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kev rowland
Honorary Reviewer
5 stars Although it isn't that unusual for me to review an album more than once, normally years pass between the two. Yet here I am totally rewriting a review that I only completed yesterday. When I listened to the CD I was distracted by the mix, which I believed not to be correct, and said so in the review. But, what I wasn't aware of was that the band also felt that the mix wasn't as good as it could have been, so pulled the complete run of CDs, remixed it, and then put new CDs in the digipaks. It was just those that had been sent out as promo's that weren't replaced. Clay then provided me with the new mix as a download and I have been playing it all day (when not in meetings ? why does the work I get paid for get in the way of the work I actually want to do?). What I am now listening to is far more balanced, which has allowed me to get past my initial views and instead listen to the album as I should have in the first place.

Now, I have been a fan of Clay Withrow's music since I first heard 'Manikin Parade', and I have been lucky enough to hear everything they have released since, so when I became aware that a fourth full-length album was coming out I was suitably excited. Jeren Martin was again working with Clay on bass, while they had a new drummer in Kyle Haws plus a few guests on additional guitar and strings (the additional guitarist, Jay Gleason, plays with Jeren in a death metal band!), Clay of course provides everything else. Here is an album that has seen the band grow, both in musical style and in stature. The harmony vocals are bang on, and the restrained use of falsetto here and there provides an additional edge, much as Roger Taylor used to do with Queen. There is music that rocks and belts along, or music that is way more gentle and refined, with a control that is breathtaking. Clay provides some breathtaking solos and runs, or crunching riffs, or acoustic, whatever is right for the song itself while Jeren seems to instinctively know what is required to lift the piece itself, either providing the bedrock, or additional back up melodies, or even not playing at all and allowing the space created to be used by others. Although it will be viewed by many as progressive metal, there are passages and even complete songs that are far more crossover in aspect than one would expect from the genre, and the result is something that has incredible depth and breadth.

This is music that refuses to be pigeonholed, with the band at times firing as a metallic monster (with Clay doing some wonderful James Hetfield style vocals) while at others it is way more restrained and thoughtful. There is a wonderfully delicate string section in "Separation" which really accents the guitar on either side, while the title track demonstrates a very different side of the band with Clay on acoustic guitar, supported by some wonderful violin and cello. From that we go into "Vaudeville Nation" which is as hard hitting a prog metal monster as one would wish, with some great interplay.

I gave their debut 5 *'s, and sine then each release has had 4 (not too shabby), but I am pleased to say that this is back to top marks. It is easily the best that they have done, and all power to the guys for pulling the original release and making this available.

Report this review (#1077922)
Posted Saturday, November 16, 2013 | Review Permalink
Conor Fynes
3 stars 'Between the Madness' - Vangough (6/10)

I have followed Vangough since the release of their debut, Manikin Parade in 2009. Even if I may have interpreted them as something of a Pain of Salvation clone from the start, they were one of the best acolytes Pain of Salvation could have hoped for. Where Vangough hadn't erupted with a fresh new sound, they made up for it in part with solid songwriting and incredible musicianship on par with any of their prog metal contemporaries. Between then and the release of Between the Madness, Vangough came out with a decent second album, and a compilation of video game covers that basked in nostalgia like the world was ending. Comparing this latest record to Vangough's past oeuvre, it feels very much a child of 2011's Kingdom of Ruin, where they placed an emphasis on strictly melodic songwriting. Thought I still miss the proggier sound of Manikin Parade and indeed prefer it over the more song- oriented path the band have taken, Between the Madness is a fine addition to the band's catalogue, revisiting much of the same territory they explored on Kingdom of Ruin and improving upon it.

