Vanden Plas - Far Off Grace


Year of Release: 1999
Label: InsideOut
Catalog Number: IOMCD042
Format: CD
Total Time: 59:54:00

Let me start off by saying that Vanden Plas is and has been one of my favorite melodic/progressive metal bands of all time. That said, I?ve been a bit unfair in my initial judgement of the latest release from the band.

I've always believed that each band, if together long enough, has the potential to release that one disc that will carry their name in many memories for the rest of a listener?s musical life. I guess that the odds are with bands who put out many discs that at least one is going to attain masterpiece status to the ears of most loyal listeners. If you look at bands like Queensryche, who released Operation: Mindcrime, and Dream Theater, who released Images & Words, Angra with Holy Land, Symphony X with Divine Wings Of Tragedy, Elegy with State Of Mind, and the list goes on and on. The one thing that most of these bands have in common is that their very next release was met with less than a warm reception, and many thought that the bands were incapable of re-creating the magic. The fact is that these bands put out excellent, quality material each and every time they release a disc, it?s just that we as dedicated prog fans, demand and desire the same magic with each release. This is just not feasible.

I've become somewhat hypocritical by saying initially that Far Off Grace was no The God Thing. To be honest, it isn?t, but that doesn?t give me the right to judge it against another release when I practice and preach the opposite. So, I?ve spent more than my normal grace period with this disc to be able to explain the differences, and what caused me to react so quickly when I first got the disc many moons ago.

THE STYLE

As with all Vanden Plas discs, it's a melodic metal base with tons of progression injected into each song with class and diversity. Somehow, the band manages to take a song, give it a base sound at the core, and then inject it with some incredible, progressive elements that not only keep it interesting, but also keeping it melodically accessible and warm throughout. With Far Off Grace, the band seems to have gone back to their two previous discs, and blend in the essence of each into one disc. That means that the melodic metal approach of Colour Temple has been blended in with the highly progressive approach of The God Thing to create Far Off Grace. This time, however, the music is much more guitar oriented than ever before - heavier, crunchier, and certainly the focal point at this time. True, the guitar has always dominated the sound, but with much help from the keyboards, which seem less prominent here. The vocals have also taken a different turn in approach in that there are many more harmonies here. Someone must have decided that Andy Kuntz IS a great vocalist and wanted to hear more of his voice throughout the disc, a wise move indeed. I also notice that the vocal melodies are incredible as always, but that Andy has backed off on the aggression just a notch. He seems to be more comfortable singing in a more melodic and warm fashion than in an aggressive style which he did on TGT.

What originally threw me off when I first heard the disc are two things:- I was caught up in trying to imagine the band topping The God Thing and the first song on Far Off Grace, which is "I Can See," not only doesn?t sound anything like songs from TGT, but that it?s actually very different from anything else on FOG and that threw me for a quick loop.

The production is definitely different on Far Off Grace than on TGT, and this definitely hit me hard in the ears. I will explain this shortly.

THE BAND:

Andy Kuntz / Vocals
Stephan Lill / Guitars
Andreas Lill / Drums
Gunter Werno / Keyboards
Torsten Reichert / Bass

Stephan Lill is without a doubt, one of the most incredible, underrated guitarists on the planet at present time. His growth with each Vanden Plas disc has not only revealed his various talents, but he has given us some nice variety and surprises in his playing, and it amazes me that he can continually come up with so many different ideas with each release instead of sounding cliche and stagnant like a lot of players can get. His obvious John Petrucci influence only adds to his tremendous playing ability, and his solos become more prominent and emotional as time goes on. He certainly has turned up the crunch on this one as well, and I do believe that he is even sounding heavier than he did on TGT. I believe that Lill will become a household word internationally in the music business before long. It should be noted that Stephan wrote 9/10 of the music on the disc as well. Andreas Lill is the other standout on this disc. This guitar / drum duo is a pleasure to listen to. They are totally in sync with each other, and the drumming gets better with each release as well. Here, Andreas injects more double bass rolls into 1-2 beats as humanly possible without sounding arrogant and showy, and if there is a term called "progressive drummer," then I put Andreas right at the top of the list. I usually tend not to notice what drummers are doing mainly because I don?t know what they are doing technically, but Andreas makes you want to listen and hear what he is doing. You can?t help but hear his playing here, as it really stands out and takes control of the songs. Torsten Reichert has always been a great player, but I must admit that I can?t hear the bass as much as feel it with this release. I'd like to be able to hear and feel the bass, but the production keeps it from happening. His past accomplishments will confirm that he is an excellent player, and the fact that he has to keep time with the Lill brothers only goes to confirm his abilities.

