Reviews in this issue:
- Dominici - 03 A Trilogy ~ Part 2
- Soft Machine – Middle Earth Masters
- Jean-François Moulin – 40
- Bertrand Loreau – D’Une Rive À L’Autre
- Disen Gâge - Libertâge
- After... - Endless Lunatic
- Slav De Hren - Tavata
Dominici - 03 A Trilogy ~ Part 2
Tracklist: The Monster (8:28), Nowhere To Hide (5:06), Captured (4:16), Greed, The Evil Seed (7:27), School Of Pain (7:23), The Calling (6:40), the Real Life (3:28), The Cop (4:49), A New Hope (6:53)
It's been 17 years since Charlie Dominici parted ways with soon-to-be ProgMetal icons Dream Theater and disappeared from the public eye. So you could be forgiven for thinking that this release from the former frontman is no more than a cheap attempt to cash in on past glories. Two factors suggest otherwise. Firstly, this release has been snapped up by Inside Out, generally regarded as one of the more reliable labels. Secondly, this is actually a darn good slice of riff-hungry, melodic progressive metal. In fact, even at this early stage, I'd go so far as to say that this will be one of my favourite releases in 2007.
Best known for his part in Dream Theater's 1989 debut, When Dream And Day Unite, Dominici quit the music business shortly afterwards and has spent the intervening years working as an ordinary Joe in investments and car salerooms. If you were one of the few who managed to track down the first part of this Trilogy in 2005, then don't be put off, as this album is a totally different beast. Part One was a self-released, stripped-down acoustic affair with just the singer and his guitar.
This time around Charlie has teamed up will a ready-made band in the shape of the guitarist, drummer, bassist and keyboard player from Italian ProgMetal band Solid Vision. Ironically, they were initially a Dream Theater cover band, but have since been responsible for couple of albums, including the impressive The Hurricane which I reviewed last year.
Indeed, it's the guitar work of Brian Maillard that really shoots this album into the premier league. The riffs on the second part of Greed and throughout School Of Pain and The Calling are from the top drawer. The constant use of the keys gives the album a really warm feel and there's a good spread of lighter sections to shift the dynamics. As a result, this album has a real band feel to it. There's the odd Dream Theater riff, but this has far more of a US power metal feel to the arrangements, albeit with plenty of impressively complex arrangements and lots of interplay between the keys and guitars.
Redemption, the band featuring Fates Warning singer Ray Alder, and Germany's Vanden Plas would be the closest reference points, with a firm nod to bands like Steel Prophet, Judas Priest and Superior. There's also a distinct Queen influence in the occasional theatrical swagger to the nine songs on offer. Indeed, it's that clever mix of US and European metal stylings that really sets this disc apart.
Charlie Dominici has always complained that he was forced to sing out of his range on the Dream Theater debut, and certainly his voice here sticks to the lower registers with a distinctive raw edge. But there's no doubting he's got a good voice. Check out the balladic sections of Captured and especially his lovely deep vibrato that carries The Real Life. More importantly, you can actually hear the words he's singing! And every single track possesses some incredibly memorable melodies. Just have a listen to tracks like The Cop or The Calling and tell me that this isn't top class material.
Of course, there's a story running through the album, dealing with terrorism and ideological fanaticism - very topical. However it's very well presented with short spoken sections and sound effects between the songs, a similar approach to that used by Queensrÿche on Operation Mindcrime. I really can not find anything to criticise here. Thus I have no hesitation in giving Dominici top marks. Welcome back Charlie and hurry up with Part 3!
Conclusion: 9.5 out of 10
Soft Machine – Middle Earth Masters
Tracklist: Clarence In Wonderland (4:33), We Know What You Mean (3:02), Bossa Nova Express (2:39), Hope For Happiness (13:19), Disorganisation (6:03), We Did It Again (5:48), Why Are We Sleeping (6:16), I Should’ve Known (9:47), That’s How Much I Need You Now (2:20), I Should’ve Known (6:44) A Certain Kind (3:46)
Soft Machine should really need no introduction so to cut to the chase, this CD (The latest in a long line of live recordings to see the light of day – many released by CUNEIFORM RECORDS) captures the band in its early days, at the legendary London Psychedelic Club - Middle Earth.
