Album Reviews

Issue 2023-050

Morgan Brown — On Track... Van Halen

Morgan Brown - On Track... Van Halen
Jan Buddenberg

I pride myself on my memory sometimes. Especially when it comes down to my musical upbringing I like to think my memories are still very sound and solid. However, Liverpool-based writer Morgan Brown (author of another On Track book about The Damned and actively involved in the UK music scene as composer, guitarist and drummer for over twenty years) made me seriously doubt this.

I always assumed my first fling with hard rock manifested itself when Kiss stormed the charts with I Was Made for Loving You in 1979. However, I also have distinct memories of air-thumbing along to Van Halen's monster hit Runnin' With The Devil which Brown so meticulously describes and evidently points out to date back to 1978. Should this then account for the first sown seed towards my affection of heavy (metal) music?

As it turns out my memory is still intact on this bit: Running With The Devil did make it onto our charts and radio waves, but only after their storming 1980 performance at Pinkpop, which was followed by their official debut release in Holland in the same year. Probably advertised as being "Partly Dutch", in light of Eddie and Alex van Halen's Amsterdam roots, to boost sales. Since then, it has remained, at least to my knowledge, VH's most successful and popular album in my country, despite all the other huge successes and consecutive monster hits (Jump, Pretty Woman, Why Can't This Be Love) that followed.

A simple rundown of tracks that include Ain't Talkin' 'Bout Love, Ice Cream Man, and the ravishing The Kinks cover You Really Got Me still makes fans drool with excitement. Add to that David Lee Roth's partying lyrics and charismatic flamboyant personality, the highly versatile and propulsive rhythm section of Michael Anthony and Alex van Halen, and Eddie van Halen's astonishing speed and "two-hand tapping" technique as demonstrated in Eruption. That song blew everybody's mind and made him a guitar-god overnight. Brown's revelation that this song was not initially intended for the album (say what!?) is in that respect a good example of the depth with which Brown builds up his excellent news-worthy fact-filled narrative.

Picking up on that, I would have liked a little bit more intel on their discovery and demoing days with Gene Simmons, which is now quickly surpassed and only mentioned briefly. However, many of these demoed songs are Simmons-tagged when they pass the revue in Brown's meticulous analysis. A dissection which I confess is a little too perfect at times for me. As a music lover I do love Eddie van Halen's guitar sound and musical brilliance but words like "which oscillates between B sus.5th and A with an Augmented 3rd" noted in Dance The Night Away from VH II is a run-down that far exceeds my knowledge towards guitar-play. That said, the amount in which these and other chord terms are used by Brown in the opening chapters of the book do create a magnificent image towards Eddie's mind-boggling talent.

Equally illustrative are Brown's insights towards the decisions behind the many covers found on the commercially successful Diver Down and the many factors (a.o. Star Fleet Project, Michael Jackson's Beat It, exposure envy, royalty affairs, solo ambitions) that created an unrepairable rift in the band that ultimately lead to Roth's departure after the mega success of 1984 and its subsequent tour.

At this point in the book, Brown's narrative continues with similar abundance of insider information and engagingly worded appreciation towards the efforts of the band. It becomes clear he favours the Roth era to that involving Sammy Hagar, the so-called "Van Hagar" years, judged from increasing criticism towards the song material and a lesser presence of euphoric descriptions of Eddie's blistering guitar work. After the highly commercial 5150 and momentum-maintaining OU812, it is especially the songs on For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge that get slammed with comments like "overlong and overdone", "would have benefited from judicious editing", and "doesn't make for a tremendously interesting listen". Occasional harsh words for an album I personally rate second best in Van Halen's discography. Balance and Van Halen's attempt with Extreme's Gary Cherone as the band's third incarnation suffer much the same fate, although this time around I mostly agree.

But then again, tastes simply differ, and I appreciate his honest opinions. Just like I value his decision to only describe the remaining new songs of the apparently not so live Live: Right Here, Right Now, Best Of: Volume I, and The Best Of Both Worlds in separate chronologically placed chapters of their own. Elaborating on musical differences, singer situations, alcohol problems, physical breakdowns and what-not that surrounded these years and albums, Brown dodges a bullet by staying neutral towards the replacement of Anthony by Eddie's son Wolfgang. He works his way towards the band's final Roth-fronted recordings as captured on the 2015 live album Tokyo Dome In Concert with returned readable joy. He rounds of his excellent entertaining story finally with a short chapter on miscellaneous Van Halen offerings worthy of collecting.

