The Prog Life - July 5, 2004: Guilt And The Independent Artist
by Clayton Walnum

Guilt can be a wonderful thing. Guilt stops us from stealing money from children. Guilt makes us pay our taxes (well, some of them, anyway). Guilt makes us call Mom at least once a month. As for your truly, guilt stops me from stomping on those little elf-like creatures that pee all over the kitchen floor. Or maybe it's just time for my meds.

More apropos to this column -- as well as to this writer -- is the way guilt forces one to stop procrastinating. In my case, said procrastination involves everything from completing my daily writing tasks to lifting my ass off the couch. I'm also talking about that huge pile of CDs-for-review that have taken over the living room, the den, and the bathroom, the latter location where a prog soundtrack always seems to make for good company. And I mean that only in the most respectable way!

Seriously, though, I receive few CDs for review. Most of my CDs I purchase with hard-earned cash. I do, however, occasionally receive a package from an independent band or record label who, for some bizarre reason, wants to see my opinion of their work in the pages of this glorious Web site. (Yeah, it's a mystery to me, too.) The trouble with receiving occasional review CDs is that, when you procrastinate, you (that is "me") build up quite a library of unreviewed independent CDs, many of which are actually worth reviewing.

As I gazed at this stack of CDs, I began to think. I wondered how many there actually were and whether, if I stacked them just right, I could put together a way-cool fort. As my mind wandered further and procrastination took stronger hold, I wondered how long it would take me to convince both Jessica Simpson and my wife to join me in an old-fashioned threesome. (Intensive calculations put the timeline at roughly 134.67 lifetimes, plus a couple of hours to gather the implements and heat the rubbing oil.) I then moved on to more important matters. Specifically, I wondered how I was going to give each of these CDs their due. I decided that I needed to find a common element. And that, dear readers, is exactly what I did.

I realized that the greatest common element is that all the CDs are ... made of plastic! After pondering advanced jewel-case construction theory for about two hours, it came to me that maybe plastic isn't all that interesting. I then decided that the common element is that all these independent artists are dying to get their CDs not only into the hands of reviewers, but also into the hands of anyone who will appreciate their musical efforts.

And then it hit me! A pepperoni pizza would really hit the spot right now!

Finally, I settled down to listening to the CDs, considering along the way whether someone besides the artists' mothers would want to hear them. As I worked, I noticed one thing these CDs did not have in common: the professionalism with which each band presented itself. That is, some CDs came in professionally designed and printed jewel cases, accompanied by glossy photos, whereas others "featured" hand-labeled CD-Rs packed in paper envelopes and accompanied by photocopies of photos of backyard cookouts.

The fact is that a CD's reviewer is going to treat a submission with the same amount of respect that the artist seems to have for himself. If the artist doesn't care enough, and isn't proud enough of his work, to produce a reasonably nice package, why should the reviewer care?

Yes, I know that not everyone can afford to spend thousands of dollars for CD production and press kits. However, any artist that's serious about his music has to be willing to make a reasonable investment in his product. These days, companies on the Internet can take your tracks and turn them into a respectable CD for very little cost, only a couple of dollars for each unit, in any volume you want. You do end up with a CD-R, sure, but at least it's a CD-R with a printed label and a jewel box with printed booklet and rear card. All you have to do is upload your tracks and artwork (and pay the bill, of course).

So, as I listened to the aforementioned stack of independent CDs, I decided that I'd review not just the music, but also the packaging. Every CD that follows gets a score in each of five categories: Songwriting, Performance, Vocals, Recording Quality, and Packaging. The scores are from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Any 11s you find are no doubt due to those damn elves.

Myriad - Natural Elements

Songwriting: 6
Performance: 8
Vocals: 7
Recording Quality: 7
Packaging: 8

Myriad - Natural ElementsMyriad plays progressive metal very much in the vein of Rush. Guitarist Ed Moehring is the star here, turning out everything from mellow pickings to torrid solos. This is not to take away from the other members, talented players all. Bass player Brian Cohen lacks the melodic touch of Geddy Lee, but pulls together a pounding bottom end that, along with drummer Tom Spagna, solidly anchors the band. (Once in a while, Cohen cuts loose, such as in the prelude to "Natural Elements Suite".) Guitarist Moehring handles the vocals, and while he won't flabbergast you with his prowess, he possesses a pleasant voice that he uses effectively. The CD comes packaged in a beautiful, full-color digipak. Professional all the way.