Gunter Werno still maintains his excellent status as a player, although once again I have to admit disappointment, as his role on this disc seems to have diminished slightly from the previous works. I notice less strings, and a bit more straight ahead synth playing versus the heavy strong sound on TGT, although he does have 2 piano driven ballads here to feast on. Personally, I'd like to hear Gunter's role beefed up on the next VP disc. I'm all for crunching guitar driven sound, but I love to hear it complemented heavily with thick keyboards like Superior does with Behind.

THE VOCALS:

Since the dawn of the band I've heard people say that they either love Andy's voice or they hate it - no in between here. I've been one of the fans that loves the hell out of his voice, and his performance here is no different than on any other VP disc, although the approach is quite different. First and foremost, for those who don't know what Andy sounds like, he is a cross between CJ Snare (Firehouse) and a melodic version of Vince Neil (Motley Crue).

On Far Off Grace, Andy has gone for a more laid back approach, not singing as aggressive as he has in past releases, and in addition, there are tons more vocal harmonies found here than any other release. This tells me that he is not only confident with his ability, but that he is willing to branch out and experiment with different approaches. Fortunately, it works well here and while his vocal abilities continue to grow like the rest of the band, he writes the lyrics for all of the music as well.

THE PRODUCTION:

Here is where I was originally thrown off from loving this instantly, and also where I will get the pickiest. While I concede that I was wrong in matching this disc up musically withTGT, I do find it acceptable to say that this production isn't as good as on TGT. The very concept of progressions means change, and I understand and accept it most of the time, but when it comes to sound, I believe that a band should stick with the formula of great sound and not experiment with less than stellar sound when it was achieved previously.

The guitars still have a front row seat in the sound dept and rightly so since it is driving the sound. It's heavy, crunchy, and punchy - hard to complain about this one. The bass is a bit drowned out, but it's still heavy and pounding. My subwoofer screams with pleasure when I send a signal to it, although I'd prefer to be able to distinguish between sound and punch, but again it's hard to complain.

The keyboards have been affected first. They are back too far in the mix. I believe that a thicker, more fuller sound would have benefited here tremendously. I would have matched the keyboard with the guitar sound unless this was intentional.

The vocals have also been placed a bit too far back in the mix and I won't believe that this was intentional. I find myself straining to hear the words, and even with the added harmonies, the vocals are just too far behind the music and it is quite noticeable. The drums are recorded well, except for that dreaded snare drum sound I always complain about. With respect to the rest of the kit sound, I felt that a heavier, punchier snare would have been better for this sound, and I find the more natural, less forgiving sound of the snare only adds to the sound problems. In contrast, the kick drums are some of the best I've heard from my system. These kicks are precise, different, and exciting and rattle my room with every hit. A strange contrast between the snare and kicks and I find it disappointing to have such as disparity between the sounds.

THE VERDICT

As far as I'm concerned, Vanden Plas can do no wrong. With each and every release, the band continues to expand their horizons, and continue to amaze with their songwriting skills and excellent musicianship. If you are a Vanden Plas fan, there should be no reason not to like this disc. The songs are diverse, fun and exciting and although they have traces of their previous discs inside the songs, the band always seems to thrive on some diversity by adding twists and turns along the way to keep their music interesting and alive. Aside from my complaints in the sound dept, this is obviously preferential and may not affect most. The music and playing is first rate here, as with all Vanden Plas releases, and this one is no exception.

It's no wonder that the members of this band are always getting involved with other musical projects, as their skill level continues to rise and Vanden Plas becomes a household name in the progressive metal world.

If you thought that Colour Temple wasn't progressive enough, and thought that TheGod Thing was too progressive, then you might find some solace in the fact that this disc is a combination of both of those discs, with many more surprises along the way, including a rousing rendition of Dokken's ?Kiss of Death?, another tribute to their influences no doubt. Vanden Plas remains one of the best bands that progressive metal has to offer as we approach the new millennium, and there is no doubt that they will conquer the next decade if our predictions are right for the resurgence of this great genre.

[In October, Larry posted his initial thoughts on this disc to the PM [Perpetual Motion] board (which we reprinted here), knowing a "proper" review was to follow. Below, then, are those initial thoughts, followed by the usual additional album details. -ed.]

Song by Song...

