Album Reviews

Issue 2024-022

Duo Review

Ulysses — Neronia (30th Anniversary Remaster)

60:59, 50:33
Ulysses - Neronia (30th Anniversary Remaster)
CD 1 (The Original Album): Vagabond Child (7:52), The Sunday Rising (6:43), Teenage Sweethearts (9:10), Where The River Runs (3:53), Mistinguett (4:57), Days Gone By (10:04), (i) Lost to this World (1:20), (ii) Forever Lost (4:48), Freedom Will Be Mine (12:12)
Jan Buddenberg

Saturday the 29th of October 1994 is a day I will always remember. Why? Well, this was the day me and three of my closest friends attended the second 'Aurora Borealis' festival at the Noorderligt in Tilburg and witnessed in playing order, if memory serves me right, PTS, Ulysses, Collage, and finally Shadowland. As to the reason why we all travelled the distance for those bands I don't exactly recall. But I'll never forget how four blissfully unaware prog fans each set a personal best in crowd squeezing to experience Collage from upfront the stage.

In hindsight one of the reasons might well have been the wishful thinking that Tracy Hitchings, who appears as lead/backing vocalist on two Neronia songs, would be there to perform with Ulysses. Stealing my heart for the first time when she in 1990 played with Quasar at the Paradiso (Amsterdam), a captivating performance which urged me to unsuccessfully claim it back the next day at Noorderligt, I did try to see her in the act as often as I could. Alas, she wasn't there that day. Neither was Ulysses' original Australian vocalist Gerard Hynes who by then had been replaced by Marc Jost. Unaware of this at the time he, together with other members Thomas Diehl (keyboards), Ender Kilic (bass), Mirko Rudnik (guitar) and Robert Zoom (drums) played a solid show, but that's as far as my recollections go after 30 years.

Listening to the freshly remastered 2CD re-issue of Neronia instantly brought this night and many other precious musical mementos back in a flash. One of those being the uniformity in sound production that accompanies many of the albums recorded at Thin Ice Studios during those days. I won't go as far in stating it was all down to the hands of Clive Nolan, Karl Groom and Steve 'Mr. Sound' Rispin. But if one compares Casino, Tracy's solo album From Ignorance To Ecstasy and early Landmarq albums to Ulysses' effort one will notice quite a few sound and atmosphere similarities. This is for instance best heard in the instrumental Mistinguett which opens in enchanting Landmarq fashion with refined piano and uplifting melodies before it smoothly glides into melancholic guitar parts and subtle harmonious interplay that finales in a delightful passage that shines with 1984/1985 Pendragon prime.

As a perfect representative of the neo-prog era Vagabond Child opens with funky bass, guitar and playful synths that remind of contemporaries Chandelier, and then goes on to offer splendidly arranged dynamic neo-prog with charismatic vocals and lush swirling synths that next to imagery of Eurhybia brings guitar chords and brightness in melodies strongly reminiscent of mid 1980s Marillion. The latter's influence also comes to the fore in The Sole Creation from their eponymous 1991 demo, included in full on the second CD, and the subsequent The Sunday Rising where after imprints of Galahad and Deyss guitar melodies converge into a musical recital that on any given day will have Marillion fans think of a song like Chelsea Monday. The demo version included on the bonus CD, featuring original member Jesper Stannow on drums, even surpasses this in feel and atmosphere thanks to a memorable Rothery touch by Rudnik.

Another superb composition with Marillion influences at its core is the richly varied and well construed Freedom Will Be Mine. Opening with a swaying feel of Folkiness it successfully builds momentum into a more aggressive style of neo-prog which in drive and sound reflects French Ezra while rawness in melody and vocals brings memories of Tamarisk pleasantries. After which an intricate emotive bridge and great solo by Rudnik guides melodies to a most satisfying finish.

Days Gone By's musical narration is also crafted with variation and enticing synth runs complemented by fine guitar work which will please many an old school Arena fan. A band whose foundations may well have been laid on that aforementioned illustrious night according to the elaborative insightful accompanying booklet. Offering further variation are the songs Where The River Runs and Lost To This World / Forever Lost in which Ulysses shy away from their neo-prog inspired environment into engagingly shaped sensitive acoustic works that provide a perfect vehicle for Hynes' emotional voice. Always a joy to hear her voice it's especially Tracy Hitchings' heavenly harmonies in Forever Lost that brings a captivating dimension to Ulysses sound.