With the passing of Eddie van Halen on the 6th of October 2020, the band obviously ceased to exist as a recording unit. But as Brown so hopefully describes in the final remarks of his in-depth read there's still an avalanche of demos and other stuff available that fans would love to hear, cherish and collect in better quality than what now circles the net unofficially. And maybe one day, the Van Halen Estate will indeed consider releases in the future. As it happens, during my read this book, a message from Cherone about an aborted second "Van Halen III" album popped up on Facebook, so who knows.

This excellent and knowledgeable book is a most entertaining comprehensive must-have for Van Halen fans. It has a strong appeal to those who like to read about the history and successes of a genuinely remarkable and highly influential, legendary band, that crafted a "world-conquering blend of heavy metal power, punk energy and pop hooks", as the back cover so rightfully states. For me, it's time to re-assemble my nostalgia compilation CD of hard-rock's greatest again, starting off with personal favourite Atomic Punk, which I only once witnessed live when Roth in 1999 set the Paradiso in Amsterdam on fire! So many memories...

La Maschera di Cera — La Maschera di Cera

La Maschera di Cera - La Maschera di Cera
La maschera di cera (19:21), Del mio mondo che crolla (6:00), Del mio abisso e del vuoto (9:41), Del mio volo (7:07)
Greg Cummins

For my money, the country that produces some of the finest progressive rock music since the late 1960s up until today would have to be Italy. Their innate ability to infuse what is tantamount to the most emotive and impassioned vocal style just short of pure operatic bliss, is something that even the mighty English prog rockers could not achieve on a regular basis. Sure, we enjoyed Peter Gabriel (Genesis) and Peter Hamill (VDGG) and others but no other country had the consistent vocal enthusiasm / emotion like the Italians did. To say I am a humongous fan of all things when it comes to progressive rock from Italy, would be an understatement. There is hardly an album or band from that region that I don't have except possibly the most obscure or unheard of artists or those below the 3rd tier. So I believe I have enough of that country's output to feel more than satisfied with what I hear. And what I hear from the Italians rarely leaves me disappointed. La Maschera di Cera is one classic example of that level of sophisticated progressive rock bliss that I simply lap up in copious quantities.

For those unaware of this band, they are led by Fabio Zuffante who has put his name to an extraordinary amount of co-operative projects including, Höstsonaten, Aries, Finisterre, Zaal, Rohmer and La Zona along with the Merlin project from 2000 called The Rock Opera. His solo work, while involving a handful of albums, don't seem to rate so highly on the web which is understandable as the synergy he is able to generate with the main members of his other major groups, ensures plenty of musical brilliance when there are more people involved to create something that is truly captivating. To enable such brilliance, we see the inclusion of some extremely talented musicians who have been with the band for many years. These include Alessandro Corvaglia (lead & backing vocals), Agostino Macor (Mellotron, piano, prepared piano, organ, Moog, harpsichord, VCS 3 synth), Andrea Monetti (flute), Marco Cavani (drums, timpani, percussion), whilst Fabio handles bass and acoustic guitar, along with some mediocre vocals on two of the bonus tracks (6, 7).

From the outset, the band have attempted to resurrect some of the essential ingredients from the 60s / 70s Italian progressive rock scene and meld those with some more updated concepts from the current century. In most ways, they have really achieved this goal as the music on their debut album injects so many similarities from the heyday of Italian prog by paying homage to the biggest names in the business. By these names, I am of course, referring to Le Orme, Banco, PFM, Semiramis, Il Balletto di Bronzo, Museo Rosenbach, Delirium, Metamorfosi, Quella Vecchia Locanda, Raccomandata Ricevuta Ritorno, Il Rovesco della Medaglia, Locanda delle Fate, Maxophone, Acqua Fragile, Campo di Marte, Murple and countless others. Due to the extensive use of the Mellotron, a nod in the direction of Sweden's Änglagård is also not out of place as that band began a similar journey in 1992 when they unloaded that excellent debut called Hybris onto an unsuspecting audience.

The band recently released a newer version of their debut album which contained 4 brilliant, lengthy tracks, but have included an additional 4 songs that add a total of over 27 minutes to the whole affair. These include a 3-minute demo snip taken from the opening lengthy song, along with three demo / alternative versions of the remaining songs. Whilst the first extra song is quite reasonable, sadly the additional tracks that feature Fabio on vocals are not quite up to standard. His voice is often lost in the mix and sounds quite muddy, out of tune and if truth be told, an embarrassingly pointless addition to what would otherwise be an excellent album if left in its original version. By all means, send it through the remastering washing machine along with a lengthy tumble dry but please leave any superfluous editions that don't add much value for money and let the fans enjoy the album as it was originally intended to be heard. Admittedly, the musical side of these extras is quite fine but the vocals are just dire and are probably simply left unplayed. The 8th track, Del mio volo returns with Alessandro thankfully holding the mic and to the band's credit, this version is the only one really worth being added.