Although I like the jazz and jazz-fusion inclinations of later Softs incarnations, my primary and abiding affection for the band lies in the Psychedelic/Pop experimentation of the Sixties. This, then, is a real find for me; capturing the band in the Trio format of Ratledge, Ayers and Wyatt in 1967 (Daevid Allen had been prohibited from re-entering the country earlier that year). This is prior to the recording of the first album, and features four tracks which would appear on that disc alongside some earlier tracks and a couple that Ayers would take on to his solo career (e.g. Clarence In Wonderland). Even the album tracks are here extended and extemporised in a wild and mesmerising fashion entirely in keeping with the heady times in which it was recorded.
Really, this is prior to the beginning of Progressive Rock, and should be categorised as Psychedelic, but as the one genre pretty much grew out of the other, many fans of the latter style will be interested in this style too.
All Psychedelia fans should want to hear this document, it is a fascinating portrait of a bygone age (incredibly, it is forty years ago, now) and the performances still resonate today, full of fire and youthful vigour and enthusiasm. Of course, the sound quality cannot be compared to modern recordings, and even compared to many bootlegs, there are obvious deficiencies with the source tapes here. As a general rule, though, the instrumentation comes over loud and clear (much better than should be expected for such a vintage live recording) with Ratledge’s crazed organ freak outs faring best of all in the mix. The problem is with the vocals. On the first couple of tracks Ayres is captured adequately, and Wyatt can be heard on a couple at the end, but for most of the intervening tracks, the vocals are so badly miked as to be pretty much inaudible (if you don’t strain to hear them, you might even not notice the vocals at all, they are so badly drowned out by the fuzzed up bass and organs).
With this important disclaimer in mind, I still think that the CD is an important artefact of an exciting era of music and culture, and should be heard by all aficionados of the style. From the charming English whimsy of Clarence In Wonderland, via the Freakish fuzz storm of Hope for Happiness, to the visceral versions of classics like Why Are We Sleeping and We Did It Again, there’s some terrific material here. There are also a few tracks not available on other albums (We Know What You Mean and Bossa Nova Express), adding to the appeal to the Softs collector. If you really can’t stand bootleg recordings, or are just interested in the vocal performances, you should stay away, but if not you should check out this incredible blast from the past, which illuminates an otherwise little documented (and vital) stage in the development of one of Progressive Music’s most important and ground–breaking outfits.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Jean-François Moulin – 40
Tracklist: Electroclass (1:56), Human Voices (4:31), Roma (7:18), The Kiss of Death (2:54), Colors (2:45), Mulanda (7:44), View (5:03), Impromptu (3:22), No Karmen (5:17), After (5:04), Subway (5:11)
From the prolific, ambitious, and enthusiastic Musea label, another instrumental ambient/soundtrack/New Age album – and I use “another” with complete neutrality, not intending to indicate satiety or saturation with the genre. It’s true that in the early twenty-first century, anyone with a synthesizer and a computer can put together an instrumental album and even get it out into public view (and maybe – hey, look at Moby! – become an international superstar), and it’s true that many, many such albums are of little value. Jean-François Moulin’s 40, though, is beguiling and compelling, enjoyable as background music but also repaying careful and repeated listenings.
Moulin apparently played in a “classic rock and roll” band called Scandale in the Nineties, but this is his first solo album, and it’s about as far as one can get from classic rock and roll. More than anything else, the compositions resemble film music, but the album doesn’t sound like the soundtrack to just one film; rather, each composition seems as though it could work as pointed accompaniment to a different scene in a different movie. The prevailing mood is mournful; the prevailing tempo is slow (alternating with “slower”). But the music is never dull.
The tracks (with a couple of exceptions I’ll note in a minute) are pretty much uniform in quality, to my ears. But I’ll single out my favourites. After features nice echoing electronic percussion underneath Star Trek-sounding synthesizers; the track takes a while to build, but the resolution is satisfying. Human Voices is steeped in gloom and mystery, Moulin creating tension most effectively with the juxtaposition of keyboard sounds. And a nice muted guitar solo (courtesy of guest musician Robert Plas, who plays on five tracks here) lends some edge to View, a haunting piece also featuring spare but tasteful acoustic piano.
