14th August, 2008

visitorConcept albums can be nothing short of disastrous (Styx’s Kilroy was Here???). Or they can be mind-blowing, timeless classics (Pink Floyd’s The Wall immediately springs to mind). Water’s focused on loneliness. Here, Arena hone in on pain, death, redemption, humankind’s purpose, and the nature of knowledge all with a religious slant, and are assisted by The Visitor, a metaphysical concept, or spirit being, travelling through time. So, a suitably epic idea from a consistent neo-progressive band; a recipe for another timeless classic. And the result?

As far as concept albums go, this one falls somewhere right of centre. On paper it overflows with potential, but tiny flaws hold it back from reaching total greatness.

Neo-prog gets slated for its more than intimate associations with Gabriel-era Genesis. Just one listen to this record and the references to Tony Bank’s keyboard style are unavoidable and sometimes become irritating, especially on ‘Pins and Needles’ and ‘Blink of an Eye’. Secondly, Paul Wrightson’s vocals might not appeal to everyone. His accent is very middle-class English, and he tends to emphasise some words in a way that doesn’t fit the song’s rhythm. His tone also makes lines which are meant to sound aggressive, sound almost sarcastic and comical, most noticeable on ‘(Don’t Forget To) Breathe’. Also, some tracks here are quite noticeably weaker than others, namely ‘Enemy Without’.

There may be a few problems, but for the majority of the time, they get in the way like a Stop sign gets in the way of a Panzer. If you want to be niggardly then fine, but here is a wealth of incredible material here. If you’re a Genesis fan you won’t care, and the issues with the vocals could be pedantry gone mad. With a concept album, album structure is thrown into the mix; relatively easy if the concept involves a story, but this is more of a musical essay. Across the fourteen tracks, pain, death and their friends are stylishly intertwined, expressed both musically and lyrically. ‘Serenity’ and ‘Elea’ break up the album but are by no means fillers, both being highly-charged guitar leads. ‘Running from Damascus’ ties everything up, paving the way for one of the best guitar solos I have ever heard; don’t play ‘The Visitor’ from 03:15 onwards near any glaciers. They will shatter in seconds. A grand ending to match the grand opening of ‘A Crack in the Ice’.

Song structure is equally impressive (‘Double Vision’ boasts time signature changes from through 5/4, 6/8 and 7/8, and what’s more, it works), and tracks such as ‘The Hanging Tree’ have been put together with an almost motherly care; quaint minor arpeggios, crushing suspended chords, rousing choruses and powerful guitar solos create a track not epic in length, but in sound. Most of the songs here are not the usual six plus minutes you would expect from a progressive rock band, but that is more due to the organisation of the album along the lines of “everything must work together”, rather than a lack of musical creativity, or longevity for the sake of longevity.

Aside from being a sophisticated and effective musical discussion of humanity’s darker aspects, one of the album’s greatest achievements is its ability to hide its flaws. Unless you’re naturally pedantic, or are reviewing the thing (or both), this is an hour long marvel.

10/10

Published on sputnikmusic, August 2008 http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?albumid=20975

14th August, 2008

Attempting a top-board dive into the rich waters of Spanish folk music, Glow smashes the bottom of the pool and bobs around lifelessly for a while. But manages to look pretty whilst doing it.

Peter White’s smooth jazz outputs are by no means stunning, but display a degree of consistency that a few artists within the genre should take note of. So, mixing Peter White’s dependability with Spanish atmospheres and Latin scales sounds quite intriguing. And it is, so long as you don’t listen to the album all the way through.

glowDon’t get me wrong, there are some real shimmers of sunlight here. ‘Who’s that Lady?’ is by far the best track on the album. A sexy, steamy, sax-led piece with a stalking beat, it features a melody which glides effortlessly between the provocative and the delicate, building to a sax solo straight out of the Richard Elliot (alto saxophonist) book of sophisticated seduction. ‘Glow’ can only be described as achingly quaint, and ‘Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)’ is reflective and free to wander though its four minutes of elegant phrasing.

