Reviews in this issue:
- Adrian Belew - Side Two
- Tomas Bodin - I AM
- Hamadryad - Safe In Conformity
- Nosound - Sol29
- Somascetic - The Violence of Distance
- Bruce Main - Layers
Adrian Belew - Side Two
Tracklist: Dead Dog on Asphalt (4:05), I Wish I Knew (3:19), Face to Face (3:03), Asleep (5:23), Sex Nerve (3:06), Then What (3:02), Quicksand (3:19), I Know Now (1:26), Happiness (1:53), Sunlight (4:32)
I didn’t adore Adrian Belew’s Side One, as you may have gleaned from my DPRP review of that recording. In fact, I called it a “decent but sub-par release” and I’m sticking to that story. (By the way, yes, I realize it’s probably the height of arrogance to quote your own review within one of your own reviews.) Mr Belew promised two more efforts for 2005 and Side Two was released (at least in the States) in April. I’m happy to report that this is an excellent disc, chock full of flair and groove. There’s a lot of KC atmospherics and heaviness but it’s well tempered and evenly placed so as not to grind. And Mr Belew’s penchant for Beatle-y sounds is ever present.
Now, I’m sadly in the minority among progressive rock fans because I consider lyrics to be absolutely as important as the music arrangement and instrumentation. To call the spade a spade, lyrics ARE the music, or are at least a portion of the music, and the delivery of the words, the cadence, the phrasing, the emotion, and the vocabulary all matter. On Side Two, Mr Belew tells the listener (in the liner notes) that he was shooting for something like haiku. Allowing for the fact that haiku doesn’t come into English that well, and that Mr Belew was trying to honour the spirit of haiku and not the pure form, the lyrics are very powerful indeed, in that less-is-often-more way of impacting upon a psyche. Tone poems, if you like, or verse painting. The lyrics are positioned in the appropriate spots to accent the music and to wear the music like a flattering veil. It’s all really very fine.
The disc begins with Dead Dog on Asphalt, a musical dirge for a canine death unfortunately caused (or experienced) by Mr Belew. The use of acoustic guitar balances the techno beat and the jagged Frippish electric guitar lines. The anxiety of this tune is appropriate, and like many of the other tracks on Side Two, it’s openness and airiness is fresh. The lyrics are delivered offbeat, which perks attention. The closing guitar lament is suitably mournful.
I Wish I Knew is next. The acoustic guitar returns with a ghostly techno beat shimmering underneath it. There’s only one line of lyric in the song, the title, sung with plenty of desperate echo, and admittedly, I do too, don’t you? (If only politicians and the clergy could make this admission….)
Face to Face is one of a few songs with a decidedly Asian flavour to it. All are successful. The major riff of the song is infectious, and seems to employ some sort of ethnic stringed instrument. Here, and elsewhere, and unlike on the majority of Side One, Mr Belew utilizes his gift for melody, and really, much of this album sounds like a modern take on psychedelic Beatlemania. (There’s plenty of existential querying and quandary here in the lyrics, a la The Fabs, too.)
Asleep is a great little ditty about the inevitable moment when you snap out of it and become an authentic human being. “One day you wake up/but you didn’t even know/you were asleep.” Why, yes, that’s right. There’s a nice helping of latter-day Crimson ambience in this one over a creeping, blended bass/acoustic guitar line. This song is exemplary of the feeling on Side Two that seemed to be absent from the previous album. I even got a small whiff of Dream Police on this one (for what it’s worth) when the violins kicked in….
Sex Nerve is the fifth track. It’s a little too still for my tastes and a little too bland, but maybe it serves as a break, I’m not sure. It does showcase a funky little bass trill towards the end that is interesting enough.
By the time I got to Then What, I was surprised to realize that I’d heard a lot of techno beats, industrial fuzziness, and guitar blasting all of which I generally dislike but that I was still engrossed in the album. However, Then What probably pushes my patience more than any other track on the CD: it’s one of Mr Belew’s customary noise collages, and it’s OK but nothing special. (Except for the riff around 2:32 or so that I swear comes right off “Revolution #9” although I won’t tell Michael if you won’t and maybe Mr Belew won’t be charged!)
