Wednesday, August 26, 2015

2014: Albums worth checking out for yourselves

Albums that are, in my opinion, over-rated:




IQ The Road of Bones

I own the special edition double CD release of this album, so my review is somewhat slighted by the "overall" impression that this collection of songs has left me. The Road of Bones contains a lot of very polished neoprog. None of it is very sophisticated. Most of it is fairly straightforward and repetitive with the occasional pleasing twist or turn. Peter Nichols' vocals are very clear and easy on the ears yet they lack whatever it takes to get the listener really engaged and excited.
      I find myself most drawn to the keyboard work--which is most often fairly simple though very lush and fully-filling of the aural landscapes. Mostly, I guess I just like the sounds and tones used by Neil Durant.
     The album does have a few gems--and, IMHO, they have improved their delivery from Frequency--though many of the "hooks" used effectively on that 2009 album are again used here. From Disc 1, "The Road of Bones" (8:32) (9/10) is great, beautiful, mature. The epic/show piece "Without Walls" (19:16) and the Wind and Wuthering-like "Ocean" (5:55) are both nice songs but neither leaves me with adrenaline pumping, neither lures me back for the "replay" button push.
      From Disc 2, "Knucklehead" (8:11) (9/10) is the best--offering the most complex and exciting music of the entire collection. Both "Hardcore" (the first half) (10:53) and "Until the End" (12:00) reminds me too much of Frequency's best song, "Ryker Skies." The rest of Disc 2's songs are a step below the offerings on Disc 1. The instrumental, "1312 Overture" (4:18), is engaging but it makes me feel as if the band is going through a rhythmic warmup exercise. The acoustic guitar play on Disc 2 and use of programmed drums gives the music a cheesy lounge New Age music sound. "Ten Million Demons" (6:10) leading the best of the rest. "Constellations" (12:25) sounds like it came right out of Genesis' And Then There Were Three/Duke era--I mean, straight out, sometimes note and sound-for note and sound.

Overall, The Road of Bones is a pleasant listen even if it doesn't excite me enough to extoll its masterpiece status. Still, I do recommend prog lovers give it a listen.



OPETH Pale Communion

This is a good album. The mixes are a bit off--vocals and drums often mixed too far back. Performances are top notch but they feel too often a bit too "heavy prog by numbers." The b vox are less-than inspiring as are some of the leads. And drummer extraordinaire Martin Axenrot doesn't have as many mind-blowing moments as I heard on Heritage. The electric guitar work is solid and shines most in its workman like steady-riffing. I was one of the few who really enjoyed (enjoys) Heritage. The folky, acoustic side of Opeth--like that of "Elysian Woes"--has always been what has drawn me in most to this group. The organ play on the album opener, "Eternal Rains Will Come" make it a pleaser. "Cusp of Eternity" is the one that best showcases Martin's drumming prowess--and feels the closest to the beloved Opeth of "old." The Goblin tribute is awesome. (It's nice to see more people acknowledging the genius of that Italian band). "River" could almost come from a Wishbone Ash album from the 70s. "Voice of Treason" is enjoyable but feels like . . . it's been done. "Faith in Others" is probably my favorite from this album for its dynamic range and the way it showcases the vocal variety of Mikael Akerfeldt. The album's "epic," "Moon Above, Sun Below" just never comes out and grabs me, kind of meanders and morphs around without ever seeming to know where it's going.
    This is a 3.5 star album that I will continue to listen to--though I have the suspicion that it will not hold my interest for very much longer. There's just too much other really good, fresh music that this has to compete with. In my opinion, there is nothing special here!



LUNATIC SOUL Walking on A Flashlight Beam

I was quite surprised at the palpable excitement I felt as I opened this album. I am equally surprised at my dramatic feelings of disappointment as I listened--as each song failed to meet my simple expectations: that Lunatic Soul's fourth album continue to show the signs of growth as the previous three had adequately done. Mariuz Duda's excellent and gifted voice isn't even put to good use until the third song!