It's not at all common for a progressive metal band to be a threepiece, but Vangough deliver a full-fleshed sound as a trio, to the point where more members might have made it a crowd. Even in a genre like progressive metal, where musical virtuosity and skill with technique are nearly ubiquitous and to be expected, the band still manages to impress me. From Manikin Parade onward, Vangough have had no trouble expressing their apparent skill in their music without resorting to the sort of superfluous noodling that has made the genre slightly infamous to begin with. For all of their skill, Vangough stick to the fundaments of their songwriting. This sense of tasteful restraint has metastasized further on Between the Madness. Compared to Kingdom of Ruin, an album that sadly didn't hold my interest for long, Vangough have refined their tact with songwriting and melody making. "Afterfall" is one of the most skilfully arranged pieces Vangough have ever penned, a surprisingly dark and personal song about loss and a miscarried pregnancy. "Between the Madness" is a gorgeous interlude that also stands out, particularly for a cinematic violin guest performance from Justus Johnston. The album's arguable highlight comes in the form of a rare instrumental however; "Thy Flesh Consumed" is a moody miniature epic reminiscent of Metallica's "Orion", a composition that dares to dwell on motifs and instrumental ideas that other songs on the album may have only had time to touch upon.

Between the Madness enjoys a few tracks where Vangough flirt with brilliance, both on a level of performance and songwriting. The decision to pursue a more melodic and concise form of progressive metal has resulted in a pretty consistent collection of songs, but for the most part, the writing does not feel particularly exciting. Vangough have trimmed the fat from their sound, but in doing so, they have lost some of the distinct, independently interesting moments that made their debut so interesting. At worst, the songwriting is predictable, and doesn't offer much in the way of shock or surprise once you've grown accustomed to the structured formula. I don't think the matured approach to composition is a total loss (and "Afterfall" proves that they can make it work to passionate effect) but Between the Madness never really seems to sweep my imagination away the way I would hope to hear from such a talented cast of musicians. If anything really disappoints me, it's the knowledge and faith that Vangough could be impressing me much more. The few moments where the band really decides to let loose are proof of this; one of the album's brightest moments, "The Abyss", was strangely left as a bonus selection, but develops upon the instrumental potential I first heard on "Thy Flesh Consumed". When Vangough harken back to proggier days, the effect is promising.

Although Vangough's debt to Pain of Salvation is less overt here than before, the influence is still vividly apparent. While Manikin Parade may have taken more after The Perfect Element and Remedy Lane" era Pain of Salvation, Between the Madness often echoes Scarsick, an album that has long split listeners for its roots in nu-metal aesthetics. Vangough thankfully keep the rapping to a relative minimum, but the music's dark, rhythmic direction and its scathing criticism of modern society feel largely drawn from Pain of Salvation. This is especially evident in the case of "Useless" and "Corporatocracy", the former of which features Clay Withrow rapping in a manner incredibly close to Gildenlow's performance on the songs Scarsick and "Spitfall". In the case of "Corporatocracy", the instrumentation draws in an Oriental tinge and twangy guitars that sound a bit too close to Scarsick to be mere coincidence, not to mention the song title itself bears a stunning resemblance to "Idiocracy", a song from, yes, Scarsick. Withrow and company have never tried to hide the major influence Pain of Salvation have had on their sound, and while I still feel that this dedication to another band's legacy isn't doing Vangough any favours, the tribute and influence is sincere and well-intended.

Between the Madness has not seen Vangough emerge from their shell of influences, but their execution and standard of performance remains excellent. In spite of some of my negative criticisms of the band and their work thus far, Clay Withrow is an exceptional vocalist, with a delivery that marries power and emotional sensitivity in perfectly blended matrimony. Even in such a competitive genre like prog metal, Clay still manages to wow me with his vocals. While Daniel Gildenlow seems to be his likely model with regards to singing (and to a lesser extent, James Hetfield), there are times here where I feel like his talents are able to come out and take a life of their own. This sentiment can be applied to the rest of Vangough; the full extent of their potential remains hidden under the shadow of their influences. If Vangough could just break through this shell and find a stronger sense of personal identity to call their own, I have high hopes they could amaze me and knock out the competition. Between the Madness is a solid album by all accounts, but does not amaze me in the way I know they're capable of.

