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5 stars A soundtrack to a possible world

I stumbled upon Estradasphere about two years ago, in a time when I thought I had already discovered just about every crazy thing possible in music (now I'm pretty sure I'm far from that). I was reading a review somewhere and it said something along the lines of "honestly, this must be the best band in the world". I was amused and intrigued and got their first album, It's Understood , to find out what it was about. I was so shocked and hooked that it took me months to get over it and pass on to another album. Now, after hearing Buck Fever and Palace of Mirrors , I have to say all these albums are consistent in quality, although the latter does show a heavier sound and tighter interplay.

The music on Palace of Mirrors is insanely diverse and charmingly incoherent in style. The album reveals a cinematic intent from the beginning, with the opening sounds on "Title", seguing into the track that gives the album its name, which displays a glorious soundtrack quality, as if taken out from a Hollywood production of old. The album cover also points towards such an interpretation, suggesting past romantic scenes, opening subtle doors to the listeners, expecting them to create their personal imagery around the music, beyond the threshold of shattered mirrors. The track is led by a string ensemble and serves as a fine introduction.

However, next we are treated with a totally different beast: "A Corporate Merger", after a few jazzy opening chords, blasts with an accordion playing a Balkan-flavoured groove in 7/8. The band use the theme as a starting point for an extended piece, they deconstruct it gradually, introducing alternating time signatures and improvising around it with funky bass and a guitar solo, until the whole thing becomes an outright metal affair, with syncopated riffs sounding like Meshuggah, but with violin on top. The track ends with some speed/thrash madness, a recurrent trend later in the album.

"The Terrible Beautypower of Meow" is basically a Hawaiian-style guitar workout, while "Colossal Risk" brings the cinematic mood back, only this time enriched with an extravagant brass section and some angelic female vocalizations. Following these is the creepiest track on the album, dubiously entitled "The Unfolding Pause on the Threshold", a crushing industrial experiment, adorned with screeching and echoing hall-like samples.

"Smuggled Mutation" is a wonderful blend of authentic Romanian folklore and thrash metal riffage. This is the first time I hear what is called a "■ambal" (traditional Romanian percussion instrument, somewhat resembling a xylophone, but more complexly structured) used in a Western-made piece of music. A great thumbs up to the band for that! The vivacious, up-tempo groove of the track, led by bucolic violin and ■ambal, often gives waz to lightning-speed riffs and double bass onslaught, completing the picture and adding novelty.

The album continues to diversify with a waltzy piano number ("Six Hands"), followed by the soft, laid-back jazz of the brass-soaked "The Debutante", which reminds me of the kind of jazz band you're likely to see peforming on an improvised stage in the middle of a crowded city on a rainy Sunday afternoon to the delight of the accidental passerby.

"Flower Garden of an Evil Man" is another highlight - a feast of dissonance, led by programmed percussion and the weird, processed screams of what sounds like a muted saxophone, but could very well be a violin or some crazy instrument... all on a bed of creepy harmonies building up to a climax and finally dissolving into disharmonic chaos.

If the next two tracks don't bring anything new to the table, the album's finest moment is kept for last. The ending piece, "The Return", might just be the best thing I've heard the whole year. It opens with some seriously menacing riffs, built around a crazy rhythmic pattern, resembling Meshuggah once again (but with an accordion on top, obviously), followed by a build-up section where soaring violins play a tremolo in unison over some black metal-type blast beats... From that point onwards, the whole track is a constant release of tension and I can't imagine any metalhead in their right mind not headbanging to this stuff. The framework of this track is tech metal at its finest; the drum work is brilliant and is just about as close as anyone could get to Gene Hoglan or Sean Reinert without actually being them; and - on top of it - accordion, violin and guitar solos fly all over the place like crazy bumblebees in flight.

To conclude, Palace of Mirrors is a great offering from Estradasphere, unique and unpredictable music building a colourful world of sounds and suggestions. The production on this one is better than on previous albums, the songwriting, although as diverse as before, is now more focused, and the playing is significantly tighter, providing more cohesion when compared to their past works.