1. "Shutting Out The Sun" (8:39) A lot of scratchy old-sounding samples and sounds drawn out offer an overly long development. The final 20 seconds are the best part! (7/10)

2. "Cold" (6:58) again I am disappointed with all of the old samples--including the rhythm box beat. Sounds like an early Kraftwerk song taken over by Alan Parsons Project. (7/10)

3. "Gutter" (8:42) the baseline bass riff is nice though it feels borrowed from a RIVERSIDE song. Awesome work in the fifth minute! And finally we get to hear the full power and talent of Mariuz Duda's voice! And I love the late entry of the keyboard wash at the 7:00 mark. (Why must Mariuz wait to the end of the songs to amp things up?!) (9/10)

4. "Stars Sellotaped" (1:34) is a very cute little spacey "outtake." More of this! (9/10)

5. "The Fear Within" (7:10) is an instrumental based on a simple and repetitive weave of a variety of tuned percussives--glockenspiel, wind chimes, Blue Man Group PVC tubes, to name a few. The stringed instrument that enters at the beginning of the third minute and, a little later, the "distant" industrial synth kind of disrupt the initial feel and mood bringing in an unsettling feel--which may be appropriate considering the song's title. The final two minutes follow the now-established "distant" industrial synth as an picked acoustic guitar plays over the top and, gradually, takes over--until the song's final minute, in which some very eerie synth washes, warbles, wooshes and whispers fill the void. (7/10)

6. "Treehouse" (5:31) begins with an electric piano's very simple chord progression. Mariuz' treated voice begins singing what feels like a fairly straightforward pop song. Straight time rock drum and bass beat joins in. The song often feels like it's beginning to unravel but then it seems to come back together again. Nothing very exciting or ear-catching happens for the first 3:10. Then a quite space with simple acoustic guitar strummed chord progression backs Mariuz dreamy voice--until the rock format returns at the four minute mark. (7/10)

7. "Pygmalion's Ladder" (12:02) opes with an ominous (promising!) guitar arpeggio progression--which is all too soon ruined by some cheap Middle Eastern "horn" (or fuzzed guitar) sound. By 1:30 the backbeat has become more like a classic Tangerine Dream keyboard-led sequence. Were the intermittent appearance by the annoying "horn" sound and it's equally grating melody removed from this song it might be pretty decent! In the fourth minute the foundation falls back to bass and arpeggiated guitar as a good (if typical) Mariuz vocal enters. The "chorus" at the 4:45 mark is a bit of a step down and then it's followed by an odd bridge of alternating synth (choral) chords and a disappointing fuzz guitar solo. Another shift at 6:18 while the Mike Oldfield-like muted fuzz guitar continues to solo. The eight minute shifts again into even more Oldfield-sounding territory. The section beginning around 8:14 is heavier and packs the kind of power and drama that one expects (and wants) from a Duda project. A beautiful little interlude of delicate sounds (arpeggiated acoustic guitar and kalimba) sets up a crashing entry into the near-end crescendo.
     Though this song is in constant forward development with very little thematic recapitulation, it just fails to ever really "get there." (8/10)

8. "Sky Drawn in Crayon" (4:59) is a ethereal vocal sung over finger-picked acoustic guitar and some various and sundry incidentals--playground children noises, midi-keyboard melodies, cyber-computer click/pop noises. This one never really gets anywhere. (7/10)

9. "Walking on a Flashlight Beam" (8:11) is a(nother) dull song until the Robert Smith/Cure guitar riffs of the last two and a half minutes. (8/10)

The antiquated sound samples used here feel so out-dated and simple and could have been so much more sophisticated. Plus, Mariuz' Lunatic Soul project seems hello-bent on taking the ANATHEMA Post Rock approach: taking simple melodies and rhythms for foundations and then slowly--sometimes painstakingly slowly--building over and around them. Unlike Anathema, however, Lunatic Soul's songs never seem to get anywhere--each song ends with me asking, "What was the point? What was the message? What was the intention?"
     As much as I like music like this that develops slowly, using space and time to convey a message with delicate timing, I'm beginning to think that Lunatic Soul lacks the vision to make lasting statements with their songs. Maybe they're tired. I cannot remember the last time I was so disappointed with an album I so highly anticipated.

2.5 stars. Definitely an album I feel deserves the "for collectors only" label.




LOGOS L'enigma della vita

Italian prog rockers have come up with a polished, well-produced album of mature prog compositions. The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway/Trick of The Tail-era GENESIS sounds and loud and clear engineering make this, to my ears, more akin to the Neo-Prog vein than RPI. The drums, keys, recording techniques and song structures feel so much like GENESIS 1975.

