Album Reviews

Issue 2006-031

Reviews in this issue:

Muse - Black Holes And Revelations

Muse - Black Holes and Revelations
Country of Origin:UK
Record Label:A&E Records
Catalogue #:25646 3509-2
Year of Release:2006
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: Take A Bow (4:35), Starlight (3:59), Supermassive Black Hole (3:29), Map Of The Problematique (4:18), Soldier's Poem (2:03), Invincible (5:00), Assassin (3:31), Exo-Politics (3:53), City Of Delusion (4:48), Hoodoo (3:43), Knights Of Cydonia (6:06)

Underground band come popular worldwide act Muse are back with a new album. In my opinion their previous album Absolution is one of the best and most original albums of the past 5 years, so I was really looking forward to its follow-up. For this album the band set out to work with a different approach, their task: to create an album on which each and every song sound differently.

For once the descriptions in the accompanying press release are very accurate. Scary perhaps, off-putting maybe, but accurate nonetheless. Starlight for example is described as "an ABBA gig on the moon". An odd band reference on a Progressive Rock website, but the fact is that the poppy song does indeed sound like ABBA updated to the new millennium. It wouldn't surprise me if this turns out to be the next single. The first single of the album, Supermassive Black Hole sounds as if a Prince song has been remixed by Beck and Map Of The Problematique has a strong Depeche Mode influence.

So what about the typical Muse sound which redefined progressive rock four years ago and has been copied by many bands since? Well, that sound is largely gone. Opener Take A Bow still contains the trade-mark arpeggio synths, but that's it for the largest part. The mellow, almost Elvis-style ballad Soldier's Poem sounds like the counterpart to Blackout off Absolution, with vocal harmonies that remind of Queen. A beautiful serene piece, which at two minutes is far too short really.

Invincible is another ballad, which turns into a more up-tempo song halfway.
As Matthew Bellamy makes a lot less use of voice distortion on Black Holes And Revelations it becomes clear how strikingly similar his voice is to Keane's Tom Chaplin. So this song in fact could be described as Keane doing a U2 song, as the up-tempo second half could have come straight of a Joshua Tree-era U2 song. The very original guitar solo and massive ending make that this is my favourite of the album.

Relatively close to some of Muse's earlier work is Assassin, with a very nervous guitar-riff, heavy pounding drums and Bellamy singing counter melodies with his high pitched voice. As most of the album is relatively accessible, this noisy and experimental track is a bit of a misfit on the album. Exo-Politics stays in heavy territory, but is the opposite of Assassin in its relative simplicity and accessible vocal melody.

For the three songs that close the album Muse opens up all registers and lets in influences which are seldomly mentioned on this site - and probably for the right reasons. City Of Delusion combines metal guitar riffs with a movie soundtrack style string section (think Santa Esmaralda) and tops it off with a Mariachi trumpet solo.

The duo of Hoodoo and Knights Of Cydonia on the other hand are genuine Surf rock. After City Of Delusion you already wane yourself in Mexico, and for the last tracks of the album you only have to close your eyes to imagine yourself sitting at an Acapulco beach. Of course it is not the first time Muse has incorporated surf rock in their sound - Hoodoo sounds every bit the counterpart to Dark Shines off Origin Of Symmetry. In fact, Hoodoo is probably the song which is closest to the sound of Muse that was, as the pounding theatrical piano work that leads into the big climax of the song also recalls the work of Origin.

The six minute album closer Knights Of Cydonia is probably the most prog of the entire album (together with Take A Bow). Surf prog, that is. It seems as if Knights and Hoodoo were originally part of the same song, as the atmosphere of the two is very similar. On Knights Of Cydonia the band go Beach Boys all the way, with high-pitched harmony vocals and typical surf-rock guitar sounds.
The full-blast finale is a shameless ode (or parody?) to the Seventies rock of Rush, and it is impossible not to start bouncing when hearing it. This may well be the best track of the year. If nothing else it is the most fun prog track of the year.

