The Prog Life - October 31, 2004: Guilt and the Independent Artist, Part Deux|
by Clayton Walnum
Before I got sidetracked by the new Flower Kings album (see the previous "The Prog Life"), I was on a soap box, preaching about how important it is to produce a proper demo CD -- important, that is, if you expect reviewers to pay attention. I pissed and moaned about bands who send CD-Rs labeled with felt-tip markers, recordings that were obviously produced with a portable cassette recorder and a single microphone, and groups who think sending me a hundred-dollar bill along with their CD somehow ensures a favorable review. Of course, I'm not suggesting that you stop sending hundred-dollar bills. It costs a lot to clean my Slipperman costume.
In that previous edition of "The Prog Life," after my ranting, I set to work reviewing the independent releases that have taken over my CD shelves. That first round of independent-release reviews covered albums by Myriad, Initiation, Big Big Train, Rock Star Scientist, Drum & Bass Society, and Sugarfist. This time around, I'll pick up where I left off (which is oh so much better than picking up where I started and repeating myself). To refresh your memory, every CD that follows gets a score in each of six categories: Songwriting, Performance, Vocals, Recording Quality, and Packaging. Okay, five categories. The scores are from 1 to 10, with 10 being the highest, unless you count 11, which you can't because the scores can only go up to 10.
Azlan - First Floor
Recording Quality: 8
Azlan play a kind of poppy prog metal that sounds like a cross between Enchant and early Asia. Vocalist Isby carries the songs competently enough (though he'll never be confused with a master like James LaBrie), but it's the multi-part harmonies that really put the vocals over. Once the band gets warmed up, Azlan cranks out some smokin' tracks, but the album sometimes lacks the earnestness and energy that marks a hard-playing ensemble. They can obviously play well, but maybe they were intimidated by the studio, too controlled, rather than letting it rip and getting sweaty. Or maybe the production doesn't do the band's performance full justice. Still, this is an enjoyable album with good songs and an infectious pop-prog attitude.
Blue Moon Harem - Blue Moon Harem
Recording Quality: 9
These guys play a form of modern rock that runs the gamut from hard rock to well-crafted pop. The driving beat of the first track, "Addiction," (think a modern Deep Purple) is impossible to resist, as are the blasting guitars on "Girl On A Wire" (which brings to mind Rage Against the Machine). On the other hand, tracks, such as "Ride," "Willow," and "Dog's Life" provide sonic relief in the form of funky, slinky fare with a touch of R&B. Tracks like "Eight" and "I Am A Wall" remind me of Collective Soul. Although Blue Moon Harem don't play progressive rock, and you won't find a lot of virtuoso noodling here, their interesting songs and expert arrangements lift them above typical power-pop radio fare. The album is beautifully recorded and the songs are addictive. Some label should snap these folks up now. I think they could sell a lot of records.
Thork - Wei-la
Recording Quality: 8
Although the group's name sounds King Crimsonish, Thork, a French band, plays a dark, atmospheric type of prog that, if it weren't for the French lyrics, might make one think of the gloomier of the Scandanavian groups. The songs transition between walls of guitar bludgeons to mellower passages and back again, all within a single piece. Some of the quieter passages invoke Italian prog, but, in case you haven't figured out by my stumbling descriptions, Thork boasts a mostly original sound. The vocalist, S?bastien Penel, belts out the lyrics with an often operatic delivery that, again, reminds one of Italian prog. The musicians behind him -- Michel Lebeau on drums, S?bastien Fillion on keys, Claire Northey on violin, David Maurin on guitar and flute, and Samuel Maurin on bass and Chapman stick -- pour forth complex and passionate performances -- often on the level of masters like Gentle Giant -- that match Lebeau's skill. Lots of long tracks, one over 20 minutes. All in all, We-ila is a professional production all the way, featuring great recording and top-notch packaging. Very cool stuff and highly recommended.
