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Direct Link To This Post Posted: June 13 2009 at 11:14
And yes, mixed feedback from the last one, but that's completely understandable... in hindsight, maybe I was a bit excessive in terms of vitriol... but, for the record, if I ever feel obliged to put that record on again, and fully enjoy another song from it, I'll raise it to a 2.

Yeah, what's coming up next? Good question, it varies by the day.
There are a couple of Peter Hammill albums in the works... the later experimental album And Close As This (1986), and The Future Now (1977 or so, I think?)... additionally, I've just acquired and am terribly excited about his new album Thin Air, so that gets a provisional recommendation from me, and if I feel within a few listens that I have a very good idea of what it's doing, I'll give that one a review without the usual ten-twenty listens thing I tend to do, and change it if after the requisite number of listens, I think I was too reserved/enthusiastic.

Thinking in the slightly less short-term, a Hendrix album of indeterminate nature is coming up after those, and four other albums from different sub-genres are floating around in the mind with words springing up around them. As you can see, very unpredictable speed of reviews is a characteristic of this blog, so we'll leave it at that. And sorry about the blue text, but I'm too lazy to work out how to stop it auto-doing that. If it's a real pain, the album's specific review link is here and if you can get past the occasional moment where my end paragraphs haven't transferred, that's possibly easier to read.

Oh, and as a footnote, really enjoyed The Snow Goose the other day... felt I got a much better impression of what it was doing, and I really liked the guitar work... not a masterpiece for me, personally, but still, I can now understand what people are going on about with regards to it.

Edit: Oops. new review, Gentle Giant's Free Hand is on the previous page, so check that out if you're here... my bad.


Edited by TGM: Orb - June 13 2009 at 11:26
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: June 13 2009 at 11:54
How could you write so much about DT? LOL
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: June 13 2009 at 14:25
Originally posted by Ricochet Ricochet wrote:

How could you write so much about DT? LOL


I generally write a review as the album in question is playing. Given I wrote the intro to that review separately, and that album is tragically long, I ended with 2970 odd words, and, for the sake of personal amusement, added in another 30.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: June 13 2009 at 15:51
Originally posted by TGM: Orb TGM: Orb wrote:

Originally posted by Ricochet Ricochet wrote:

How could you write so much about DT? LOL


I generally write a review as the album in question is playing. Given I wrote the intro to that review separately, and that album is tragically long, I ended with 2970 odd words, and, for the sake of personal amusement, added in another 30.


I rarely used the "write as you listen tehnique", my Aquarium reviews are most of them such a result. Otherwise, it usually took me between an hour and a day, with a pre-listen, to review an album.

True, song-by-song review adds to the word count.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: June 26 2009 at 07:49
Birds Of Fire, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, 1973

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How you judge two albums like The Inner Mounting Flame and Birds Of Fire against each other is, for budding rock critics like me, a conundrum. OK, I like the former a bit more, and guess I have done for a while, but the exact comparisons escaped me for a while. Well, here we go: It's stronger in that McLaughlin has pulled his guitar ideas together into a more compact form, Jan Hammer has moved onto to Moog as well as e-piano, and the band's a bit more unpredictable. Where it suffers in comparison is that it's more of a jazz/rock record and less of an art one: for the clever and classy puzzle content of pieces like Dawn or The Dance Of Maya we just get more fun, often novel and always well-played jazz/rock material (and the track order is baffling sometimes). So, the preference goes, I think, by listener. If you love twisted e-piano and completed the original monkey island with no reference to internet advice at all, I'd start with the former, if you think you're just looking for great jazz/rock with a bit of moog thrown in, this is the cookie. I'm a synthesis of the two, so, really, I can say that The Inner Mounting Flame is my favourite, but this one really deserves no less than the same rating, if I'm working as objectively as I can.

Cobham's gong (I think; don't trust the non-drummer writing this review) crashes are the album's statement of intent, heady, mystic sounds from under which McLaughlin's twisted, distorted, reverent guitar creeps, and Jerry Goodman launches his serpentine violin assault, before Cobham single-handedly redoubles the pace with his blistering percussion work and choice fills, and McLaughlin launches into a rare state of electric-heroism, played off by Goodman's twisting violins and a brief funk-gelled interlude featuring Hammer's first effective moog entrance and a fantastic Laird bassline, and now Goodman's serpentine theme returns; the denouement was but an illusion, and the band is now an altogether, all barrels firing, broadside of insane musicality and mood without ever losing touch with a classy structure and main theme, escalating the explosive Birds Of Fire into their self-destructive disappearance. Eh, a fade is admittedly almost a disappointment at the end of it, but it fits the title's connotations, and I really can't complain after they've given us such a mind-blowing opener.

Miles Beyond, a tribute to the great Miles Davis, offers us something quite different, a quietly upbeat electric piano introduction and a subtle McLaughlin guitar noise playing off against it, before Laird pulls off one of his cleverest bass performances, setting us up for a thick block-bass explosion, Jerry Goodman putting out a near-country flavoured part to which McLaughlin attaches a tantalising little tail and from which McLaughlin's able to pull out the weirdest miniscule picked interplay with Hammer's main theme. I mean, this is a guitar-performance and a half, electric shredwork predicted by delicate, tingling acoustics, but with no sense of it at the time; Jan Hammer is the ideal prop for the piece, Cobham's drumming is an ideal mix of touch and fire. Again, an example of the sort of piece that shows the Mahavishnu Orchestra's talent – not only as near-unparalleled players, but also as thoughtful arrangers and intelligent musicians.

Celestial Terrestrial Commuters gives us a bit of a break from the clever back-thought, and that's good too. Variety never hurt anyone. Anyway, the main theme, a roaring McLaughlin guitar part, is the most memorable riff I've yet to hear from the MO (and as a Brubeck fan, I've increasingly come to think that sort of melodic sensibility, even in jazz, is crucial to creating good stuff), and the solos, Jan Hammer on a brass-like moog (he really uses the non-fixed nature of the instrument to good effect in the relationship between his first obvious solo and his second more subtle one – it's different somehow, the same base sound, but it's certainly not the same actual sound), McLaughlin's twisty guitar runs and Jerry Goodman's snaking violin entwined together in a sort of adjectival overload, and all the while a rhythm section with Rick Laird's calm reserve and Billy Cobham's full I AM A DRUMMER attitude coming into play. I mean, as I said, this piece isn't maybe as subtly clever as the previous couple appear to be, but there's a lot of thought clearly going into the way the solos work together, the main theme is great, the solos are great. What else do you need for a great song?

Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love is a twenty-second flash of moog underpinned with various guitar, bass and violin feedback. Pure weird as an inclusion – maybe just offering Hammer somewhere to show off his skills without the pretence of musical relevance, and it sort of leads nicely to the subdued Thousand Island Park, but really a novelty piece like this was not meant to be put in the middle of the album. It's not bad, but novelty pieces go at the start or end, or the start of sides or something – it's just a terrible place for it.

The one area in which Birds Of Fire really smokes its predecessor is the quality of the acoustic piece. Lush as A Lotus On Irish Streams was, Thousand Island Park has an acoustic guitar-driven attack and sort of American-mysticism flavour. Rick Laird's thick, but delicate upright bass plays off over the top of McLaughlin and Hammer's interweaving acoustic and grand piano lines, coalescing from their tentative interplay into full-speed mystical affairs, challenging each other to come up with something more impressive and yet still delicate, and just about every line is met with something just ever so slightly more distinguished.
How do you follow something like that? Apparently with what the CD booklet fairly terms proto-speed metal. Hope is a two minute or so jam, with one very well-played Goodman theme underpinning the whole thing, and a menacing, thick and threatening rhythm section (I mean, OK, the rest of the titles appear very fitting, so I'll forgive them, and in the context of its spiritual trilogy with Sanctuary and Resolution, it seems much more fitting), and a slowly building McLaughlin contribution, along with a flourish or two of twinkling electric piano in all this chaos. Again, a fade; previously, it didn't matter so much, and it's hardly my favourite piece on the album anyway, but really, MO is a jam/jazz-band, and sometimes I want to hear their idea of the conclusion of a piece, not just the two minutes of bleak build-up.

One Word is probably the album's deciding factor for a listener, I'd guess. Cobham is given centre-stage, with his water-fall flourish turning into a smoking, subtle, brilliantly played and incredibly fast bit of drum soloing over which the rest of the band initially contributes mysterious themes, and then brief quality solos over a good Laird bass. Laird's bass solo is one of the album's better moments, and it's nice seeing his usually masked and murky obligatory bedrock status transformed into a sort of rhythmic lead, with a really nice amount of contrast and a fantastic sound. Great stuff, Mclaughlin puts his pyrotechnics to rest and switches to an upbeat, classy, and fantastic funk-styled tone, which he's able to replace with his archetypal unanticipated solo working off against Hammer (now firmly on moog) and Goodman (a real gem of a distorted violin solo coming off in the mix), and suddenly, a sort of false conclusion leads us onto Cobham completely solo; he's focussed, sharp and continues to give a real impression of musicality. OK, it's not my favourite drum solo ever, it's not even his best solo, and its impact really does depend on whether you're ready for it, but it's good, and the return of the whole unit over this jerky, energetic rhythm and a thin Laird bass which allows Cobham to continue his centrality for brief soloing bursts preparing for different parts of the previous music to be reprised. And we get to see a real ending, which is always great. A very draining piece, and in light of the following piece and its position in the album, its impressiveness and quality is almost excessive. I am actually just taking a break mid review and mid listen to go make coffee so I can treat the following number without my head feeling like it's going to break. A rare occasion where a strong track is a liability, but man, what a liability!

The reason One Word's positioning isn't maybe the best is that Sanctuary goes out of its way to be quite haunting, dark and unrelenting. McLaughlin's weepy guitar (somewhat reminiscent of Miles Davis' slower trumpet parts) and Goodman's violin twine together in a smooth, balladic fashion and work on squeezing out of every note all possible emotion and movement. A weird flute-like lead appears from somewhere, and I'm really not too sure where, Goodman, possibly, Hammer, possibly, McLaughlin, possibly, and it takes one of the album's finest solos, a moment of real emotion trapped within the pounding sketch of Cobham's drums. Even the ending offers only a limited sense of resolution. This piece is challenging, and there are a couple of really great ideas in there, but I can't say it's one I ever feel like listening to independently, and in the album's context it's almost painful to endure. I just don't like this one, maybe I just don't get it; it could be a real gem in another context, I sense, but for this album, it's five minutes of music that I can only think of as accomplished, not as enjoyable.

Open Country Joy, thankfully, is a complete reversal of fortunes, and the best piece of the album, opening pastorially with a low-key McLaughlin guitar, gentle, drifting piano and a quiet violin. Cobham shifts around a bit on a select kit and it resolves itself in a gentle blur. And then it hits you. Stomach, brain, heart, everywhere. Worth the price of the album. Just make sure you've got the volume pretty loud when you first hear this one. A short section for my favourite track, but sometimes it's just not worth spoiling the initial impact to make the review a bit more complete.

Resolution is the album's third menacing piece and also its conclusion, but this time it works, with a really insistent bass rhythm, a detached and precise drum marking it, a gradual development by McLaughlin and Hammer from certain anger into a real soul-searching declaration of intent. As far as the album's perceived mini-story of personal philosophy and spiritual development goes, it's a great ending choice.

So, not the consistency I think the first album had, there are a couple of tracks that are really out of place – whether the stunning One Word or the fun, but nonetheless novel, Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love. However, rearranging these ones to the end and start removes some of the album's other enormous strengths. Additionally, there's one piece that is strong independently, but so draining as to be really out of place among such bursting-with-energy companions, and just too draining to be listened to independently. And there are a couple of moments that are just not as good as the others on the album. So, that's going to make this album a 'mere' four stars.

However, in case the first half of the review didn't stress it enough, this is a brilliant jazz/rock album. Six of the Mahavishnu Orchestra's crowning achievements, some real development in terms of sheer musicality from the already mind-bending debut, and a sense of the emotional power and compositional, or at least arrangement-based, talent that makes this band so highly regarded even among, essentially, rock fans.

Rating: Four Stars, 12/15 (for comparison, The Inner Mounting Flame is a 5 stars, 14/15, but really, either album is a good starting point)
Favourite Track: Open Country Joy

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Well, that was one of the four subgenre ones I'd been thinking of, and I was in the mood this morning, so.


Edited by TGM: Orb - June 26 2009 at 07:50
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: June 29 2009 at 08:49
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Octavarium, Dream Theater, 2005

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Octavarium marks a sort of double-effort by Dream Theater, aiming to create another distinctly Dream Theater album, with Dream Theater compositions, including obligatory ballads, metal songs and epic songs but also to do something new and artistic overall. So, I'm offering two opening analyses: one, the 'art', two, the 'songs' (they're not entirely indivisible, but they're not exactly too chummy either).