The band started recording on this album in a chateau on southern France, but later moved to the more technologically advanced Electric Lady and Avatar studios in New York. This is where most of the modern pop and dance influences came from and where the songs were brought down to radio friendly four minute tracks. As Bellamy puts it: "If we had stayed in France for the whole album it probably would've ended up real prog. Songs like "Knights Of Cydonia" would've been twenty minutes long". Hmmm, now there's a thought! So from a commercial point of view it was probably good that the band relocated to New York, but it makes the album less interesting for us proggers.

I am a bit in doubt for my end verdict of the album. The band is to be lauded for their ability to blend so many different styles on the album, yet at the same time they have somewhat lost their own style in the process. Though all songs are still unmistakably Muse, almost every song sounds like Muse meets another band. Muse meets U2, Muse meets Beck, Muse meets Dick Dale, Muse meets Queen, etc, etc.

So with Black Holes and Revelations Muse have created a very nice album, which is characteristic for its accessibility and its blend of poppy melodies and heavy experimental guitar rock, but the new album also proves that topping the sheer brilliance of Absolution is an almost impossible task.

Conclusion: 8- out of 10


Muse - Origin of Symmetry

Muse - Origin Of Symmetry
Country of Origin:UK
Record Label:Taste Media
Catalogue #:481.2010.070
Year of Release:2001
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: New Born (6:03), Bliss (4:12), Space Dementia (6:20), Hyper Music (3:20), Plug In Baby (3:40), Citizen Erased (7:19), Micro Cuts (3:38), Screenager (4:20), Dark Shines (4:47), Feeling Good (3:19), Megalomania (4:40)

This is an album which was somewhat ignored by DPRP back in 2001. Although we had accepted Radiohead heralding the Nu-Prog genre, we were somewhat wary of including other, similar bands to the site. However, we didn't want to keep this gem unreviewed and the release of the band's latest studio album Black Holes And Revelations seemed like a good opportunity to re-visit the band's second album. The album, which contains the proof that Muse is a prog band, and they are not ashamed to admit it (even though the prog element all but disappeared from their music two albums later).

While most bands suffer from a 'second album syndrome' Muse proved with Origin... that they had many more tricks up their sleeve than they made appear with their debut Showbiz (only to top themselves once more with the genius Absolution two years later).

Matthew Bellamy, the main man of Muse, writes all music, sings, and plays both the intricate keyboard and guitar parts. With the steady backdrop of drums (Dominic Howard) and bass (Chris Wolstenholme) does the band create a real 'wall of sound' effect: in your face power and emotional melodies interchange throughout the album.

Album opener New Born immediately sets the tone. A fast synthesiser arpeggiator which recalls the opening of The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway but as soon as Matthew Bellamy begins to sing Radiohead is the main clear reference, largely because of the high-pitched vocals with heavy breathing, which immediately remind of Thom Yorke. Also the powerful, monotonous rhythm with heavy distorted guitar remind of Radiohead. However, where many people would write off Muse as a Radiohead clone, the band proves they have so much more to offer, as with Origin Of Symmetry, Muse shows a diversity Radiohead has not demonstrated since OK Computer, and Origin... contains more prog influences too.

In similar vein is Bliss, which contains similar arpeggiator synths coupled with heavy guitar rock and high-pitched vocals. It is Space Dementia which will take most people by surprise. It is as if Tony Banks himself joined a garage band, as the classically tinged piano parts seem to be the complete opposite of the heavy guitar-bass-drum arrangement that it accompanies. The vocal melody is a complete counter-melody of the rest of the music, which on paper looks as if it can only fail, but Muse pulls it off majestically - utter genius! Oh, and the end section? What about analogue synth fiddling coupled with the guitar soundtrack of a Western? Sane people couldn't come up with such a combination even if they tried!