Quicksand is the second-best track on the album. It’s hard to say exactly why, but it’s just perfect. Somehow the lyrics suit the instrumentation so well that it all grabs you right by the earlobe and pulls you into listening. There’s a strong but also subdued singing performance on this song and the melody line is catchy as hell. Plus, and maybe it’s only because I know it first hand, the sense that our ideas of control and life-management often are really only a denial that we’re sinking into quicksand really strike me as emblematic of, well, the whole fucking mess.
I Know Now might be an outtake from Prince’s When Doves Cry sessions, albeit with a bit more pissiness. There’s a good dose of funk guitar but it morphs into something like a tabla-driven guitar rant. It’s a buzzsaw.
The penultimate track is Happiness, which starts with a nursery rhyme keyboard-and-chimes sugariness. I kept thinking that this was either irony of the first order, mocking our bubblegum fantasies of earthly happily-ever-after, or maybe only madhouse glee.
And finally, the CD winds up with Sunlight, easily the best thing I’ve heard from Mr Belew so far in his Side series. Imagine a rave backbeat version of Tomorrow Never Knows accented with Oriental strings, percolating keyboard runs, Lennon-McCartneyesque quarter-tone background harmonies (circa Revolver) and that acidy trademark par excellence, the backwards loop! Somehow, it all hits you like sunlight itself: it’s a golden bouncy shiny foot tapper.
So, I guess I dug this release. It’s all pretty cool (even the self-promoting "Play me again" times three at the end, another Beatle-y motif) and each track has its own identity and charm. If I’m not going to get a collection of straight pop gems or verse-chorus-verse rock tunes, well then, I can handle an album like Side Two, which experiments well but ably relies on both of Mr Belew’s strengths: Beatle pop and Frippian angst. I recommend this highly and no less because it comes in at just over 33 minutes, which, once again, I argue, is about the ideal time for an album (although I’ll go to 40 minutes if it’s kicking my ass). We are promised, for Side Three, “the more eclectic approach of previous solo efforts including surprise guests.” So, you’ve got time to check out this one and I’ll see you back at DPRP for Side Three.
(By the way, Mr Belew features some of his paintings in the CD artwork for both of the Side releases. See the one on the inside front of Side Two for something effective.)
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Tomas Bodin - I AM
I (23:12) - The Beginning, Wheel Spinner, Day By Day, Mother’s Heart, Speeder, They’ll Fight For Me!, Fighters, War Is Over, Aftermath, The Angel Of Dreams, The Awakening
A (21:28) - Take Me Home, The Tree Of Knowledge, The Path Of Decision I, The Prayer, The Path Of Decision II, Close The Deal, The Path Of Decision III, The Tube Of Reverse
M (18:43) - In The Land Of Retrospect "Why/7 Days At Kingdom’s Inn", Voice Macabre, Dance Macabre, The Halls Of Future, The Path Of Light I, The Path Of Light II
Hear hear all you good people, Tomas Bodin has something to say! In the past he only spoke through his music and excellent keyboard extravaganza, but this time he's got a message for you, which he has packed, as could be expected, in a fine piece of music. Somewhat different than that you're used from him, but not necessarily less interesting and entertaining! His solo escapades have taken a whole new direction!
Indeed, after releasing three great keyboard based instrumental albums and, as rumours go, closely been involved in the making of the album of The Swedish Family now the first vocal album from the keyboard player of The Flower Kings has seen the light of day! Can he then sing, you might ask? Well probably not good enough since he left this important task to some more qualified singers: Anders Jansson, Helene Schönning and Pernilla Bodin, indeed Tomas' wife!
So what is it Tomas wants to share with the world and wasn't some musical brilliance sacrificed to spread the message you might wonder now? Well, to come to a quick first conclusion about the latter: I don't think so!
Not only the music and the lyrics but also the whole structure of this new project of Tomas is very intriguing and interesting.
This album is called I AM and contains only three (lengthy of course) tracks or rather suites; each one named after one of the letters of the album title. Each track consists again of several parts or rather chapters that are moulded together to one long piece, sometimes the change-over to the next segment is not very clear. Several tracks are instrumental, some are mainly vocal and good mixes of both occur as well regularly. Apart from the already mentioned singers and the keyboard master himself this prog rock opera was put to music by Flower Kings band mates Jonas Reingold and Marcus Liliequist respectively on bass and drums and Jocke JJ Marsh (from the Glenn Hughes band) on guitar.
