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Old 04-29-2022, 09:15 PM   #21 (permalink)
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Let's stroll with our hands in our pockets down the dusty windswept streets of my musical memories, passing The Regret Hotel, glancing with a shudder in the direction of the Bad Choices Bank, round the corner of Inadvisable Street and Stupid Move Avenue. If we cross over the road here and avoid the careening horse-drawn wagons with their deliveries of Doubt and Disappointment and Frustration, we can see the lights and hear the off-key music, so let's just push in the doors and grab a drink down at the
LAST CHANCE SALOON
Which is my colourful and roundabout way of saying we're about to check out another album that did not impress me in the past, and see if I can get into it, or whether it needs to be shelved forever and forgotten about.



Perchance to Dream - The Arc Light Sessions (2015)


On the surface, I should love this band. With a classically-trained piano player into everything from Genesis and Yes to PFM and Pat Metheny, what’s not to like? But I remember being mightily disappointed - bored, I think - the first and I believe only time I spun it. So here I am again, giving it another chance to convert me, see if my opinion on it changes. The Arc Light Sessions is the brainchild of John Alarcon, who plays keys including Mellotron, with Michael Dionne taking vocals and guitar. There’s a very orchestral opening to the title track, with a slow Asia feel to it too, plenty of Mellotron blasting from Alarcon, the song putting me in mind too of Pendragon. I don’t know about the vocalist; I kind of think he’s not that great, and he certainly doesn’t grab the attention. Some nice piano merging with a squealing guitar, but there’s something not quite, I don’t know, cohesive about this, like they’re borrowing bits from other bands and songs and trying to force them all together. God that singer is pretty poor.

Alarcon can certainly play the piano, there’s no doubt about that, keys and Mellotron taking us directly into “... only to Awake”, a much shorter piece, the companion to the opener, and I would say quite likely an instrumental, which is good as I don’t have to listen to Dionne attempting to sing for a while. God I hope he improves as the album goes on, otherwise it’s going to be torture listening to him all through the rest of this album. Well I was right about this being instrumental, and then “There Will Come a Day” is a slow very Alan Parsons Project ballad and unfortunately Dionne has not improved. He also does his own backing vocals it seems, so it doesn’t help that now I’m hearing him twice as it were. The melody is nice, the piano carrying it, but it’s hard to enjoy it when the vocalist is making such a hash of the singing. Nice guitar solo, very effective; if only Michael Dionne would stick to the frets.

Another piano ballad in “Through These Years”, but a lot shorter at three minutes, while “Please Let Me Know” runs for nearly six, and is also quite laid back, in fact I’ve yet to hear ALS really let loose and rock out, if they ever do. Again it’s like listening to a budget knock-off version of the APP, though nowhere near as good. I’m probably insulting Parsons and his boys by comparing them to these heads. To be fair, there’s nothing wrong with the music, just none of it is coming across as particularly original. It’s like the band sat down and listened to the APP’s discography and then decided they would emulate them rather than write any of their own music. Unfortunately the only way they don’t copy them is by having various vocalists, so we’re stuck with Dionne.

This is going to be a struggle, I can tell. We still have - fuck! Eight songs to go, and I’m feeling like I’m in an ordeal. Think this next one might be another instrumental at least. When I don’t have to listen to Dionne’s singing - I use the word in its widest possible meaning - I can, not enjoy, but at least tolerate these guys. This isn’t too bad actually, for once mostly on guitar, but we’re back to piano for “The Old Man and the Sea”, with some nice flute added in by Luc Tremblay (definitely heard of him, just can’t remember where) but it breaks down as soon as Dionne opens his mouth. Some sort of choir there in the background which does help distract a little from his voice; with another, more competent or talented singer this could actually be enjoyable. Decent tune, some nice warbly keyboards and so far no Mellotron; these guys definitely overuse that venerated prog rock instrument. Good guitar solo, ramping up the tempo a little, though it quickly resumes its more or less sedate pace.