The keyboards momentarily disappear in Hyper Music, which is a heavy punk-rock style track, which recalls early nineties Lenny Kravitz or Offspring. The guitar in Plug In Baby also reminds of Lenny Kravitz, only coupled with a very Air-like rhythm of synth bass. All coupled with a brit-pop style vocal melody.

Citizen Erased is very Radiohead-like again. Not unlike Paranoid Android, with a heavy first half turning into a mellow second half. On most tracks the voice of Bellamy is distorted and in Micro Cuts he goes completely over the top. Singing with a voice so high-pitched that seems very unhealthy for a man to do. Again, Radiohead, and especially the Radiohead of OK Computer is what comes up as a reference.

Then after two very heavy tracks the music shifts 180 degrees to Spanish guitar and strange percussion in Screenager. This track also marks the return of the characteristic keyboardwork which dominate the first half of the album. This ballad is also a nice resting point after the power and noise of the previous two songs.

Muse has a particular love for surf rock guitar, as is particularly evident on their latest album. Dark Shines is their first trip into surf rock, although the typical Duane Eddy twangy guitar disappears once the chorus kicks in.

Feeling Good is a type of piano/lounge bar track which is a bit like a mix between Supertramp and Sinatra on acid. Megalomania ends the album in a terrific way. Starting out as a mellow ballad, it builds towards a very powerful climax with massive church organ.

If there is one point of criticism I have for this album it is that it is almost too much to listen to in one go. The music is so 'in your face' that it is tiring to listen to. It is probably for this reason that I like the first half better than the second, as I usually switch the album off after Citizen Erased. The first half of the album is also the part where most prog influences can be heard.

Before you all rush out to the stores, bear in mind that Bellamy's vocals certainly are considered 'acquired taste'. If you dislike the vocals of Thom Yorke then you should certainly steer clear of Muse, as Bellamy goes at least three steps beyond Yorke's antics.
If you're only going to buy one Muse album, then Absolution is the one to go for. If you want to hear more of this band, then Origin of Symmetry is a good second choice, although one should certainly check out their latest album (reviewed above) too.

Conclusion: 8.5 out of 10


Epica - The Road To Paradiso

Epica - The Road To Paradiso
Country of Origin:The Netherlands
Format:Photo Sound Book
Record Label:Transmission
Catalogue #:English version: ISBN
Dutch version: ISBN
Year of Release:2006

Tracklist: Welcome To The Road To Paradiso [Caught In A Web] (4:37), Making Of Adyta (1:34), Adyta [demo] (1:23), Making Of Cry For The Moon (1:29), Cry For The Moon [demo] (6:43), Making Of Quietus (1:14), Quietus [demo] (3:41), Quietus [single version] (3:54), The Fallacy (3:23), Interview with Ad on live tracks (0:32), Solitary Ground [live] (4:05), Blank Infinity [live] (4:04), Mother Of Light [live] (6:01), Linger [piano version] (4:15), Crystal Mountain [orchestral version] (5:01), Purushayita (3:50)

On 4 May 2006, Epica recorded their first live DVD at the Dutch rock temple Paradiso in Amsterdam. Never shunning ways to come up with a completely new format, Transmission Record used this DVD shoot as the launch of the latest Epica release: The Road To Paradiso, a luxury book containing a CD with previously unreleased and live tracks.

The book chronicles the history of the band so far: from Mark Jansen's departure from After Forever in 2002 and the formation of Sahara Dust (later changed to Epica), to the immensely successful tour in South America at the beginning of 2006, leading up to the DVD shoot in Paradiso - hence the title. The whole thing is depicted through interviews, anecdotes and fan mail, with many, many photos. The openness of the band and their funny anecdotes of what went wrong on tour or during video-shoots, make the book a very nice and candid read.

The accompanying CD contains previously unreleased songs and demos, as well as alternate versions and live recordings. Before each demo and the live tracks there is a spoken introduction by the band members, explaining the how, what and when. On several places in the book it says "now play track so and so of the cd", making the CD an interactive part of the book really. And what other music would you listen to when reading about Epica, right?