The album has a flaw, though. An otherwise excellent piece, Mulanda – in fact, this would likely have been my favourite – is, to my mind, irreparably damaged by spoken lyrics (which I regrettably cannot understand) from beginning to end. I said “spoken” but I should have said “performed” or perhaps even “acted.” The voice is that of another guest, Dieudonné Kabongo, and I wish he hadn’t been invited. Musically, the track is superbly constructed and builds dramatically all the way through to a big conclusion – but the performance of the vocals, calm at first, becomes overheated towards the end and makes the track, to my ears at least, almost silly rather than powerful. I wish Moulin had trusted his music alone in this case.
And on every other track, the music alone does an excellent job of conveying mood and captivating the listener’s interest. Yeah, there’s a heavily processed vocal bit – only a short one – performed by Moulin himself in the middle of No Karmen (which also ends with a loopy bit of Bizet), but that’s kind of fun; as for the rest of the album, the instruments do all the work, and they do it well. The one infelicity of the vocals on Mulanda aside, this is a fine album of its kind, one I’ve listened to many times and will continue to listen to. If you’re at all a fan of the genre, you’ll like Moulin’s 40.
Conclusion: 8 out of 10
Bertrand Loreau – D’Une Rive À L’Autre
Tracklist: D’Une Rive À L’Autre (5:11), Voix Intérieure (3:07), Un Nouveau Jour (1:36), Pourquoi Es-Tu Parti. . . (2:02), . . . Au-Delà De L’Horizon? (3:12), Du Haut De La Dune (9:04), Larmes De Cristal (2:16), Echo De Ton Âme (1:54), Séquence De Vie (3:52), Renaissance (4:22), Le Trente-Deuxième Jour (8:03), Ombre Et Lumière (2:39), Face Cachée (6:26), De L’Autre Rive (5:05)
I’ve recently reviewed another new Musea/Dreaming ambient/new-age CD, Jean-Francois Moulin’s 40 (above), so I suppose it’s inevitable that I find myself comparing Bertrand Loreau’s very pleasant D’Une Rive à L’Autre to Moulin’s album. Because few readers, I assume, will know (at least yet) Moulin’s work, I won’t say much about the two together, but I’ll say this much: one of the virtues of Moulin’s album is that each piece is quite different from each other piece, and a minor fault of Loreau’s album is the opposite: little differentiates one song from another. Yet D’Une Rive à L’Autre is a very good album in its own right, and I’ll do what I can to indicate its very real virtues.
This appears to be Loreau’s sixth original album for Musea/Dreaming, and it’s certainly the work of a talented and assured composer and musician. Although Loreau gives most credit for inspiration to Klaus Schulze, I hear on this album pieces that remind me strongly not only of Vangelis, whom Loreau also acknowledges, but also Yanni. Banish any unfortunate associations that last name might give rise to, however. I’m thinking not of the kind of Yanni songs that, oh, let’s say, might suit a commercial for a major airline but his slower and more introspective pieces. Because everything on this CD is introspective, and most of it is slow, and moreover most of the pieces in one way or another bear out the sense of the album’s title, “from one bank to another” – there’s a sense of a peaceful voyage. The music is somehow – what’s the adjective? – aquatic.
Having remarked on the sameness of the songs on this disc, though, I’m going to single out my favourite by far, one that stands out not only because of its musical differences from the others but because of its superiority. That’s the tenth track, Renaissance. It features what’s either a real or a synthesized classical guitar (I’m pretty certain the latter) playing a melody not un-reminiscent of Pachelbel’s lovely Canon in D Major – you know it! – and a small (and, again, synthesized) choir in the background. As is the case with all the other songs, these details are played out against a backdrop of tasteful seventies-sounding synthesizer. This one piece, while not out of keeping with the rest of the tracks, alone elevates the whole album, in my opinion.