So how did this album come about? In an interview I had with him some months ago he already lifted a corner of the veil and recently he stated the following:
"First of all the album was intended as something personal for me to help me realise several things for myself. I needed to get it out of my system. Then I saw that I could transfer my thoughts into art and make it available to other people and possibly make these thoughts significant"
Alright, clearly an album straight from the heart of the artist, but what does he want to share with us?
"I AM is a story about man's time on earth, part of it is based on things I have experienced myself. It's a story about philosophical and religious themes and finally about reincarnation. I believe that every human being at some point asks the questions, 'Will it have a good ending?', 'Who am I?' or 'Will I live on eternally?'".
Changing from instrumental to vocal was not done overnight:
"For the first time I had to think in terms of verses and choruses yet I wanted to keep it progressive. I had already written music to act as the backdrop for a complex story but it became hard work to translate some of my ideas into emotions that could be relayed by vocalists. However, it became a creative exchange, temporary disagreements often lead to new ideas. So all the time there was this dynamic interplay."
So much about the idea behind the album and the lyrics; in the end it all comes down to the quality of the music; I personally would prefer dreadful lyrics with beautiful music over the other way around. But fortunately Tomas managed to grasp the best of both and made his first vocal production a memorable one with which he managed to establish a good balance between great, sometimes poetical, lyrics and excellent music!
The promotional sheet mentions the influences of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and even Cream. And also Bodin's own Pinup Guru is mentioned as reference. Personally I think the comparison with Pink Floyd mostly applies and especially The Wall, since the structure, atmosphere and sometimes even the style of singing very strongly reminds me of that classic album. At times it almost sounds like Roger Waters himself made a generous contribution; drama, sorrow, agony, anger, serenity, powerlessness, despair and hope, it's all in there. Some segments are more spoken than sung, but with a good theatrical feeling
The first suite, I, begins serene with piano and vocals as if they announce something from a tower until the expected keyboards come along to build the song and tempo up. There's a real Rick Wakeman-touch in the keyboard/organ main theme in this song and it sounds terrific exciting! Tomas directly finds a good balance and variation between the vocal and instrumental segments where naturally the instrumental parts excel more in musical extravaganza where in the vocal segments the music drops back to provide a good underlay, sometimes much on the background but also sometimes very present, for the vocals. As said before the lyrics are regularly very dramatically sung and the music brilliantly emphasizes the drama as well. The song, the whole album actually, contains very mellow and serene moments, but also totally over the top powerful bombast, but both never overdone (although pretty close at points)!
It can actually be said of all three songs that they're fully packed with all kind of ideas presented in a wide variety of styles, sounds, moods and atmospheres. You won't be bored by listening to this album, your ears have to digest a lot here, but still you don't really have the feeling the song is so lengthy! Don't be fooled by the way by the mobile telephone ringing halfway the song (as I was), it's all part of it! In this part of the song the voice just screams out agony and it clearly describes the darker period of a man's life, to put it mildly. The guitar and organ playing here much add to that frantic feeling bringing it to an almost chaotic climax (seventies rock style, think Deep Purple) before it calms down again and goes to the serene end of the song with whispering voices and a soothing, comforting feeling about it, minimal music, but with maximum atmosphere.
Although it's a close finish it's the second suite, A, which I favour most, mostly because of the excellent song structure and the brilliant two bombastic climaxes. But before those spoil your ears and brains you're treated to a mellow mood intro, that continues from the ending of the first suite and is followed by a heavy dark brown rough guitar (reminds me of Brian May's lick in Tie Your Mother Down) bringing the song soon to full strength.
The great synth tune that comes somewhat later could have been much longer to my taste, but the doubled harmony singing that follows is also very pleasant. The segment with the sparkling piano, xylophone (probably produced from the keyboard though) and smooth bass is a bit odd in there though, but still fits in well. Halfway Anders Jansson sings almost whispering and addresses God (again) making all kind of promises in return for better times and then also sings repeatedly "the truth will set me free" (that line must sound familiar to any Flower Kings fan!). After that the song sounds as if, surprisingly, for a moment it has come to a dead end and doesn't know where to progress to next, a slightly bluesy, jazzy mood with a flute develops which lingers on for a while. The whaling guitar (here you'll find your Cream influences) and occasional swelling church organ feed the song again with spirit and then another Pink Floyd association comes along in the shape of a high pitched screaming voice (just like in The Great Gig In The Sky) building the song up to the first climax. But although it might feel like it, this is not the end of the song as it continues even further soon enough building up towards the second climax, this time even more bombastic with a full orchestral sound and the keyboards in full action. But climaxes are misleading on this album and even this one, that narrowly escapes a total burst out, depicts not the final note. The song ends with about two minutes of mellow piano, strange sounds and a female voice played backwards.