I suppose I should be thankful there are no epics here: the longest track just inches over seven minutes, and the next two are short ones, “The Ghost of Winters Past” slightly less than four minutes while “Jigsaw” just edges past three. Neither are very remarkable or memorable, and then we’re into the six-minute “Deception Days.” Normally I wouldn’t be so anal about the length of the songs (well, not all the time), but really I’m just hoping to get through this and the longer the tracks are the harder that task is becoming, so shorter tracks are welcome, or at least, more welcome than the longer ones, which aren’t welcome at all. Think I’ll just hide my head till it’s all over. If anything occurs to necessitate a remark I’ll mention it. Otherwise I’ll see you on the other side, assuming I make it out alive.

Oh god I just have to remark that on “Misunderstood” Michael Dionne does what I would have assumed impossible, and actually gets worse singing! God, when he growls it’s just painful. Shut the fuck up. Thought the album might go easy on me by closing with a double instrumental, but no, only the penultimate track, the other had to have Dionne foist his excuse for vocals upon us one last (and it will be the last) time. Fuck off you cunt.

Track Listing

1. Perchance to Dream...
2. ...Only To Awake
3. There Will Come a Day
4 Through These Years
5. Please Let me Know
6. Eye of the Storm
7. The Old Man and the Sea
8. The Ghosts of Winters Past
9. Jigsaw
10. Deception Days
11. Misunderstood
12. Over the Horizon...
13. ...Till the End

Admittedly, this would not have been such a trial had it not been for Michael Dionne’s awful travesty of a voice, with the only real respite being the few instrumentals that saved me from his voice. The only vocal track I could stomach really was “The Old Man and the Sea” because, despite his vocals, it actually stuck with me and was a half decent song.

What do I think now?

I’m even more against this album now that I remember how terribly Dionne sings, and the poor APP rip-off the music is. Not sure how this struggled above a rating of 3 on Prog Archives but I wouldn’t have given it a 2. I won’t be giving this any more chances.

Verdict: Never gonna see the light.

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Old 05-16-2022, 09:25 AM   #22 (permalink)
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I first became aware of this album when an advertisement ran for it on television, and being a diehard Genesis fan the music alerted me. Finding it was an orchestral interpretation of some of the best Genesis songs --- and having already enjoyed The London Symphony Orchestra’s We Know What We Like: The Music of Genesis - I was excited and expected this to be a shoe-in. Surprisingly enough, after a lot of effort tracking it down online - I’m cheap: I never pay full price for an album if I can avoid it, especially one I haven’t heard before, and in this instance I’m glad I stuck to that plan - it remained on my computer for a long time, years really, and I only just listened to it a few nights ago when I was looking for something relaxing to drift off to and realised I had it, and had not yet listened to it.



The Genesis Suite - Tolga Kashif - 2010 (LMG)

I’ll admit it: I had no idea who this guy was when I saw the ad, and I didn’t much care. Seemed to me he (or she) was some possibly famous composer or conductor who had decided to set the music of Genesis to an orchestral backing, and that was good enough for me. Now I see he (it is a he) has also attempted the same thing with Queen (for which, inexplicably to me anyway, he won a Classical Brit Award nomination in 2003) and has written many successful scores for movies as well as worked with the famous Lesley Garrett. In 2002 he performed in front of Her Majesty (God bless ‘er! Yeah, not really) The Queen, so I guess he can’t be all bad.

But this is.

The problem with it lies in his interpretations of the music. They just don’t work, to the point that when listening I found it difficult to even recognise most of the original songs. They’re transformed and elaborated on to the extent that they become not quite parodies of themselves but certainly sound nothing like they should. I’ll go through it in detail shortly. The other problem is the length of the songs. “Mad Man Moon”, the longest he attempts here, is just over seven minutes on the original album A Trick of the Tail. Kashif extends it to over seventeen! “Fading Lights” is a respectable ten minutes and he stretches that to twelve, okay, then a medley of Blood on the Rooftops and “Undertow”, again totalling about nine, comes out at thirteen almost. This in itself would not be so bad, but it’s the way in which the songs are extended that causes the problem, and the confusion.