Initiation - Initiation

Songwriting: 8
Performance: 8
Vocals: 7
Recording Quality: 7
Packaging: 4

Initiation - InitiationIn terms of classic prog, what we have here is a strong cross between Yes and Genesis. In the vocal department, lead singer Mark Partyka sounds like a higher pitched Peter Gabriel. The lead vocals are fine, but I'd like to hear more harmonies, which would give the vocal arrangements additional depth. The rest of the band features John Gilbert on keys, Ric Stave on bass, and Jeff Jankowski on drums. The songs are highly derivative of Yes and Genesis, but frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn. These tunes are well written and expertly performed, sporting catchy (in prog terms) melodies and creative arrangements. The nearly professional-level recording sounds great, but needs to be toned down at the high end. The package includes a professionally produced CD, but is packaged in a slim case with a home-printed, black-and-white cover card. I'm not sure why the band chose cheap packaging for such a well-produced musical statement. I guess you can't always judge a CD by its cover. All in all, a spiffy set of 70's-style symphonic prog.

Big Big Train - Gathering Speed

Vocals: 8
Composition: 8
Recording: 7
Performance: 8
Packaging: 6

Big Big Train - Gathering SpeedComplex Yes-like stuff here, with sudden shifts from the serene to the energetic and back again. Vocalist Sean Pilkine belts the lines out like a cross between Chris Squire and Jon Anderson. Expect layers and layers of gorgeous Yes-like harmonies. The music, while solidly in the classic Yes/Genesis vein, often takes a more modern approach. Think equal parts Porcupine Tree, Yes, and Genesis, and you'll be in the right neighborhood. The recording can be a little harsh at times, but is generally fine. The packaging is professionally manufactured, although the artwork looks a little amateurish. Excellent songwriting brings this CD into competition with modern artists such as Spock's Beard and The Flower Kings. Definitely a band to keep an eye on!

Rock Star Scientist - Rock Star Scientist

Vocals: n/a
Composition: 6
Recording: 7
Performance: 6
Packaging: 6

Rock Star Scientist - Rock Start ScientistThree instrumental tracks grace this demo EP, each track in a different style. The first falls flat due to an unimpressive Tangerine Dream-like electronic outing that suffers from a naïve and underdeveloped melody. After hearing the opening track, you'll be surprised by the second, which takes off with a jazzy energy that brings to mind Herbie Hancock. Impressive piano playing on this track, as well as an interesting arrangement, with guitar and synth trading off with the piano. Finally, the third piece is what you might call prog-metal light. Good guitar work keeps this vaguely Satriani-like song moving right along at highway speeds. My suggestion: Drop the electronic compositions and go with the jazz! The packaging is professionally manufactured, although, as is often the case with independent releases, the artwork comes off amateurish.

Joseph Patrick Moore's Drum & Bass Society - Volume 1

Vocals: n/a
Composition: 7
Recording: 10
Performance: 9
Packaging: 7

Drum and Bass Society - Volume OneThis collection features a half-and-half mix of cover tunes and original compositions, mostly instrumental. A few vocals pop up here and there, but not enough to warrant a rating for vocals. (I will say, however, that female vocalist Temple Passmore's performance on the Men at Work cover "Down Under" is terrific.) Lots of interesting arrangements here, but not particularly proggy, unless you count fusion as prog. Prog nuts might enjoy this, though, thanks to the creative arrangements and lengthy instrumental passages. In addition, many musical styles crawl from the digital 0s and 1s here, although jazz seems to be the group's first love. The recording and production are spectacular; I shudder to think what this puppy's studio bill came to! The packaging, too, is fully professional.

Sugarfist - Jamais Vu

Songwriting: 8
Performance: 8
Vocals: 8
Recording Quality: 8
Packaging: 8

Sugarfist - Jamais VuConsidering its size, my home state of Connecticut boasts more than its share of prog acts -- Fates Warning, Paranoise, Scapeland Wish, Second Sufis, Crucible, and After The Fall, to name a few. Now we've got Sugarfist, too. Start with the ska of No Doubt. Mix in a little hardcore. While you're at it, toss in a good helping of Frank Zappa and Thinking Plague. Shake well with a heap of imagination and coolness. What do you get? Sugarfist! Sugarfist isn't for everyone, though. They're out there where timid ears fear to tread. But if you can dig seriously crazy sounds performed by a talented crew of adventurous players, you'll eat this up. To make this tasty treat even sweeter, the recording is top-notch and the packaging is total pro. Even their Web site is a work of art. Here's a band who's deadly serious about their careers. Way to go, Sugarfist!