1. "Antifona" (2:03) (9/10) sets the mood for the album with dark, ominous synths and incidentals before a volume pedal-controlled guitar lays down some nice play. The song then bleeds into song

#2. "Venivo da un lung sonno" (9:09). The addition of bass and drum rhythm section to the opening song's mood gives this a sound and feel like the foundation of "The Grand Parade of Lifeless Packaging" only with the sometimes lead guitar of David Gilmour. At 3:30 the song goes through a nice little shift with arpeggiated electric guitar notes. At 4:15 the entrance of the vocals of Luca Zerman brings to mind the voices of Ira Davies of ICEHOUSE, BRIAN FERRY, and even a little of THE DOORS' Jim Morrison. At 5:30 it returns to its original instrumental format. It is a very nice, steady and engaging, mostly instrumental song. Nice guitar play and band support throughout. (9/10)

3. "In fuga" (5:41) is a pleasant if straightforward and repetitive instrumental with keys and guitars trading solos throughout. (7/10)

4. "Alla fine dell'ultimo capitol" (9:20) fades in just like a classic Lamb Lies Down on Broadway song--heavy in mellotron and volume controlled guitar. Once the intro has passed and the song enters into its lyric-supporting section it loses a bit of its edge and becomes somewhat "by the numbers" prog. The organ and guitar spurt beginning at 3:28 are "Watcher in The Skies" like for a second before devolving into support for a fairly straightforward blues way-pedal guitar solo. The rather slow straight-time base shifts but continues in a kind of plodding way until 6:32 when a slight shift allows the bass walking and guitar picking to weave and shine a bit. Nothing very compacted or exciting, though, even when the mellotron moves to the front and does a kind of ANEKDOTEN solo.
The final minute is a rather simple synth supported vocal outro. Nothing too earth-shattering here. (8/10)

5. "N.A.S." (7:45) opens with a bouncy almost disco (bass line) rhythm foundation with some 'heavy' electric guitar power chords. At 1:28 the song slows down, settling into an industrial KC Red-like rhythmic foundation while an ARP-like synth solo slides around over the top. At 3:30 two guitars--one a FRIPP-like sustained, the other a light pizzicato jazz plucked--take over the leads. The Fripp-like guitar puts together an interesting, dissonant solo that takes us up to the five minute mark. Such PHIL COLLINS-like ("Supper's Ready/Fly on a Windshield") drumming! At 7:25 the song bursts into a mellotron crescendo of sound as the ARP-synth finishes its long solo. Odd song! (8/10)

6. "L'enigma della vita" (7:24) opens a bit like PHIDEAUX's "Thank You for The Evil" with a low bass line and hard-hitting spacious drum line. The vocals throughout this song sound very much like those of GREG LAKE. A tempo change at 3:40 brings it back into GENESIS/PHIL COLLINS territory. At 6:00 the song almost becomes a disco-fied 70s RPI song--but it quickly switches back to Phideaux/Genesis territory till its end. (8/10)

7. "In principio" (11:27) begins like a classic acoustic GENESIS/RENAISSANCE song with fast paced electronic keyboard arpeggios which then give way to 12-string guitar and synths supporting a male vocal. This vocal is strong--in the truest Italian sense. Nice bass line and steady drum line enter around 2:45 and 3:18, respectively. The shift at 3:45 to jazzy electronic piano keyboard is at first a bit odd but it works! At 8:00 we finally get the start of some action: electric guitar solo (à la TD's "Coldwater Canyon" by Edgar Froese) and interesting drum play. My favorite song on the album. (9/10)

8. "Completamente estranei" (7:06) begins almost like a slowed down version of the song "The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway" before heavier drums and guitar strums give it a kind of THE WHO/LOVERBOY power rock feel. At 2:35 a confident electric guitar defines an interesting melody.
Another limp vocal ensues to take over for a little while until a dramatic shift occurs at 4:12. Faster, more driven, almost URIAH HEEP-like, until the ARP synth renders a nondescript melody which it then pursues over the heavy rhythm section to the songs end. (7/10)

9. "In quale luogo si fermò il mio tempo" (2:32) is a nice, almost classical, piano solo. It could almost be a composition by CHOPIN, SATIE or some Russian pianist! (9/10)

10. "Pioggia in campagna" (10:28) opens with another GENESIS-like fadein (à la "The Knife"), building beneath several layers of keyboard sounds. At 1:31 there is a key shift, then all stops at 1:46 to make way for a very latin/RPI-like vocal with acoustic Spanish guitar section. Organ and flanged electric guitar add a prog feel to the song until at 2:51 several heavy electric guitar chords present an interesting jazz guitar solo. At 3:42 everything shifts again to a more complex chord sequence and tempo to support a decent 75 second organ solo, and then a minute of echoed- and synth emulated-guitar solo. At 6:18 we get another shift into some bluesy URIAH HEEP sounds before a shift back into the vocal section, this time supported by heavier electrified instruments. A PROCUL HARUM-like organ section appears in the ninth minute. The ARP synth finishes leading the way of this anthemic song for its last 90 seconds. Definitely the band's most complex and mature composition (on this album) but I'm not quite sure what it was intended to accomplish. (8/10)

11. "Il rumore dell'aria" (2:58) presents itself as a soundtrack support to a spoken narration. It is eery and perhaps even scary in an Edgar Allan Poe kind of way. Ties into the album's opening very effectively. (9/10)

A very pleasant listening experience that suffers a bit, however, from some lackluster vocals and rather simple song structures and instrumental performances. Also, the band seems to rely more on the use of a wide variety of sounds and emotion rather than very many impressive or virtuosic soli--which is okay--Pink Floyd got away with it, right?