You could say these are more “fantasias” based on the songs, and maybe that would be true: Kashif certainly wanders repeatedly off the beaten path down roads which seem to have nothing to do with the original melody, and explores avenues that perhaps open up the songs. But the thing is, I want to hear the music I know: I understand it won’t sound exactly the same - I probably wouldn’t want to hear it if it did - but I want to at least be able to close my eyes and say “That’s "Ripples"” or whatever, not “What the hell is that?” which is more often than not what I found myself asking myself as this album wound seemingly interminably on.

So to the meat of the matter then: the actual music. We’re supposed to start off with a medley from Invisible Touch, comprising “Land of Confusion” and “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, but I just don’t hear it. There’s a sort of choral almost lament to open with a lot of percussion but no real melody. The speed is totally wrong for “Land of Confusion”, which we all know as it was a hit single, and very quickly we’re into “Tonight, Tonight, Tonight”, or at least a version of it. I hear some keyboard arpeggios from the tune, but the general overall melody that we started with continues as we move into the third minute of the seven and a half it runs for. I’ve lost all recognition of the song - either one - now, other than the odd riff. Don’t get me wrong: it’s a nice piece, and if it was an original I’d be praising it. But as a supposed version of the two Genesis songs it’s just not there. I don’t get it, and this is a feeling that will repeat as I listen to the rest of the album. Not in all tracks admittedly: some are almost recognisable. But they’re in the small minority.

Now we’re into a soft strings section, which is nice, and I think I hear a snippet of part of the melody of “Land of Confusion”, but it’s so incidental it’s hardly worth remarking upon. Near the sixth minute I had hopes we might be kicking into it as the music builds to something of a crescendo, but no: it’s more of the same and it ends as badly and mysteriously as it began. Honestly, play that for any Genesis fan and ask them what song, or songs, were being played and I doubt anyone would be able to guess. A loose interpretation, to say the very least. One of my very favourite Genesis tracks is up next, from the 1976 album A trick of the Tail, but again it starts slowly and with little resemblance to the song it’s supposed to be emulating, and it’s nearly two minutes in before I even recognise “Ripples”, almost by accident. It’s a nice piano intro, but I don’t hear the melody anywhere until we’re heading into the second minute when it makes itself somewhat apparent.

The chorus then is something I can recognise, nice oboe or something with the piano sprinkled over it like fine fairy-dust, but then the strings section take the tune again and it goes off on something of a tangent. I know this song very well indeed, and it does not go like this at all. It’s almost as if Kashif created a mini-symphony and threw it in there where it does not belong. I mean, it sounds nice, there’s no doubting that. But it confuses the heck out of me until we’re almost at the fourth minute, and this incidentally but importantly is the chorus again, which seems to be the only part of the song making itself known to me. Now I know that there’s an extended instrumental section in the original, played by Tony Banks on the piano, and it’s one of the best parts of the song, very effective and evocative. Here again I lose the tune, it briefly shows itself with a blast of brass then disappears, like the very ripples in the lake about which the song was written, and it’s almost the seventh minute before anything recognisable comes through and it’s - you guessed it - the chorus again.

“Ripples” is extended by almost two minutes on the original, and that’s not too bad, but the worst is to come, and from the same album “Mad Man Moon” takes overstretching to new heights, or lows in this case. As I mentioned, a song that initially ran for just over seven and a half minutes is more than doubled, clocking in at a frankly ridiculous and unnecessary sixteen minutes and forty-one seconds! And it’s not just the length that’s at issue here. Whereas the original song opens with a flutey line and then goes into a piano melody, here we have violins, oboes, cellos and more which run for more than two minutes before any semblance of the original song’s melody can be heard. Up to then (and after it) it’s like the soundtrack to some Sinbad movie or something, very eastern, very mysterious, and very much nothing like the song.