Again after a fluent cross-over the third suite, M, starts with a very typical Roger Waters kind of vocals; the dramatic is both in the vocals as in the music again. The sentence "There is a bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla surrounding you" has stuck in my mind since I first heard it. After that these very expressive vocals keep the next few minutes interesting although musically there's not too much variation, it actually almost bored and annoyed me a bit, but just in time the song speeds up with excessive keyboards and a heavy guitar. Then the vocals become more vehement until they even get to a sort of satanic sound like Marilyn Manson often produces - definitely not my favourite part here. But when it all comes down again and the vocals are just accompanied by piano it's only up hill again until the big finale; the last and the biggest of the climaxes. I must say this climax comes a bit too soon to my taste as the building up could have lasted somewhat longer (in the good Pink Floyd tradition). But the route to the climax is an excellent piece of song structure and the climax itself is terrifically over the top ending with a long stretched high note.
This new road Tomas Bodin has taken has proved to be a successful one; you can't call it an experiment. He has not yet completely mastered this new terrain, but for a first go it's an excellent effort! There are a few elements that could do with some improvement, but on the whole this comes quite near to a masterpiece. One could call this album a concept album or a prog rock opera, but what really counts is that it is an excellent piece of symphonic prog music! The variation is great and you could discover a kind of sinus wave throughout the album: mellow; building up to a climax; turning down again and back to mellow and so on. It's an album that has to grow on you and needs several listening sessions to get your full appreciation. And it certainly is less accessible and more complex than his previous instrumental albums. But when you give the disc several spins it'll grasp you more and more. You won't get some tunes out of your head after a while and still you'll discover new things each time. This album has much to offer and holds a big promise for the future when Tomas will embark on a similar project!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Hamadryad - Safe In Conformity
Tracklist: Anatomy of a Dream (5:51), Sparks and Benign Magic (1:04), Self Made Men (7:42), Gentle Landslide (0:39), 24 (6:28), Frail Purpose (3:11), Sunburnt (5:12), One Voice (3:30), Polaroid Vendetta (6:41), Alien Spheres (5:59), Omnipresent Umbra (11:42)
What do you expect if a band that you love release a new album when a key member has left the band? Especially when you have observed that his contribution has characterized the music style of the band? Well, I wouldn’t blame you at all if you would totally forget the band and close the chapter with it. Do you still remember Yes when Jon Anderson left the band and his position was replaced by Trevor Horn in Drama (1980)? This is not taking into consideration, even, with the fact that Rick Wakeman’s role was also replaced by Geoffrey Downes. Some die-hard fans of Yes did not like the album. But, some of them still purchased the album because they saw the value of new Yes music. And this case, Yes took a bold strategy by hiring a lead singer with similar voice timbre with Jon. The result? It was not a disappointing album at all; and some die-hard fans of Yes – count me in, please – still hear the true sound of Yes with track like Machine Messiah in a new nuance.
Why bother putting Yes' Drama in this review? Well, I need to put things into perspective in what happened with Hamadryad whom in 2001 released an awesome debut album Conservation of Mass. Right after the release and some gigs performed, the band’s lead singer, Jocelyn Beaulieu, decided to leave the band pursuing a solo career. The band was then working on the second studio album as a four-piece band. As Jocelyn's contribution to the band’s music was pivotal (my view), I did not expect much on the future of the band, especially when I heard that the band would dramatically shift their music direction to become an instrumental band. Since then I did not follow the band’s progress until I received this album from Bob.
Wow! At first CD spin I was impressed with the fact that the band has taken a bold strategy to overcome the lead singer issue. It’s neither like what Yes did with Drama, nor Genesis when Phil Collins replaced Peter Gabriel while the basic music did not change. In this case, Hamadryad has redefined and reshaped their musical style by exploring the individual band member potentials. They don’t hire a new singer but they adjust their music to suit with the vocal character of Jean-François Désilets who has an added responsibility as new lead singer in addition to his previous roles to look after six string electric bass, Taurus Moog pedals, midi pedals, and twelve strings acoustic guitar. He actually did a vocal part in one song of debut album. The other band members are: Denis Jalbert (six string acoustic & electric guitars, backing vocals), Francis Doucet (B3 & C3 Hammond organ Mellotrons, Minimoog, Roland synthesizers), Yves Jalbert (drums & percussions, backing vocals). The result? Gone are the influences from Yes and Gentle Giant. What remains is the heavy influence from early Genesis (Gabriel) plus an additional style: being ambient, and a lesser influence from progressive metal style (some tracks).
