apostrophe and I'm The Slime.
Given the instrumental proficiency of the band, I found it slightly odd that the band should choose tracks such as This Town Is A Sealed Tuna Sandwich / The Sealed Tuna Bolero, where the vocal parts are probably more important than any instrumental sections. The fact that The Wrong Object manage to pull off the vocal style of 200 Motels era Zappa in this piece is a testament to the skill and dedication that the band have put into this project.
On other occasions, the vocals do not work quite as well and I had difficulty coming to terms with the delivery and intonation of the vocalist in Wonderful Wino. Similarly, Zappa’s vocal performance, with Tina Turner & the Ikettes backing, was so powerful and memorable in the original I'm The Slime, that it was difficult to remove it completely from my consciousness. Therefore, it was difficult not to make a negative comparison, which was only expunged, as the resounding majesty of The Wrong Object’s instrumental arrangement came to the fore.
There were times when the bands arrangements really brought out the beauty of Zappa's tunes. The arrangement of Sleep Dirt is first class and emphasises what a wonderful melody it contains. Its slow tempo ensures that there is a lot of space for the band to express them and for each note chosen to have maximum effect and impact. This is particularly the case in Deville’s’ smouldering guitar part which fries and cries with great skill.
On some occasions, the band takes an opportunity to improvise and go off-piste. Big Swifty is a condensed version, but still utilises the originals great opening riff and initial speed up speed down sections. However, much of what follows bears little similarity to the original and shows how inventive this band can be. After a string of noticeable sax solos it swings and shuffles its way into much freer territory where honking, squawking and discordance are equally as important as beauty or melody before finally resolving itself in a reprise of the opening riff. I suspect that this interpretation of the piece might just be a little too adventurous and progressive for some listeners.
The Wrong Object has delivered an excellent album, which has breathed fresh energy and inventiveness into Zappa’s back catalogue. I strongly recommend this release. It will suit anybody who some has affection for Frank’s art or who enjoys loosely spun jazz-rock that is hardened by some wonderful buoyant ensemble playing and a plethora of edgy guitar solos.