The palette of styles employed on this album is huge. Some people may find this instantly appealing, others may need repeated listens. However, I believe everyone (except prog dinosaurs maybe) should give this a try, at least in order to keep in touch with the great music that is being made right now and here, under our noses.

Report this review (#114867)
Posted Sunday, March 11, 2007 | Review Permalink
5 stars "The Transformation will begin!..."

Estradasphere came as quite a shock to me, when I had first discovered them. Unfamiliar with most of the bands, styles and underlying quirkiness of the genre, this album sorely confused me upon my first listen. What was it? Metal? Jazz? Folk? I could barely begin to grasp any certain genre before it would send me cascading into another genre entirely. However, after some time, I fell in love with this band. The huge variety of opposing and odd genres meshing together nearly seamlessly just through me into fits of giggles and awe.

Their latest output, Palace of Mirrors is quite the sonic palette of genres and sounds, ranging from Death Metal, to Jazz, to undefinable Electronic chaos, to Japanese folk music and so on. It's sudden and wonderful changes from song to song, and even within a single song keep you on a rollercoaster of emotions and musical experiences. The musicianship is top notch, and nothing short of spectacular for this album. The grandouise nature of the album, and the whimsical feel to it is really something else. Each track is unique, and engaging to listen t;. Light hearted and fun this album really easy to listen to more than once. Chaos and incoherence never sounded so wonderful together, and fit the mood of this album perfectly.

While no lyrics are present in the album, something I grew accustomed to and pleased with in Buck Fever, the feeling and 'soul' of the album are very much present. The images feelings invoked are no less prevelant with this album than any other. Though they are missed by myself, I find myself liking this album as much as any other in Estradasphere's repetoire.

My only vice with this album, and in reality, it being just a matter of personal preferance, is the inherant lack of Saxaphone on this ablum. The wonderful style of Whooley (or Whoohoolicious) is sadly absent from muh of this album. His work in Buck Fever and It's Understood were truly wonderful, and added much to the band. Also, Dave Murray's unique style and creativity will sore be missed.

Report this review (#132077)
Posted Monday, August 6, 2007 | Review Permalink
4 stars Estradasphere has already released a few albums, but Palace of Mirrors is probably their finest effort yet. It manages to mix in a myriad of styles in that seem to flow together nicely. The effect is that the album sounds nice and smooth. I must also comment that "The Terrible Beautypower of Meow", while not only a great song, has one of the best names for a song ever. But I digress, Estradasphere manages to traverse these numerous genres, ranging from metal, to jazz, to , and even to ones that they had to make up, "Bulgarian Surf", "Romanian Gypsy-Metal", and "Spaghetti Eastern" (this was taken from their website).

If you haven't heard them before, the best way to describe them is they sound a lot, a lot like Secret Chiefs 3. This is probably because some of them play with Secret Chiefs 3, so that's understandable. They also sound a bit like Mr. Bungle, mainy Disco Volante, but Secret Chiefs 3 draws a better parallel because the music that sticks out the most on the album are the surf-rock, metal, jazz, and arabic (all of which are mainstays of the Chiefs). The supposed juxtaposition of these genres give the album an unearthly quality. But not too distant, I guess a parallel world quality would be more apropos. Eerie, beautiful, and melodic, why do I only give this 4 stars? Well the album doesn't have vocals, which is both a positive and a negative. The vocals might shatter the mood that the music provides, but the album just doesn't seem complete without them. The music also is lacking in several places, and the album could've been tightened up by shortening it.

Before I go, there is one thing of Estradasphere's that I was pleasantly surprised by (though it doesn't pertain to this specific album, it is an underlooked piece in Estradasphere's body of work). They did a very jazzy cover of the Super Mario Bros. 2 Theme on, a website dedicated to remixes of video game music. Their piece is called "SuperBuckJazz" and I recommend it, along with Palace of Mirrors.

Report this review (#135793)
Posted Saturday, September 1, 2007 | Review Permalink
5 stars Estradasphere are a gloriously eclectic and innovative ensemble, and Palace of Mirrors is their masterpiece. In addition to revealing their virtuoso musicianship, compositional prowess, and versatility, Palace of Mirrors displays a cinematic grandeur only found on the best progressive concept albums.

