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Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations) - Andrew Lloyd Webber: Variations CD (album) cover


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Honorary Collaborator
5 stars Andrew Lloyd Webber?

Shurely Shome Mishtake?

But this is where you'd be wrong!

Consider this as a Colosseum II album with special guests, and music pre-composed by a promising young composer who had already written the world's first Rock Opera proper (Jesus Christ Superstar), and had, in all likelihood, inspired The Who to write their opus "Tommy" with his first Rock Operetta "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat".

This was not yet the writer of horrors like Cats, Phantom of the Opera et al, but a composer in the right place and time and with the right potential to have produced something great.

He was a bit late for Prog Rock's 1st wave, in which style this set is based, but that doesn't stop his Variations on a Theme of Paganini from being every bit a masterpiece as Rakhmaninov's - only a rock and roll version, ya dig?

It should be noted that the theme from Paganini's Caprice in A minor on which this set of Variations is built has also been variegated by composers and musicians as varied and notable as Schumann, Liszt, Brahms and Benny Goodman - so there are plenty of other sets to compare this one to.

Lloyd Webber's effort is not utterly flawless, but where it shines, it's the equal of the greatest prog tunes you can think of, and at it's worst, it's better than... well, I'd probably get into trouble for making direct comparisons, but I've heard Rick Wakeman produce worse material on more than one occasion, and at least Airey and Argent had the grace to keep the boxing gloves off, unlike certain Emersons of this world. And there's no equivalent of "More Fool Me" on here - in fact, hardly a note is wasted or used as filler.

In fact, in terms of execution, this album IS flawless - virtually every note perfectly in place, yet this is not a precision technical snorefest - it feels like a live rock band swinging into action; Nay! a PROG Rock band, as we have unusual instrumentation and a wide variety of styles making this a set of Variations that are arguably as good as those by any of the umpteen other composers who also wrote Variations on Paganini's Caprice - with blistering guitarwork from Gary Moore that wouldn't have impressed Paganini with it's speed, but would have blown his powdered wig off with it's intensity and smoked him out of his boots.

So, a long intro even by my standards - shall we get into the music?

A dark swirling mass of keyboards in the introduction gives way to the statement of the Caprice and Variations 1-4, AKA the theme to the South Bank Show (long- running UK TV show).

Julian Lloyd Webber leads the way with basic percussion - the juxtaposition of cello and drums works surprisingly well.

The lovely scrunchy piano entry that heralds the flute melody, seguing perfectly into a Moog squelchfest sets the scene for dramatically shifting music of a surprisingly wide pallete of tone colours and mini variations.

Variations 5 and 6 are a more acoustic affair, with an aching, wistful melody on the flute sensitively coloured by acoustic guitar and small electric guitar details, before opening into a broad, sweeping Cello theme... yes, you really can perform academic analysis on this music.

Variation 6 ends with a dark Moog using a low pedal to provide dramatic tension that builds amazingly into Variation 7, a complex riff fest with tight arhythmic percussion and atonal power chords in a brilliant prog rock style passage. The guitar solo that follows is the first nod towards the fireworks of Paganini, and is full of tension and dischord.

We mellow out a little with variation 8, and variation 9 is a more laid back, jazzy affair led by the sensual sax of Barbara Thompson.

Variation 10 appears to grow out of nowhere, with a spacey quality. The Cello takes the lead this time, with another wistful melody. The flute picks this up - and we can hear Lloyd Webbers show-tune writing abilities shining through.

While I'm not sure if the latter is a good thing or not, Variations 11-15 are more like it, with powerful guitar interspersed with keyboard, and twists and turns a-plenty. Despite the many tangents, Lloyd Webber expertly manages to maintain a coherent direction by keeping all the material related, and the twists and turns themselves morph into mini masterpieces that lesser bands would have dragged out for much longer - it seems you're just getting into one great idea, then everything changes. This is Variation writing as it was intended - and also Prog Rock as it should be played.

And now we allegedly return to Variation 16 - which is actually a variation of variation 7... Another delicious heavy riff is mashed up by Moog lines, then exposed and returned to. The main theme trickles through, but is broken down in a mini maelstrom of sound that maybe loses a little power by being so controlled and precise, but nevertheless maintains a momentum that is quite breathtaking. The ending to this variation is one of my favourite bits, so no spoilers here.

An alleged return to Variations 14-15 display yet more mastery at the form - earlier ideas are explored, developed, moved on from in a blink-and-you'll-miss-it-fest of compositional fireworks.

We then hop mysteriously into Variation 17. This is a Moog driven affair that sounds like it came out of the BBC Radiophonic workshop for an early episode of Dr Who - but loses nothing for it!