Report this review (#1122367)
Posted Monday, January 27, 2014 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Vangough are a prog metal band that play energetic music with twisted rhythms and an alternance of soft and harsh vocals. On 'Between the madness', they broaden their canvas by spare use of Rhodes, Hammond, acoustic guitar and violin, laidback percussions, and strings. Their influences in the heavy metal realm are varied and as you can read in this track-by-track review, but this album was also the opportunity for Vangough's mastermind, Clay Withrow, to highlight his eclectism, and break away from the myriad of prog metal bands that sound more or less like Dream Theater.

In "Afterfall", drum assaults and nervous vocals blend unexpectedly with upbeat layers of Hammond organ. A pause in the frenzy is brought by a passage with percussions, mesmerizing acoustic guitar, soft floating voice and slow violin, all in an oriental vibe.

A sad spanish guitar with melancholic violin opens "Alone". Fast-paced drums and aggressive guitars mark the transition to a sunny upbeat passage with Queen-like choir. Sadness returns with veiled pleading voice. Then anger is accentuated by passionate vocals and insisting drums. A meditative guitar accompanied by rhodes and strings soothen the atmosphere before the anger takes over and the sunny passage returns.

With "Separation", the band turns to funk-metal with passionate chorus. Strong Pain of Salvation and Faith No More influence transpires, in the vocals (passionate shouts in the chorus, angry chant, "rapped" voice, and high-pitch) but also in the use of funky rhythms in an overall heavy metal context. Some incantatory backing vocals add some mystery to the song. For the sake of diversity, a Hammond organ can be heard at times, and an orchestral passage sounds akin to the romantic era of classical music.

"Infestation" is a slow elegiac song with oboe and strings in the overture and a Metallica-inflected chorus (strong James Hetfield accents in the voice). A tango-like instrumental passage comes with frenetic drums and virtuosic guitars.

In "Schizophrenia", catchy passages with straightforward drums, and cheerful guitars alternate with more dubious passages with pensive acoustic guitar, drums searching their way, Hammond and violin. One interlude with rhodes, and another one with orchestra help catching breath.

The title track, "Between the Madness" is all instrumental, in a sunny, classical mood, with expressive violin and solar acoustic guitar in an overall pastoral mood. A cello adds a touch of melancholy.

In "Vaudeville Nation", prudent move of the band alternate with energy release. Hammond accompanies the opening and the closing sections, while theatrical voices deliver the chorus with harsh accents.

"O Sister" is a balad where mellow passages with delicate velvet voice alternate with harsher passages with pleading angry voice. The instrumental bridge presents with tribal drums and guitars crying as if they were lost and calling for help.

"Thy Flesh Consumed" is another instrumental track but in a darker, metal mood this time. Dark- ambient passages with mourning keyboards / agonizing guitars alternate with slow gothic-metal sonic assaults, like in early Tiamat works.

In "Useless", processed vocals reminiscent of Marilyn Mason with programmed beat provide an electro/industrial feel to the overture. Funky guitar with Mike Patton's almost-rapped vocals follow. Drum madness with harsh vocals then contrast with soft voice and strings. A tear-jerking guitar pops up suddenly and morphs into meditative bluesy guitar before passionate lead vocals join and some engaged backing vocals enliven the atmosphere, soon followed by pounding drums and shouting vocals. A sinister doomy passage with mesmerizing guitar concludes the track after the soft violin/mellow voice section.

"Depths of Blighttown" is a short orchestral cinematic piece with plucked strings, like scoring a scene of a Tex Avery cartoon movie where the wolf is marching on tip-toe. The ending is an a threatening mood, with obsessive repetitive strings as if scoring a scene with imminent catastrophe.

"Corporatocracy" has an upbeat folky overture with sunny guitar and percussions. Syncopated drums that follow are accompanied by obsessive guitars. Vocals wander in different territories, harsh at times, high-pitched, passionate, incantatory, or even scared at others. The sung passages alternate with softer ones, retaining a traditional/folk feel with percussions or violin.