As for the quality of material offered on the CD, this varies. The demos are exactly that: work in process versions of songs, mostly without vocals, and with a drum computer and synth samples rather than real drums and orchestra. Nice, but mainly for hard-core fans. More fun are the live tracks of which Solitary Ground is especially notable. This very 'naked' version of the track with just piano and vocals shows just how well Simone Simons sings live - even when this concert was considered a bad night!

Most interesting of the CD are of course the previously unreleased songs: The Fallacy which is a bouncy track with dance undertones - very different from the Epica we know. Crystal Mountain, an orchestral cover version of Death and finally a track which didn't make the final tracklisting of The Score: Purushayita

The whole package is presented as a luxury coffee-table book, printed on high quality paper. At the price of a regular CD, this is certainly a must-have for any self-respecting Epica fan. Obviously this is a fan-only thing. But a very created fan-only thing that is.

Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10


Pictorial Wand - A Sleeper's Awakening

Pictorial Wand - A Sleeper's Awakening
Country of Origin:Norway
Record Label:Unicorn Digital
Catalogue #:UNCR-5027
Year of Release:2006
Time:CD1 59:47
CD2 52:24
Info:Pictoral Wand
Samples:Click here


CD 1: Prologue (3:16), The King & His Land I (6:41), The Gate Of Lost Souls (4:42), Pride - The Path Of Thorns (5:27), Envy I - In Shadow (11:06), Envy II - Broken Glass (7:23), Wrath I - A Wandering In The Dark (3:40), Wrath II - The Beast Within (10:05), Gluttony - Corrosion Of Flesh (7:21)

CD 2: Sloth I - Retrospective Visions (4:24), Sloth II - Red Sunset & A Drowning Fly (9:14), Greed I - The Golden Path (7:48), Greed II - Warning Not Heard (11:12), Lust I - The Temptress Of Unchastity (7:01), Lust II - A Sleeper’s Awakening (9:50), The King & His Land II - Pensiveness (2:54)

Mark Hughes' Review

Pictorial Wand's debut album is the ambitious 112 minute concept album A Sleeper's Awakening. The theme is one of self-realisation; the examination, in the first person, of a life's mistakes and selfishness explored through each of the seven deadly sins. The long gestation period of the album, some three years, is because the album is largely the work of one man, Norwegian Mattis Sörum. In that time, as well as composing and arranging the album, playing all of the guitars and most of the keyboards, Sörum was also in full-time education at Trondheim University completing his studies in, what else, music. Additional musicians were hired to flesh out the sound and no fewer than five vocalists are employed to add characterisation.

Prologue opens the album with a lovely flute melody joined towards the end by a cello. The scene is set by the first piece of narration. Although I am not all that fond of the use of narration, in this case the ambitious nature of the album can only be driven along by the use of the narrative device. The fact that Sörum has cleverly incorporated the voice of the main character as a child and that of his strict mother makes it rather more interesting. The first part of The King And His Land sets out the musical stall of the album, a blend of guitar driven rock, nicely double-tracked and harmonised, and acoustic instrumentation set in a framework abounding with strong and memorable melodies. The Gate Of Lost Souls features three of the four female vocalists at their best in a track that gradually builds from a predominantly acoustic beginning to a full-blown rock onslaught. Pride - The Path Of Thorns effectively blends acoustic instrumentation with heavy rock, although the heavier aspects of the song never dispense with melody.