Without a doubt L'enigma della vita is a solid album of high quality progressive rock music.

Definitely a four star record. 82.75 on the Fish scales = Solid four stars.




PERFECT BEINGS Perfect Beings

Drifting more into the domain of quirky indie pop, Perfect Beings represents quite a refined display of songcrafting and meaningful lyrics. All songs are pleasant and listenable with some clever lyrics and catchy melody presentations. I hear a lot of sounds from the late 70s and 80s, particularly reminiscences of THE BUGGLES ("The Canyon Hill" and "One of Your Kind"), XTC ("Helicopter"), 10CC ("Bees and Wasps" and "Program Kid"), ART GARFUNKLE ("Walkabout" and "Fictions"), YES (STEVE HOWE & RICK WAKEMAN) and Pat Metheny Group ("Removal of The identity Chip"), ABC ("Primary Colors"), and LOVE AND ROCKETS ("Remnants of Shields").

I find it interesting that Johannes Luley has given up the vocal reigns cuz he has a very nice voice--and Perfect Beings collaborator-vocalist, Ryan Hurtgen, sounds an awful lot like Johannes.

Favorite songs: "Bees and Wasps," "Walkabout," "Remnants of Shields," and "One of Your Kind."

It's not my favorite album, nor do I really consider this prog--prog-related or maybe Crossover, but it is interesting. 3.5 stars rated up for quality and variety and for the fact that I recommend others try this for themselves.




GANDALF'S FIST A Forest of Fey

Despite a cast of prog all-stars as guests, this album is formulaic "prog-by-the-numbers." There is nothing new hear, despite an admirable blending of styles (folk, metal, symphonic). The electric guitar chord playing is especially disturbing as it plays out in almost every song as if a studio musician is playing the same heavily-distorted guitar, chord by chord, as if from orchestral street music. No flare, no flourish, no soul. Several of the vocals are interesting, especially Melissa Hallick on the opener, "Childhood's Ghost"--I have to admit she and that first song got me hooked in enough to give this album a thorough listen. My other favorite, as predictable as it is, is "Drifter on the Edge of tIme." This and the other folk instrumental, "Forest Rose" are, to me, the album highlights.
     Troy Donockley (of IONA, not NIGHTWISH) adds some nice touches with his wind instruments--though I wonder on songs like "Garden's of the Lost" whether band leader Dean Marsh asked him to do his best IAN ANDERSON/J TULL impression (unless that's someone else on C flute). Clive Nolan and super guitarist John Mitchell's vocals-only contributions are negligible to the over all effect. In the end there is nothing new here. There is already too much of this kind of prog out there--Neo in the extreme. As pure as Dean's intentions were, this is the kind of album that has turned me away from the Neo-Prog sub-genre. For me, prog must keep its music evolving, not merely repeating old masters and old styles.



THE D PROJECT Making Sense

Like Stephen Desbiens' previous albums this album is all over the place. Some might call it 'eclectic' I just call it unfocused and too chaotic. Virtually every sub-genre of prog--of music--seems to be covered here--sometimes within one song! Too many radical and disruptive changes in directions; too many styles. The sound production is different--thanks to Andy Jackson--but I'm not sure it's better. I've always felt that FLOYD's The Division Bell was a bit too stark, too polished, lacking some of the dynamics that are natural to microphone-recorded music--and that's how I come away from each song from this album. It's just a little too Gilmour-esque for me (though Stephen and his mates may be better musicians than Floyd's).



DELUGE GRANDER Heliotians

Once again Dan Britten has created an admirably ambitious album that falls short due to its astoundingly horrible sound recording, engineering, and reproduction. I don't know why I seem to be the only one who complains about the constant track isolation and too-quiet sound level mixing that Britten uses on all of his projects but it really detracts and distracts from my listening experience. I am always straining to hear the intricacies and subtleties of Dan's very interesting and minutely layered and detailed song structures. "Turn up the volume!" you, the reader may be screaming at me, but that doesn't work--it doesn't solve the muddled-static ness of the sound mix.
    Also, Heliotians seems to display a weakness of Dan's that I am not familiar with in his previous work: there are many instances in which a particular instrument is played (or recorded) with such an economy of effort as to feel almost rudimentary, amateurish, over-simplified to such a degree that it almost feels unfinished or a demo run of that track. Weird album.

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