That’s not to say that there’s a conspicuously weak track among the rest, though. Look: as much as I like this genre, it’s often difficult for me to say a great deal about this kind of music, but I’ll offer this distinction. As an aficionado of electronic/ambient/new-age instrumental music, I tend to put each new example into one of two categories. On the one hand are albums that either demand or reward fairly close attention. Sometimes it’s because the music is challenging; sometimes it’s because it’s more than ordinarily catchy or melodic or, occasionally, even a bit irritating. (I put the music of Moby, probably the most famous practitioner in this broad genre, in that first category – and yes, I do mean that his music is ordinarily catchy and melodic and also sometimes irritating.) On the other hand are the albums that function best as background music – not Muzak (at least not the good stuff) but just music that can be genuinely enjoyed as an accompaniment to one’s work or one’s leisure time. Loreau’s D’Une Rive à L’Autre fits, for me, perfectly into this second category. It’s going to remain in rotation among the other best examples of this broad genre I’ve reviewed in the past, such as TAT’s Quinta Essentia, Jeremy & Progressor’s The Pearl Of Great Price and Dolores Castro’s Fifth Dimension. Those of you who, like me, consider yourselves aficionados will like this album a lot, too.
Conclusion: 7.5 out of 10
Disen Gâge - Libertâge
Tracklist: Entrée (5:58), The Crash (5:09), Attaque De Blindés (7:35), Bene Immobile Di Tutti I Sicilia (7:43), Der Roboter Werters Dauern Minuten (9:23), H5N1 (14:48), Sortie (6:16)
Since their The Screw Loose Entertainment debut album, the instrumental guitar-driven prog group Disen Gâge has taken a left-field turn in a more improvisational direction. Original members Konstantin Mochalov (guitar), Nikolai Syrtsev (bass) and Eugeny Kudryashov (drums) have been joined by guitarist Sergei Bagin who replaces Yury Alaverdyan and thus maintains the dual guitar approach to their music. Impressively, the whole of the new album was improvised and the group proudly claim that there were "no guest appearances, no synthesisers and no overdubs".
What has been lost from the first album, apart from the keyboards and sax, is the variety of music that led the band to explore more jazzier and ethnic avenues. The new album is decidedly less concise, more exploratory and, undeniably, more experimental. Melody has largely been eschewed to provide, in the band's own words, "rather complex pieces with a sense of the bizarre and the misplaced". The appropriately titled Entrée provides a fairly gentle introduction with Bagin's guitar being made to sound intermittently like keyboards or strings. The Crash is a disharmonious, atonal guitar fest with an impressive drum pattern while Attaque de Blindés (attack of the armoured cars) is initially a greater experimentation in sonics, based heavily on drums and bass with the guitars largely contributing atmospheric sound effects. Things change approximately half-way through when the guitars take the lead with individual notes being picked prior to increasingly strange solos. A rather disturbing soundtrack which ranks highly in terms of originality. The stereo effects are very effective on this track making headphone listening essential in order to grasp the nuances present.
Bene Immobile Di Tutti I Sicilia (something about real estate in Sicily!) has the band using the guitar effects to provide keyboard-like washes, echoing guitar lines and reverberating bass lines while Der Roboter Werters Dauern Minuten (The robot Werters last minutes) steps up the sonic assault with shrieking guitars that weave in and out of harmony and discordance with preternatural ease. However, it is on H5N1 (the strain of avian flu responsible for human deaths) that the group really let loose. From a mellower beginning, which really does sound improvised, the first really obvious place on the album, the group get into their stride following an exploration around Kudryashov's drum kit. Indeed, plaudits to Kudryashov for his very active contribution throughout the whole piece. Taking in elements of the previous improvisations the 15 minute track culminates in an onslaught that could have some of the heavy metal bands taking notice. The album winds down with Sortie which contains some slightly more melodic elements, which is not to say it is a piece you could play in the pub on a Saturday night!