Coming up to the fourth minute it settles somewhat into the original melody courtesy of some very nice cello and violin work, then big pounding percussion takes it off onto another track entirely - well, the song is only seven minutes and change, so he has to extend it somehow, doesn’t he? But does he? Why not leave it as it was, or maybe add a minute or two as he did to the other songs here. But doubling it and then some? Where is the point? Just to crowbar in all the little touches and flourishes and embellishments he wants to put in? Wouldn’t the piece have been just as good - better, in my opinion - without them? But Kashif is on a roll now, so in desperation to extend, or justify his extension of the song, he returns to the opening lines and throws in some more improvised melodies. It all starts to get boring, as well as confusing, around minute seven, which is where the song should really be winding down to its natural conclusion. But no, we have another ten almost to go.

There’s a fast paced bit in the middle of the original that I’m still waiting to hear, as the violins and trumpets and woodwinds go into overdrive and we move into minute nine. Oh, here it comes. Not as fast as it should be, but come on: from here on in there should be one more verse and then the finale. But we’re looking at yet another six or seven minutes, almost the length of the entire song again before we finish up here. So now we have a rehash of the midsection, some extra stuff thrown in that has nothing to do with the song, a slowing down as we move into minute thirteen. Lovely violin work it has to be said, but so overdone and so unnecessary. I mean, I’m all for extending a good song and I love this one, but even for me this is overkill. Three or four seconds of total silence, just to eat up the time and then a big blast from the string section as I again completely fail to recognise this as any part of “Mad Man Moon” as I know it: it’s pretty much morphed now into Kashif’s own composition, which is nice undoubtedly, but not part of Genesis’s original song. It’s finally struggling, limping now towards its end and feels like it’s about ready to be put out of its misery, which finally, thankfully happens, and not even on the final riffs that end the original.

Their biggest and best-known hit single is up next, but if you think you’ll recognise the jaunty, poppy love song, you’ll find yourself saying as I did, “This isn’t anything like “”Follow You Follow Me!” Again, it’s stretched to breaking point. Remember, the original was a short, upbeat single which ran for just over four minutes; here it’s dragged out to almost seven. I can admittedly hear the chorus and it’s not bad, but there’s little else of the song I recognise here. It’s also too slow: I would have envisioned a fast, snappy string section with some light percussion and maybe trumpets or trombones jazzing it up as it’s supposed to be, but Kashif seems determined that every song here move at a snail’s pace, and it becomes very wearing. From the fifth minute to the end it’s just really a descending violin melody that could easily have been cut. Way too long.

And speaking of way too long, there’s a twelve-minute interpretation of “Fading Lights”, the closing track on ]We Can’t Dance on the way. Admittedly, the original is a long song anyway, coming in at about ten minutes or so, but when I listened to this first I had absolutely no idea what I was hearing. If you had told me I had to identify the Genesis song being covered here or get a bullet in the brain, you’d be visiting my grave about now. What do you mean, you wouldn’t visit? Humph! Anyway there is no way to reconcile this with the song that closes Genesis’s penultimate album, another song I love; this just bears no resemblance to it, at least up to the third minute or so, where I can hear the vestiges of the original melody begin to float in on violin wings and it’s quite nice indeed.

But as ever Kashif loses the plot here and the tune goes off on another tangent, until by the fifth minute all relationship to the Genesis song has disappeared and we’re listening to an unfamiliar tune. It’s almost become pure musical expressionism by the time we reach the seventh, with the result that I’m losing hope of hearing the big instrumental passage that characterises the original and takes it almost to its close. No, it’s not there, or if it is I don’t hear it. And so we fade, rather appropriately, out and into yet another from A Trick of the Tail, the wonderful “Entangled”, which for some reason he decides to open with a slow piano passage, when the song moves at a much more sprightly, almost waltz pace than that. And I don’t recognise the melody, though at this point I am depressingly used to that.

Now this is a long song, and he’s only added a minute on to it, so points for that, but even so we’re now two minutes into it and I’m only now beginning to hear snatches - snatches only, mind - of the melody, with the piano still performing solo. It’s nice, and it’s a break from the violins and cellos, much as I like them, but I just wish it sounded more like the actual song. This could have been a real triumph, but as we move past the third minute there’s still only the very barest bones of the melody from the song I love so well. Really, as we get into the fifth I’m beginning to accept that the only real part of the original here is going to be that piano riff, although now that I’ve said that I can hear the proper melody begin to assert itself. We are, however, now close to the end, so is it too little too late? I fear so.