Let’s take a quick journey with Hamadryad Safe In Conformity album … (Hmm .. am doing this with a labour of love as I truly enjoy the music.)
Anatomy Of A Dream kicks the album off with powerful vocals (Gabriel style) and guitar fills followed with Mellotron based music and a strong accentuation of guitar fills. The overall concept of this song is basically a combination of chord progression from guitars, long sustained Mellotron work that makes the music flow smoothly, and performed in an ambient style. It flows to the next short instrumental track that reminds me to Genesis Trespass / Foxtrot nuance through Sparks And Benign Magic exploring acoustic guitar, Taurus pedal and Mellotron. The Mellotron sound reminds me to the intro of Watcher of The Skies. It continues seamlessly to the third track Self Made Men where the band performs this upbeat tempo composition with great combination of guitar and keyboard at opening part. The music flows dynamically with excellent vocal line, sometimes is slowing down with nice guitar fills at the background. Yeah, the guitar fills a real touch and memorable and bring us to the glory days of Genesis music in the seventies. Drum work is also dynamically performed. The interlude part features stunning guitar solo, performed in Satriani style. At the end of guitar solo, the music slows down and continued with another great solo work with keyboard and it brings the music into complex part and it slows down again. This great track ends up with another short track Gentle Landslide.
The fifth track 24 starts with an inventive and energetic acoustic guitar work that brings the drum and vocal line into the music beautifully. Oh man … You might have guessed that this track is fully performed by Peter Gabriel as Désilets’ voice is very close to him. To my knowledge there have been two gentlemen whom their voice are similar with Gabriel: Désilets (Hamadryad) and Cyrus (Citizen Cain) – you may grab your collection of Citizen Cain’s Somewhere But Yesterday album. While the latter seemed to force his voice being like Gabriel, Désilets voice seemed natural. 24 is a track with medium tempo and relatively complex composition combining a stunning acoustic guitar work, keyboard, drum and bass lines nicely. Frail Purpose continues the music style similar with the previous one but this short track contains simple yet excellent guitar solo. The seventh track Sunburnt begins the music mellow with voice line and it moves into higher points with a strong accentuation of acoustic and electric guitar combined beautifully with keyboard solo. An ambient prog rock music.
One Voice takes the music to a different vein as there seems like an influence from progressive metal with some riffs produced and Désilets brings his voice into high register notes. This track fits with the music of the band’s debut album, with different nuance. It flows to another hard driving rhythm track Polaroid Vendetta with still some influence of progressive metal. What is interesting is the guitar style which this time is performed in a combined style: Steve Hackett and prog metal style. This track is rich in term of composition because it’s successfully combined a broad spectrum of music: metal, prog rock and jazz with so many tempo changes and stunning solos (guitar and keyboard). Wonderful track! I’m pretty sure that most of you would like this track. It’s so dynamic. Awesome.
Having been bombarded with an energetic and complex track previously, the band delivers Alien Spheres in mellow style but it still a melodic one. The vocal parts are performed with other members. Taurus pedal is used at the first part. The song moves into higher point but in a medium tempo. The combination of guitar solo and keyboard, accentuated with dynamic drumming in this track is really cool and memorable. The concluding track Omnipresent Umbra is another great and very enjoyable track. It starts in medium tempo style with guitar work as the lead, accentuated with dynamic drumming. The music slows down with some insertions of organ sound and features the entrance of lead vocalist to the music. The textures of the music are enriched with inventive guitar works and organ / keyboards in relatively complex arrangements. There is also influence from Rush early albums especially through the guitar sounds at approx 4:00 minute mark. Overall, this concluding track is truly a prog gem! I really enjoy the flow and the richness of arrangements.
To summarise, I can only say that this album is totally different from the band’s debut album. Yes, there are some ingredients of the music that have roots in their previous debut album. But, I would say that the band has taken a new approach and a new direction with their music. The only drawback maybe when this album is enjoyed in its entirety, is that it may bore you a bit, especially if you do not favour ambient style, but it'll be gone with a couple of spins. After all, the band has progressed - Jocelyn had gone and Hamadryad's music had to move on. The band has had a true progressive spirit. Bravo Hamadryad!
Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10
Nosound - Sol29
Tracklist: In The White Air (6:57), Wearing Lies On Your Lips (4:20), The Child's Game (2:46), The Moment She Knew (9:39), Waves Of Time (2:07), Overloaded (6:13), The Broken Parts (6:24), Idle End (9:43), Hope For The Future (5:57), Sol29 (10:01)
The brain behind this one-man project is 27 year old wunderkind Giancarlo Erra, who composed, performed, recorded, mixed and produced all the music on this album. I received a demo CD-R of his work earlier this year and was impressed with the man's guitar skills, and his playing style which strongly echoes that of Porcupine Tree's Steven Wilson. A few months later his debut album arrived, which contained the same tracks as the CD-R, plus five more.
Since his release Erra has been lauded with praise, not in the least place from his big example, Steven Wilson, whose testimony can be read on the Nosound website. And references to the music of Nosound can be kept plain and simple: Steven Wilson. Every aspect of Erra's music echoes much of Wilson's work with No-Man, and Porcupine Tree. Atmospheric keyboards, subdued melancholic singing and and long-drawn distorted guitarsolos.
The border between influence and plagiarism is a thin one, but there is enough original material to be found on this album to give Giancarlo Erra some credit.
The album opens with a long and somewhat monotonous piece In The White Air. The Porcupine Tree atmosphere is clearly there, but it lacks a certain 'bite', i.e. the monotonous drum computer rhythm and piano arrangement drag the song on without going anywhere, until Erra finally picks up an electric guitar and demonstrates just why people are raving so much about him.
The lyrics, frankly, are too much "Italenglish" for my taste. I guess it is one of his older compositions, as the lyrics do become slightly better over the course of the rest of the songs, but it is best not to listen to them too closely.
The album picks up with track number two, Wearing Lies On Your Lips. Here we have more intricate melodies, and a much better song-like structure. It is also one of three tracks which features the only guest musician on the album: bassplayer Alessandro Luci.
About half the album is instrumental, ranging from weird, atmospheric ditties like The Child's Game (distorted piano) or Waves Of Time (distorted electric piano), to the ten minute title track, which is more in the vein of Klaus Schulze, with weird long-drawn soundscapes.
Probably the best instrumental is The Moment She Knew, which is much in the vein of some of the earlier work of Steve Wilson. It is the heaviest track on the album with a steady rock beat (damn those boring drum computers) and a couple of excellent guitarsolos. To describe this track in Porcupine Tree language, I would say a cross between Burning Sky, without the hypnotic rhythm, and the guitarwork of Shesmovedon.
The tracks on which Erra takes the microphone are basically instrumentals too, but have Erra reciting some lyrics in a somewhat monotonous, whispering way, which reminds of Steve Wilson's in songs like Stop Swimming or Feel So Low.
In all this is a pretty good independent release. Fans of Porcupine Tree, but even more so No-Man should definitely check this album out. The compositions could have benefited from a bit less dependence on the sound of Steve Wilson but nonetheless the atmospheric soundscapes and excellent guitarwork on the album make it easy to forgive plagiarism, accented vocals and the limitations of programmed drums.
I add that the man is a gifted photographer too, as the CD comes with an 8 page booklet which contains some beautiful artwork.
Be sure to visit the Nosound website for some samples, as well as many interesting non-album downloads, among which is a very good cover of Blackfield's Glow
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Somascetic - The Violence of Distance
Tracklist: Burning Slow, The Violence of Distance, Searching Fire, Flood of Souls, Among the Shadows, Ancient Remains, Amid Ashes, Fear of Space, Beyond Dimension, Beneath the Current, Drifting Down, Out of the Dust, Memory of Dark
The Violence of Distance is the debut recording by Somascetic, an American band that is predominately the brainchild of Shawn Burnette. Mr Burnette is the principal songwriter and arranger on this recording, and he handles the lion’s share of musical duty, as he plays all guitar, bass guitar, and keyboard parts, and also is the band’s lead vocalist. Andy Reamer (affiliated with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra) is the drummer and percussionist.