She repeats this role in the opening stages of the adventurous Teenage Sweethearts, which is crafted with great guitar melodies and thriving like Steve Leigh's (Optimum Wave, Tamarisk) keyboard magic. When she takes over the lead vocals, she almost single-handedly elevates this delectable adventurous Marillion-inspired pinnacle composition into a thing of exceptional beauty and, in hindsight, presents a breathtaking preview of what Landmarq under her beguiling guidance would ultimately achieve on Science Of Coincidence. It finally rounds off with a magnificent guitar solo and a sublime coda in which harmonies between Hynes and Hitchings fully enchant. This glorious song is worth the price of admission alone, and it is also presented as a remix and in demo form excluding Tracy's presence. If only there was more...

There actually is, without Hitching's involvement admittedly, because Ulysses continued to write new compositions. Some of which actually played in Tilburg. Sadly though personal circumstances and line-up changes shortly after started to take effect on the band and early 1996 they decided to split up. A few members temporarily managed to find shelter in a newly formed group Neronia, still active today, but as far as Ulysses story is concerned that's where it all ended.

Until now that is because recently Ulysses regrouped and spoke out their intention to release more of their music in future. A foresight I personally very much applaud because this delightful gem of an album has surely whetted my appetite for more.

All in all this highly recommendable debut by Ulysses is a beautiful piece of neo-progressive history and will especially appeal to (neo-)prog fans who like to (re)discover and experience what the 90s prog movement was all about.

Jerry van Kooten

I was one of those friends Jan mentioned above. We would not travel that distance to Tilburg for PTS or Shadowland, and Collage we didn't know at the time (but instantly became fans that night). The third friend most likely had the Ulysses CD and convinced us to go. We are still thankful for that.

With a 30th anniversary edition on the headphones, it's a great way to look back and see how the album has stood the test of time. The live performance made an impression, and the reason why was still audible when hearing back the live recording. Already back then, we thought this band had something special, something out of the ordinary. Of course, it is a matter of taste whether you like that, but we did, and I still do.

The production from Thin Ice Studios speaks volumes. Nolan, Groom, and Rispin must have recognised something as well. The music overlaps, of course, with the neo-prog style that was often recorded there. But to me the songs on Neronia stand out in a few ways. Part of the reason for that must be the fact that Ulysses were from Germany. Even though British neo-prog was being heard all over Europe by now, Germany has its own rich history of progressive music. Another part might be the lack of a British music press, who were the (only?) ones to put a bad name to what became known as neo-prog.

You'll hear elements that you will also hear in several British bands like contemporary Marillion and Landmarq and perhaps Tamarisk and some Pallas. Some of the keyboard sounds that remind me of those names, everything just being highly melodic.

The songwriting was a little different, though. There are more acoustic parts, the songs take their time evolving, building up a tension. There is a bluesy background adding a warmth elevating the technical side of prog rock music. Here some Eloy shines through, in the way you feel there is an understanding of the blues and emotional music.

The warm sound of Gerard Hynes's voice sounds very pleasant (it took quite a while before I realised it was not him singing at that concert, which says something about his replacement Marc Jost as well) and was not particularly stereotypical for the genre, and the storytelling lyrics about real-life experiences, down-to-earth topics depicted with a poetic layer.

The original album has now been remastered and all songs are on this album, but Teenage Sweethearts and Days Gone By also received an edit, and I think a slight remix, that result in slightly shorter versions on disc 1. The original versions, but remastered, are on disc 2. Disc 2 also contains a remix of Forever Lost, which on the original was coupled with Lost To This World. The album sounds as fresh as the original sounded at the time, at least in my memory. I would think the same of this album if it were released today.

Collectors take note, the band's first official demo from 1991 has been included. The first three tracks on disc 2 have been doing the round on tape for all those years, but here's the official reissue of those. An excellent insight into their early days, and proof the band and their compositions were already strong before the influence of Thin Ice.

So how has this album taken the years? Sometimes the fact that a band's one and only album adds to the mystery, but listening to this album with fresh ears and an open mind still makes me appreciate the melodies, the song structures, the warmth of the sounds and voices. It was a great album and it still is.

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