Personally, the first aim turns out rather better than the second, which goes in for the gimmicky 'nuggets' far more than truly novel ideas. I guess the best illustration is that if I'm meant to give them credit for having 8s and 5s, should I criticise them for having track limits that aren't 8.88s or 5.55s or not using cyclical track lengths, or say they should use something like ottava rima or a Sicilian octave for the rhyme scheme of the lyrics? Yes, it's arguably clever, and I have to admit one of the nuggets was actually, as I understand it, pretty good, but does it actually add anything to the album and the impact it has? I don't think so... the 5s, 8s and cycles are all referenced fairly often, and all sorts of influences are consciously and often openly aired, but again, that's just an artistic superfluity. So, that's one side on which the album attempts to make a lot of impact or show cleverness that really, just wasn't needed and doesn't add the overall piece.

So, the second: initial remark, the songwriting (or else pick-and-choosing: some reviewers have mentioned borrowings from bands I basically don't know, so for the sake of the review, I'll call it writing: just be aware I'm not 100% certain it always is) is pretty good. The four metal songs are effective and moderately individual, though they're not sing-in-the-shower memorable, and Sacrificed Sons, the Preppic (preparatory-epic), much as I don't really appreciate the lyrics, is a musical triumph, and the title track definitely has its moments, though honestly, I could happily cut it off the album's end. So, all-in-all, on the musical, and, for most of you, I guess, more important front, a success, though not an unqualified one.

Well, that's three times the usual space for an introduction, but what I'm going to say is something contradictory to expectations: if your listening approach is generally like mine, fussing over the effect of specific fills, whether a song should or shouldn't use a fade, whether a lyric is supported properly by the feel of the music and so forth, this album gets much better if you can just switch off, and let the music sink in rather than trying to seek the album's deeper conceptual fish, which are floating lifeless on the surface. At least, that's how it worked for me.

The first of eight (surprises there...) tracks, The Root Of All Evil starts promisingly with a firm, low piano note, a menacing hum and Rudess solidifying over Portnoy's startling, mechanical bursts. A thick riff coalesces very naturally from this, and from that, somewhat more awkwardly, the vocal bit. Labrie offers menacing and murky vocals for a snappy set of lyrics with a matching bass underpinning the whole thing. The slightly ambling chorus doesn't have the punch of the verses but on the other hand the superb squirming Petrucci solo and a tasteful piano part from the later Octavarium slipped in smoothly at the end make this an effective statement of intent, both for the metal and the artistic sides of the album. Not entirely certain we needed eight minutes to get it, though.

The Answer Lies Within is a somewhat typical Dream Theater power ballad in the vein of Another Day or The Spirit Carries On. While it doesn't have the inspiring guitar part of the former, it compensates with somewhat less painful lyrics and a fairly nice, if simple (for some reason, Rudess seems to turn the speed down on the 'emotional' piano parts), piano backing that is darkened neatly at the entrance of the violin. On the minus side, the harmonies just aren't something Dream Theater have convincingly engaged, and Labrie's basically good voice is hamstrung by the audible intake of breath before just about each word and an occasional ineffective echo choice. The violin's entrance and a nicely dark conclusion stand out, and all in all it's not a particularly important attraction, but a fairly pleasant break in between the album's general heaviness.

These Walls opens with a block of surprisingly effectively arranged noise which twists into one of DT's most convincing metal riffs. As Rudess enters at speed it's not really so much changed as revealed to be a more deep, dark, brooding song, and a drifting electro-acoustic or something of the ilk brings us to a great entrance from the still hard-breathing Labrie, as usual, slamming vibrato left, right and centre in a decent performance. Rudess takes the only real criticism for his pseudo-orchestral apparitions, which don't really give the Stravinskian punch I think they were meant to. But, even if the song could be a little more involving and stabbing, the melody is great, the bass part is really neat, the chorus is very memorable, and I don't dislike the lyrics. Petrucci's clever hooks offer it an almost unanticipated staying power (and he also takes credit for a calm, tasteful guitar solo with a good tone), and the rhythm section gives a spectacular, cohesive impression as well as the idea that these are really good individual players. I mean, as Dream Theater goes, this just about manages to unite all their best elements, and I can only criticise a couple of either basically insignificant or else very general elements (too many chorus repeats, maybe? Rushed ending? Not a lot of balance?, but these are all very general or nor really important).

I Walk Beside You opens with a fairly clever transition from a jumpy string-synth opening somewhat reminiscent of Queen's The Show Must Go On to a fairly horrendous pop track – now, I admit that elsewhere I've been lavishly praising of 'pop' songs on otherwise 'prog' masterpieces: I Know What I Like on Selling England By The Pound, Love To Love You on Nine Feet Underground, Tua Casa Commoda on Ys... the difference between this one and those ones is that the classic prog bands were generally able to keep their identity and individuality, and also to throw out great hooks and compositions even when working within pop constraints: Dream Theater, here, at least, do not. Labrie's vocal begins well with a sort of jittering Myung bassline, but, as the chorus begins, the song moves from anything memorable to a general mess. The lyrics are uplifting in the sort of way that Finding Nemo was uplifting (terrible movie). The big crescendo is just trying far too hard (straining your voice is not the only way to evoke emotion with it... sometimes it's not even one of the ways), albeit balanced with a brief and somewhat more tasteful piano-sounding flourish.  The issue with this isn't that it's pop, incongruous though it feels, but just that I get no impression of personality from it, just 4.27 which is, admittedly nice intro aside, emotionally blank and musically limp. Short, by the album's standards, and inviting the skip button.

Panic Attack continues the trend of the 'metal' songs on Octavarium being better than the pop/rock ones by a large margin, with a hell of a kicking riff interspersed with effective orchestra-lite melodies from Rudess. Energy, attack, a great vocal melody (later reprised in Octavarium with a bit of a twist). Labrie is again (I much prefer him this way) working on the darker side with a couple of neat wavering high notes, and the vocal melody is interweaved pretty cleverly with repeats of the riff. Petrucci and Portnoy are both in full force on this one, offering aggressive, mule-kick drumming and screechy guitar solos, with Rudess' selective decoration and this energy doesn't relent at all until the great end. I haven't a complaint... well, maybe the introduction of Petrucci's solo involves a couple of unneeded bars, but even with that tiny nitpick, it's a hell of a song. Best on the album.

Never Enough is another of the album's metal numbers, and with the heaviest riff, I think, though the build of the chorus leads us only to some very plodding long syllables (I can only take so much of your un-GRAAATEful wAAAYS) are emphasised agonisingly. That particularly section aside, Labrie's twisted, slightly distorted almost opera-metal vocals are among the best I've heard from him, and even his bawling long syllables seem to slip in unreasonably well.  Portnoy's lyrics are pretty simple and direct, and dissecting them is naturally going to prove both unfair and unnecessary, but the chorus feels almost intently ambling by comparison with the verses. However, his drumming here is great: energy, attack, a mild element of surprise, fits neatly in with the bass parts, and not too dense for continued impact. Both Rudess and Petrucci seem to be contributing basically embellishments during the song's main chorus, they seem to twine together to create both the killer opening riff and the instrumental mid-section, but then, they're acting just right by the song, and, even if it's not musically visionary and the chorus isn't as great as it could be, it is really a very good song.

Sacrificed Sons finds itself in an awkward position. Automatically, it's the second-most-epic song on an album, which is never enviable, and it's put right against the title track, and it's clearly aiming to be something more than the metal tracks. So, in the album's context, I don't think it's really going to bring out its full potential – guess that's the issue with making 70 minute albums rather than 40 minute ones. However, from the synthesis of Arabic-sounding prayers, a wandering violin and a set of quotations about 9/11, understandably a sensitive and relevant topic, and I credit the band for trying to engage with it. On the other hand, I don't particularly feel they engaged with it effectively but maybe I'm just too detached to really feel the human, emotional pull they're angling for.

A chilling, simple piano-voice-drums trio, with Labrie's voice on top form is augmented by a fairly harmless orchestral addition played off against swirling, brooding solos from Rudess and Petrucci. The initial melodies aren't especially creative, but the song's main attraction lies in Petrucci's astounding soloing - and all directed towards the song and its lyrical theme – and the heady metallic mid-section, full of the sort of complex band-lines that made Metropolis pt. 1 such a classic. All, in all, were this the album's ending, I'd call it an almost unqualified success, as it is, the denouement before the album's intended piece de resistance doesn't really suit it, but still, a minor classic in the band's repertoire, and the best playing I've yet heard from the very talented Petrucci.

The centrepiece and twenty-four minute epic Octavarium is obviously the album's making-or-breaking, whether it'll be an occasional listen or a regular visitor to the headphones or CD-player. I personally can understand the accolades it receives on one level – Dream Theater are a talented bunch of musicians, and they're producing an enormous piece jammed full of information and references in a strictly progressive rock track. I guess it's just not an idea that appeals to me, and the silly five/eight/cycles thing appears to gain any interest accidentally as much as by design – OK, the notion of infinite reincarnation as a trap is interesting, but I'm not convinced with all the eight-octave-that's-a-cycle thing going on, and five-that's-like-the-black-notes-man. As for the reference soup in pt. III: well, I can't blame them for using them: who doesn't , but just slamming references down rather than using them to establish a point or something of the kind is essentially messy rather than insightful. Still, musically, it's not a bad thing, and addressing that:

So, the first four minutes or so are a twisted welding of Bijou and the introduction of Shine On You Crazy Diamond – Petrucci's more than up to the task, not so convinced that Rudess' keys have the emotional grip that Wright never relinquished. After this and admittedly a very pretty flute part, a content guitar (any resemblance to Cadence and Cascade is probably an imagination on my part), a good Labrie vocal and the occasional reinforcing piano note. Portnoy's arriving rattle adds a slight, building depth, though the transition of 'I thought what I could tell' unfortunately sees Labrie straining to create effect. I find myself at about nine minutes in by now, with a cool bass groove, less cool lyrics, some neat fills by Portnoy and three minutes later, I'm still in much the same mood... it's not so much that the song's not good, but just that it's making no continued impression on me. I phase out and find myself waking up occasionally to check where I am by the lyrics.

A very neat synth solo – according to the site I've got up, cribbed, but still, it's well-played – is my next point of actual contact with the music, and after sitting through it and wondering just what it's meant to add to the piece before settling down to plain enjoy it. Now, Full Circle, part III, is a dilemma for me. As mentioned, I think the lyrics are a horrendous mess, but Labrie is on top form and the riff they've pulled out is really strong, and the descent into a sort of collective madness at around 16.00 is great, with what sounds like a brief reference to Metropolis pt. 1, or, at least, the same sort of complex fast-paced, high-energy progressive metal. Head-spinning assaults from the bass and guitar and synthesiser counterpointed with a big range of keyboards, solid ten-second references. I find myself strangely able to completely ignore the lyrics of the next section and carry my full enjoyment of the song across Labrie's odd, but effective, vocal stylings and the full yowling post-ordial swirl of the band. Razor's Edge, though itself somewhat unremarkable, does a good job of working out the tension and energy spilling over from the previous two sections. Some more Brian May-ish guitar-work takes us on our instrumental ride out with a complementary, if brief, appearance by the orchestra.

Well, left in the aftermath with one chilling low piano note, what do I think of Octavarium? Good question... my description's been pretty brief given the length – and I've been trying to give impressions rather than a list you yourself can hear if you pick up the album. Still, it's an enjoyable progressive rock track, with some of Dream Theater's most focussed and impressive music yet, and yet it's a conceptual mess – pritt-sticking a hundred influences together with little other than a lot of instrumental talent to do it. From an intellectual, puzzle-solver and poet, standpoint, I think it's decidedly lightweight, from an emotional standpoint, it almost pulls off the huge finale thing it was going for. And from about the 11.00 or 12.00 mark it never really lost my attention. Unfortunately, this isn't really a case where something less than absolute success can be enough, the album's impact clearly depends on this suite to unify it from a smorgasboard (I wouldn't recommend the cheese) of harmless pop/rock and artistically-leaning metal numbers, and for me, this one isn't good enough to do that.

So, all in all, I think Dream Theater somewhat overreached themselves by a sheer effort to be artistic here, instead ending with a jumble of circumstantial or arranged fives and eights and a couple of whole-album links that really are a bit too light to justify the effort put into them. Additionally, the enormous centrepiece supposedly unifying this is good, but just not good enough or intellectually convincing enough to iron out so many kinks. However, this artistic misfire actually has little effect on the enjoyment of the album proper and, all in all, we're left with some very good songs, in fact, some of DT's best, especially Never Enough, These Walls and Sacrificed Sons, and I think the band's overall sound benefits a bit from Rudess being a little less and Myung a little more noticeable (worth using a good set of headphones for this one – really enjoyed the production). All in all, a pleasant, fairly memorable effort, and worth a few listens even if you're not the band's biggest fan, even if the whole effect doesn't really pull together and I Walk Beside You is a real monstrosity. Three deserved stars from me.

Rating: Three Stars, 10/15... if you want an introduction to the band, I'd say Images And Words (a sketchy 11/15) would be a better choice than this, and Awake a better album than either of them.
Favourite Track: Panic Attack

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For the record, this is the fifth Dream Theater album I've heard, and the fourth I've listened to enough times to get a good impression (about four or five 'complete' listens, and a fair few repeats of the various songs depending on inclination and challenge). However, given I'm reviewing this one based on the excellent Spotify, I find myself without the negative time between the tracks, so be aware that I'm missing about two minutes of the album's incidental music. Additionally, this review has hit, at the moment of completion, 2917 words... long reviews, I'm afraid, result from my style – it wasn't just that I really hated Scenes From A Memory Metropolis.