That'll have to do it for this time around. I've got quite a few other CDs to cover, but my ears are ringing and my craving for pepperoni pizza has returned. We'll pick up this discussion in the next installment of The Prog Life. But before my ears cut out completely, let's listen to...

Clay's CDs in Rotation

I've been spinning a lot of CDs lately, what with trying to catch up with the aforementioned independent releases. I've also managed, though, to spend time with a couple of higher budget releases. So, if you're dying to know what's grabbed my fancy (hey, you never know), here are two goodies:

TOC - Loss Angeles

TOC - Loss AngelesI suppose you'd have to call TOC prog metal, but only by a hair. Their music isn't particularly complex, tending toward metal with a proggy attitude. In any case, these guys kick serious butt, and the songwriting is spot on. For the most part, vocalist Tuomas Nieminen echews stratospheric vocal reaches, and he doesn't much go in for those operatic bits. Still, Nieminen sounds stylistically like Dream Theater's James LaBrie, particularly in the lower register. Unlike LaBrie, however, Nieminen likes to slip a bit of hard-core growling into the mix.

The rest of the band comprises Rasmus Nora on Bass, Taneli Kiljunen on Guitar, Joiku Harmaja also on Guitar, Carl Sjöblom on Keyboards, and Snake Laitinen on Drums. These fellas pull together a powerhouse act that must be awesome live. All in all, no single musician stands out, all being competent players who don't feel a need to show off. Most guitar solos are of the melodic variety, rather than improvisational, and are never overplayed. When the music cuts loose, though, there's no doubt that these musicians can hold their own on any stage.

A few bonafide proggy moments pop up, such as some bits in the tracks "Gothamburg" and "The Blue Lady Suite." "Break-A-Neck," on the other hand, could have been included on a Pantera album, what with its crashing guitar and nearly death-metal vocal growls. Truth be told, between the stadium metal, prog metal, thrash metal, and power ballads, I'm not sure that TOC knows what kind of band they want to be, but somehow the whole thing hangs together.

One last note: Outside of "Stairway To Heaven," "Smoke On The Water" has to be one of the most overplayed songs of all time. (Add to that my having to play it in cover bands a 1,000 times, and I thought I'd never tolerate hearing it again.). But TOC's cover of this Deep Purple classic has to be heard to be believed -- a blistering remake that you better not play in your car stereo unless you want a speeding ticket.

Score: 4/5

IQ - Dark Matter

IQ - Dark MatterIQ is one of my favorite neo-prog groups, so it's with great glee that I welcome each new release. The latest, Dark Matter, does not disappoint. The music's style is along the same vein as the group's last few releases, so don't expect any surprises, just another set of well-written, Genesis-inspired tunes, with enough complexity to please classic-era prog lovers. Each track features multiple sections that slip seamlessly from upbeat fare into atmospheric sections and back again, carrying along with them the track's basic themes. Two lengthy tracks bookend the album, the first of which is nearly 12 minutes and the last of which comes in at a whopping 25 minutes.

The guitar playing throughout is reminiscent of Steve Hackett, as are the keyboards. (The closing section of the first track, "Sacred Sound," would fit perfectly on a Genesis album. The same can be said for various other moments on the album.) Peter Nicholls' pleasant vocals whisper through the dark moments, before soaring with gorgeous melodies. Melody has always been one of IQ's strongest suits, and Dark Matter's wonderful songs are no exception.

Besides Nicholls, the rest of the band -- Paul Cook (Drums), Mike Holmes (Guitars and keyboards), John Jowitt (Bass guitar and bass pedals), and Martin Orford (Keyboards and backing vocals) -- return to keep whole the usual roster of players. Together they prove that IQ is still one of the top purveyors of so-called neo-prog. I'll be playing this one a lot.

Score: 5/5

In Closing...

Pro Tools Recording GuideBefore I go, I'd like to announce the release of my newest book, Pro Tools Recording Guide. For those of you out of the loop, Pro Tools is the #1 audio production software used in home and pro studios. If you want to learn music production on a computer-based home studio, Pro Tools Recording Guide will get you going right quick. Yep, it will

Until next time, send me your proggy thoughts via email at Most importantly, keep on proggin'!

Big Big Train
Joseph Patrick MooreRock Star Scientist
Dream Theater
Fates Warning
The Flower Kings
Peter Gabriel
Steve Hackett, Paranoise
Porcupine Tree
Scapeland Wish
Second Sufis
Spock's Beard

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Published on: 2004-07-05 (2550 reads)

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