This album simply drips with an insane amount of incredible synthesizer flurries, swirling organ and some truly brilliant Mellotron. So if they are amongst your preferred styles of instrument, you'll be in seventh heaven with this album. Sadly, too many bands see the need to incorporate an excessive amount of grungy guitar to the mix but as keyboards predominate here, thankfully, the band don't fall into that trap. Additionally, there are no insane guitar gymnastics here either but as Agostino handles the keys so well and Andrea adds some tasty flute when needed, you won't notice the omission of a lot of guitar.

Fabio's bass is of course, brilliant right throughout the album with its grinding and thunderous influence punctuating each song. He really is a monster player and a great songwriter too, no less. Finally, a huge amount of this album's appeal must surely be directed towards Alessandro Corvaglia as his voice is one of the finest of any Italian vocalist I have ever heard and suits this band's music perfectly.

If you have not yet dipped your toes into any Italian progressive rock music, irrespective of what time period, then this is one exceptional album that comes with a highly recommended sticker. Just skip the 6th and 7th tracks and be contented with the original versions.

La Maschera di Cera — Il grande labirinto

La Maschera di Cera - Il grande labirinto
Il viaggio nell'oceano capovolto (parte 1) (13:45), Il grande labirinto (9:43), Il canto dell'inverno (3:00), Ai confini del mondo (12:41),
2023 bonus tracks: La consunzione (single edit) (3:36), Il grande labirinto (alternate version) (9:35)
Greg Cummins

I vividly remember as a young twenty-year-old, my visits to the used-record shops of Sydney would unearth all sorts of amazing gems that I had not been aware of before. Due to my insatiable appetite for progressive rock music from any region, I used a simple formula that worked for me flawlessly for many decades of record collecting. I would look closely at the song titles to ensure the material was not just another wannabe rock band playing simple, play by the numbers, 3-minute songs of questionable quality. If the rear of the album cover revealed longer songs with interesting titles then I would check out the list of instruments used. If the band included e.g. a lot of keyboards, bass pedals, flute. violin along with the usual guitar, drums, bass and vocals then I would take a punt on the album even though I had not heard any songs from it before buying it. Thankfully, during the 70s there were a lot of bands producing an amazing amount of quality prog and as many music fans often failed to understand the concept of progressive rock music in general, they would often discard these "unknown" albums for a pittance at the used record shops. Quite often the previous owner may have only played said record once or twice so more often than not, any gems I picked up were in mint condition. Thankfully, the used record shops were none the wiser about a lot of progressive rock albums, especially from Italy. So it was a no-brainer for me to take a punt on an unknown album for only a dollar or three. I always walked out of these shops with dozens of albums each time I visited.

I literally discovered hundreds of bands that had rarely been sold in Australia including PFM, Banco, Le Orme, Fireballet, Ethos, Acqua Fragile, Ange, Arti & Mestieri, Cressida, David Sancious, Dixie Dregs, Druid, Eloy, Fruup, Omega, and Maxophone to name a few. Needless to say, I was totally blown away by what I heard from these bands so undertook the task of accumulating as many albums and CDs from within this genre as I could possibly find. That undertaking still persists to this day although the format has changed to more modern forms of media.

Can you imagine my intrigue when I discovered La Maschera di Cera's second album while travelling through Italy some years ago? I saw the following instruments being used on the back cover; Mellotron, grand piano, prepared piano, Fender Rhodes, Hammond, Minimoog, harpsichord, clavinet, ARP Odyssey, Oberheim OB12, VCS 3, Roland analogic synth, guitars, all played by Agostino Macor (Finisterre / Höstsonaten). I knew this was right up my cul-de-sac. Needless to say, I bought the CD but had to wait 3 months until I got back home to Australia to play it.

When I finally opened the CD, my initial spins were, to be honest, a little disappointing as I found the first track took some time to get going. Thankfully, it picked up momentum and finally gave birth to one of the most endearing songs on the album. This is in no part due to the excellent vocals of Alessandro Corvaglia who injects so much passion into his craft. There is a little excessive noodling part way through the song but the infectious chorus and brooding sounds of the mellotron make up for that to a degree. As the song is almost 14 minutes in duration however, I feel a few minutes could have been clipped without it losing any integrity.