This is a two-CD set, and as you might imagine, it’s ambitious, especially so for an unsigned act relying upon its own finances. There is certainly much to savour on The Violence of Distance but there are some glaring problems as well.
Let’s start with “The Good,” since there’s plenty of it. This recording sounds magnificent. If I had to describe the work comparatively, I’d say that it is a blend of several of the better 1990s-era grunge motifs with latter-day Queensrÿche, latter-day Rush, a dose of Djam Karet, and solo Roger Waters. The sonic textures are all clear, sharp, and perfectly balanced. I tip my hat for the engineering work done by Jay Dudt and Hollis Greathouse at Audible Images. In terms of sheer audio quality, this is the best CD I’ve heard in my time as a reviewer for DPRP. Well done. The arranging skills of Mr Burnette deserve praise. He has a mature sense of timbre, tone control, augmentation, and the interplay between thrashing bombast and quiet ambience. The tracks are favourably controlled and precise.
The musicianship throughout the two discs is professional and intelligent. Mr Burnette is a formidable guitarist; his electric solos always seemed fitting and measured and his acoustic guitar technique is clean and graceful. And Mr Reamer is an ideal companion for Mr Burnette; rarely do you hear percussion that so skilfully improves the music with subtle flourishes and tasteful accents. The conga work on The Violence of Distance totally won me over.
And, perhaps a backhanded compliment. Mr Burnette is not at all a gifted vocalist: he resorts to a low, whispering voice throughout that does reveal some angst and sinister inclination, but generally the vocals aren’t very impactful. However, Mr Burnette stays within his vocal limitation and sculpts it, never straining or pushing into accidentally discordant territory, and I applaud his restraint and sense of his own boundaries. I suspect that the instrumental musical composition and performance is more Mr Burnette’s concern than is the vocal delivery (or even lyrical deftness? the words tend to be a vague or trite), and the music has enough grandeur to hold a listener’s attention. Now, “The Bad”.
This is simply too long of a project and it smacks of self-indulgence. An impartial producer may well have turned this two-CD adventure into a tight, one-CD juggernaut. There is approximately an hour-and-three-quarters worth of music here, and that is simply too much for my patience and tolerance, even if it’s the greatest, most profound, most uplifting art ever crafted. And, if I am willing to deal with a recording of this length (and I heard this set three times), still, The Violence of Distance suffers from “sameness,” that is, the tracks are often indistinguishable. The guitar tones are flavourful but the variety of flavours isn’t generous; the tempos rarely alter; there is a notable lack of melody and phrasing in the singing (which means, no hooks, which means, no anchor for the reviewer’s attention); and the special effects (the wind soughs and the rain patters, a la The Doors or Pink Floyd) aren’t especially novel or even relevant, to my ears. I felt that a greater contribution from keyboards would’ve been warranted. And, I REALLY felt that a contribution from other musicians (so that Somascetic was in fact a band rather than a project) would have eliminated the repetition and “sameness”. To be sure, Mr Burnette says in his marketing materials that he has had trouble finding people to play his music. Understood. But I guess I might like to hear into what form other musicians would bend this often-tedious music. Finally, although I credit Mr Burnette’s wisdom in tempering his vocal efforts in accordance with his limited palette, still, I would have preferred a more unique, more dynamic voice on this disc. I kept thinking that I might like to experience a Final Cut-era Roger Waters or a full-on Peter Hammill rendition of some of these tracks, just a voice with more mad passion.
And a technical gripe. I’ve listed the tracks as they appear on the back of the CD. But there are far more than 13 tracks on this disc. I was never really sure to which track I was listening due to this lack of identification. Not a huge problem, really, because I could still appreciate the music, but it is difficult to cite particular tracks if you are unsure what is the title of any.
There’s a certain hubris to this CD, which is all-the-more-obvious in the liner notes and accompanying materials supplied by the band. For example, Mr Burnette describes the album as “Dark Side of the Moon meets Tool’s Lateralus.” Not quite. There are apparently a vast number of religious, spiritual, philosophical, and psychological themes included within The Violence of Distance, but they aren’t especially well defined or obvious, and the effort, as an existential statement, is a tad murky. And when a musician writes that his recording is “a huge creative leap over three-minute-radio-friendly songs,” I’m not necessarily impressed or even convinced that the so-called “leap” is that much of a stride forward. I didn’t hear anything on The Violence of Distance that moved me like, say, Warmth of the Sun, Dear God, Message in a Bottle, We Can Work It Out, or Everybody Wants To Rule the World, radio-pop ditties all.