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I found Dream Theater's back-catalogue was up on Spotify, so got distracted. Alack.

And Close As This may or may not actually get finished today. Odd one to review.
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And Close As This, Peter Hammill, 1986

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Hammill's solo career is a minefield; not that it's inconsistent in quality - at least, from the twenty-five or so discs I've got, I wouldn't consider any album bad, just that the range of styles is wide enough that, for any album after Nadir's Big Chance, you need to be ready to enjoy it for what it is, not for how it compares to The Silent Corner... or Godbluff. This particular gem, 1986's And Close As This is almost as close as Hammill gets to 'true solo' efforts - all songs created by one vocal take and one keyboard take - with the assistance only of Paul Ridout in synthesiser preparation, and it's both accessible and experimental. All the songs are, essentially, keys and voice; however, the single unedited takes of all the various songs are modified with pre-prepared sequencing. So, essentially, we have single-performance takes and more direct songwriting, which is, from Hammill, usually excellent. So, that's the concept of the album, now: how well does it work?

Well, a number of the songs, particularly the straight piano-and-voice Too Many Of My Yesterdays, as well as Empire Of Delight and Other Old Clichés turn out very well, and we do get some of Hammill's best clean vocals to make up for the lack of thick self-harmonising we're accustomed to from Hammill. On the other hand, this concept is used more to create perfumed piano pieces, to accent and augment basic tunes, only on Confidence is really going out to create a complete multi-instrument piece. However, all in all, And Close As This is an excellent album, and both an interesting and novel experiment and a set of mostly good songs, a worthwhile purchase for any listener, though admittedly those accustomed to Hammill's writing for keyboards and vocal stylings will perhaps get a bit more out of it; just a bit of trivia, Empire of Delight, one of the album's highlights, is a collaboration with Keith Emerson (who contributed the music), and so might be of interest to the more diehard ELP fans for that alone, much as it's really not in the style you'd anticipate.

The album opens with its hardest-hitting song, the piano-and-voice Too Many Of My Yesterdays. An arresting main theme, fluent decoration, daringly bare and jarring breaks, all underpinning a lush vocal, with subtle trembling embellishments, a developed voice as the song moves on and astounding guttural-ethereal dynamics. But this fantastic performance and composition is only half of the song's impact: the lyrics are well-written, striking and more importantly, they connect directly to a situation in my life - not wanting an old relationship to resurface... putting it to a final end.

I shelved my broken heart
I put you from my mind
I got up from my knees
I picked up all the pieces
But seeing you again
Puts shakes into my soul
Just when I think I'm finally over you
Don't come and show me that's not true.

Heavy stuff, and, if Van Der Graaf Generator's philosophical poetry comes across as pretentious to you, I guess that solo songs like this one might connect with you more.

Faith is the first of the album's 'prepared' pieces, relying primarily on a sort of softened and slightly lighter piano voice to offer an appropriate voice for the soft positivity of the song as a whole (as mentioned in the liner notes, this is a rare affirmation of love from Hammill). An understated instrumental break offers us the first real fruits of the album's experimentation in the form of echoing flute or reed organish voices, and the introduction of a more acoustic-guitar or orchestral percussion vibes in some of the decorative 'piano' embellishments, as well as supporting sustained strings. After a little initial indecision and a couple of mild vocal twists that either don't really come off or don't feel very well-aimed, the additional voices and an increasingly beautiful vocal turn this into a sort of sweet one-man chamber piece. The lyrics again, are straight experience stuff, but while the insidious doubts of this supposed relationship of trust are brought to the surface quite interestingly, Hammill doesn't really manage to put his own stamp on the idea as he'd earlier done in Ferret And Featherbird or Child. Still, a nice song, and one that introduces the album's key idea very well, but this probably isn't the one you'll find yourself coming back to time and again.

Empire Of Delight, as mentioned previously, a collaboration between Emerson and Hammill, is a must-hear, and perhaps represents the most successful marriage of this innovation and a direct song performance. A spectral love story, explained by an incredible tentative/confident vocal, with a superb, slowly bringing out the haunting emotional power of this idea with, again, a real individual voice and development of mood. The soft surrealism of the setting is brought out by the very well-developed tune and a sort of soft acoustic-guitar-like voice for the piano's chords contrasted by its much more certain individual notes and some brooding organ as it reaches its peak at the speaker's disappearance. The lyrics are again a highlight, and all-in-all, this is a beautiful and fascinating understated piece.

Silver offers a more obvious use of the prepared sequences in a slightly longer centre-piece (and I'm pretty sure there's an effect on the voice); again, there's a piano at the base of it, but the rapacious lead is snatched by organ and hybrid voices, spiralling runs by this voice and the piano with its interesting conflicting voices merging into complimentary ones, assisted by a sort of cash-register percussive trill and some oddball synths. Silver is a continually active and challenging piece, both in its interweaving keyboard part and the dynamic, dramatic and mocking vocal with both aggressive highs and guttural lows (the majestic 'Argenteeee! Argent!' is a particular high. The lyrics are again direct, and consequently they don't really benefit from the crude references, but they fit the piece and the message is convincing: that unbridled robber baron greed is not the way forwards (at the time of writing, I've just read of fraudster Bernie Madoff's 150 year sentence - now, both the sentence and the crime seem ridiculous to me: no amount of money is worth 150 years).

Beside The One You Love is the second piano song, and also the second affirmational love song, of the album, and it proves a fairly attractive number on both counts. A sort of lullaby melody, a pleasantly drifting-away vocal, again showing the incredible beauty and power of Hammill's voice, even when he's not pushing it to its dramatic limits. Creeping piano flourishes add a pretty distraction to the entirely winning lyrical picture, this time with the individuality of Hammill's writing and perspective truly surfacing and at least my memory connects with it entirely. A gem.

Other Old Clichés is the second destructive love song, compiled, as you might well guess, of self-mocking assembly of inappropriate idioms and hollow phrases. The embellishments to the bitter, masochistic piano melody are rare, but inspired, and the sheer amount of ideas Hammill can convey with the mere way he sings a word is, as always, jaw-dropping. The deep anger and passion of the song suit his voice perfectly, and again, a human lyric prompts human emotions. On the arrangement side, dark strings are the most common alternative to the piano melodies, but towards the end a strange whistling synthesiser and a humming conclusion effectively add variety. Again, striking.

However, great though all these perfumed piano numbers are, the real fulfilment of the album's concept comes through the Faculty X styled epic of Confidence. Shiny synthesiser lines all over the place, much more strength given to the non-piano lines (though a sort of bouncy not-quite-piano sound is quite prominent), and we get some much more complex (at least in conception) multi-part melodies, with various synth sounds bouncing off an odd glockenspielalike sound. Later on, we even get some 'drums'. The vocals are, as on Silver, much more rough and attacking, though this time a selective echo effect is use, with extended notes and a development from a sort of mock pride to the uncertain fear and hope of the final 'we are not alone'. Lyrically, as well as compositionally, it's a daring effort, and comes off very well, with a mock-comic (in and of itself, an accomplishment) denouement a little reminiscent of Tapeworm, some punning to reinforce the general opinion of 'Confidence' as something of a fraud, and a final verse so perfectly uncertain in its character. Though I prefer other pieces from the album, this one is the example of what the mixture of preparatory sequencing and direct performance could achieve, and it's extremely successful in that respect.

Sleep Now, an endearing profession of paternal love, is opened with a gorgeous synthesiser background over which the ethereal lullaby piano and a beautiful, sentimental vocal. Some more sustained string-based backgrounds and some sort of twinkling piano-replacement synthesiser. The humanity of the lyrics again is a strength, and this soft, touching conclusion is a perfect contrast to the soul-stabbing opening and a gentle release from an intelligent and understated album. Just for the sake of completeness, an excerpt of the lyrics, and one of my favourite Hammill lines:
'Sleep now, one day I'll tell you how my life has been
O so strange now, to think your eyes will fall on things
that mine have never seen
these eyes that gently flicker in some lost childhood dream'

And Close As This remains one of Peter Hammill's most interesting, mind-expanding efforts, with a unique concept, variety and exceptional songwriting all carried off with capable playing and a set of vocals that, as much as any of his acknowledged classics, show the sheer captivating power and the range of ideas and moods he can convey with his voice: this is, make no mistake, one of the best albums in the respect of vocals ever, with a very consistent approach both to using dynamics and creating real voices for the individual songs, developing ideas and not losing touch with the essence of the song. A challenging album to put into words, and challenging, even if at first it might not appear so, to appreciate as fully as I now can. The two lesser tracks, though neither of them terrible, Silver and Faith, keep this one from the fifth star, but, nevertheless, the remnant make And Close As This an interesting addition to any decent music collection.

Rating: Four Stars. 12/15.
Favourite Track: Too Many Of My Yesterdays or Empire Of Delight, depending on mood.

---

I was having sleep issues... so finally got around to writing this one.
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The Future Now, Peter Hammill, 1978

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The Future Now is maybe a moment in Peter Hammill's career when that improvisational edge is lost (only for a moment and only in part and only maybe... it's rather that the improvisation is expressed in ways other than the vocals... though vocal material from the same year by him is as out there as anything); every song seems clearly thought out, down to the vocal, down to the guest soloists' tone, and there are no vestiges of the hell-raising Van Der Graaf Generator compositions or the quaintly philosophical acoustic pieces here. Everything is direct. The lyrics, for one, are angry; with critics, musicians, the music business, fans, the world, politicians, apartheid, religion, science and himself. Unremitting, recalcitrant anger underpins a lot of seemingly careless songs and this undercurrent gives a unique edge to the album which makes up for occasionally cheap imagery and much blunter comparisons.

Musically, it's not consistent in quality, neither over the album itself, nor over various listens... one time I'll find myself enraptured in the mocking imagery of something like Energy Vampires, the next I'll wonder why I'm listening to it. I think, most of the time, everything from If I Could onwards is strong to stunning, and that's also where the most bizarre material seems to be concentrated. Hammill's instrumental talents extent to a newly independent bass, guitar (both acoustic and electric) and more extensively orchestrated synthesiser, with a piano thrown in once or twice... I think the drums are programmed rather than played, but they're not especially common anyway. Guest performances from David Jaxon and Graham Smith (especially) offer strong confident contrast to this songwriter's effort, and you have another element of contrast between the two broad categories of song -artistically embellished songs and songfully embellished art tracks. Lastly, a word for the vocals; the new thing about them seems to be both a masterfully captured resigned tone in a few of the songs as well as a much expanded range of mass and harmonised vocals; there's also a general trend of deeper and more real vocals. Less acrobatics and drama, more backbone; it's a trade-off, certainly, and it threw me at first, but once you get into this new voice, it is as beautiful and individual as the old one (and, for the sake of completeness, some live pieces from '78 on the unofficially released Skeletons of Songs bootleg have the best vocals I have ever heard... it's not that he can't pull off those unrestrained dramatic pieces, but rather that he's trying something new for the new studio material).

The near-casual rocker Pushing Thirty fits on a border between smugness and mockery so casually and cleverly that that alone is almost winning. Big thick bass and jagged odd-sounding guitars with a sort of jumpy piano are the focus, while the caricaturing vocal is followed by a strained Jaxon sax sound and a laidback drum part. All in all, clever lyrics and an interesting mood redeem a slightly disappointing opener. And I don't particularly like that sax sound... I really get the sleazy vibe I think it's going for, but that doesn't quite make me like it. The defiance, the fun and the satire all come across superbly, but I don't think it does justice to the album that follows it. As always, with this album, it's an impression over two or three particular listens -on others it's been good, exceptional, flaccid and adequate.

The finger of The Second Hand is now pointed firmly at rock musicians, and with a much better Jaxon performance gracing it, the tone being a little more graceful and with a lot more intricacy and contrast. A drum pattern, basic yet oddly appropriate and occasionally varied, underpins it. The downcast, non-prominent acoustic is supported by a more prioritised bass and some non-commital e-bow or synthesiser work. The instrumentation feels more like a detail than a key element, and other than Jaxon, all the attraction is Hammill's sort of spoken-sung vocal, with a quiet brain-bleeding-out-slowly vibe and alternating neglect and concern. Very hard to express or examine, but when it gets through, it does work its way in. The lyrics are a double-edged sword, with metaphor occasionally falling flat and occasionally augmenting the piece, but other than that slight slip, it isn't a take I've seen elsewhere before and the direct statement is superb. Another piece that isn't really remarkable in its own right, but it's interesting enough not to drag the album down. Note that when I first tried to write the review for this one, I was very complimentary of it -the album has different things for different moods, it just doesn't often all come together at the right time.