It’s strange. So many albums start brilliantly and then tail of towards the end, like a painter who died during the creation of his masterpiece, leaving the world with a disappointment, and wonder at what could have been. Not so with Glow. Here, it feels as though towards the middle of the album, the artist just lost interest, almost gave up entirely, and then seemingly from nowhere managed to pluck three songs out of nothing that nearly met the high watermark of ‘Who’s That Lady?’

Independently, ‘Turn It Out’, ‘Bullseye’ and ‘Bueno Funk’ are great songs, with catchy melodies and laid back basslines, again with a Spanish feel to them. But when listened to consecutively, they sound almost exactly the same, and three tracks of Flamenco-but-in-reality-not-Flamenco is quite simply irritating. And ‘Pedro Blanco’ is quite simply an awful attempt at a bossanova.

It’s almost as if Glow was made with the shuffle function in mind. ‘When I’m Alone’ is pretty much a re-working of ‘Just My Imagination’, just as ‘Baby Steps’ is to ‘Chasing the Dawn’, except in the former there is the addition of strummed chords. Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a terrible album; there are some memorable songs and some interesting melodies. Separately, it’s exciting, but together, it’s frankly a bore, becoming background music that wasn’t composed to be background music.

5/10

Published on sputnikmusic, August 2008 http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?albumid=29757

9th August

An insatiable lust for melody and a more confident outlook make Night Grooves this award winning contemporary jazz guitarist’s finest work since Special EFX. This isn’t just a great new smooth jazz album; it’s a new smooth jazz yard-stick.

If smooth jazz is the embodiment of jazz tinged pop melodies, unconsciously contagious grooves and a whole lot of passion and atmosphere, then Chieli Minucci’s masterful fifth solo album, Night Grooves, is the physical embodiment of smooth jazz. Everything here is of a ridiculously high quality, but the most remarkable thing about this album is that there are still standout tracks.

minucci3There isn’t much here to boggle the mind, at least, not in terms of technicality, although some guitar runs are pretty frightening. ‘Night Grooves’, for example, is based around a simple three chord turnaround, upon which is built loose and effortless melodies and phrasing. Most tracks here seem to be made for a certain mood or situation, with this track’s being a midnight road-trip with no particular purpose through a glamorous city.

Even the album itself is arranged well. ‘Night Grooves’ flows into the funk driven ‘Foolin’ Around Again’, with ridiculously catchy syncopated rhythms, and intelligent duals between clean guitar and saxophone. It’s sister track, ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’ seems to attempt to emulate this, but even though it’s still good, it doesn’t even touch the relentless drive of its older and more sophisticated brother.

From funk to romance. ‘You’re My Reason’, is one of two tracks possibly inspired by Special EFX’s 2001 album, Butterfly. An acoustic number, its melody floats along with a charming grace, climaxing with a saxophone lead towards its end which relies not on volume, but notation. It’s perfect, but then again, ‘Without You’, sounding like a ‘Katalin Part 2’ is even better.

With ‘Without You’, you have the answer to the world’s renewable energy problems. If something were invented which could harness the power of raw human emotion, this track could power most of the globe without any trouble at all. In short, it’s the musical equivalent of the best sex you’ll ever have. Post-rock’s ability to create cataclysmic crescendos gets the smooth jazz treatment, rising from gorgeous acoustic melodies and arpeggios to entrancing, swirling, magical distorted guitar. Every single note, high or low, crotchet or quaver, is given its own very special meaning. Even the pauses and piano section are immaculately instrumented and timed. It’s impossible to describe adequately, but if you’ve heard Ralph Vaughan Willilam’s ‘The Lark Ascending’, you should know what I’m talking about. If not, then just thing of the most beautiful song you know, and multiply it, say, by infinity. Then add a bit more.

If you hadn’t guessed it yet, this is the ultimate introduction to the smooth jazz genre. Here you will find love, excitement, ecstasy, even mystery, with ‘Behind the Veil’, the detective, snoopy feel of ‘Mr Shady Eyes’ and the paradoxical nature of the final track, ‘Nasir di Nuevo’. It is very much an outro composition, but one that also creates a feeling of emptiness; the individual phrases seem to tail off towards their endings, almost as if the music is fading away in spirit, rather than if someone was turning the volume down. As the music becomes more coherent, the emerging melody furthers the sense of finalisation; a six minute paradox, and a perfect ending to a perfect album.