And so it continues, the keyboard-orchestrations mixing seamlessly with the genuine acoustic instruments counter-pointed by the heavy electric guitars; the different vocalists adding tonal qualities that make even the longer tracks, such as Envy Part I - In Shadow, pass by effortlessly seeming a lot shorter than they actually are. The instrumentation is quite full with indulgent solos largely missing, with the composer preferring each track to have variety so that no one song is dominated by a particular instrument, unsurprising given that 10 of the 16 songs are in the region of seven to eleven minutes long. Even on the largely orchestrated Wrath Part I - A Wandering In The Dark, the gentle acoustic mood is eventually paid off during Wrath Part II - The Beast Within which features some of the heaviest music on the album complete with beastly grunts. Disc one ends with Gluttony - Corrosion Of Flesh with a simple melody, sounding somewhat medieval in places, underpinning the whole song which again features effective female vocals and some thundering guitars.

Four sins down, we continue of the second disc with Sloth. The first part, Retrospective Visions is a largely acoustic ballad which leads into the enigmatically titled second part Red Sunset And A Drowning Fly. The synthesised marimba contrasts nicely with the piano on the initial part of this track before the electric guitars periodically intervene. A rare organ solo at the end of the piece could have been a bit meatier and more up-front, but that is undoubtedly a sign of my love of seventies style prog. Greed Part I - The Golden Path has an atmospheric introduction evoking a windy path through distant mountains before a delicate acoustic guitar and flute combination leads the listener into a more orchestral-based piece overlaid with lovely sounding electric guitar. Greed Part II - Warning Not Heard is altogether more folk sounding, with an electric sitar featured prominently in the first 90 seconds before being replaced by electric guitar and organ which is once again rather understated. Some great harmony vocals maintain the restrained nature of the song which ends with the most orchestral section of the whole album.

The last sin is that of Lust. The Temptress Of Unchastity features male vocals set against the heavy electric guitars contrasting nicely with female vocals in the acoustic sections. One can feel the lure of the temptress with the male trying to resist. A Sleeper's Awakening is really the end of the voyage with the dream gradually ending. The album is rounded off with the second part of The King And His Land - Pensiveness. Reflecting on the revelations set to a harpsichord backing, the protagonist realises that it was much more than a dream and that his real-life actions of pride, envy, wrath, gluttony, sloth, greed and lust have resulted in the ruin of many a man and much of his land.

When I received this album to review I was initially wary, primarily because of the cover which looks like something you'd expect from a heavy metal album. Indeed, the album itself I found initially to be rather hard going and it wasn't until after repeated listenings that I found the melodies, and particularly the female vocals, sticking in my mind. Undoubtedly A Sleeper's Awakening is a very ambitious project, even more so considering it is a debut album. But overall Sörum has pulled it off and I am convinced that many of our readers will find much upon these discs that satisfies.

Jeffrey Terwilliger's Review

Mattis Sorum is off to a great start with this very respectable debut. There is a palpable Ayreon-like quality which arises from several factors. First, there is a story: It centres on a king who discovers that his subjects despise him. Waking up, he realizes he has failed his people by succumbing to selfish base desires while ignoring his greater mission. Not as cheesy (or as fun) as most Ayreon album themes, more like something Glass Hammer would do. Mattis' rhythm guitar work has that A.A.L. tone which is rapidly becoming a standard in the industry. Meanwhile there is a plethora of wind instruments, synths, violins & cellos sprinkled liberally throughout the production. Finally there are several vocalists contributing parts, although they are not as sharply defined or well known as Ayreon's many singers have been.

This work features several recurring musical themes which tie it together - an absolute necessity in progressive rock, and done thoughtfully. However, the themes and melodies have a subtlety that remind me more of Glass Hammer than Ayreon. So the ingredients are all there, it should be an instant hit, but it took me a long time to figure out what was bothering me about this release. I always felt let down after listening - and today it finally dawned on me, with a little propeller headed analysis: Almost every song on these CDs has a minor, downward-moving I-VII-VI chord progression in plodding 4/4! Relentless Bummer! On the other hand, both the cover art and the lyrics are clearly consistent with the music - that is, What You See is What You Get. If your taste leans toward a Goth band doing All Along The Watchtower progressions over and over again then you will love A Sleeper's Awakening.