And we end on another twelve-minute extension, this time a second medley, to bookend the album with the opening suite. These are drawn from two different albums, unlike the opening set which came from the same one, with “Undertow” taken from the first album released by the stripped-down band in 1978 and “Blood on the Rooftops” from 1976’s Wind and Wuthering, another of my favourites. And we’re back to those choral vocals that opened the odd interpretation that started off the album. And so far I don’t recognise this. This is a form of singing I’m not that happy with: sort of chanting, like at a mass, but at least I recognise the music now. Well, partially. Sort of. Nice work by the violins and cellos as they follow, for once, the basic melody of at least “Undertow”.

Then within four minutes we’re into “Blood on the Rooftops”, with an actual vocal this time. I’ve spoken about this before. If you’re doing an orchestral rendition of popular music I prefer not to hear any singing, even choirs. Especially choirs. Still, it has to be said that so far this has been the interpretation that most closely follows the original songs. I’m pretty certain though that we don’t need an eight-minute version of “Blood on the Rooftops” when the original was just over five. And now we go off down another tributary, another branching road that takes us strange places with many a twist and turn: this part, from about minute six has no resemblance to the original song and is obviously just put in to embellish it. Okay, in fairness it actually returns to the chorus from “Undertow”, which is quite effective and works very well. I’ll definitely give it that. Mind you, it leaves little of “Blood on the Rooftops” in the composition. And whether or not we need an over two-minute outro is to my mind debatable, but that said, the piece finishes well, though not enough to paper over the cracks in some, or most, of the tracks that have preceded it. Again, too little, far too late.

TRACK LISTING

1. Land of Confusion/Tonight, Tonight, Tonight
2. Ripples
3. Mad Man Moon
4. Follow You Follow Me
5. Fading Lights
6. Entangled
7. Undertow/Blood on the Rooftops

Let me just make one thing perfectly clear here: I am not in any way denigrating Tolga Kashif’s musical or compositional prowess. I know that making music, writing music, especially orchestral, is a rare talent and I am totally in awe of anyone who can do it, and do it well. And I readily admit that this is some of the most beautiful orchestral music I have heard in a long time. Were it Kashif’s own original music I would rate this album much higher and be recommending it to you. But that’s the problem: it’s not his music. Well, it is, but it’s not supposed to be, not really.

When any composer sets out to cover someone else’s work there is of course always an element of artistic licence that has to be allowed. Nobody wants to hear the originals played note for note. If you wanted that, why not just listen to the originals themselves? But in this case I believe Kashif takes that licence and runs far away over the hills, screaming “Catch me if you can!” He goes beyond interpreting, beyond embellishing the longtime work of one of the premier progressive rock bands of all time here, and strays into the territory of trying to rewrite it. I have no problem with someone putting their own slant on a cover version, but I want to at least be able to recognise the finished article. Here, so much of this music sounded nothing like the songs I have listened to and loved for over thirty years, and it was hard to think of this as an album of Genesis music reinterpreted by a musician so much as a new composition using the bare bones of Genesis music as its template.

Perhaps that’s what he intended, and perhaps that’s how this album is supposed to be approached, but when I see someone making an orchestral version of the music of one of my favourite - of, indeed, my very favourite of all- artists, I expect to be able to recognise the tunes, and more often than not that was not the case here. For me, this was an exercise in overindulgence and perhaps arrogance, that the man thought he could improve on the music Banks, Rutherford, Hackett and Collins wrote over three decades ago, that he could do it better than them. I believe he also tackled the music of Queen, and that the surviving members of the band were very happy with the outcome. Perhaps then I am in the minority here.