Chill Faction - Eggman On The Deuce And Other Stories
Recording Quality: 6
Chill Faction is another of those bands who seem to have mastered the merging of modern rock with prog. Think of an art-rock version of Duran Duran combined with Van Der Graaf Generator, and you'll have some idea of Chill Faction's sonic contribution to the prog catalog. The dark recording could stand to be remastered, but the recording is good enough to not interfere with the listener's enjoying these unusual songs. And "unusual" is the key word here. I'm guessing this disk will appeal only to those with special tastes. Lots of crazy sounds here, albeit crazy in a good way.
Pilgrym - Pilgrimmage
Recording Quality: 7
Pilgrym is a more conventional prog group than the aforementioned Thork and, especially, Chill Faction, playing a variety of 70s-slanted tunes that have much in common with so-called neo-prog groups like Pendragon, but with a more classic, commercial bent. Think of the 70s melodic prog group Gypsy, but without the three-part harmonies that was the trademark of that previous group. Then stir in a touch of early Asia. The shrill recording has an overabundance of high end, but you can probably correct that with your stereo's treble control. The performances, like the songs, also have a strong 70s sound, with the band being more intent on the songs than on virtuoso musicianship. I can't comment on the packaging, because I believe the copy I received (a CD-R with a computer printed booklet) was meant only for promotional purposes. Based on the great artwork, I suspect that the final CD features a more professional presentation. Probably a mistake to send out a low-quality promotional package, but, lucky for the band, the music speaks for itself. An enjoyable disk for folks who gravitate to prog lite.
Life In The Sky - Illusions of Loudness
Recording Quality: 5
And speaking of shrill recordings, it's a pity that Life In The Sky didn't take advantage of a professional mastering engineer on their home-grown CD, Illusions Of Darkness -- a pity because this group plays an explosive punk-prog metal that deserves a quality recording. I'm guessing that these guys turn in a live performance that tears down the house and leaves listeners' ears dripping with gray matter. Obviously powerful and skilled, these folks need to take their recordings more seriously, because I'm guessing a lot of people would love to hear this group at their best. The packaging is just okay, with a professionally printed four-page booklet (although I'm not crazy about the artwork), and a CD-R, albeit one with on-disk printing. Recording and packaging criticisms aside, these guys absolutely cook.
Umphrey's McGee - Anchor Drops
Recording Quality: 9
Saving one of the best for last, Umphrey's McGee are pro all the way, from the excellent recording to the masterful packaging. In general, this group plays modern rock with a slight prog flavor, but tracks like "Miss Tinkle's Overture" and "JaJunk, Pt.1" are prog with no "slight" about it. Lots of cool guitar riffs, inventive rhythms, and tasty production carry this disk through a set of songs that range from rocking to funky. A band they might compare with is Dreadnaught, at least the style of music Dreadnaught performed on their second and third albums. (Umphrey's McGee is nothing like the current Dreadnaught, which have moved on to an almost avant-garde sound.) When you need a break from the current crop of 1,000-note-a-second progressive rock, Umphrey's McGee is one classy way to go. A great album. (The band is currently on a national tour, so if you get a chance, pick up a ticket to one of their shows.)
Clay's CDs in Rotation
I never thought I'd see the day when more progressive albums would be released than I could possibly pay full attention to. These days, I afford many CDs only a few plays before they vanish into the CD rack to gather dust. Some releases, however, strike that all-important and mysterious chord (I think it's an E minor), drawing me back for more and more. Following are some of the CDs that have monopolized my ears for the last few weeks:
The Tangent - The World We Drive Through
Fans of the Flower Kings, and of Roine Stolt in particular, have no reason to complain about their heroes' new-release output. Not only do the Flower Kings issue a new album at least once a year, but much of the band spends their "free time" constantly involved in excellent side projects, not the least of which is The Tangent, which features three members of the Flower Kings (Roine Stolt, Jonas Reingold, and Zoltan Csorsz). Although the line-up this time around is different (notably missing is David Jackson, formerly of Van Der Graaf Generator), the music on The World That We Drive Through follows the same philosophy as the group's first release, The Music That Died Alone, which is "to build on the classic English progressive rock legacy." I think I like the first album, which maybe was more symphonic, better, but this one is also a great listen. With Roine Stolt on guitar, it's hard to lose.