There were beautiful melodies in earlier variations, but Lloyd Webber has saved one of the best for Variation 18 - again taken up by his brother on the Cello with minimal backing from Moore and Mole. Around halfway through Moore takes up the melody and really shines with a wondrous guitar tone, but sadly the reins are returned to JLW to close the variation in syrupy style.

Next we have Variations 19, 20 and 6 (varied), another giddying, swirling demonstration of why this album is the Masterpiece I hold it to be. The main theme gets some prominence, but it is halted in its tracks before it can get going, and new material is presented before Variation 6 returns in majestrial glory.

But now I turn your attention swiftly to Variations 21 and 22. Gary Moore is allowed a free rein here, and dominates with aplomb. Variation 22 suddenly drops the music into a chasm with a surprisingly spacey sound given that the main instrument is the piano. Using motifs that hearken back to serialism, using quasi-cells or mini note- rows, flavours of Schoenberg create this dark feeling and underscore the fact that Lloyd Webber understood and had mastered a wide variety of compositional styles and had the potential to become a truly great composer of relevant art/rock material.

Variation 23 ends the set in pounding style, with Lloyd Webber turning in a performance that Paganini may have snickered at - but is most suitable for what is.

At the end of the day, this is a Prog Rock album with more than just pretensions to "Classical" music - it is rooted in just about every style contemporary in 1977/8 except punk rock and while it sounds "of its time", mainly due to the production, it is every bit as good as the Prog Rock album of your choice from 5 years earlier.

If you think Camel blended rock and orchestral well in "The Snow Goose" (which they did), Camel's sterling efforts pale into amateurish meandering in comparison to the masterful composisiton and arrangements presented here. Theme and Variations is one of the hardest compositional styles to master. This is a superb example of how it should be done.

Go Geddit - don't be ashamed to own this Andrew Lloyd Webber album!

Report this review (#74687)
Posted Wednesday, April 12, 2006 | Review Permalink
Honorary Collaborator
5 stars I consider this album as a single and cohesive multi-movement composition and therefore I am going to review it as such.

First of all the musicians, they are all renown musical geniuses in their own instruments and genres. The main credits go to the Lloyd Webber brothers: Julian is a virtuoso cello player whose instrument is the central element of the music and Andrew the famous Broadway composer who is in charge of the composition, arrangement and some keyboards. Now the rest of the band:

Colosseum II: formed by blues guitar genius Gary Moore, Don Airey (actual Deep Purple keyboardist) one of the most talented and under-rated keyboardists in prog and the amazing jazz rhythm section of Hiseman and Mole.

The legendary Rod Argent (Argent) on keyboards.

Phil Collins another legend of prog behind the drums (Thank god!!!).

Barbara Thomson (Hiseman's wife) does a great job with the wind instruments.

+ Dave Caddick (piano), Herbie Flowers (bass) and Bill LeSage (vibes).

This is a very pompous and pretentious piece of music and that is precisely why I love it. The whole idea of turning a classical piece into rock is highly risky and when fully accomplished is quite amusing. For me it is as good as ELP's Pictures at an Exhibition and that is saying a lot. This Paganini piece was transformed to several styles from blues and hard rock to jazz, ballads and symphonic prog in a single piece of music without losing any coherence.... ABSOLUTELY BRILLIANT (what would you expect from a supergroup like this?)

Total: 5!!!!!