An enjoyable album without question, but if Kashif attempts to take on the music of another band in the future, I just hope he keeps his compositional hands off any of my favourite artists.
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Old 06-02-2022, 04:15 AM   #23 (permalink)
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Billy Joel had some stunning songwriting with songs like 'always a woman' but absolutely yes "uptown girl" was his 'lady in red.' Horribly cheesy. I loved "We Didn't Start the Fire," and "the longest time" but he has also always had that undefinable sickly sweet sound, as if he has just put about twenty sugars in your tea, mixed with a far-too-happy chorus.
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Old 06-02-2022, 05:08 AM   #24 (permalink)
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I'll not have this sweet tea erasure.
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Old 06-05-2022, 12:17 PM   #25 (permalink)
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British Lion - Steve Harris - 2012 (EMI)

Yeah, that Steve Harris. The one from Iron Maiden. The one who formed Iron Maiden, indeed, the only surviving member of the original lineup. You would probably say “about time”, what with Bruce Dickinson now on his sixth solo album, but there's an interesting story behind this. Seems that all the way back in the nineties Steve was mentoring a band who impressed him called, wait for it, British Lion. He kept in touch with them after they split up, writing with/for them whenever he got a break from Maiden's heavy recording and touring schedule, and this is basically the result. So really, it's not a Steve Harris solo album at all: it should really be called British Lion by British Lion, but no doubt the usage of the Iron Maiden bass player on the sleeve will attract much more interest than it would had it just been marketed as from the band British Lion.

That said, Harris is well involved, writing, producing and of course playing bass on the album, but if you think you're finally going to hear what the shy guy behind the four-string sounds like singing, you're out of luck, as he remains behind his beloved bass guitar, handing over all vocal duties to Richard “Ritchie” Taylor, original member of the band, while the guitar duties are split between Graham Leslie, erstwhile member, and David Hawkins, Taylor's new man on the axe. I admit I'm a small bit disappointed, reading the background now, as I had initially assumed this was a new project of Harris's own, but nevertheless what I've heard of it to date sounds good, so let's give it the old once-over, shall we?

There's wah-wah guitar from the off in the opener, “This is My God”, then the music drops almost completely away to introduce Taylor's vocals, which though strong without the music it has to be said are not that powerful when the full band kicks in. Decent guitar work, and of course as it's being touted as Harris's own solo effort (if only for marketing purposes) his bass is quite prominent in the mix, possibly moreso than on most Iron Maiden albums. But is it more Iron Maiden-lite than British Lion? Well, from the first track I'd say no; in fact, someone hearing this on the radio would not equate it with Maiden at all. It's nowhere as heavy, hardly metal at all, and indeed Harris states it looks back more towards the seventies hard rock of bands like UFO and The Who than coming anywhere near his own band. That's good in its own way: a new Maiden album would be nice, but it's also gratifying to see a solo artist properly stretching themselves beyond their usual influences and styles.

But I wouldn't say I'm too impressed even at that. The opener is good yes, but I don't see anything terribly great about it, and as the album goes on Taylor's somewhat ineffectual vocal starts to grate a little. The production is also quite muddy, odd given that an experienced hand like Harris is at the helm. And it's not just the vocal, though that is certainly below par: almost all of the instruments sound pushed too far down into the mix. Yeah, all except the bass. Hmmm. There's a quite Iron Maiden refrain to the chorus in “Lost Worlds”, and you could almost imagine Bruce singing this, in fact I wonder if it might make an appearance on the next tour, touted as a Steve Harris solo song? Wouldn't be that surprised.

There's also an Iron Maidenesque bass-led instrumental ending to this song, but I must admit it's one of the better ones on the album. Things rock out in no uncertain fashion then for “Karma Killer”, David Hawkins's growling guitar getting a good run out here, as he shows why Taylor decided to hook up with him after the initial breakup of British Lion, when he and Leslie went their separate ways. There's also a certain eastern influence to the melody here, something quite indicative of the writing Steve Harris has done, particularly on albums like Piece of Mind and Powerslave for Maiden. Another thing only recently utilised, with varying levels of success, on Maiden albums has been keyboards, but here British Lion (you can't really say Steve Harris; it's not just him) use them quite well on the intro to “Us Against the World”, though the guitar melody is classic Maiden. Must say, Taylor's voice sounds much better on this; perhaps it's when he pushes too hard that it falls short, as here he's quite restrained and it works well.