Nightwish - Once
According to the press releases, Finnish group Nightwish has been tearing it up big time in Europe, earning a popularity that "ranks up there with Evanescence, U2, and Britney Spears." I can't vouch for the veracity of that statement (nor can I figure out how Britney managed to get mentioned in the same breath with Evanescence and U2), but I can say that fans of Lana Lane need to take note of this fine release. Nightwish plays a form of symphonic metal that would make Lana Lane drool, but Nightwish cranks up the energy ten-fold, not to mention combines regal orchestration and choir with their tracks. The first song, "Dark Chest Of Wonders" roars from the speakers, its sonic theatricality likely to induce shivers, and the rest of the album rarely relents. Vocalist and bombshell Tarja Turunen attacks the songs similarly to Lana Lane, but with a more operatic tone, delivering one fine performance after another. Wow!
Happy The Man - The Muse Awakens
Some of the best prog acts of the 70s toiled in near obscurity, appreciated by only a small cult of followers. An example is Happy The Man, who, based on their first two classic albums Happy The Man and Crafty Hands, deserved at least the respect garnered by Gentle Giant, if not the fame and fortune accorded to big acts like Yes and Genesis. Now these intrepid players have embarked on another chapter in their distinguished careers with the new album, The Muse Awakens, a terrific example of 70s-style prog brought into the new millennium. Along the way, the band has lost most of their quirkiness (which is unfortunate), but have gained an assurance and adroitness that places them near the top of the modern prog heap. The Muse Awakens confidently mixes modern jazz instrumentals with the complex playing that was a staple earlier in the band's career. Myself, I'd prefer that the band stuck with the proggier stuff throughout, but there's no denying that this is one quality release. Highly recommended.
Pain Of Salvation - BE
Pain of Salvation (POS) fans know that one can never guess what the band will pull off next. Just as POS were cementing their reputation as a metal band, out they came with an entirely acoustic album (their previous release 12:5). Now POS has taken an even larger step away from their metal roots and ventured into the realm of classical music. Sure, a few authentically metal moments pop up on the album, but by and large, an orchestra -- accompanied by piano and various world instruments -- perform this concept album's score, with the band seeming to provide only a supporting role. In point of fact, BE is more a Daniel Gildenl?w solo album than a bona fide POS release. One thing is for sure: BE is destined to generate controversy. But I like it, anyway.
Jordan Rudess - Rhythm Of Time
If you dig Planet X, then you absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt need to stick Jordan Rudess' latest release into your CD player forthwith. Except for a couple of vocal moments, this instrumental CD pulses with torrid energy, a prog-fusion tour de force that I can't stop playing. Rudess's first album was pretty good, but this time around, he's pulled out all the stops. The keyboard patches and patterns he comes up with are mindblowing, and, accompanied by a star-studded set of guest musicians, including Steve Morse, Joe Satriani, Greg Howe, Dave LaRue, and Rod Morgenstein, Rudess blows the doors off the studio with an intricate sound that owes more to Chick Corea's band Return to Forever (especially the Romantic Warrior album, which is still, I think the best fusion album ever recorded) and Frank Zappa than to his main gig, Dream Theater. A must buy.
Until next time, send me your proggy thoughts via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Most importantly, keep on proggin'!
Links: Flower Kings, Myriad, Initiation, Big Big Train, Rock Star Scientist, Joseph Patrick Moore's Drum & Bass Society, Sugarfist, Enchant, Asia, Blue Moon Harem, Deep Purple, Rage Against The Machine, Collective Soul, Thork, King Crimson, Gentle Giant, Duran Duran, Van Der Graaf Generator, Pilgrym, Pendragon, Life In The Sky, Umphrey's McGee, Dreadnaught, The Tangent, Nightwish, Lana Lane, Happy The Man, Yes, Genesis, Pain Of Salvation, Jordan Rudess, Planet X, Steve Morse, Joe Satriani, Greg Howe, Dave LaRue, Rod Morgenstein, Chick Corea, Frank Zappa, Dream Theater
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Published on: 2007-11-24 (1079 reads)[ Go Back ]