Trappings is a marked step-up, in my view, with some incredible shrill, disappearing and distorted mob vocals contrasting a flat and snide basic vocal and its companions, more floral and low, all fitting together into one really unique overall voice. Well, the vocals are one of the real highlights. The lyrics (four legs good, music biz bad) are also a step up, not because the words on paper are of themselves stunning, but because they fit the music and the vocal stylings perfectly... lines like 'he's a prisoner, in a gilded cage' or 'he's a man of the people, as long as the people don't talk back!' work not only because they're basically good, but because they're delivered cohesively and with an entertainment value that doesn't detract from the basic point of the song. And the instrumentation has also pulled together; all the pieces feel like they're needed... the gradually cohering acoustic with a neat melody, the snarling electric (and a great individual tone... yes, Hammill's not the cleanest electric guitarist, but by Over and certainly by The Future Now, he can express himself on electrics better than most), decorative piano, and most of all an immediate and punctuating bass part with a brief solo... it's all one song with a top notch bit of arranging and it succeeds in the way that both the previous two didn't.

And Mousetrap (Caught In) doesn't let up on this; if anything, it's even better arranged, with that gorgeously ethereal operatic-sounding synth, a very clean piano base with perfectly measured lines, ghostly echo coming off it, and a stronger ARP that contrasts and compliments those piano melodies. And the lyrics, now introspective, are Hammill in his element. Emotional, direct and individual (admittedly, 'all the world's a stage' is not new -but there's certainly a direct meaning and interpretation of that which another song using that idea hasn't quite got. 'Every time... that I go to turn the pages of the calendar, I can see that I'm not really going anywhere.' That hits home (even if I'm still young enough not to deserve the right to think that yet). The vocals are just perfect here... clean, with a mood developing through the song, and achieving an emotionally overwrought state through very neat vibrato, attention to detail and a strong melody... the live recordings I've heard are darker, more aggressive and barer, and both angles fit the content and the idea so strongly that it's difficult to choose between them. This might catch it, if only for the tasteful synthesiser. From strength to strength.

Energy Vampires was something I loathed at first. Weird sounds, all over the place, comic vocal parts, ridiculous lyrics ('excuse me while I suck your blood, excuse me when I phone you, I got every one of your records, man, doesn't that mean that I own you?' -I mean, I kind of like the overall sound, but the content is both serious and ludicrous at the same time and it initially makes for very odd listening'). However, I've gotten over that, and the main riff, acoustic with a reverb detailed echoey contrast floating into a thudding bass is just fantastic. The song also includes an astounding high-pace performance with some incredible yodelling solos from Graham Smith (who coined the title, coincidentally), who contributes some amazingly beautiful, haunting sounds in an incredibly versatile moment in the middle of the song and also a substantiation of the basic theme with a thicker violin sound. Musically, one of my favourite pieces on the album. Lyrically, I've now got to the point of happily ignoring most of it. Vocally, again, very good, with more of the mass vocals and one astoundingly vulnerable lonely outcry contrasts all the previous mockery and multiple-part deadpan delivery. Coincidentally¸ this song's bass work appears to me sort of as a forerunner for later bass-heavy songs like Last Frame, and yet I have altogether no idea what to make of it. The violin performance is killer, though, and any fan of progressive violin work would be crazy to miss this one.

If I Could is one of those songs that stands out for its sincerity as much as its content; the simple plea and explanation is its own declaration, and though everything else is wonderful, it's this idea that carries it. A gorgeous, sliding Graham Smith violin adds exoticism and bearing to a wonderful-sounding acoustic part (the production as much as the part is very enjoyable). Another clean vocal and another set of mass choral harmonies, this time mostly in a low to mid register, making the higher vocal harmonies and the incredible sustained notes at the end even more intense... various live attempts to substitute for that harmonic attack are always interesting, but can't quite match the way the original just works. One of those songs I can't really judge or criticise, and I wouldn't want to, even if I could.

The Future Now is the second absolutely solo piece, a riveting anthem with a majestic guitar over a dignified piano (at one point it feels like it's taking the sort of role you'd expect from Tubular Bells), clustered synths offering a sort of hymnal significance to a roaring protest song. An incredibly pretty piano and an incredibly edgy guitar come together to make a dark interlude, a screaming, stabbing guitar and bass emphasise the vocal break, gorgeous choral vocal harmonies back significant parts of the song. I mean, Hammill himself has said that this is the sort of sound he was aiming for and even if it takes a while to sink in, this is not a cheap pop song, it is serious business and when it sinks in it is just about perfect. And that's just the music and production: the vocals, equally grand, but with a hint of underlying darkness, roaring and confident and intense, no holds barred, hitting indignance and aspiration with no excess or embellishment. It's exact but has a spontaneous edge and it works perfectly. And the lyrics:
'O blind, blinded, blinding hatred of sex, race, religion, colour, country and creed
They scream from the pages of everything I read
You just bring me oppression and torture, apartheid, corruption and plague
You just bring me the rape of the planet and joke world rights at the Hague'
I mean, how many 'prog' songs are this direct, meaningful and real? For all the pretension Hammill's poetry is occasionally accused of, it's hard to argue that he didn't have ideas. All in all, The Future Now is a song I completely didn't musically understand at first (though the solid version with The K Group on The Margin was much easier to appreciate) but with a little thought and time to adjust I've grown to appreciate its power. Great electrics, coincidentally.

Still In The Dark is perhaps par for the course, nothing awkward or abject, but really, other than the insightful and individual lyric and an expressive vocal, it doesn't excel. A piano song, the piano filling the breaks in the voice as much as the reverse. Additional e-bow and synthesiser offer an instrumental and sonic originality to a piece that is compositionally accomplished but not compositionally thrilling. The message:

And if that fairly conventional number seems at the time of its arrival as a sort of representation of the things the second side is going for, this is turned on its head as dramatically as possible. Mediaevil cuts in, with the angry choirboy's revenge (not my phrase *click. Click. Click... the sound of the search function*... thanks to Refugee for that one). The mass harmonies are now shrill, mocking, and sarcastically Gregorian (well, perhaps not exactly but it captures that mood), encircling a lone, bitter and stabbing lead vocal. The lyrics take a surprising double twist from a very sharp, if rather normal (compared to things like Still Life or Gog) mockery of organised religion and embezzlement with a medieval backdrop and texture, and then it moves on bitingly to the media with the same destructive glare: technology glorified, sex devalued, individuality still suppressed by mass deception, nuclear weapons prolific... the message, that we need to wake up and do something about it is powerful and direct, and there is a real originality to the comparison (well, perhaps the comparison is not entirely new... and I've seen and read similar things; but I haven't heard that sort of comparison conveyed as a lyric... it's just not done) and the musical style (it's mock-medieval, but with as unmedieval a lead vocal as you can get and some brilliantly warped harmony choruses). A real message, managed intelligently, enjoyably and artistically: is there anything else a song needs to do?

And those who are strange
Are still locked in asylums
And a sterile pope proscribes the pill
And those who are rich
Are still getting richer
And those who are poor still foot the bill

(lyrics moment here... seems true as ever today)

A Motor-Bike In Africa is even stranger. A rhythmic mess, with a roaring motorbike doubling as thick layers of tribal percussion (such a clever rhythm), an increasing layering of twisted production, percussion, vocals and harmony vocals under a low and menacing lead voice. Again, meaningful lyrics: just because you're messing around with sound, you don't need to sing about Sun Gods to make it work... this time attacking apartheid and colonialism. Another aspect of Hammill's originality... like the later work of Peter Gabriel, though even more eclectically, he's able to move into relatively type-cast genres in a fashion other artists wouldn't think of... move to World Prog?

The Cut is a song that is nothing like a song. I don't think I've got much more to say. There's a melody underlying the vocals, which are intentionally disinterested. There's an acoustic part, guitar 'soloing' (really, it's working with the sounds guitars can produce. On the other hand, the melodies cut off and jump around unexpectedly, the sounds vary maddeningly and a conclusion meets with a completely noise-based reopening that seems somehow to continue the song. Truly crazy but it does work brilliantly before it segues into Palinurus, creating a sort of weird kinship between the two.

Palinurus is another song that does manage to resemble a song most of the time. A sonic whirr is met by a longing harmonica (also Hammill, and perfect for its content) and a smooth piano melody with matching accents and counterpointing synth whirrs. The vocal and the lyrics, despite the reference to the Aeneid (overrated commercial dross; the synth-pop of the Augustus' time), are some of the most passionate and disarming on the album, with a full demonstration of Hammill's range. The essential four components of the song: synth, piano, harmonica, voice fit together so well and neatly that at the first listen you almost don't notice it. Another triumph, and a great note to end on.

Completely solo takes of If I Could and The Mousetrap (Caught In) from the Skeletons of Songs bootleg more than match up to the studio material (I think they, though different from the studio material, benefit more by not needing comparison with it), with an incredible passion in the vocals, some of Hammill's unique grating growl and strong, clear vibrato. The stripped back versions also really display of just how pretty those acoustic and piano parts are and the basic strength of the lyrics sung. These stripped down versions reveal a lot about the songs and offer an emotion and vocal variety that is simply astonishing. A real bonus addition, though slightly incongruous with the end of the album proper.

Obviously, I speak from the point of view of an enthusiast. I've got about twenty of his albums (including live ones), I've heard bootleg and live material, I'm kicking myself for missing the VDGG tour early this year. Consequently, it's somewhat difficult for me to say how essential a disc like this is... people who aren't fans of the earlier and more accessibly extreme solo efforts possibly won't understand this, and even I don't particularly like the first two tracks. A strong solo effort that is a worthwhile purchase for any serious progressive rock fan (how many good, well-known and clearly progressive albums are kicking around in '78 anyway?) and one of the more obvious directions for the Hammill fan to branch out in. Two top notch violin performances add another area of specialist interest, as does the use of production as a real tool in its own right. Rating is consequently a bit of a problem: I'm offering a complimentary three star in the same way as I did to the excellent Nadir's Big Chance -I might enjoy these two more than a number of acknowledged classics which I've possibly rated higher, but the appeal is maybe not one for the site in general and there are some weaknesses on both which are just about enough to bring the albums down a notch.

I stress again, despite a 'low' rating, this is thoroughly worth getting.

Favourite Track: ask me four weeks ago and I'd have had a decisive candidate on any given listen... now, say, maybe The Future Now, If I Could or The Mousetrap (Caught In). It's just not one of those albums with just one song I think 'this is it!' to... there are four or five with very different merits, and choosing one isn't something I'd do. A nod to the Skeletons of Songs take of Mousetrap as well... just incredible.

Rating: three stars on the 'hesitate downwards' rule... four for the general Hammill fan and me personally. Would probably have been four if I didn't want to recommend another fifteen Hammill albums highly as well, so some sort of discrimination is probably worth trying. An 11/15 seems about right.

---

Now, I took a look at my old review of Nadir's Big Chance (and that's going in the record player, time for some embarrassing drumalong) just before rounding off the conclusion here and it's about 2/5 the length of this one (another three thousand worder). Now, seriously, I'm not trying to write long reviews, and I'm aware it probably stops some readers from bothering. The reason I write reviews so much longer these days is that my ears, my understanding, my background knowledge, my base for comparison is more than 5/2 times larger, and cutting out thoughts isn't something I like doing... plus, there are some albums that are always going to get longer reviews.

So, gentle reader (if I've any left), I feel obliged to ask:

1) would you like me to cut the size down a bit? (these are still going to be 1,000 to 1,500 words in any case... I'm not a commercial reviewer so minimalism doesn't really feel necessary)
2) On the grounds I'm not writing a lot of reviews and I'm in a patient mood at the moment, I can probably fix up the reviews here with cover art for quick reference. Any point in doing that?
3) Hammill/other/Hammill/other sound good? Wink I think that's what I'll be doing for a while... lots of unreviewed Hammill albums, not all that much cash for new shinies. I can also, fortunately, Spotify things, though, so if anyone's got a particular recommendation or request, there's a good chance I can check it out... depending on the style/importance of production, I may or may not want to write a review based on headphones or lousy computer speakers.



Edited by TGM: Orb - July 17 2009 at 11:32
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Tangerine Dream, Rubycon, 1975

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I type the first words of this review with the exquisite sound of Rachmaninov's Trio élégiaque no. 2 in D Minor coming from the speakers, fluent piano lines meeting expressive violin and cello effortlessly. It is a truly incredible piece of music. The thought that this piece, so far removed from the one I'm reviewing, suggests is this:

Firstly, that beauty is not made more beautiful by isolation; the lush, watery, wordless landscapes suggested by the astounding playing of Valeri Grohovski on piano are interwoven with brooding, pensive reflection and defiant outcries from the violin and cello over a jolting piano theme repeated and developed to draw out its character, offering that central beauty an even greater power than it would have when relieved of its daring surroundings. In fact, these surroundings have a beauty of their own to appreciate and grow to love.

Such is Rubycon... at its heart a compelling and evocative classical title: the implications of Rubycon are not just its historical significance, the moment when a King by any other name takes a rotten democracy and replaces it with a golden tyranny, the triumphal opening of Western Civilisation proper and a violent, bloody aftermath, a slaughter nullo discrimine of sacrificial victims for progress; the implications of Rubycon are much deeper even than that: it is a choice made against all your conditioning, breaking the sacred and the moral to become your own person, making a decision which cannot be reversed, 'The awful daring of a moment's surrender, which an age of prudence can never retract.'