Like many of their avant prog comrades, Estradasphere incorporates more musical styles into their compositions than a musicology professor overdosing on Jolt Cola. At various points, the music evokes classical orchestras, mellow soul jazz, head banging metal, and a Japanese take on gypsy. When a group incorporates such disparate influences, there is a risk of producing a disjointed mess; however, the ensemble is very deft at developing transitions, permitting their wildly diverse album to tell a coherent tale without the need for words.

In addition to being a great avant prog album, Palace of Mirrors is rather accessible to those who are unfamiliar with this style. The melodies, though complex, are very aesthetically pleasing, which makes them a good jumping off point to the arguably more difficult works of Sleepytime Gorilla Museum and Mr. Bungle.

The real reason this is an essential masterpiece of progressive music is simple: no other album is like it. If I find another coherent musical journey that features shamisen solos over funk grooves or thrash metal with violin and a full brass section, I will be very surprised.

Report this review (#168854)
Posted Sunday, April 27, 2008 | Review Permalink
5 stars This album is a journey. That's a phrase that gets used a lot, but I struggle to think of an occasion it's been a more appropriate descriptor than for this masterpiece. Estradasphere manages to combine orchestral music, metal, jazz, electronica, folk, noise, and even surf rock (as well as pretty much anything else you can think of) into one cohesive trip. You won't know where you're going on the voyage that this album takes you on, but I can almost guarantee you'll enjoy your travels.

"Title," at only about a half a minute, is really just an introduction. Some interesting electronics set the scene very nicely though, and when the strings and piano of "Palace of Mirrors" come in there's already a very nice contrast established. This title track is really a stellar piece of music, with compelling melodies and orchestration that remind one of a classical overture. I must confess that the first time I heard this song I was very surprised; I think that the label of "avant-garde" often carries a certain connotation for people, but despite the label "Palace of Mirrors" is an incredibly gorgeous song that has more in common with folk and classical music than with the occasionally hard to digest "typical" avant sound (oxymoronic as that phrase may be).

"A Corporate Merger" begins on a decidedly jazzier note, though there's a decidedly European folk vibe as well. In fact, though my experience with the music of Ennio Morricone is very limited, I can hear resemblances to his music here. Violin is a dominant presence for much of the track, with frenetic, virtuosic playing and, like "Palace of Mirrors" a strong sense of melody throughout. The structure is very jazzy, with various instruments soloing over a more or less consistent drum and bass line throughout the course of the track, and I have to say the playing on these solos is some of the most compelling I've ever heard. The sound is incredibly tight as well, with all the musicians sounding completely in sync. This is especially true towards the end, as the tempo quickly increases to a light-speed fever pitch, and yet, the listener never gets the feeling that the musicians are sweating. An incredibly well-performed piece of music, "A Corporate Merger" really shows that the members of Estradasphere are nothing if not extremely competent musicians.

"The Terrible Beautypower of Meow" starts off on a much more melancholic note, no less gorgeously melodic but certainly more subdued than "A Corporate Merger." However, this all changes around the 1 minute mark as the track switches into a brilliant pastiche of beach rock and vintage, 50s sounding pop. It's an incredibly evocative combination that suggests images of old-fashioned convertibles cruising along a coastal road, and it really just evokes a kind of longing for a simpler time.

"Colossal Risk" takes another abrupt left turn, starting off with a slinky melody that wouldn't sound out of place on the soundtrack to The Godfather. However, the track again drastically switches its sound after about a minute, changing into what sounds like a combination of Dick Dale and a bombastic Modest Mussorgsky piece. There's a softer section towards the middle of the track as well that features lush, gorgeous strings and some wordless, almost operatic female vocals. Horns feature prominently for much of the track as well, and "Colossal Risk" ends up being incredibly varied track even by the high standards already set by the album.