This was an album that took a considerable amount of time to really envelop my thoughts as it does have quite a few sections where it seems some excessive noodling and uncertainty crept into a few pieces of the music. This could be due to an affect I felt where the song was going nowhere so the team simply blow relentlessly on the flute, smash the cymbals intermittently and use the keys to twiddle a bit but eventually the band regain composure to finally complete the track. As others have said before me, this album sure takes time to sink in and may not appeal as quickly as their debut or indeed, their later albums.

The title track is a little grungier with a lot of demented bass to begin proceedings accompanied by some flurries of flute and keys but when the vocals start ascending to the higher levels, you simply listen in awe at how much control Alessandro has. Midway through, the rhythm changes direction and the mellotron accompanies a simple rock riff that introduces the next section. Plaintive vocals carry the track again with a new riff but this then meanders along underpinned by flute and piano for the remainder of the song. The ending is a little bit of a let-down really.

An adventurous riff played on the piano in the lower registers introduces song number 3 but by the time it reaches the middle, a brief interlude with oboe introduces a small pattern that is repeated on the album later on.

The 4th song, Ai confini del mondo is without doubt one of the finest tracks on the album and despite its over 12-minute duration, it doesn't get bogged down like some of the others have. The chorus is just sensational and when infused with such emotion from such an accomplished singer, it really doesn't get much better than this. Fabio's grinding bass is also worthy of note as it reminds us how delicate lyrics and singing can sit in harmony with some other more aggressive accompaniment. It works really well here. The keyboards also remind me of some of the more musical wonders that Tony Banks might concoct so kudos to Agostino for emulating such a master so well.

This then introduces the 2nd part of the opening track and at over 22 minutes in duration, this attempts to take us on the remainder of the journey. And what a journey this is. With loads of swirling organ, grinding bass, excellent vocals and keyboard brilliance, the song then picks up the same tune that was introduced at the end of the 3rd track but allows it to build in intensity until its final conclusion.

For this 2023 release the band have included a single edit version called La consunzione which at a little over 3 minutes gives us a small idea of what the lengthier part of the album will reveal. The vocals on this version are simply sensational.

To add some spirit to the punch bowl, the inclusion of a 9-minute alternative take on the song Il grande labirinto completes what is arguably one of the better songs to be re-worked in this manner. This version is an instrumental one, so we miss the excellent vocals found on the original, but it still adds another interesting perspective to what is still an amazing album.

The value to a serious collector of progressive music of many bands from Italy simply cannot be understated with such a great band as we are discussing today. These guys are at the top of their game on every album they have released so if you have yet to experience anything from Italy yet, this album will surely whet that appetite.

Oiapok — OisoLün

Oiapok - OisoLün
OisoLün (2:21), Summer 19 (6:46), Les Grands Equipages de Lumière (6:03), Le Concierge (7:28), Frogs Might Disappear (8:42), So Empty It Looks Real (7:16)
Martin Burns

According to their press release Strasbourg based Oiapok "is the result of the artistic crush between Pierre Wawrzyniak (compositions, bass), Guillaume Gravelin (harp, arrangements), and Mélanie Gerber (vocals)".

Their debut album OisoLün displays well the interplay between their unusual line-up. As well as the three founders you get trombone (Etienne Agard) and trumpet (Fréderic Durrmann) alongside Matthieu Lenormand (drums) and Stépane Galeski (guitars). They also make a feature of Jacopo Costa's vibraphone, marimba, and percussion. The mallet instruments recall the Zappa albums that featured Ruth Underwood's vibes playing. Some of these guys have played together before in Wawrzyniak's previous jazz-fusion outfit Camembert, who released two albums in the 2010s.

Oiapok, promo photo

The album is concerned with ecological states, but they do this in subtle, poetic way rather than hectoring fashion. Oiapok produce an eclectic mix with Mélanie Gerber's luminous otherworldly vocals taking centre stage above an instrumental basis of alternative art-rock, jazz but not jazz in that Frank Zappa way, and early progressive psyche-rock. The songs are detailed, well mixed and produced. In general, the songs with French titles are sung in French, the English ones in English, except for the English lyric to Le Concierge.

These songs never get much above mid-paced. You soon get into the relaxed nature of the music that is often offset by the fierce viewpoint of the lyrics. There are points of extra interest throughout. There is a Bretton Celtic feel to the acoustic guitar strum and whistling on So Empty It Looks Real. On Le Concierge fusion bass, trombone, harp, and vibes produce a strange psyche meets funk. All the songs have good melodies.

The album occasionally heads into quirky feyness. However, it does grow on you with the odd turns in the arrangements. The joy of Oiapok's OisoLün is in luxuriating in the musical detail.

Album Reviews