But still, this is in many ways a very well made, very cool CD. I think it’s much less of a zenith-point for Somascetic than does Mr Burnette, but, I still think there’s some high quality conception and performance on The Violence of Distance. I think I can defend this as a type of progressive rock and I can recommend it to fans of the more hard-edge style, and especially to fans of those bands that consciously shift between blistering riffs and softer, dreamscape passages. I didn’t experience rapture with this recording (although I suspect a single-CD version may have induced bliss) but it was impressive in several regards and I look forward to the sophomore release, which Mr Burnette promises is written and scheduled for recording. Good luck and let us know what’s next for Somascetic.
Conclusion: 6.5 out of 10
Bruce Main - Layers
Tracklist: Carnival (1:11), Celebrity Circus (7:43), Carnival Too (1:45), First Second (6:07), Gwendolyn (7:34), Father (9:36), Lies (11:42), You Don't Know (3:03)
Bruce Main has had an eclectic career to say the least. After dropping out from college he helped form Medusa a commune-based progressive band that were compared, at the time, to Yes and after leaving that particular combo joined The Eddies who focused on American rock in the vein of Bob Segar and Bruce Springsteen. He then helped build a recording studio in Seattle, recorded some solo demos and nearly got signed before starting progressive metal band Mania whose career was curtailed by the arrival of Grunge. On the invitation of one of the bands he had recorded he took a job on the road as front-of-house sound engineer which got him noticed by a sound company owned by Mike Fisher (of Heart fame). As lead engineer he provided tour support for artists such as Nirvana and Jean Luc Ponty before diversifying into the installation of large scale sound systems in sports arenas and the like. Returning to music in 2003, he built his own digital studio, released the album Tracks in 2004.
On his second solo CD, Layers, Main plays all instruments with the exception of bass (played by Brian Phraner who, incidentally was also a member of Main's first band, Medusa) and flute (Bruce Jones). Having not heard Tracks, I don't know how the latest album compares in style or format. What Layers offers is six medium to long compositions, one short number and two sound field recordings (Carnivals one and too) which are largely inconsequential. The music is on the whole, pretty interesting; Main is a competent multi-instrumentalist although it is obvious that his main instrument is the guitar. What is also obvious is that he is no singer! The vocals, largely presented in a half sung/half spoken form, are really an acquired taste. It is not that they are out of tune, just that they have a somewhat nasal quality and lack any real power, sounding rather strained in places. This is a pity, as they do distract from the music. On the longer pieces, particularly Lies, this means that just as one is getting into the instrumental passages, which bear resemblance to Pink Floyd in places, the vocals come along and break the atmosphere. Still, it was interesting to hear the brief 'shouting' sections juxtaposed with the more progressive section, obviously a hand over from the metal days. I also found the recording of the drums, particularly the cymbals to be a bit poor, particularly in the quieter sections.
Celebrity Circus, a song about the current fashion where people regarded as celebrities for the most pathetic of reasons, has a quite dramatic introduction before the vocals kick off. Indeed, throughout the album there are moments of high drama, the keyboard providing atmospherics to support the guitar. First Second has a nice mixture of acoustic and electric guitars and is well arranged; it would be nice to hear as an instrumental. Gwendolyn offers a slight improvement on the vocal front with Main sounding at times a bit like Billy Corgan. The electric guitar/flute section about a third of the way in and reprised after a decent guitar solo with both instruments simultaneously soloing towards the end, make this song one of my favourites on the album. Interesting lyric as well, which seems to contrast the Christian crusades with recent events: "scimitars replaced by planes, reducing our world to fames".
Father, a sentimental paean to his family, is another reasonable effort although this time the lyrics are a bit too mawkish and cliché for me but, I suppose, quite a fitting personal message. The song did tend to drag on a bit and could have easily lost a couple of minutes. Rather than end the album with a long electric song, Main has chosen to close out with just his acoustic guitar on You Don't Know which seems appropriate enough.
No doubt that Main's long experience in the music industry has been of benefit in writing and producing this album. His background has lent the songs those progressive trappings we are fondly familiar with, his guitar playing is a highlight of the album and the arrangements are original and interesting. For me the vocals are the real sticking point, and although not the worst I have heard by far still left me wishing the album had been purely instrumental.
Conclusion: 6 out of 10