"The Unfolding Pause On The Threshold" begins on a much more explicitly experimental note, with a variety of electronic effects creating a very unsettling atmosphere. Percussion takes on a very prominent role, pounding through the sound effects while still working with them to create a very heavy, insistent pseudo-melody. The combination of percussion and electronics creates an almost industrial feel, and the track as a whole is a drastic but still totally appropriate break from the strong melodic themes of most of the previous tracks. It really is impressive how many different genres Estradasphere is able to incorporate seamlessly into the album, and I think that's really a testament to the strength of their compositional abilities.

"Smuggled Mutation" has a rather idiosyncratic beginning, with a violin part that sounds raw and wavering in contrast to the lush strings that permeate most of the other tracks. However, the track quickly launches into an insanely frenetic motif, with lightning-fast violin playing and heavy guitar parts that almost have thrash metal overtones. The violin and guitar play off of each other brilliantly, and some minimally but brilliantly used horns give the track a kind of insane carnival feel. In addition, the technical proficiency here is very impressive as well, and while that's not (by itself) what makes the track so good it is a nice little bonus.

Speaking of carnival music, "Six Hands" also makes excellent use of that sort of motif, with a playful toy piano sound and some excellent folky melodies as well. However, at just over a minute it's more of an interlude than anything, though a very good one.

Next up is "The Debutante," which, despite any labels you want to put on Estradasphere's music, is nothing less than beautiful. With gorgeous, bittersweet melodies and numerous heart-wrenchingly emotive horn solos, this track has probably brought me closer to tears more times than any other piece of music I can think of. Something about it is just so incredibly evocative that I can't help but be blown away every time I hear it.

"Flower Garden Of An Evil Man," on the other hand, is the complete opposite. With rumbling, ominous drones taking up most of the first two minutes, the track is just as sinister as "The Debutante" was moving. Even when a more standard melody does come in, it sounds incredibly dark and knotty compared to the wide-open previous track. Despite that, it's still a very evocative track in its own right, with a climatic, cinematic feel that wouldn't sound out of place over the finale of an action movie. A brief, distorted section in the final third of the track breaks up this motif a bit, but the track finishes grandly before fading to a distorted electronic drone.

"Those Who Know" turns to a totally different source for melodic inspiration, with a decidedly eastern feel. Violin is again at the forefront, and the track on the whole sounds much more carefree and lighthearted than either of the previous two, with multiple breakdowns that almost have a bluegrass feel to them. Another awesome horn part makes an appearance as well, as does an amazingly orchestrated section towards the end. As a result, the end of the track feels incredibly climactic, as horns, strings, and even some wordless chants coalesce into one grand sound.

"Palace of Mirrors Reprise" is exactly what it sounds like, and it's everything a reprise should be. Drastically switching up the instrumentation while keeping the same melodic line really gives the album a sense of holistic power, as it really makes the listener feel as if upon returning to the same place they began they can see it totally differently for having taken the journey. Not content to ever let the listener feel completely in control of the situation, however, the end track spirals into a veritable wall of sound, with pulsing drones and distorted sound clips both disorienting the listener and preparing them for the final track.

?And what a finale it is. After completing the journey that is this album, "The Return" is a crashing conclusion that reminds the listener of everything great about the album. Heavy guitars interlace with insane violins, melodies clash with pounding riffs and beauty combines with pure, unadulterated aggression to create an absolute monster of a track. A stunner of a finale for what is certainly a stunner of an album.

Don't be afraid of the avant-garde label. As I've hopefully been able to convey, this is an incredibly melodic album in spite of its rampant experimentalism. This is really an album that deserves to be on any list of modern masterpieces, and with its genre bending and strict avoidance of predictability, it's the very definition of progressive music.


Report this review (#702474)
Posted Sunday, April 1, 2012 | Review Permalink
3 stars The RIO/Avant-Prog genre has a vast canvas of artists from a broad range of influences. Therefore, it can be difficult for a band to really step out as a unique entity within this very music- driven genre. Estradasphere doesn't quite hit the mark that I have come to expect from this sub- genre.