The title of Rubycon and the music which evokes it thus conveys to me not only the grim nature of death, battle and hostile Mars, but also the beauty and sacrifice of creating your own identity, of doing something truly momentous and the sacrifice, the darkness and the loss of the main theme adds to the surreal beauty of the album and vice versa. The two, good and evil as we men can understand them, are companions in a sense, trapped together in the logic of the universe. Anyway, that is what an appropriately momentous name choice and appropriate accompanying cover art can add to music.

Rubycon is a swirling, scarcely describable cauldron of moods; weeping, echoing mellotron, active, heady, fired up VCS-3 synthesiser, mournful, cautious and low piano, modified ethereal guitars and keys of all descriptions. All these add up to create one unique, evocative musical image and a memorable, creative and deeply emotional piece of music. There's no division of pretty and dark music here, and the overall effect is incredible.

Well, from the analogies you've perhaps got a basic understanding of why I like both Rachmaninov and Rubycon, and even if the analogy is a little sketchy, I guess it's meant to say that the same lonely and communal beauty and strife and complexity and simplicity can be recognised in both in different forms, and if you hold any admiration for the sheer expressiveness music can accomplish, then, whatever musical styles you adhere to, and whatever instrumentation you usually appreciate, Rubycon is a record you should not be without.

Rating: Five Stars, 15/15 or something like that. Really, ratings are meaningless for this kind of music.

---

Well, here's an example of what I was referring to... and this is just 550 words or so and one of my best reviews (in my view, at least)... great album. I might generally be sticking to shorter lengths in the future because I feel at the moment I'm perhaps giving so much detail it ruins the element of surprise, which is at least part of the joy of exploring new music.

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Fear Of A Blank Planet, Porcupine Tree, 2007

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My problem with Fear Of A Blank Planet is that it is an absolute non-event. I can go through an entire listening without thinking of a single bit that I either particularly like or dislike... a fairly tame set of vocals (going for a representative non-voice, and since the lyrics aren't representative, it basically ends up being a complete non-representation) and the ridiculous preconceptions of the lyrics (I mean, seriously, 'X-box is a god to me'...) admittedly don't help it much. No complaints with the performance, nor really with the compositions; it just continues to make no impression, except for the occasional nail-biting lyric.

Keys and a slightly Opeth-flavoured acoustic introduce a very much alt-rock number. Somehow, despite a number of individual features that seem appealing (Harrison's drumming, cool harmonies, memorable melodies, birdcall guitars, some ornamentation), the overall texture is a sort of cold soup (not mushroom, though: that tastes even better cold), which, despite nice components and a bit of forethought, has been left out on the side in the concept album kitchen too long to hit the spot.

Way Out Of Here, as a cooler number, seems to work better. Menacing electronic throbbing creates an undercurrent for a slightly Quadrophenian verse (perhaps the theme, perhaps the style but that's what it reminds me of) and a great entrance by Harrison. The sort of slow-metal groove of the chorus is effective; the guitar solo and that plain dull metal bit entirely unhelpful... I mean, why do I want to hear a generic metal riff in the middle of a pop song... it just doesn't add anything? All in all, a bigger ratio of 'oh, that's nice' to 'where did the last seven and a half minutes go', but I'd still be surprised if it's a 1:1.

Sentimental sees a sort of effort at a moment of brief hope in the o so real wasteland of desolate computer-screen-starers who no longer care about anything with a cheery piano, and more or less non-depressive melodies. Admittedly, the vocals seem as doom-and-gloom as ever (I'll spare the lyrics; you probably know what I think by now). All in all, it's a fairly harmless alt-rock song with a particularly decent set of background guitar solos and still a non-event.

Anesthetize is like an epic poem in that it's long and has a suitable amount of repetition... it's also a bit like a stool with two legs, where the missing leg is quite important. The vocals are just about blank, but somehow not blank enough to convince me that I should forgive their content (moderately loong syllables with no colour or flavour all over). There are a few, rare, really spine-tingling moments where the whole band pulls together in a manner just about moody enough to convince you that, even if the album's message is ridiculous, if it were about something else, you'd be impressed. Lifeson's guest solo is neat, as is the burst of jamming over a speaker-switching riff. These flashes of excellence meet with the dreaded repetition as a springboard:  'relax... I know that was a bit quick, so calm down, wait until you think you're in your comfort zone... we had a metal riff... have it again... we might develop it when we're sure you're OK with it... ready... alright, have a bit more content... it's OK...'

Maybe I'm just more picky about what should be in a long song than when I first started, and as said, there are some glorious moments in Anesthetize but the repeats, the first couple of sets of vocals and the lyrics do put down what at times emerges into something of a quality, structured epic. Admittedly, the structure's just about lost on me (meaning: only the immediate contrast makes an impression). Again, it could make a bigger impression than it does, but it's on the nice side.

My Ashes is a small step up for the album's more friendly material, augmented by a set of lyrics I can conveniently pretend are about something completely different, a nice vocal melody, a contrast between the piano and guitars and some synth strings which I fear criticising in case it actually turns out to be Fripp (who later on makes some suitably bizarre soundscapes). Harrison's entrance darkens and hollows out and cools the whole thing in a manner pretty typical of the album. Another not-really there track.

Sleep Together features more of the throbbing synths (and a great sound on them: a nod to the producer to make up for all the nasty things I've been saying about the lyrics), as well as metallic moments that are credible and add to the song. Some sly oddball guitar licks, a constant keyboard presence and thick metallic drumming add up to a slightly more exciting ending to a generally bland album. Even if a Midsomer Murders incidental music type melody is drawn out a bit and the concept remains the just victim of a Harold-The-Barrel scene where I harangue it to just jump already and leave the rest of us to deal with more menacing and genuine types of angst. Still, musically, it's not bad.

Writing all this, I've realised that my problem with this album is simply that I can't take it seriously... the lyrics seem like a parody more than an insight, and consequently all the concept album paraphernalia... picked voices, moments of contrast and triumph and so forth, fall flat. Anyway, if you don't care about lyrics, or spend more than 50% of your waking hours complaining about the sinister results of the internet via the medium of progressive rock forums, this is probably not a bad place to start with Porcupine Tree... I mean, I can see how, if I could ignore the concept and pretend it was about hobbits or tantric scriptures or how you got Christopher Lee to add voiceovers or something a bit more credible, I'd possibly really like this album. As it is; two stars for an album that really, my collection would be just fine without.

Rating: Two Stars
Favourite Track: Anesthetize or Sleep Together, I guess.

---

Much shorter, see Tongue



Edited by TGM: Orb - July 24 2009 at 02:13
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 10 2009 at 15:12
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Rock Bottom, Robert Wyatt, 1974

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Robert Wyatt's sophomore solo effort, Rock Bottom, famously came after his unfortunate accident, which prevented him from seriously drumming and touring, and, as mentioned in the sleeve notes, forcing him to focus more on the singing and arrangement of his work. While The End Of An Ear was a very respectable jazz-rock album, the new Wyatt has an emotional resonance and connection that is simply staggering, as well as a mouth-watering guest list. Rock Bottom is an astoundingly good album, with perhaps 4 of the songs being just about ideal, and the other two are also extremely strong and individual, and moreover it works as a whole, the idea of hitting bottom, of being at your lowest point and yet not being that badly off, is repeated throughout... it's a serious and yet seriously silly lyrical work, and one of the subtlest and most understated in progressive rock. Thus, noting the coincidental fact that, without a single strain, Rock Bottom is one of the most exotic and excitingly quirky albums I've heard, this album gets a well-deserved five stars.

Sea Song's strange, optimistic, but mournful, romanticism is the perfect opener. A measured tap on a single hollowish drum acts as a constant for the gorgeous shimmering keyboards (incredibly tasteful mellotron, a shimmering foreground and some moonlit dancing from the pianos and the most moving synthesiser part I've heard) and Wyatt's uniquely emotional voice blending in with them from the flowing verses to the school of aquatic sounds in a soft, longing, wordless conclusion. The lyrics are yet another attraction, with playful marine imagery merging in with the song's genuine, impassioned thoughts on love; and let us not forget Richard Sinclair's quiet, understated, low bass part, nor how incredibly moving that sung conclusion is, nor the calculated contrasts of the challenging low piano rolls... all in all, this song is as perfect as songs get.

A Last Straw is a piece I'd initially thought of as slightly clunky, now, I have to admit that it's still fantastic, even if its introduction and occasional lines don't flow quite as smoothly as I'd like them to. A smooth low jazz jam enters the song, with Wyatt employing a really neat guitar sound (the solo is just incredible), and a fantastic rhythm section consisting of Hugh Hopper and Laurie Allan more than capably pulling into an essentially improvised-sounding piece over which Wyatt's prepared guitar and piano echoes and voice are cast. The pieces of wordless improvisation here, a bubbly vocal creature, a looped guitar solo (in the same sort of manner as Ratledge's organ was on Soft Machine's Third) and a breathy piano conclusion are again the song's highlight/s. So, the sonic texture is really interesting, and, though this is certainly not the best piece here, I can't now see it not being on there, which means it's not lowering the rating.

Little Red Riding Hood Hit The Road is driven initially by a frantic, carnival-sounding trumpet and a rhythm section which consists of energetic work from Richard Sinclair and an array of small percussive creatures. Vanishing trumpet and keyboard segments seem to contrast and supplement all this franticness, as does Wyatt's running vocal (again continually curtailed with an interesting fade), with another shift from seemingly nonsensical and light-hearted lines into an entirely serious and meaningful address (again, romantic: 'But I'll keep on trying, and I'm sure you will too'). This all melts together, following Ivor Cutler's bouncy, lower and more defined voice offering carefully preparatory nonsense (now, it's nonsense, later, it's serious), into a thick wall of trumpet and keyboard and bass and everything quite together sound.

Alifib begins as an almost mantric chanting over Hugh Hopper's confident basswork and a variety of dextrous classical-guitar-sounding solos with a hymnal vibe and saddened keys; this transforms into a medieval-type yearning romantic nonsense-driven-plea with hugely emotive, downcast vocals, and suddenly a dark keyboard chord sequence, panning piano and the hollow sound of James' drum (Wyatt's percussion staple for this one) leaves us sliding along with a snarling bass clarinet (one of my favourite instruments) and Alife, which outpours and reshapes the same lyrics into a childishly possessive vocal part so perfectly and rightly. There's a bit of a neat jazz solo in amongst this... the sophistication and the childishness of the male supplicant, in our case Bob, contrasting with Alife's generosity (Alfreda Benge, Wyatt's then-fiancée). At first, it appears like cleverly arranged nonsense, and then the pattern hits you. It's real, it's relevant. It's pretty accurate in my experience (it just doesn't seem to make sense!). Anyway, Alfie's apparition and winding-down vocal leads out this deluxe suite.

Little Red Robin Hood Hit The Road is a two-part creature, with firstly Wyatt's pessimistic and sad vocal and a full band in attendance (and man, what a line-up, Laurie Allan offering an incredible militaristic drumming performance, Richard Sinclair on bass guitar, Mike Oldfield on guitar, Wyatt on keys)... its impact in terms of sheer destructiveness is something that other artists simply don't do... 'In the gardens of England/dead moles lie inside their holes/The dead-end tunnels crumble/In the rain, underfoot'... no amount of supposedly brutal pseudo-Satanism is going to hit you that hard emotionally with such a sense of destruction. This first part, rounding out with an increasingly intense band and Wyatt's looped 'Can't you see them' vocal, falls off into a weepy baritone concertina (I know because the credits sheet tells me) and Ivor Cutler's miserable, low brogue offering a negativity to contrast completely with his previous appearance, and suddenly, Fred Frith's unwinding viola appears, and the song is slowly unfolding, step by step, fold by fold, moment by moment. The conclusion, at the same time destructive, mocking, and yet, not all that terribly bleak, seems almost logical. As an ending piece, this one's just incredible, crushing, yet hopeful, and it works.

So, if you've read the above, it's obvious I'm a big fan of this one, and slowly gathering more of Wyatt's albums. An obvious five-star record, though it takes time, appreciation and a good sense for, if not necessarily of, humour to really get to know. One of the subtlest, most interesting and most moving records of the classic era, and it strikes me as being just about obscure enough that a lot of reasonably knowledgeable folk might not have it; so, if you're in that number, rush to your nearest store of quality music and order Rock Bottom. Give it a few listens, time to grow, think about it a little, and you probably won't be disappointed.

Rating: Five Stars
Favourite Track: Sea Song




Edited by TGM: Orb - August 10 2009 at 15:16
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 23 2009 at 19:05
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Valentyne Suite, Colosseum, 1969

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The leap from the talented but somewhat hamfisted Those Who Are About To Die to the chic, suave musical narrative of Valentyne Suite is a remarkable step for this early traditionally-rooted jazz/rock outfit. From the first crunchy guitar chords and the entrance of Hiseman's superb, laid-back, absolutely textbook drumming, it clear this album is something special, fun and unique. Get a cup of your favourite brew, connect Valentyne Suite to your CD player and *relax*.

The Kettle is punchy, classy, deceptively simple-sounding jazz rock. Some belters of bass solos from the criminally unknown Tony Reeves, quality wailing blues guitar, a great riff and Hiseman's ever-present supporting, classy drumming. The lyrics are mostly nonsense, but sound great and the general energy is just right.