The next track is the only one on the album written by just Taylor with Harris, and features the first contribution of original British Lion guitarists Graham Leslie and Barry Fitzgibbons, and I have to say it's Seventh Son of a Seventh Son Maiden, almost a copy of parts of the melody from songs like “Only the Good Die Young” and “The Evil Men Do”. It's a good rocker though, and “The Chosen Ones” is also the second longest track, just under six and a half minutes, with also a curious element of Dave Edmunds' “Girls Talk” in there, then the longest on the album, running for two seconds over seven minutes, is the only one on which all previous members of the band, plus one other, all collaborate.

“A World Without Heaven” has a big hard guitar intro, then powers into a very Maidenesque melody, but with an almost soft chiming guitar line behind Taylor's vocal, again featuring the twin guitar attack of Leslie and Fitzgibbons, the second of three tracks recorded with them before the breakup of the original band. It's again a song you could imagine Maiden performing onstage, and would fit in quite well with their current themes and repertoire and image. British Lion though could certainly do with a stronger singer, and I find myself wondering if Steve has released this album as a) a promise kept to Taylor about helping him make it big or b) an easy vehicle upon which to launch his own solo career? Although in fairness, he does state that he doesn't see this album as a solo project, more a side project. Not sure what the difference is really, but I think what he's saying is that he's not planning to leave Maiden any time soon, unlike Dickinson, who left to pursue a solo career and then later came back to the fold. Iron Maiden is Steve Harris's first love, and it looks like he's planning to remain faithful to her.

Probably the most, indeed only, progressively-leaning track on the album, it's also one of the standouts, though one of the heaviest tracks comes as David Hawkins makes his return on guitar with “Judas”. Again though I have to say Ritchie Taylor's vocals are just not up to the job, and you have to wonder if Steve had chosen to assemble another band, or at least recruit a different vocalist - or do the job himself - if this album might have been better? I guess you have to say fair play to him for keeping faith with his old comrades though, it's just a pity they're not as good as he seems to think they are. Well, that's unfair: the guitar playing is great and the drumming is, well, the drumming, and with Steve himself taking bass, new guy Hawkins on keys, it could have been a very tight-knit band, but it really is let down by Taylor's weak and almost ineffectual singing.

“Eyes of the Young” is the last track on the album to feature the original guitarists, and rocks along really nicely with an almost commercial melody, even Taylor's vocals almost rising to the occasion, and if there is to be a single from this album then I would pick this. I could see it doing quite well on radio: it's just heavy enough to appeal to metal fans (and Harris's name being associated with the project should already have them on board) and light and airplay-friendly enough to have one foot in the AOR camp, even edging close to pop, dare I say it? No I don't, but definitely the most instantly memorable song on the album, and British Lion/Steve Harris's best chance for a hit single. “These Are the Hands” takes things much further back into the 70s, with influences from the likes of Free and Bad Company, a big heavy grinding guitar sound against a general Maiden melody, and we close on “The Lesson”.

Perhaps (and I know this is going to sound unkind but anyway) the lesson is that there's no room for friendship in business, or at least that friendship should not define business? I really feel Steve slipped up here, allowing Ritchie Taylor to take the vocals when he clearly is not up to it. On some tracks he comes close, but generally speaking he seems to be straining to be heard once the music gets going in earnest, and with another singer I think British Lion, as in here, the second incarnation, or third if you prefer, could have been much more of a force than I feel they will end up being. Maybe I'm wrong, and they'll go down hugely and everyone will love them, but as a showcase for a solo effort for Steve Harris I feel this will be a rather large disappointment for many Iron Maiden fans.

Of course, quite likely that Harris was not looking for those sort of fans, and was trying to do something different. That's certainly achieved with the closer, a ballad of all things, on soft acoustic guitar and lush strings keyboards, an acceptable backdrop for Taylor's voice, as he doesn't have to stretch or push to be heard, the music very laidback and gentle, some beautiful piano from Hawkins rippling along the melody, and “The Lesson” laying claim to release as a single also, and forming an unexpected and very different ending to this, Steve Harris's first steps into the world of solo performance.