If the first album had a fair amount of King Crimson-like passages, then the same could be said of Libertâge, although the comparison could be taken one step further to include improvised Crimson live albums such as THRaKaTTaK and even some of the ProjeKCt off-shoots. The album does require concentrated listening, It would probably be useless and annoying as background music but when properly listened to, preferably in darkness with headphones, the music has the ability to transport the listener. Okay, instrumental prog is not everyone's cup of tea, and when the music is improvised and in places bordering on the avant garde, then the audience is likely to be even smaller. Maybe that is why this album is limited to just 500 copies, half of the number of the debut album. But if experimental, truly progressive instrumental music is your cup of tea then Libertâge could be just what the doctor ordered.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
After... - Endless Lunatic
Tracklist: Closed Shame (5:44), Away (4:30), Between Shadows (5:26), Wonderful Mistake (5:02), I Wounded (3:23), Dreams Hang On Walls (4:24), Spiders (3:48), Cleaning From Scars (5:28), Kite (10:35)
They certainly must be putting something in the water in Poland these days, as barely a month goes by without a quality new band in either the prog or metal world emerging. In DPRP circles, the most important discovery in recent years (and one that straddles both genres) must surely be Riverside, a band that must surely rank (along with their own prime influences of latter-day Anathema, late 90’s Porcupine Tree and 70’s Pink Floyd) as a major musical inspiration to After… Whilst Endless Lunatic, the band’s debut album, is hardly in the same league as the masterful Second Life Syndrome, it is nonetheless a quality release which certainly shows a great deal of promise.
A pastoral burst of flute and acoustic guitar ushers in album opener Closed Shame, before the song develops into a Riverside-esque slow-burner, complete with probing bass-lines, clipped, edgy guitar riffs and psychedelic-flavoured synths. When Krzysiek Drogowski’s vocals kick in, the song does seem to slip a gear – although his voice is heavily accented at times, he’s not a bad vocalist by any means, its just that the delivery chosen here – more reminiscent of a classic rock/ metal vocalist – doesn’t quite suit the song. This, coupled with a rather uninspiring guitar solo, means that this opening gambit doesn’t quite have the impact it initially promises.
Away boasts a keyboard sound which immediately brings to mind Duran Duran’s Save A Prayer, albeit shorn of the New Romantic trimmings. It’s a mellow, atmospheric number, topped off with a heavier chorus reminiscent of something Sylvan might have written. Between Shadows, meanwhile, is an altogether jauntier track, boasting a sunny, reflective chorus full of rich vocal harmonies. The extended guitar solo is an emotive affair in a blues-based classic rock style – somewhat reminiscent of Parisienne Walkways.
Wonderful Mistake is a nicely emotive, mid-paced ballad in the vein of Riverside’s I Turned You Down, underpinned by a keyboard sound that brings to mind that employed by Marillion on (the song) Season’s End. Anathema (circa A Fine Day To Exit) are the main influence on I Wounded, a piano ballad that again perhaps could have done with a slightly stronger, less-accented vocal delivery. The pace picks up with the upbeat, and in fact rather off-beat Dreams Hang On Walls, where slithers of Jethro Tull-like flute collide with some chunky guitar work.
Next up, the band tackle a System Of A Down cover, Spiders. I’ve not heard the original but its obviously one of SOAD’s less frenetic songs, as this is a relatively conventional and melodic track, albeit with the odd burst of nu-metal-ish riffery inserted for good measure. Cleaning From Scars employs a clockwork-like rhythm and sweeping synths in a track which could almost have come off Porcupine Tree’s Signify – a comparison amplified by the Steven Wilson-style vocals and the wah-wah like guitar work on the chorus. There’s also a strong Steve Rothery influence at play in the attractive solo work that dominates the songs mid-section.
Endless Lunatic concludes with the lengthy instrumental Kite, a track which features the talents of keyboard player Jozef Skrzek (formerly of legendary Polish progsters SBB) and Camel bassist Colin Bass – two musicians who, it appears from a glance at Oskar’s back catalogue, almost seem contractually obliged to appear on anything released by the label! The song begins with some rather clunky electronica that could have come straight off an early 80’s Camel album such as Stationary Traveller, and ambles along leisurely for a while before a heavy guitar riff intrudes, and an extended soaring solo takes the song off in a different direction. Things calm down with some Eno-esque ambient noodling before a quality final act majoring in rumbling grooves, with some nice fat bass lines and slick chiming synths ensures that the album concludes in fine fashion.