Elegy is one of the album's most unusual pieces and, to be frank, it doesn't quite work for me. Litherland's vocals are best for me in very small doses, and the disjointed organ/sax interplay is clearly very clever but fails to go much beyond that. Not quite sure whether the violins are really doing much but everyone's kicking around nicely, and any band with the instrumental talent and taste Colosseum have naturally leave redeeming features all over the place, whether in the solos or a neat bit of interaction I didn't quite notice before.

Butty's Blues is, predictably enough, a blues. Nothing wrong with that and it is a very creative one. Dave Greenslade on organ brings the house down wonderfully with a biting harmonica-impression and the one-man-brass-section-sound of Dick Heckstall-Smith is not to be underestimated. Litherland's vocals, guitar and the attached lyrics are a perfect fit. The rhythm section, as always, is great. Love it to pieces.

The Machine Demands A Sacrifice is the most frantic and strange piece on side one, going for a sort of edgy, cutting vibe and actually hitting it very well. Wonderfully choppy organ that grooves in a way that takes a while to work into you, snarly vocals, a rhythm section that alternates tense aggression, avant-garde percussions and charmingly absentminded jazz with absolute fluency. Not to mention the menacing rebirth of the piece towards the end into a block of sound. Strange, but it really works.

And now, the big bit: Hiseman's entrance is simply a 'you're here' announcement. Crisp, fresh, warm percussion lines, a bit of Broadway style offering a cinematic overview in glimpses between the band's precise, coherent jazz improvisations. Dave Greenslade is on particular top form, adeptly tackling wandering vibraphone, glaring organs and an incredibly smooth piano trio with Dick Heckstall Smith's mournful saxophone and a mounting wall of expressive percussion. The ideas are just everywhere, playing is precise, sharp and you get the sense of a band who are truly in the zone. Just when you're in your comfort zone, one of the neatest rhythm section parts ever written thunders out of the woodwork in air-drumming ecstasy. And hey, that's like inverted classical distorted organ... I mean... wow, where is this...

The band simply has an astonishing capacity for this huge, improvisationally-rooted, many-part composition with roots in a huge number of styles coherently in unexpected and wonderful directions and then pulling it back together. Going through all the details would be a waste of my time and yours, but highlights include a Litherland-Reeves duet, almost each and every time John Hiseman inserts in a fill. Strictly in and of themselves, I think the bright first and destructive third parts are a bit better than the second, but it's the second that ties it all together and allows the third to seem so appropriate. An absolute triumph.

Onto bonus goodies (both lives, neither produced spectacularly, but both very audible): Arthur's moustache is an initially sluggish jazzy piece with what I think is a bass solo and a half slammed in the middle. You get an impression of what the band is doing, and that it's probably a good thing, even if the claustrophobic sound makes it fairly heavy going.

The more open Lost Angeles resembles, with its rolling vibraphone, the more pictorial bits of Valentyne Suite. Again, the extensive vocal bits don't really seem to serve the piece, but they're niceish, and Hiseman and, indeed, the whole band, seems to be on pretty much top form and we get some delicious guitar soloing. Worth hearing if you're a fan of the group.

So, props to an absolutely killer album. Only the slightly irksome presence of elegy is warding off a fifth star, but, for all that, you won't find a better other thirty minutes of music easily and for fans of musicians who know what they're doing, this is one of those albums you might not have but which contains half a dozen real virtuosos without the contagious impulse to show off at every possible juncture. Which isn't to say that they don't do just that more than sufficiently a lot of the time. If you don't have this album, your collection is incomplete.

Rating: Four Stars, possibly going to be revised to a five if I find myself warming to Elegy at some point in the future
Favourite track: First part of Valentyne Suite, hands down.


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Direct Link To This Post Posted: August 26 2009 at 07:06
Something slightly contentious now:

< ="-" ="text/; =utf-8">< name="GENERATOR" ="Office.org 3.0 Win32">< ="text/"> Turn Of The Cards, Renaissance, 1974
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I don't get it. The great Ashes Are Burning, the even better Scheherazade and Other Stories... and in the middle... this? Turn of the Cards (side one, certainly, to a lesser extent, the credible side two) fails to jolt me like those two, and the blame, rather than wandering to one or two little factors, seems to be rolling around in the muck all over the place. The sound seems contrived, the lyrics lack much substance, choruses like those of Running Hard and Think of You seem unimaginative. Keyboardist John Tout seems to be tearing out classical motifs left, right and centre, Annie Haslam's voice, despite its obvious moments, doesn't really make a coherent impression. There are redeeming features, a couple within the not-so-great songs and in the form of an actually very good second side. Much as I love the two Renaissance works bookending this one, if you're not transformed into a quivering, lovelorn jelly by those two, I'd be very wary about exchanging your hard-earned or cleverly-inherited money for this one.

Nine and a half minute songs seem to be the order of the day. Running Hard is made up of a number of fairly nice components and yet completely fails to emotionally resonate with me as a whole piece. I simply don't associate that cascading piano solo introduction with a vocal-and-lame-acoustic verse, or the collection of intelligent. Credit where it's due: the orchestral parts are (this is Renaissance's forte, I think), as ever, convincing and appropriate, the piano solo is really very good and there are brief moments of soul-melting lushness in Annie Haslam's vocal (songs of blackened lace... you know you're dying all the time!'). Blame where it's due: not a big fan of drummer Terence Sullivan's sound here, I feel the piece ends up sounding too contrived, I'm not convinced Haslam's vocal gives a coherent, continual impression of what's going on, very specifically: running hard' sort of breaks the power of the piece lyrically for me... the whole thing seems like a very well-designed Airfix model without any glue. Yes, it's nine and a half minutes, yes, it's a progressive rock song but I'm not convinced it successfully makes the journey from the realm of intelligence to that of excellence.

Think of You is a Renaissance ballad, with some of the carefree sentiment of Let It Grow; alas, the lyrics are devoid of passion, and that has a knock-on-effect on the rest of the content. Haslam's vocal thus has the same effect as a very skilled set of brush strokes without any paint. I can't say the acoustic melody or its piano and bass embellishments (oh look! A harpsichord!) seem to add any much-needed colour to this drab creature. Blech.

Things I Don't Understand feels (oddly appropriately) like a great song lost within a mediocre one. Again, it lasts nine and a half minutes, which I can't excuse, and again it doesn't make any sort of coherent impression (if anything, even less of one). Initially a strident full band piece, with a secure acoustic, slightly awkward vocal harmonies and an echoed-up piano; this rather clumsily, but thankfully, gives way to a charming Haslam vocal solo, and then we're back to thick harmonies over the drummer. Again: a few positives in the middle, whether it's Haslam's gorgeous high vocals at their best and wordless moments, or an opportunity for the excellent John Camp to shine on bass, or some Beethoven-sounding piano chords. Again: no sense of coherence, I don't get any impression of what the lyrics are doing except on occasion, I find the harmonies a bit blocky and some of the transitions seem a tad sluggish and clumsy (not quite sure why). So, that's side one over, and it's really not that special, in my view.

But at last, we have it! Ladies and gentlemen, your first reason for buying this album or listening to selections from it on Spotify... the excellent Black Flame. Immediately from the understated acoustic-and-bass introduction, this strange piece of medievallish mysterious folk-rock is a gem. Haslam's vocal takes over some very nice lines (musically and lyrically) indeed, and the big vocal harmonies seem to gather everything together rather than just being lumped in. Beautiful piano melodies fall off the piece left, right and centre and all the while John Camp's superb bass-playing drags the piece forwards. Altogether mysterious, captivating and great listening. OK, maybe Annie's voice feels a bit too smooth for the lyrical content at times, but I don't really mind.

And, sly theft or not, Cold Is Being is really very good. Haslam's well-rounded and fluid voice seems to suit a pairing with this lone, gripping organ part even more than it does a whole-band-piece. Here, you can see every individual emotional nuance of the piece, and every individual emotional nuance of the piece, whether in the perfect delivery or the suitably bleak lyrics grasps you.

The third of the album's long pieces is Mother Russia, and this orchestrally augmented creature is, at least, a damn sight better than the other two. Big blaring orchestral sounds all over the place, snarling Tchaikovsky-type horns and strings, appropriately epicised lyrics, and a neat contrast between this overall big sound and the lush piano-and-voice at the heart of the song's quieter sections. It has attack, it has coherence, it has a vocal that really blends with the music and the topic. In short, everything our first two epics of the album didn't. Striking, and a really impressive end to a mixed album.

Anyway, it's obvious I haven't the same respect for this album as my fellow reviewers, and three stars, I think, would be too much for an album of which half isn't worth having. Nevertheless, if you're a fan of the band, that second side will be both great in its own right and a really worthy link between the slightly misshapen epics of Ashes Are Burning and the smooth classical/rock fusions on Scheherazade.

Favourite song: probably Mother Russia just about clinches it over Black Flame.
Rating: two stars, but a strong two stars. Probably a 7 or 8/15 (these fall in the two/three remit, somehow) or something like that, maybe higher, but I'm lousy with the low end of my 15 rating spectrum.



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The Hazards Of Love, The Decemberists, 2009

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Firstly, let me say that this was my introduction to the Decemberists, I had previously heard a lot of praise for them, and that may have ended up influencing my not-quite-appreciating the whole thing (for the record, I’ve since heard The Crane Wife, and I thought that album was generally very good). I don’t know. What I do know is that I’m not really half as impressed by this album as the other reviewers here seem to be.

On the positive side, I recognise that it does have a few very good songs (the instrumentals and the Wanting Comes In Waves and Repaid sections), memorable main melodies and a boldness in developing and reprising a few melodies across the album (more of a melodies-stalking-characters-to-create-one-musical-and-lyrical-entity thing: Peter And The Wolf rather than Thick As A Brick).

My grievances are basically two-fold: first, that lots of the content just doesn’t seem to be adding anything to the table; yes, slight variations on established themes are appreciated when they can offer something new to the feel or mood of a piece; some of the embellishments here seem to me to simply be things that happen alongside the established themes, rather than actually altering or adding character to them. Secondly, the lyrics are a wreck and the vocals don’t help: ye olde disingenuous woodsy poetry with indiscriminate alliteration aplenty, telling a fairly loose and light story (one where things happen and that’s it) driven by a gaggle of stereotypes. To me, it appears imitative (of an idea rather than a precedent), uninteresting and thrown together with no sense of a poet’s discrimination. Now, the vocals are equally an issue: not the basic sound of the singers’ voices, but simply the fact that the parts they’re singing don’t appear to have much material. Essentially, the singers’ parts are the melody (which can vary from great to not that great) and trying a bit harder when you’re looking for a way to resolve the current bit. I like vocalists who actually contribute to the songs, have unique voices, are willing to show development from one verse to the next, who’ll throw themselves into the emotions of pieces rather than playing safe, and few of the vocals on the Hazards of Love manage any of those.

Now, for a rock opera, those problems are serious. For an album driven by a story, if you don’t make the story itself fascinating, it should probably have interesting characters, be well-written, be sung by great voices, take look at important issues, be advanced continually by the music or simply be so bizarre, strong and bold that picking apart individual pieces feels wrong... The Hazards of Love doesn’t seem to me to manage any of those, and for that, rather than a lack of good musical ideas, it really suffers in my eyes.

Prelude is exactly what you’d think it’d be, if you expected a bit of typical atmospheric brooding based on a dark organ sound. Just about non-descript enough to work as an introduction, and it sounds alright, but it doesn’t really add a huge amount to the album (other than expanding the opera references).

The Hazards Of Love 1 is a fairly nice Strawbsy acoustic-driven piece, with odd percussion adding a bit of flavour to a banjo and acoustic piece, and some of the vocals I described in my introduction. It does expand really nicely after its first couple of harmless minutes, with a neat drum part coming in. It’s a fairly good song, even if I’m not a huge fan of the vocals and lyrics.

A Bower Scene has both the album’s most awkward bit of tension-creation (I mean, it doesn’t seem to be done in a remotely interesting way, with ambling guitar and thick organ) and that heavy blues explosion after which is just right.

Won’t Want For Love is a real consolidation on that one, with a moody heavy blues sound emphasised by low piano notes (I have a thing for crisp, low piano notes) contrasting with a healthy female vocal and a really sweet chorus... I mean, the lyric is not something I’d admire, but the melody is very pretty and the drums provide a sort of continuity. William offers a suitably yearning response; Very neat indeed.

The Hazards Of Love 2 is, fairly obviously, based on the original piece of the same name, and with some more nail-biting lyrics and vocals, as well as one really awkward melody seemingly driven by the perennial alliteration fixation of this album (‘and we’ll lie ’til the corncrake crows’... rhymed with ‘clothes’ and complimented with the vocabulary choice ‘bereft’ and a bit of basic metonymy seems to me a very, very awkward line... at the time you least want it), it’s really not my favourite of the Hazards parts.