My basic understanding of this band is if French TV replaced their Cantebury sound with that of metal and Eastern European classical music. Kind of a strange brew of styles considering that when the metal, surf, gypsy and classical do merge, the sound is excellent and ''Colossal Risk'', ''The Return'' and ''Corporate Merger'' pull the style bending technique quite well. The song lengths are also kept at a premium meaning that many have time to develop and few overstay their welcome (the longest song is just past eight minutes). The muscle of PALACE OF MIRRORS comes from violinist Timb Harris as he weaves from beautiful classic (title track) to foot-stomping ballroom music (''Smuggled Mutation'') all with a technical flair that's to be expected from a violin prominent in prog music.

Sadly, I cannot grasp PALACE OF MIRRORS as a whole album mainly in that there isn't one cohesive style. ''Smuggled Mutation'' is a fine country-influenced number, but the sudden shifting of styles ends up serving the album like ''Anyone's Daughter'' from Deep Purple's FIREBALL album; a more country-influenced tune just comes out of nowhere. Keeping the overall cohesion in mind, you sometimes get a classic song, then a surf-jazz, then a surf-metal song, all within an Estradasphere sound (I CAN tell that the band is aiming for a particular sound) but enough of a shift to knock the equilibrium of PALACE OF MIRRORS out of line. And the Big-Lipped Alligator Award has to go to ''The Unfolding Pause on the Threshold'', a four-minute-long segue that ploys with Nintendo sounding keyboards.

Estradasphere never quite show me how much different they are compared to other RIO bands, so PALACE OF MIRRORS really doesn't stick out in terms of overall achievement. I give them credit for bringing in the shamisen prominently on ''Those Who Know?'', the album's best track. Definitely for the hardcore avant-prog fans, and I can almost get feeling behind the music, but not quite.

Report this review (#965526)
Posted Monday, May 27, 2013 | Review Permalink
5 stars ESTRADASPHERE was an experimental-rock band formed in Santa Cruz, CA in 1998. The band, which in its last incarnation was based in Seattle, WA consisted of six multi-instrumentalists from a variety of musical backgrounds trained in disciplines ranging from Classical music and Jazz to Progressive Rock and Heavy Metal. The band is on 'a permanent hiatus' since 2010.

"Palace of Mirrors", which was released in 2006 through The End Records, is the fifth and final full-length album by the band. Beyond six core band-members, the brass section, two string quartets, the mail choir, and other thirteen auxiliary musicians were involved in its creation. The album presents 13 all instrumental compositions clocking in at over 50 minutes, and ranging from strictly organized, orchestrated pieces to weird and obscured experimental soundscapes. In fact, listening 'Palace of Mirrors' is like studying sophisticated ornaments, whose separate elements and details stylistically correlate Contemporary Classical music, Latin, Balkan, Greek and Gypsy music, Surf and Funk, Chanson Pop and RIO, Prog-Rock and Jazz-Fusion, Avant-Metal, Dark Ambient, Post-Rock, Cinematic Rock, etc. (yes, the musicians had all good reasons to proclaim themselves inventors of bizarre styles such as Spaghetti Eastern, Romanian Gypsy-Metal, or Bulgarian Surf). Everything over here is conceived and performed with incredible imagination, taste, aesthetic, artistry, and humor making "Palace of Mirrors" one of the most listenable and enjoyable Estradasphere's album.

Overall, this is nothing short of a masterpiece, a must have for those who are interested in truly creative, deviant, and inventive Rock music!

Report this review (#1913477)
Posted Monday, April 9, 2018 | Review Permalink
5 stars All good things must come to pass.

A band like Estradasphere that only exists and succeeds when the stars and planets are aligned is destined to have a short life. The fact that "Palace of Mirrors" exists at all is an astonishing fact considering one of the masterminds behind it all, John Whooley, sax extraordinaire, is nowhere to be found on the credits list.

That's right, nowhere on this album will you find that iconic saxophone of his. In fact, you're not going to hear any saxophone at all. (Ok, I lied, there is actually some baritone sax providing bass on some of the louder tracks, but it's barely noticeable half the time)

I was initially worried when I discovered that fact. I'm such a sucker for saxophone that I thought this album would be ruined without its glorious tone, but I'm glad to say it hasn't, because the rest of the band has stepped their game up in a big way by, as per usual with Estradasphere, going in directions and places no one else would dare go. In fact, the album proves to be the most polish and controlled yet, with absolutely NO vocals either.