Yet, there are many places where the melodies are strong, dynamics are effective, or rhythm changes spark interest. This could have been edited down to a single CD with only the best song structures, plenty long for a freshman effort. After all, even well-established artists get flamed with regularity for too much filler. That's one lesson Mr. Sörum may have learned while doing this project. One other thing bugged me about this release, and that is the child's voice. The sound effect like shuffling papers book-ending each transition is obviously intentional. I don't know what it is supposed to signal, but for me it always conjured an image of a nervous boy in front of a microphone trying to get the read right, with everyone else standing around looking at the clock. Which unfortunately coincides pretty well with the quality of the child's parts. Sorry Mattis - Ya gotta know when to go to Plan B.

This CD set plays like a very large music school project, which is sort of what it is. One last note: There are a few places where Mr. Sörum cuts loose on the guitar, and his lead work is wonderful. I admire the restraint he used to avoid turning this into a shred-fest, and he is good enough to leave me wanting to hear a bit more in the solo department. An ambitious work, A Sleeper's Awakening can best serve as an opening volley for Mr. Sörum, who I am sure is already evaluating the weaknesses and building a better one.


MARK HUGHES : 8 out of 10

A Day's Work - A Home In The Rain

A Days Work - A Home In The Rain
Country of Origin:The Netherlands
Record Label:Dawa
Catalogue #:DW-CD 006
Year of Release:2006
Info:A Day's Work
Samples:Click here

Tracklist: A New Line (3:55), My Ambulant Caress (5:07), What You Believe In (3:19), Welcome Home (4:07), Words Of Goodbye (3:25), Days Go By (4:25), Become (3:35), Open Up My Eyes (4:03), Runaway (4:46), My Sad Day Ends [All's Distorted) (3:20]

In 2002 A Day's Work released their debut album: Above And Within. After that the EP Drowning In What I Believe followed. Knowing these other two albums, this album does not really come as a surprise. No negative surprise that is: because like it's predecessors this album is of high quality and A Day's Work still has that very recognisable own sound.

Tracks that are not too long, created with eye for detail, and totally understanding the art of restraining oneself, just to be able to burst into more power without ever losing control. The excellent voice of Paul Glandorf is also a very big asset for this band, boy does he have a versatile voice, without sounding like someone else. Again this is not progressive rock per se: but while we keep reviewing Marillion without getting any complaints I think this one won't hurt you either.

There is a reason that I mention Marillion: A Day's Work have been their support act on the "Not Quite Christmas" tour, so they have been noticed by others too. Marillion is also a band A Day's Work gets compared to, on A Day's web site it says: "The press has compared A Day’s Work to My Vitriol, Marillion, Filter and early U2". None of these comparisons is obvious though, there is a hint of each of the mentioned bands here and there but no more than a hint. Another well known artist that noticed A Day's Work: Dave Caputo (Life Of Agony) following recording an album with him they went on an European tour.

Stand out tracks on this album are A New Line because of the emerging guitars at the start and the contrast between the quiet refrains and the heavier chorus. My Ambulant Caress, a perfect start of the day on your way to work on a bicycle riding into the sun: "beautiful day.....". Welcome Home that has excellent (bass) guitar loops in between the refrain, in this track there is a small whiff of Marillion. Again excellent loops and build up on: Days Go By. Become the raw refrain makes it hard to sit still, catchy, catchy, catchy. My Sad Day Ends (All's Distorted) has an excellent second voice in Arjen van Wijk (This Beautiful Mess) it is a very sober track.

A Day's Work has lived up to the expectations set in their previous recordings. The more you listen to this album the more you will appreciate it's finesse and detail wrapped in catchy tracks. A band to keep an eye on because slowly the rest of the world is starting to discover them. It is almost too late to be among the first connoisseurs, but you still can be: hurry now rush to a store and buy this album!

Conclusion: 8 out of 10


Album Reviews