The Queen’s Approach is an appropriate half-minute instrumental interlude with a lone banjo over a subtle, melancholy keyboard. It sort of fits as a quick characterisation. The following piece, Isn’t It A Lovely Night, is just horrendous. Aside from a limp acoustic, and horrendous accordion, the female vocalist inhales audibly before just about every line (something that can annoy me in very slow-paced songs) and is following through an irksome singsong line (later on, you have a choppy and bland waltz following on from the same melody); a mildly redeeming, yearningly Gilmourish guitar part is the only feature I’d say I actually like of this one... and the lyrics are the most gallingly untrimmed yet (‘and here we made a bed of barbs and thistle-down, that we had found... to lay upon the dewy ground’... erk, a lesson in not setting too much stock in your rhyme scheme).

After that, thankfully, the album’s best piece washes out the aftertaste. The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid is a merging of the two songs... the fawn William taking a harpsichord-introduced, then pop-rockish, verse and chorus (with a really nice watery female vocal harmony) followed by the queen’s magnificent response (for the voice and a killer riff, and the lyrics just about work well enough for this). Both the longest and the best piece on the album.

An Interlude does what it says on the tin. But it does it really nicely (huzzah for mandolins).

The Rake’s Song is unabashed pop-rock, which isn’t bad, unless, for instance, you put the chorus as ‘alright, alright, all-right’. I mean, there are moments of severe cool-folk-rock syndrome, and then that chorus pops out again or I get bored of listening to the lyrics, which clearly suggest: this is the bad guy/menacing Act II begins!

The Abduction Of Margaret begins the trend of the second act imitating the first, with a slightly harder take of A Bower Scene complete with some gnarly guitar. The Queen’s back again for the next piece, with her incredibly neat motif and some supporting female vocal harmonies and splintering guitar. So, the Queen, as a rather over-protective mother, helps the bad man (boo!), and with much fairly blues organ solo, ends her second song as still the most musically appealing character of the album.

Annan Water takes us back to our bold, if slightly randy, anthropofawnic hero, in a more subdued mood and cutting a quick deal with the river. Aside from unimaginative vocals and a chorus with a slight hint of cheddar (organ does not make everything OK), it’s a good, reflective piece with a subtle churn in it.

Margaret in Captivity is a moody and slightly threatening reprisey piece alternated with the clarion call from Won’t Want For Love.

The Hazards Of Love 3 (Revenge). Following a Wanting Comes In Waves bit which clearly shows our brave and amorous hero giving the baddy a well-deserved thrashing. Immediately, thereafter: Singsong children’s chorus, and if I were being analytical, I’d say the harmless uplift of their playground harmony (again, it’s a Hazards Of Love theme after a somewhat needless wanting-comes-in-waves instrumental intro) was meant to contrast with the threat implied in the lyrics, and the notion that this fun condemnation to his children’s mercy and mockery is a crueller punishment for the Rake even more than unspeakable violence and torture would be. Alas, since I’m not, it’s certainly a cruel punishment to listen to it. Blech. Anyway, that offence to taste overshadows the truly excellent experimental and edgy work (and harpsichord) that fills out the end of the piece.

The Wanting Comes In Waves (Reprise) does what it says on the tin. Not entirely sure that it’s really needed here.

The Hazards Of Love 4 rounds off the story and is perhaps the most uninteresting thing on the album. The lyrics don’t work for me, the bass part is incredibly bland and I can’t say I find anything in the drums or the string additions, or the harmless positive chord it decides to leave us on. Without the nice tonight...tonight...tonight harmony and the delicate guitar solo, I’d be harsher on it, but those two components probably make it worth getting past the blandness that characterises this romantic conclusion. Not bad, per se, but I’m a firm believer in the principle that to produce a moving and touching piece you don’t have to all but abandon the creativity which The Decemberists often do show.

Well, it’s obvious that this is not my favourite album ever, and though there are some very nice songs on it, a fair percentage of it (say, 25%) sets off my *yech, don’t touch me* sensors for one reason or another and I really don’t follow the story emotionally, which seems to be the album’s basic aim: so, it’s a two rather than a three. Anyway, if you want to start your acquaintance with The Decemberists with a good album, I’d recommend The Crane Wife, because I’m not completely convinced that this is one.

Rating: Two Stars
Favourite Song: The Wanting Comes In Waves/Repaid or something like that.



Edited by TGM: Orb - September 01 2009 at 17:12
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: September 01 2009 at 20:53
Nice GG - Free Hand review. Also, I kind of agree with your Fear of a Blank Planet review too, it gets monotonous and emotionally doesn't do much for me. Stupid Dream, In Absentia, and Deadwing, heck, Lightbulb Sun, Signify, Sky Moves Sideways... all better albums and you should check them out if you haven't, at least those first three I mentioned.

Yeah and I agree about the Decemberists, the story the album tries to convey leaves me empty, they sing it so intently and yet it's just not compelling at all (and hard to follow), and some of the songs are just horrible. I did enjoy moments here and there though. My favorite song I think was "Won't Want for Love", not at all unpleasant.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: September 08 2009 at 11:15
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Innuendo, Queen, 1990

I have to admit, as an at best partial devotee of Queen, Innuendo was basically a blind selection (I was completely unaware of the background, or how respected it was)... saw it in a store, picked it up. I also have to admit it's probably got more good songs on it than any album from 1990 has a right to. It being Queen, the vocals, guitar-work and most of the basic melodies are top notch, there are interesting ideas all around. It being Queen, the more meaningful the lyrics are trying to be, the more they annoy me. But there's a flaw I wouldn't have attributed to the other Queen material I've heard (Greatest Hits 1,2, 3, Queens I+II)... just about anywhere that something is repeated or not a lot is happening, something (generally a nonsense sound) is thrown in, even if a tasteful rest would have been fine. Most of said somethings are entirely unimpressive. Still, a good album, even if I can't help feeling that with a little less superfluous polish, the real qualities of the album would shine through far more.

Innuendo is big. Not only does it last about six and a half minutes, throw in surprisingly hard guitar tones and include the most rough and belting vocals of the album, it also features militaristic drumming and a damn flamenco interlude (courtesy of Steve Howe). OK, the lyrics aren't great, the drumming is a bit too lethargic for me, and a more defined set of keys wouldn't hurt but any song with that great a trio of guitar solos (May's reprise of Howe's flamenco theme is just amazing) is at least a minor classic.

Kicking onwards, pop song 1: I'm Going Slightly Mad is a wonderfully crazy little pop number, complemented by a rather odd synth atmosphere, some weird and wonderful guitar tweaks and an exceptional warped cabaret-sounding Mercury vocal. Headlong is a lot heavier, doesn't quite manage the same atmospheric pull, the major highlight is the trippy synth part in the instrumental break... the piece seems to be padded a bit beyond its potential, but it's still a fun song.

I Can't Live With You... well, no idea how to classify this one, Mercury's vocal twists and turns like a twisty turny thing and it is just perfect. It sort of seems to alternate between a darker bluesy part and a pop  chorus and then a slightly queasy set of guitar solos. A reserved yes. Don't Try So Hard is a fairly bland bit of Mercury pseudo-preaching which slips into the unbearably dim category... musically speaking, the verses are basically nice with a charming little guitar bit, smooth synths and a lush vocal, while the choruses/verse extensions are basically cheap and tacky. A reserved no.

And onto rock song 2: Ride The Wild Wind, which alternates between basically asinine and insanely cool... the driving main rhythm, the vocal twists at the end of that basically daft chorus are delicious, the guitar soloing is great. I'd guess I like the good bits just about enough to forgive how long the bad bits go on.

All God's People, On The Other Hand, is a soul-based track, which seems to assume you'll be wowed enough by May pulling out his trademark guitar sound and Mercury's vocal to forgive the limp harmonies and rather odious backbone of the song. Have to admit I'm a bit fonder of the heavier bits, but still, I can certainly live without this one. These Are The Days Of Our Lives is a rather better soft piece constructed around a worldy set of percussion, and the lyrics aren't trying so hard and prove much more simply touching. May's guitar parts are just gorgeous here.

Delilah is basically daft. I think you can't make a great song out of one guitar-miaow. Cute as the whole cat theme is, it remains a silly song. But still, a fairly nice silly song. I just find it difficult to be angry at a song about cats. We are a cat person.

Huzzah, now, Hitman. A surprisingly cutting guitar riff, which can basically hold up the song alone in combination with the neat mass vocal chorus. Well, I don't feel the vocal is the album's most creative, but it fits it nicely, and there isn't all that much diversity, but it doesn't really hurt it.

And even better, Bijou, which is basically a gorgeous May solo thrown over some very loose keyboard chords, plus a short and sweet vocal. Just about perfect. But even better, now, what we've all been waiting for, easily, easily the album's best song: The Show Must Go On. Haunting, dark vocals, precise fills and bass parts, an array of menacing synthesisers, weeping, but tremendously potent guitar... an entirely appropriate set of lyrics... it's simply an incredible song.

So, a variety of stuff, both in style and quality, and while there are a few things about Queen in general and this album in particular that annoy me, it's still generally very strong, and for the last two songs alone deserves a comfortable three stars. An altogether good album, and, even if you wouldn't consider yourself a big Queen fan (I don't), you could do worse than picking up Innuendo.

Rating: Three Stars, 10/15 or so
Favourite Track: The Show Must Go On

--

@Crimson: good to know... I have got Coma Divine, which is actually very good, and I can Spotify the rest of their albums, guess I will, sooner or later...

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: September 12 2009 at 06:14
Lady Lake, Gnidrolog, 1972
StarStarStarStar

and a Heart for the title track

Gnidrolog's second album, Lady Lake, is slightly better received than the debut. And it's a great album: the increased instrumentation pays off nicely (novus John Earle on saxes + flute fleshes out the sound in a very individual direction, drummer Nigel Pegrum's oboe turns up more prominent, a versatile range of lead guitar sounds are there), there's perhaps an even stronger sense of basic melody here than on the debut. And yet, it's a great album, but it's not as great as its predecessor: first off, a host of reference points (Ian Anderson's flute-work with Tull, a bit of the double-jointed compositional/improvisational blur and weirdness you'd expect from an amalgamation of Caravan and Gentle Giant) are used very effectively, but occasionally feels a bit too calculated... likewise, the guitar sounds are diversified, the guitar use can go either way... always pleasant, but occasionally a bit too cool and bluesy for me, and then, the lyrics only really take off after a couple of false starts. There we go, that's almost everything that annoys me about the album out of the way, and I can kick back and say that Lady Lake is an album any fan of melodic, adventurous and altogether fascinating music should have, but not quite as much as they should have In Spite Of Harry's Toenail.

The opening I Could Never Be A Soldier is a prime example of the band's retained and acquired strengths; the presence of two flautists and a recorder offers a lush woodwind sound, Colin Goldring's sly guitar work echoes and builds themes continually, we have deliciously minimal (driven by the superb Peter Cowling's bass, somewhat reminiscent of what Crimson would be trying to build up a year later with Starless And Bible Black) and folk sections with variously pretty and Anderson-type flute. Lyrically, it hasn't the bite its stereotypically hippy comrades held on Spite, which somewhat hampers the vocal sections. Rounded off by a slightly unconnected but nevertheless superb blues guitar solo, this is a clear success, though not quite a perfect one.

As a slightly impatient type, I have to admit that Ship is not really my thing; stretching out a typically weirded (I like Colin Goldring's voice a lot... but I'm not sure he manages to build this one up as well as he could) chorus beyond its strength... the arrangements are great, the guitar-work is just beautiful, that rather odd horn sound is fantastically quixotic, and there's a bit of spacey guitar-work noone really expected from this synth-free outfit, but the chorus goes on too long, in my view, and there isn't really much of an overall mood to it.

A Dog With No Collar is a bleak acoustic piece with a brilliant four-line lyric and an oboe offering downcast support. Short, but very effective.

Yet more poignant is the title track, opening with a general dark jazz vibe slowly solidifying from its murky horn duel opening and an alternately sharp and ethereal rhythm section into the mystical, horrifyingly bleak and captivating image of our leading lady and the most beautiful cello-sax-bass-guitar background. And the alternation between a classical-type hook and this winding, haunting rhythm is just incredible (even without the spine-chilling lyrics: 'Night, nothing near, nothing said, noone here/Loved once, but ice to tears/Melted slowly, seasons' greetings/somehow turned to fear')... if there's a piece where I'd say Gnidrolog achieved what they aimed to, it's probably this one: the sound is incredible, the solos are astonishing, driving the avant-garde leanings into beauty, the lyrics are superb... just amazing.

And then, Same Dreams, an atypical love song with Colin Goldring's unique voice given a perfect opportunity to stretch out vulnerably, very nice guest piano from Charlotte Fendrich, various backing (oboe from drummer Nigel Pegrum, the occasional dab of bass guitar and an odd bit of warm complimentary guitar), and a striking set of lyrics... ('We shared the same thoughts/The same road/The same line from an old song...'). Mainly, it's the sense of development in this one that gets me... I'm not so sure about whether the bursts of support are even really necessary for what's basically a duet, but it sounds good.

Social Embarrassment takes us onto almost Canterbury-sounding areas, with oddball lyrics, loads of instrumentation (a sax duel, horns,  oboe, flute...), a big, grating, aggressive cello sound, walking basslines, somewhat Caravan-with-bite drumming, snarly guitars, odd ramblings in all sorts of jazz-tinged directions. As you'd expect, great guitar soloing, fun vocals (saxophonist John Earle taking the lead), and a clever general construction for the song... driving it ever towards the end while still leaving the actual content of the moment pretty much free to go where it likes.