Report this review (#261488)
Posted Monday, January 18, 2010 | Review Permalink
1 stars The kind of project which gives progressive rock - no, scratch that - all variations of classically-themed and symphonic rock as well as progressive music as whole, a very bad name indeed. Lloyd Webber, him of the commercially-lucrative mega musicals 'Jesus Christ Superstar', 'Phantom Of The Opera' and 'Starlight Express' that are so beloved by housewives, middle-class Tories, American tourists and people who don't particularly like music, has here produced an 'original' classical composition for both orchestra and rock band. The album, helpfully titled 'Variations'(thanks Andy), is split into 15 glutinous, cheese- heavy sections, in which a highly-skilled orchestra clash horribly with some of their rock colleagues. The cast list on the 'rock' side raises a few eyebrows, too(not the only time eyebrows are raised in relation to this album) with such innovative progressive stalwarts as ex-Colosseum and Tempest drummer Jon Hiseman, current(as of late 2011) Deep Purple keyboardist Don Airey, Zombies and Argent founder Rod Argent, guitar hero and former Thin Lizzy axeman Gary Moore and the one-and-only former Genesis vocalist and drummer Phil Collins forever staining their impressive CV's with this embarrassing crap. The success of the album, which also features Andrew's cellist brother Julian, proves to be yet another eyebrow raiser, as 'Variations' was released in 1978, slap-bang in the slipstream of the yobbish and anarchic anti-music punk-rock movement, which hints towards the kind of person who was purchasing this album. Obviously, those with a penchant for classical music may find this right up their street but it's really rather worrying to see fans of Emerson, Lake & Palmer - who of course adapted many classical compositions within a rock framework - claiming this as some kind of high watermark of progressive rock's classically- tinted sub-genre. To put it mildly: this is not genuine prog rock. It's ersatz, glutinous, third- rate classical pomp rock made by a musical theatre magnate who always has one beady eye on the commercial viability on any and every project he is involved in. His idea of 'rock' music amounts to little more than sub-Foreigner pop-rock, with his many hit shows a testament to that. Of course, the beauty of music(and of living in the Western, democratised world) is that it is completely subjective; no-one really has good taste, no one actually has bad taste. No-one should be ashamed of the music hey listen to whether it be Frank Zappa, Tom Jones, Atomic Kitten or Beyonce. However, there is one small exception that proves this universal rule: Andrew Lloyd Webber's 'Variations', a pile of dated, pseudo-progressive and utterly-appalling classical-rock junk that shames it's large and impressive cast of top- notch musicians. Sorry guys, but this dire excuse of an album really is the(musical) pits. STEFAN TURNER, LONDON, 2011
Report this review (#547884)
Posted Monday, October 10, 2011 | Review Permalink
siLLy puPPy
PSIKE, JRF/Canterbury, P Metal, Eclectic
4 stars Musical brothers finding a truce in recording. Andrew Lloyd Webber is famous as one of the most revered composers of musical theatre, soundtrack scores and showtimes of all time, most notable for musicals scores for "Cats," The Music of the Night," "Phantom of the Opera" and of course "Jesus Christ Superstar." Spanning a musical career WEBBER has primarily existed in the realms of classical music and Broadway showtimes mixed with aspects of rock and pop however his younger brother Julian Lloyd Webber, a solo cellist carved out a career in the worlds of modern classical, concertos, orchestral, romanticism and post-minimalism.

In a rare moment where the brothers' two different styles found a crossroads on this one of a kind album titled VARIATIONS which was written by Andrew in the mid-70s for his brother Julian to perform, a magical moment where sibling rivalry found common ground. The album is based on the theme of Paganini's "24th Caprice" and as the album title suggests it includes 23 differing VARIATIONS which has been a key tool in spicing up classical music since the beginning of time (as well as every other Western genre since). The score premiered at the 1977 Sydmonton Festival and featured the progressive jazz rock band Colosseum II to serve as the rock part of the equation. The following year it was recorded and released and then immediately shot up to #2 on the British charts showcasing the appeal of these types of novelties as the prog rock years were waning.

VARIATIONS was unusual concoction that features just as much jazz as rock interjected into a classical context however Andrew having mastered the art of classical composition ensured the rock and jazz aspects interacted smoothly with the clashing forces with which they were put against thus offering a sleek and well?.varied instrumental display of fine classical craftsmanship. The impressive lineup included Don AIry of Colosseum II, Deep Purple and Rainbow amongst others along with Rod Argent also of the same three groups. In addition Barbara Thompson of the original Colosseum brought in her jazz sensibilities from her time with The New Jazz Orchestra and would soon take inspiration to join the United Jazz + Rock Ensemble. Gary Moore also of Colosseum II and Irish rock band Think Lizzy provided guitar work while Julian rocked the cello. The biggest surprise of all comes from the appearance of Genesis and Brand X drummer Phil Collins sitting on the drum kit.

While only a short album at about 34 minutes, VARIATIONS certainly delivers its namesake with bravado and gusto alternating between moods, tempos, cadences, key changes, genres and all the tricks and trinkets that classical musicians pull out of their magic hats. While considered crossover classical where rock and classical along with some jazz commingle on the greater musical playground for a day, the emphasis is clearly on the classical aspects due to the source material which coincide with the the sophistication that virtuoso classical composers display. While there are certainly moments of cheesiness especially with the canned drumming moments (i wish Collins was more Brand X than Genesis here), the overall effect is as dramatic as one of Andrew's top theatrical scores. Julian totally rocks the cello but never makes it sound like a forced rock instrument.

While this sounds cheesy in its premise it's actually quite an intricately designed moment where none of the genres water each other down in the least bit and on the contrary find the perfect juncture where all can unleash their full potential without interfering with the other. Julian's virtuosic cello performances are the true standout but for the most part he is reserved and the musical flow dictates the overall instrumental interplay which found Andrew in the conductor's chair as well as adding his overall duties as producer and playing the synthesizer. It's an oddball album for sure and it will vaguely remind you of The Nice or other "rockin' the classics" prog that was all the rage in the 60s and early 70s but the difference here is you get a real classical composer reinterpreting the genius of Niccolò Paganini with an arsenal of talented musicians to take his vision to heart. Much better than i had expected and actually find this captivating.

Report this review (#3037504)
Posted Monday, April 15, 2024 | Review Permalink

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