After a meaningless title sequence, the title track opens up with a dramatic fast waltz scene with some elements of creepy carnival music to set the scene before "A Corporate Merger" returns that the classic eastern influenced jazz style Estradasphere is known for, but instead of hearing sax here, other instruments pick up the slack such as accordion and shamisen, adding extra wrinkles. Jason Schimmel gets more active and funkier here with some jazz and surf rock playing, while some funky rock organ provides some extra oomf, and the shamisen solo is top notch notch. Since the sax is generally a loud instrument, its absence here keeps the entire track relatively mild, at least until the heavy distorted chords kick in with a few minutes left (because obviously it wouldn't be an Estradasphere track with out death metal middle eastern jazz music).

So in terms of the longer songs, the more things change the more they stay the same, but the shorter tracks garner just as much attention. Much like the title song, "The Terrible Beautypower of Meow" is very soundtrack influenced (definitely some Ennio Morricone [&*!#] going on here) as it travels through different hints of movie sountracks and elements all while underpinned by a surf rock beat, a cool tune that feels like you're traveling from movie scene to movie scene in a Hollywood backlot or something. "Colossal Risk" opens similarly, with an air of mystique and curiosity before the string section barrels in onto a fast jazz drum beat and Schimmel's and Smolen's surf guitar roaring away behind Adam Stacy's rock organ. Eventually this dissolves the coolest elevator music I've ever heard before transitioning into some "Incredibles" style action jazz (the best kind of jazz FYI) before fading away like some creepy Addams Family home recording.

Keeping the creepy theme, "The Unfolding Pause on the Threshold" begins with some creepy electronic droning and a sort of Nine Inch Nails-esque heartbeat, a lot of electronic experimentation here before it fades out into an atmospheric soundscape, with the strings following suit thereafter. Not necessarily the most pleasant tune to listen to, but definitely one of the most radical songs the group has ever made (and that's saying a lot when you're familiar with their discography).

"Smuggled Mutation" is one of my favorites off the album. An accordian drone provides the backdrop for some violin and shamisen features before the band breaks out in a cartoonish bluegrass-esque frenzy before the distorted metal chords kick your teeth in. This is, quite simply, sophisticated, grown up cartoon music. It's always fast, always spastic. It never slows down, not even when the band pays homage to Mozart in the middle (at least I think it's Mozart some other classical or romantic composer of the time). It's freakishly good fun and continues to build in cacophony up to the very end like the final movement to a classical symphony, with everyone shredding what they've got. Simply an awesome display of instrumental prowess.

Taking a breather from that mayhem, "Six Hands" is basically a short player piano piece which flows right into "The Debutante", a jazz piece which features the sax! Yes, I said there was no sax on this album, and for the most part there isn't (apart from the backing baritone), but Joel Ford gets the credit for adding some sexy sax on a track that needs it. After all, you just can't have an Estradasphere without having at least one sax featured song on it. It'd be simply criminal.

"Flower Garden Of An Evil Man" is a very brooding track, beginning with haunting atmospheric elements before developing into a sludgy, spastic metal, almost Mars Volta-esque, but darker thanks to the band's signature heavy distorted guitars. "Those Who Know.." is a lighter song, with a crisp violin and shamisen spring in the step. A funky drum groove enters later to keep the party going to finish with a dramatic orchestral and decidedly Japanese-y flourish. The "Palace of Mirrors Reprise" is self explanatory, with the theme being replayed through different genres, elevator music and haunting movie soundscapes. "The Return" ends with a heavy metal base with some polka over top that ends in a furious, spastic finish.

In short, another fantastic album from Estradasphere as always, and an impressive final outing as well. It's diverse and eccentric like a typical Estradasphere album, but with Whooley's departure, the remaining band is forced to delve into more genres and elements to diversify their sound, and yet still sound entirely their own, and not just a sound collage, and they've succeeded with flying colors. An excellent farewell album from a band that will forever be uncontested in the realm of accessible avant-garde prog.

Report this review (#2272615)
Posted Tuesday, October 22, 2019 | Review Permalink

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