After only having spent 1 whole day and night with this disc (I slept with it last night ), I feel that being a huge fan of this band, I can post these thoughts with confidence. I'm pretty sure that the less than God Thing stellar production is holding me back from complete total enjoyment of this disc. I also don't feel that the songs here are as strong as any on The God Thing, although you'll see that some of the songs came right from that school of thought.

The full review will come later when more people can grab this disc, but for now, here is what to expect as heard through these sensitive, Vanden Plas-trained ears. This review here will omit any references to production values (I promise I'll try) but for reader reference, I'm playing the disc through headphones to get a more intimate feel for the music - on my main system, this production is definitely weaker than anything they've done in the past. This will be reflected in the full review.

"I CAN SEE"

Not the best song to start off a Vanden Plas disc. They took a lost song from the DT / Awake tapes and spliced it right onto this disc. Everything wreaks of DT here - the music, the Portnoy drum production (oops), the Labrie approach including the harmonies. If you didn't know this was VP - you'd swear this was a lost DT track from Awake with a different singer. It's a fast song, one of the fastest on the disc, and I don't think this is a wise song to open up with. It's here that first gave me a sour taste - I was expecting that warm, fuzzy feeling I got from the "Fire Blossom" intro on TGT, but all I got was the urge to hit the FF button and hope for better. This is one of the weakest songs on the disc to these ears. Originality police will crucify VP for ripping off DT and DT / Awake fans will love this. There are few keys, all guitar and Labrie style vocals here; nothing to melt the heart.

"FAR OFF GRACE"

One of the two best songs on the disc - and I surmise that those of you who are raving over MP3s are probably hearing this song. This is a candidate for taking an unrecorded song from The God Thing and pasting it right on this disc - indeed another plus for the originality police to rip to shreds, yet another plus for us that there is hope for this disc after all. This song should have been put on TGT, with it's soft, flowing intro leading into the heavier, crunchier style that we know and love on TGT. Try to imagine "You Fly" on TGT, and this will give you pretty much what this song is all about. Still, is you're looking for a progression from TGT onto different things, don't look here - and not yet. This song is awesome and it gives me hope that the rest of the disc is going to get better.

"INTO THE SUN"

A techno-key introduction from Vanden Plas - don't worry , it works. At first, you will think that this is a song from Superior's Younique or that Superior just released a new song. With it's techno-key intro, to the Superior-like guitar crunch, this song is now showing us that VP is at least moving in a different direction with their music; well, at least some. The vocals are standard VP style, only Andy is singing a little less forceful than on previous discs, and there are tons more vocal harmonies that remind me of Huby style vox from Dreamscape. Andy is definitely going for a more soft approach than he has on previous discs, and it does contrast well with the heavy music although you don't expect it to. The keys are back, meaning back full into the music as well as too far back in the mix. Nice synth solos complementing crunching guitar work. Nice song. I'm curious to hear what people think of Kuntz's now laid back vocal approach.

"WHERE IS THE MAN"

Signature Vanden Plas - more techno-key intro as well, they seem to have liked this modern, sci-fi keyboard sound mixed in with their guitar crunch approach. This is another song right from what could be a lost track from The God Thing. Again, no change, just more of TGT without the added crunch and punch of great songs like "In You I Believe", or "Crown of Thorns." Andy's laid back singing comes through again on this song, with some thick harmonies in the background. This will cause many people to head bang but make them think they are re-visiting TGT. Off beat drums, crunching guitars, and those background techno-keys make this fun. The off-tune vocal harmonies will definitely remind you of TGT -this song is right from that disc.

"IODIC RAIN"

And here comes more techno-sci-fi keys to open up this song - and then right into a speedier DT / Awake lost track again. Fast, off tempo, and then into the DT thing with the crunching, chugga chugga guitar. Put Labrie in front of this song and you've got Awake / Part 2. If you're an Awake fan and want more, look no further because VP has got the Awake thing down to a science. Why the hell is Kuntz singing less forceful than he normally does ? I believe it's in the production. It's just hard to hear that forcefulness through the bad production, especially in the vox dept. Another nice sci-fi / synth solo on this song - there seems to be 2 of each style of song on this disc, I'll sum it up at the end. Good song, but nothing spectacular - just sounds like an Awake filler song.

"I DON'T MISS YOU"

If you have the acoustic AcCult disc, you know what this sounds like. It's a soft, piano / string / vocal ballad. This song could come from that disc as well. Beautiful ballad - piano backed with some strings and Andy singing. This will melt the female hearts for sure.