In conclusion, After… have produced an enjoyable and varied album with Endless Lunatic. As my review has highlighted, there are patchy moments, and its also true that the band need to work a little more on finding their own voice, as their influences are clearly audible throughout, in some cases slightly too obviously. The band also need to work on their English, perhaps by using a proper translator, as this is quite poor and leads to some of the lyrics being somewhat unintelligible. However these are all things that can be worked upon. Its worth saying that this album was first released (in Poland at any rate) in 2005, yet the band are still very much in existence, as highlighted by the fact that they are soon to play a number of gigs in the low countries (a fact that might explain why it has only reached DPRP recently). Hopefully therefore we won’t have to wait too long to hear the next stage in the band’s development – and on the evidence of Endless Lunatic, it should be worth hearing. With this style of music very much in vogue right now (within prog circles at any rate), with the right distribution and promotion After… certainly have the potential to make an impact on the scene.
Conclusion: 7 out of 10
Slav De Hren - Tavata
Tracklist: Psychedelic Choir (2:53), Folk Movie (3:13), Pizz (3:22), O’boy (2:03), Out of Control (3:20), Synthetic Song (3:08), Desert Day (1:40), Drum & Axe (4:59), ’Nam R&B (3:45), Acoustic 4 (1:42), 7/8 Dance (3:18), (F)lute (2:30), Spanish Duo (2:50), Horo (3:43), Quartet (2:16), Drunken Hippies (2:22), Desert Night (1:37), Violin Ballad (2:24), Mystical Kate (3:36), Song for Choir (2:05), Drums (2:17), Acoustic 5 (2:12), Folk Quartet (3:00), Jazz Piano (2:03), Trash Jazz (4:23), Sofia Night (2:29), Psychedelic Choir-Postmodern (4:15), Final (1:09), From the Audience (0:16)
Slav de Hren is a two-man band founded by way of a chance meeting in Bulgaria in 2005. As a result, George Marinov, a stalwart of the Bulgarian underground avant-garde scene, and Svetoslav Bitrakov, a veteran of the Bulgarian rock circuit, decided to form a combo to explore a more experimental, more moody, more various type of music. Tavata is the first fruit of that union. On Tavata, Mr. Marinov handles all guitar chores while Mr. Bitrakov is the drummer and percussionist.
Unfortunately, my impression of Tavata is less than favourable, for the following reasons:
1. The CD is nearly 80 minutes long. I’ve said it before and I say it now: Anything over 40 or 45 minutes is a ridiculous offering. The best albums by the Beatles aren’t much longer than 35 minutes, so I fail to see why any unknown band, trying to establish its audience, thinks that an initial CD needs to be so long? There’s no need for this much music on a debut recording. Even if every song was an absolutely flawless gem (which is decidedly not the case with Tavata), I still only want 40 minutes of them. Even Yes, which I consider to be a highly adventurous band with great ideas and great delivery of those ideas, wears me out with the longer albums. How about saving something for the sophomore release, gentlemen?
2. At the risk of being labelled a racist (which I’m not), I will say that this CD suffers from a problem that I find in many recordings that come to me out of Eastern Europe: It sounds dated and canned. I always suspect that Eastern Europe must have found popular those elements of Western music that were most quickly cast off (e.g., synth pop, drum machines, etc.) and has latched on to them with nostalgic glee. The MIDI sounds (novel as they may have been in the mid-80s) on Tavata just sound amateurish and ancient, and the whole album has the feel of tribute to the overly clean, overly compressed, overly digitized music that made MTV such a hit but which sounds very hollow and annoying in 2007.
3. The compositions are simply not compelling. There is an occasional interesting tune (e.g., Desert Day) but overall nothing on Tavata inspires a second listen. I can understand why musicians might want to make this sort of music (which at times comes over as a cross between Belew-era King Crimson and a less-ballsy Djam Karet) but I can’t understand why anyone would think this music is marketable. And there’s 80 minutes of it ...
So, I give Tavata a 4. There’s some decent playing on the CD and a song here-or-there is OK, but this will never get another shot in my CD player, and that’s all I can say, in the end.
Conclusion: 4 out of 10