The closing track, "The Abyss", is another instrumental track, dark with rock intrumentation. It starts with alerting guitars and slow gloomy drums, rolling like in the recent incarnation of Celtic Frost or Paradise Lost's very first album. When the alarm stops, the whole sounds like a jam session where drums move prudently forward. Splashy keyboards come to enliven the sad atmosphere. Then, all of a sudden, a dark ambient mood settles. The gloomy passage with slow drums returns after a King Crimson-like transition, and the track ends with threatening electronic samples like dark clouds covering the sky little by little.

Although prog metal in essence, Vangough prove with 'Between the madness' that they are able to break the codes by cleverly alterning harsh and normal chant, and by incorporating elements of folk/traditional music, classical music, movie soundtracks, and ambient music. Without the shadow of a doubt, Vangough play technical and challenging music, but at the same time they never lose sight of keeping it melodic. The album is very long and is not easy to listen to in a row, but it stands as an impressive body of work, crafted with love and passion.

Report this review (#1155792)
Posted Sunday, March 30, 2014 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
4 stars US band VANGOUGH is a trio established by composer and musician Clay Withrow a few years ago, following an initial solo album he released back in 2007. Vangough released their debut album "Manikin Parade" in 2009, and "Between the Madness" from 2013 is their fourth studio production, and also their most recent at the time of writing.

Progressive metal is the name of the game as far as general style is concerned here, and a rather well conceived one at that. This is a band that has a go at that style in a rather sophisticated manner, rarely if never relying on merely the time tested arrangements and theme constructions in an effort to create safe material with a predictable reach. They don't really stretch any stylistic borders either, there's nothing here that really breaks any new ground, but if you'd like to explore a production that shies away from the most commonly explored sounds and effects of classic progressive metal then this is a band you should take note of.

Just about all the compositions revolves around the use of contrasting sections, sporting frail, tranquil and often light toned sections paired off against one or more sequences of dark, guitar riff dominated excursions. Traditional organ and guitar riff constellations do appear from time to time, but also beefier sections with more of a grunge or doom metal sound to them, relying more on groove, as well as compact quirky riff excursions and the occasional use of bombastic riff cascades and compact, chugging riff constructions.

The compositions are solid affairs, made to create and maintain tension through the use of contrasting themes, gentle interludes adding a tinge of sophistication and unpredictability, allowing plenty of room for violin and cello, especially in the calmer sequences, and even adding a full fledged symphonic creation, Depths of Blighttown, to the mix. With success I might add, this sole stylistic exception is a solid, dark and well made affair that does have some distinct soundtrack qualities to it, and then in the most positive manner of that description. There's also an additional instrumental of note, Thy Flesh Consumed, that I really thought would be my favorite track with it's alteration between menacing, tranquil sections of cinematic laden sounds and the dark, twisted guitar riff attacks that alternate with them. That impression lasted until the final track of the album came. Corporatocracy concludes this disc in a brilliant manner. There are folk music inspired details here and a sound that may be just a tad too close to comfort for fans of Pain of Salvation, but the composition itself is a glorious affair anyhow. Not a compositions that will find favor among Republicans in the US I guess, at least that is the impression I get from the lyrics, but a monster of a song anyhow.

What elevates this album into the realm of a high quality production with a lasting appeal rather than merely being a pleasant one are the lead vocals. A few exceptions aside I don't find Vangough to be a band that have managed to conjure those magnificent pieces of musical magic that sends shivers up your spine on a constant basis, but the vocals of Clay Withrow certainly elevates the total experience quite a bit. He's got a good range, manage to use his voice in fairly wide variety of ways, and always in total control too. Those fond of high quality vocals should find this album to be a real treat due to this aspect.

All in all I have a favorable impression of this production. The compositions are of a general high quality throughout, and if not quite meriting a description as innovative then at least they explore parts of the progressive metal realm not thoroughly explored by every other band out there. With a versatile, high quality lead vocalist as a bonus feature. A production easy to recommend, to those that favor classic era progressive metal in general and in particular to those with a certain affection for music of this kind that hovers in on moods and atmospheres that tend to be placed on the dark side of the border.

Report this review (#1371697)
Posted Sunday, February 22, 2015 | Review Permalink

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