10/10

Published on sputnikmusic, August 2008 http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?albumid=27699

2nd July, 2008

Zero 7 challenge AIR’s Moon Safari for the chillout album of the millennia with an elegant and enchanting debut.

Moon Safari was massive. With tracks like ‘All I Need’ and ‘Ce Matin La’, it set the benchmark for chilled electronica at a ridiculously high level. It still is your ultimate chill out fantasy. Times infinity. No other chillout CD has ever quite matched it, but Zero 7’s Simple Things isn’t far off. This album is more gorgeous than any girl/guy you can ever think of. Yes, it sounds as though it’s giving more than a nod to that beautiful 90s French album; you could even think of Simple Things as an up-to-date Moon Safari, or even, the British version. But don’t let that take anything away from it.

“Time goes so slow, days come and go.”

The beats, the bass, the lush strings arrangements, the acoustic guitars; everything here is blissfully effortless. The influences (other than AIR) are clear; trip-hop beats and jazz scales are masterfully scattered across the twelve tracks, as are several instrumentals, and those are where the duo really shine. ‘Red Dust’ and ‘Give It Away’ have enough grooves to prompt a romantic slow dance, but could induce feelings of sleepiness half way through; there’d better be some cushions on the dance-floor. The divine orchestral arrangements and guitar chord progressions of ‘Red Dust’ are typical of every track on this album, but work particularly well here with the song’s main flute melody. It’s a joy to listen to, as are the other instrumentals, ‘Polaris’ and ‘Lifukanele’s African influenced melodies.

zero-7“When I’m weak, I draw strength from you; and when you’re lost, I know how to change your mood. And when I’m down, you breathe life over me; even though we’re miles apart, we are each other’s destiny.”

Sia Quango’s contribution to the album is invaluable. Her voice perfectly fits the slow love songs ‘Destiny’ and ‘Distractions’, and turns the dreamy ‘In the Waiting Line’ into an enchantingly seductive number. And ‘This World’ is an absolute gem. Lyrically these songs are probably better than songs on Moon Safari; look no further than ‘Destiny’. But for smooth DX solos, check out the title track. Ethereal, smooth, sensual, call it what you will, it’s the album’s best track, with a super-cool jazz drenched finale solo and heavenly singing.

There are a few reviews knocking around claiming that Simple Things is nothing more than a cheap Moon Safari rip-off, a shameful attempt to beat the unbeatable. Don’t let them fool you. Simply put, this is a gorgeous album that should be in anyone’s music collection, regardless of taste; your ultimate chill out fantasy (after Moon Safari).

9/10

Published on sputnikmusic, July 2008 http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?albumid=6833

15th June, 2008

circus_maximusCircus Maximus have the technical side of progressive metal covered, having spent their earlier days covering Dream Theater and Symphony X material. It’s just a shame they didn’t pick up a few more songwriting tips…

This is by no means a bad effort from five undoubtedly talented Norwegians. Taking the positives first, ‘Abyss’ is clearly the standout track, with a rousing chorus and an insane guitar solo with freaky but useful harmonic minor scales. Whilst Espen Store’s keyboards sound as though he is desperately trying not to sound like Dream Theater’s Jordan Rudess but failing dismally (not a bad thing, but it does seem to be an issue he is confronting throughout the album), ‘Abyss’ needs to be in any fan of progressive metal’s collection. The intro to ‘A Darkened Mind’ is immaculately eerie, building to an uplifting chorus and pounding guitar/drum riffing. Throughout the album the band display that they are musically tighter than an Olympic photo-finish, with plenty of ideas and a feel for melody.