Lady Lake is that most awkward of reviews: the great album you don't think is as good as public opinion suggests compared to the available alternatives. So, if given the opportunity (and like me you're a bit strange and not allowed to be DJ any more), I'd make sure you get In Spite Of Harry's Toenail as well (currently, there's a two-in-one-thing and it's serious high-grade under-the-counter prog rock) and remember that, while this is not the cookie, it is, in the words of Bernard Black, 'some sort of delicious biscuit'.

Favourite track: pick one of the last four... nah... Lady Lake
Oh, and ratings: Four stars, 12 or 13/15

Edit: This reviewer is an educated monkey. He probably will say 'oboe' and mean 'sax' on occasions. Blame the copy-paste.

---

That was great fun to write Smile
Next up: something. Might eventually get around to Awake or Coma Divine or Opeth so people don't think I hate modern music. Alternatively, Voyage Of The Acolyte looks ever-appealing, if I can only work out how much I actually like it.
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Direct Link To This Post Posted: September 18 2009 at 12:27
Fool's Mate, Peter Hammill, 1971

StarStarStar

Peter Hammill's solo debut is a veritable outpouring of things Van Der Graaf Generator weren't doing at the time... pop songs, positive songs, tuneful embellishment, songs with a select 'leader', songs with less-than-fantastic vocals and songs with naive, light-hearted lyrics. Thankfully, this lot is all taken with a hint of irony, distinct professionalism and a number of immensely capable musicians (you may know Fripp, Jaxon, Banton, Evans and Potter... the rest are from folk rock band Lindisfarne, I believe) who are given freedom to work and a generally solid production (well, the bass sound is a bit dull, but I said generally). And most of the songs themselves are pretty good, the weak points never drop beyond a bit awkward and the high points are superb. Worth having, sooner or, more reasonably, later.
 
Feedback bookend 1 and we're off with the immensely fun Imperial Zeppelin. With brisk rollicks between mock-philosophical, cartoonish rock, haunting and deeply unusual interplay between Jaxon, Banton and Evans and even an R&B-type all-vocal section, it's probably the best thing on the album. Hammill's vocals flick from screeching to humming to hurried to snide and mocking without an inch of quarter given. Superbly played, of course, and a real highlight.

Candle is one of the more clumsy Aerosol Grey Machine sort of ballads. The mandolin presence is its main prop, and the vocal melody is confused rather than Lost. Nice piano, but, really, a throwaway?

Happy has a fun, choppy organ melody that is drawn together in the verses, and supported by Banton's great tone, the delightfully compact interplay of the well-greased Van Der Graaf Generator line-up (they can play positive music, believe it or not) and a dancing vocal melody. And that drum-and-organ flourish on the end is just gorgeous.

Solitude is the first of the album's convincingly moody numbers, with a haunting acoustic running along with a strange watery vocal and a gorgeous drawn-out, longing harmonica. The bass part perhaps seems superfluous to the rest of the piece until it at last comes into contact with Martin Pottinger's drumming and the occasional odd violin shimmer, and if the lyrics aren't as tight as elsewhere, they compliment the mood. Innocent, lonely, but empowered.

Vision is a piano and voice piece by Hammill. Frankly, there's only one way those go for me. The piano sound is wonderfully full (Hugh Banton is one of the rare pianists ), the voice flicks into the picture with precision, harmony, melody and the adoring vulnerability that fills out the lovesongs on, say, the more developed Nadir's Big Chance.... 'be my child, be my lover, swallow me up in your fireglow... take my tongue, take my torment, take my hand and don't let go' might seem saccharine to the uninitiated, but it's a mood anyone who believes they've been in love can probably appreciate.

Re-awakening is the odd one out? The grandiose combination of thick organ and limited piano makes an impression, as does the rushing breath all over the verses. On the minus side, I'm not convinced there's really a great song beneath the instrumentation, and if the lyrics are fun, they're not really particularly song.

And now, Sunshine, which features our stars Jaxon and Fripp playing rather unusually conventional  bluesy parts with great vim and vigour and Hammill sliding all over a vocal with refreshing contrast and energy and a carefree jazz piano. One of those pieces so positive you can't help being dragged in.

Child is a piece driven by a jabbing acoustic with Hammill's more naive voice and lyrics striking through with sporadic power. But even if I feel a more constant vocal could really turn this into a classic, the current content is already very, very good: some of Banton's lush, detailed piano-work, casual and yet striking flute from Jaxon and an astonishingly beautiful understated solo from Fripp.

Summer Song In The Autumn... male alto type vocals, displaying a healthy vocal range along a nice lyric, I believe, and with the presence and dedicated interaction of all five of the Generator-men here, this has a much-needed snap, isn't taken entirely seriously and comes off as a fairly potent piece. Hugh Banton's organ pedigree again works for it.

Viking is a bit of harmless medieval-vibed pastoral music with little bite, charming acoustics, some Fripp backgrounds along with the occasional lush lead from him, frankly unconvincing lyrics but at least an earnest approach to the vocals that offers something inside it to appreciate. A mead hall with ambience but not nearly enough drinks? And some water sounds, because otherwise, a song about Vikings would be unconvincing.

The Birds is essentially another Hammill piano-and-voice piece, though this time augmented by the suddenly extraordinarily beautiful work of Fripp, more of Banton's wonderful piano tone (reminds me a lot of Toni Pagliuca's (Le Orme) approach to the piano...) and a constructive rhythm section (Evans' capacity to contribute in quiet songs over or under the obvious numbers is one of his best attributes). And the vocal has the rounded and haunting qualities which I can't help feeling some other songs here could do with. Wonderful stuff.

I Once Wrote Some Poems is a one-man conclusion with another quick-and-dirty feedback bookend tacked on. The acoustic part is convincingly tender and then jarring, and Hammill's ability to express himself vocally comes across yet more powerfully without other musicians crowding the picture... the lyrics are some of the best here. It ends the album sternly.

Note on bonus tracks: Van Der Graaf Generator rehearsals of early takes of the songs. Probably not worth re-grabbing the album for unless you're an absolutely fanatical completionist or really love the album.

I think a three is probably in order... sweet, a tad sentimental, undertaken with a suitable ironic detachment, and once you're familiar with the overwhelmingly rich cake that is every single Hammill solo album from Chameleon to Over, perhaps this musical brioche is a decent alternative to the brooding coffee-shop desserts of the early 80s. Long sentence, final meaning: be aware of what you're in for and take a look at some reviews of other, later, more experimental and probably better Hammill albums you don't have before picking up this charming but occasionally lacking endeavour.

One mostly superfluous mention: any more serious fans (I mean the bootleg-collecting, got every League of Gentlemen CD type) of Fripp or Banton could do with this as well... their performances are some of the album's most beautiful and understated moments.

Rating: A gentle three stars
Favourite Track: The Birds, I think

---

There we go. I think I've decided to just hammer through all my Hammill for a while, because doing serial reviews is less hassle and more fun for making up obtuse metaphors and similes.

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Direct Link To This Post Posted: September 18 2009 at 13:19
Originally posted by TGM: Orb TGM: Orb wrote:

Fool's Mate, Peter Hammill, 1971

StarStarStar

Peter Hammill's solo debut is a veritable outpouring of things Van Der Graaf Generator weren't doing at the time... pop songs, positive songs, tuneful embellishment, songs with a select 'leader', songs with less-than-fantastic vocals and songs with naive, light-hearted lyrics.



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Direct Link To This Post Posted: September 22 2009 at 21:33
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Ashes Are Burning, Renaissance, 1973

StarStarStarStar

The thing that makes Ashes Are Burning a very special album for me is that it's not perfect. The songs' structures seem careless, even crude, and two occasional elements of the sound (chief writer Michael Dunford's acoustic guitar and any time Annie Haslam's wonderful, creamy soprano finds itself sprawling over a male harmony that doesn't really match up) simply don't blend with the album as a whole. And yet, in spite of these inadequacies and crudities, Ashes Are Burning is a spellbinding, compelling album. The music shines through.

Quickly summing up the band: John Camp (stop sn****ring at the back) is a jolting Squire-esque lead bassist with plenty of crunch and attack to cover the principal deficiency of keyboardist John Tout's classically inspired, cinematic piano and organ parts. Drummer Terrence Sullivan fills out the rhythm section very capably, if generally unremarkable, and Michael Dunford's sort of limp-folk acoustic is perhaps compensated for by his ability as a songwriter. But we couldn't forget singer Annie Haslam, whose clear soprano has a creamy, luxuriant quality; occasionally, it feels almost too rich, but even then, a real treat to hear. Once saw ‘Everything fusion' as a very fitting description of their music, and given their use of an occasional orchestra, strict classical piano, a chugging rhythm section and folk-based writing and subject matters, I don't think I can better that.

And this sound is best off in the opening/closing pair of the album. Can You Understand features possibly my favourite instrumental intro ever, with a gorgeous little piano motif pulsing away under the jarring, jabbing attack of Camp's bass, with all its various elements soaring away and then falling back into a tight, powerful, rich and complex arrangement. Two and a half minutes of the best music ever made. Thereafter, we see variously a rather irrelevant ten-second choral segue; a plain folk tune rolling into a more Gypsy-flavoured chorus, which is then instrumentally developed without particularly striking uses of either Tout's odd-sounding piano or the ornamental orchestra, which then slides back into a more deeply arranged variant of the folk tune with a blaring orchestra and Tout and Camp walking around on the chords behind it and now back to that wonderful opening theme with its parts overrun by violins, cellos, brass. Strangely enough, the intellectually interesting aspects of the song (a sort of abcCBA structure, where the capitals are orchestral) don't seem especially well-realised... the band's creativity seems to have gone out for a smoke whenever a bridge was needed, it flows pretty poorly, and yet, the contradiction of the album is present here: it's just fantastic. The individual sections are a delight, Renaissance are easily the most convincing incorporators of a classical orchestra in rock music (perhaps it's writing for Tout's noticeably classical presence that gives the orchestra something to latch onto), and that instrumental opening is so powerful that even the clumsiest transitions barely slow the song's emotional drive.

Well, since we're still recovering from that one, the sweet ballad of Let It Grow (admittedly, clichéd lyrics, but Betty Thatcher's word choice fits the tune very well) is a sweet follow-up, starring a remarkably calm piano and an absolutely winning vocal from Haslam, who moulds a lovely melody into a nuanced, full, gripping part. Camp, Dunford and Sullivan wander along in the background, and only Sullivan's precise ‘leave' (one of those cases where I'd love to know a drumming term) on the end of Haslam's melodies and band presence the cathartic, harmony-laden denouement feel particularly relevant. Very charming, though the instrumentation is often superfluous.

On The Frontier took a while to appreciate. Have to admit, I still find Dunford's acoustic a bit tinny on the intro, I don't think much of either the vocal arrangements (a sort of strange oil-and-water crossing of Haslam and Camp's (I think) vocals) or the lyrics. However, those seemingly essential elements don't really seem to matter that much; the band's instrumental strengths simply outshine it. Tout's lush piano (even his very stiff efforts at jazzing it up), Camp's ability to take up and then fill out all parts presented to him and Sullivan's solid sound and capacity for fills, and a very neat acoustic part on the end secure this as at least a positive impression.

But, altogether excellent, bright and bouncy, Carpet Of The Sun is a folk/pop tune substantiated by the fully-functional orchestra with a fluent harpsichord, an interesting drum part running along behind it, and, indeed. Haslam's vocal is gorgeous, delivering in a suitably uplifting format a suitably uplifting lyric. A song that smiles just about as broadly as this reviewer is comfortable with but which thankfully has very nice teeth.

At The Harbour is a strange contestant for my favourite tune of the album; it doesn't boast, it's not particularly stressing anything, it's about the aftermath and not the event. Piano introduction, a persistent, clear acoustic melody, a mournful harmonium and Annie Haslam's beautiful, haunted vocal... it's really an emotional piece, brought out by Thatcher's ambiguous lyrics. Eliot's 'new art emotion' seems an appropriate description.

Ashes Are Burning is the second extended treat for us here, and the powerful closer that matches Can You Understand blow for blow. It's far more coherent in its mixture of folk, rock and classical than the opener... at least, everything patches together very well, the number of great melodies, on celeste, piano, organ and bass is just extraordinary, a number of styles are touched upon but Sullivan pulls everything together into the rock camp, Haslam's lead vocal over an organ-and-pedals about eight minutes in is amazing, pure, powerful, haunting and the driving conclusion with a gorgeous blues guitar solo (courtesy of Andy Powell) is divine.

So, there you have it, a sandwich with the bread on the inside? Nevertheless, an album with a few flaws, real flaws, flaws that really should matter, that is pulled through by the power of its melodies, the individuality of its performers and the willingness to try new things. Something any music lover should take a look at sooner or later, and an example a lot of bands could do with... it's personality, not mere accuracy and coherence, that makes great albums.

Rating: Four Stars
Favourite Track: three contestants, of which Ashes Are Burning probably comes out as the winner.

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