"INSIDE OF YOUR HEAD"

If you're drooling over MP3's of this disc, it's probably this song too - the ?other? great song on the disc. Now, what they've done here is take the melodic warmth of Colour Temple and mixed it in with the crunchy, bluesy style of TGT and made this song. Try to imagine ?Soul Survives? played The God Thing style and you have an idea of what this song sounds like. Again, they feel comfortable taking from their previous efforts and cloning their styles to make these songs, but I won't complain if they all came out like this one. This is classic VP, with the guitar crunch, played off beat chugga style, with the backing keys mixed in with tons of melodic warmth only with more vocal harmonies. If you get goosebumps listening to any VP song, you will get some here. They've always got one song that kicks total ass and gives you chills and makes you wonder why the magic only appears at certain intervals, and this song is magical. This gets my vote for song of the disc.

"FIELDS OF HOPE"

Vanden Plas playing Mid-Eastern influenced keys ? Yes but don't worry this works well. Straight from the land of Egypt / India comes the opening notes of the keyboards, right into another speedy, DT / Awake style song. This is another candidate for the lost tracks on Awake. It's off beat, speedy, detuned, and everything else that Awake is. Lots more vocal harmonies here - as well as on the other DT style songs, I wonder if that is coincidence? So, try to imagine some Indian / Egyptian background synths amidst some speedy, chugging, off beat guitar crunch and you've got this song. This doesn't do much for me, and I want to go to the next song right away.

"I'M IN YOU"

No - this is not the Peter Frampton title track from his hit album back in the 70's. This is the Vanden Plas song from Far Off Grace that starts off with a nice acoustic, soft keyboard, soft vocal approach that continues on with drums being added - the 2nd ballad on the disc and well done. Again, this could have come from Accult, as the singing style and softness pay total homage to that disc. This isn't as mushy as ?I Don't Miss You?, but it serves it's purpose well. Halfway through the song is a nice synth solo again, and a guitar solo to follow. The music starts to pick up as well as the solo progresses - and then back to the ballad. Nothing to melt - nothing to cry over - just a well done ballad.

"KISS OF DEATH"

Yes - this IS the Dokken tune, but why do a cover song when you are Vanden Plas trying to follow up the critically acclaimed The God Thing ? The song is well done, note for note and finally Andy is singing in that forceful tone he is known for. There is no doubt that there are Dokken influences found on Colour Temple and Andy sings wants to sing exactly like Don Dokken here and succeeds fully, but again, why?

Summary -

The chemical makeup of the disc -
2 songs from DT / Awake
2 songs from The God Thing
2 songs from Far Off Grace
1 song off Colour Temple
1 cover tune of Dokken
2 songs from Accult

This is the chemical makeup of the disc musically - the newer songs sound a lot like something that Superior might play on Younique or an upcoming disc.

Highlights
1) The Colour Temple song
2) The drum playing
3) The guitar playing

Lowlights
1) The production
2) Andy Kuntz singing mellow instead of forceful ( may be production related )
3) Not as good as The God Thing
4) The Dokken cover tune
5) The Production ( did I say that already ? ) ;o)
6) Originality police will have easy prey and feast on this one
7) Very few memorable songs

This will be a personal taste choice as to whether or not you dig this disc totally - as it stands, I hate to say ?hear before buying? to one of my favorite bands, but with Queensryche, Crimson Glory, and others getting the ?hear first? treatment, VP shouldn't feel so bad, but I do take it personally because it's bands like Vanden Plas that are supposed to ease the pain of the downward spiral of the heavyweight standards of yesteryear and show us that they are now the standard..........


Tracklisting:
I Can See (4:01) / Far Off Grace (7:03) / Into The Sun (6:32) / Where's The Man (6:10) / Inside Of Your Head (6:13) / Don't Miss You (3:51) / Iodic Rain (6:54) / Fields Of Hope (6:46) / I'm With You (6:43) / Kiss Of Death (5:41)

Musicians:
Andy Kuntz - vocals
Torsten Reichert - bass
Stephan Lill - guitars
Andreas Lill - drums
G?nter Werno - keyboards

Discography:
Colour Temple (1994)
Accult (1996)
The God Thing (1997)
Far Off Grace (1999)
Spirit Of Live (2000)
Beyond Daylight (2002)
Colour Temple/AcCult (special edition) (2002)
Christ 0 (2006)
The Seraphic Clockwork (2010)

Genre: Progressive-Power Metal

Origin DE

Added: December 28th 1999
Reviewer: Larry "LarryD" Daglieri

Artist website: www.vandenplas.de
Hits: 964
Language: english

  

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