Mouth of Madness’ needs its 12 minutes to showcase the band’s creativity, apparent in ‘A Darkened Mind’ and ‘Abyss’. Tempo and mood changes a-plenty and with a strong storyline, it’s quite a journey which doesn’t reach the heights of Isolate’s first two tracks, but is a good composition nonetheless. Sane No More’ is an angular instrumental packed with time-signature changes and ear-splitting solos, and lasting only three minutes, it avoids dragging itself into the realms of artistic egotism and listener boredom. Maybe it was designed to demonstrate just how good Mats Haugen (guitarist) is, but this is by no means a bad thing.

Now the negatives. Firstly, there is a lack of consistency. ‘Zero’ and ‘Wither’, whilst both being good arrangements (especially ‘Zero’s emotional singing and beautiful piano arpeggios) don’t seem to reach the heights of aforementioned songs. Of course every album has stand-outs, but the gap between seems to be bigger than usual. ‘Wither’ presents the second weakness; a need for the band to develop their lyrics (as does ‘Arrival of Love’; I can’t stand this track, but that is probably because I have a contempt for love-songs in general).

This is definitely a band worth watching. Whilst Isolate is a far from being a progressive metal classic, Circus Maximus have a mine of talent that should be producing many fine jewels for many years to come.

Published on sputnikmusic, June 2008

10/10

25th May, 2008

beautiful-south-choke-230277Welcome to the Beautiful South introduced the world to jangly indie-pop with a twisted lyrical edge. Choke continues this theme, and cements Paul Heaton’s reputation as an incredibly gifted song-writer.

‘Tonight I Fancy Myself’ sets the tone of the album perfectly. A song about a couple in denial set to ridiculously upbeat guitars and joyful trumpets, Heaton’s disturbing and bathetic lyrics are the main showpiece;

“Later in the evening, the sun came rolling down
And they talked about their fantasies and fears
Between the heavy breathing and those lighter licking sounds
I heard him whisper this question in her ear;
‘Would you still love me if I lost my legs?”

Vocal interplay between Briana Corrigan and Heaton intensifies the storyline, ending with the admittance that;

“With a choice between loneliness and love-sick QE2’s
Well tonight I choose – self-abuse”

And with that ends the template for the album, an album which seems determined to give Morrissey a run for his money. ‘My Book’s instrumental work might be refreshingly jazzy for an indie fan, but again the lyrics stand out, with “there was going to be a film but the camera person slipped”, “we’ve had some ugly babies but none were quite like you” and “it looks as if the nose and chin are definitely here to stay” being the highlights. The video’s worth checking out, too. ‘I Think The Answer’s Yes’ beautiful trumpet melodies and piano harmonies show that the band has more than one creative avenue, and their ability to compliment yet not distract from…

I’m walking through these pastures
I’m picking up sweet fruit
I’m shaking hands with people
That previously I’d shoot”

…is a brilliant display of restraint mixed with creativity. But this album isn’t all about grumpy-old-man English sarcasm.

The Beautiful South’s only number one hit in the UK, and possibly the best example of Heaton’s strong storylines, ‘A Little Time’ tells the story of the end of a relationship, perfectly presenting feelings of anger, indecision, hate and despair, all to the background of lush keyboard and guitar arrangements, with no clichés whatsoever. Seemingly written for Briana’s voice, the pair pull off a heart-achingly emotional performance, creating the best track on the album by far, and possibly the band’s best song.

Moving away from ruined lives and relationships, ‘I’ve Come For My Award’ enters the world of business and dodgy-dealings. The guitar lines sound very much like they were lifted from a Smiths album, and then given some of the band’s trademark jazzy swagger, and the lyrics, as ever, are exemplary; “I took on your free enterprise and your pretty little shops; walked in with empty bags, and walked out with the lot”.

Choke was a reference to the number of bands who put out a promising debut, only to follow with an absolute disaster. Perhaps this album was titled with a degree of irony in mind; The Beautiful South’s second offering does nothing of the sort. Three tracks from this album made the band’s first best of, Carry on up the Charts, and the album itself hit number two in England. A must for any fan, but also a great starting point too.

8/10

Published on sputnikmusic, May 2008 http://www.sputnikmusic.com/album.php?albumid=8478