TRACK LISTING

1. This is My God
2. Lost Worlds
3. Karma Killer
4. Us Against the World
5. The Chosen Ones
6. A World Without Heaven
7. Judas
8. The Eyes of the Young
9. These Are the Hands
10. The Lesson

In the end though, I'm left a little perplexed. Is this to be seen as a solo effort from Steve Harris, or is he just helping out the band he mentored in the nineties? The fact that the album is called British Lion and that the same name applies to the band, or did, is confusing. I think maybe if it had been “British Lion featuring Steve Harris”, or “Steve Harris and British Lion”, I would have been more sure of how to approach the album. As it is, I'm left with a dilemma: do I review this as the first solo album from the Maiden bassist, or as a band featuring him? It's hard to say, but if it's to be seen as his first solo effort, then in general, and on balance, I think it's something of a disappointment.

Not so much a savage bite from the British Lion really; more a scratch from the British Kitten.

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Old 06-05-2022, 07:46 PM   #26 (permalink)
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XXX - Asia - 2012 (Frontiers)

Those who know me will know I'm a huge fan of Asia. Although I didn't think their debut was that great, I did like it and the followup Alpha really spoke to me. I do find myself mostly falling into the John Payne camp however, which might possibly explain my disappointment with this album, except that I really loved Phoenix, which was John Wetton's return after nearly twenty years, and I thought Omega was all right, though no triumph. I also, as I say, liked the early albums with Wetton. Up to now though, I've never bought an Asia album I didn't like, or come to like pretty quickly. Even the dubious Silent Nation, which I took some time getting into, is now firmly ensconced as a proper Asia album with me.

But this is a massive let down.

I know what it is, and I will be going into boringly detailed explanation and opinion through this review, but it's something I never expected to say of an Asia album. The main thing that really burns me about this, Asia's fifteenth overall, third with the reformed original lineup and the album that marks thirty years of Asia, hence the title, is that it is, in a word, boring. In another word, flat. In another word, uninteresting. Stale. Unadventurous. Boring. Oh wait, I said that already, didn't I? Well, sadly it's worth repeating.

Asia's fifteenth album, XXX, is boring.

Much of the blame has to lie squarely with Wetton's vocals, which sound dull, uninspired, disinterested. To be fair, it opens well, with some beautiful piano from Geoff Downes and some cello I think, and you really believe the album is starting off with a ballad, which would not be a bad way to start, but would I think have been a first for this band. However, one minute in it kicks up and becomes a boppy little rocker. Now, I have no problem with this per se. For the first time we hear Downes' famed and instantly recognisable trumpeting keyboards, and for a moment you think yeah, here we go. And to be fair, as an opener it's not too bad of a song, but I do have an issue with the title. When I see a track called “Tomorrow the World” I think this is to do with intention: today London, tomorrow the world, that sort of thing. But it's actually a promise that tomorrow the world will be better, and although that's a laudable sentiment I think they should just have called this “Tomorrow”. Would have been punchier, looked to the future, made a better impact in my opinion.

But these are small concerns, as are some of the lyrics: Wrap (the world) up and throw it like a ball? What the hell is that meant to mean? Still, it's an upbeat, uptempo rocker to start, even if it's not as powerful as I would have liked. It does however end very badly, looking at first like it's going to end on organ, then this switches to a rolling drum outro, but instead of finishing powerfully it just sort of fades out, which annoyed me. But however, on we go, and at least Wetton is in decent voice for this track, and the next one, “Bury Me in Willow”. Reading the title I assumed that Willow was a place, or that Wetton was expressing his attraction to Buffy's best friend, but no, it seems the idea is bury me in a coffin made of willow wood. I'm no expert, but I think coffins are made from pine? However, it's got some decent ideas in it, a sort of anti-war sentiment - ”Give me no standards or eulogy/No red white and blue/ No sceptre or no cloak” - but again it's a little limp, a little weak, though Downe's keyboards carry the song, as they often do.

So we're not too bad so far. So far. Then comes “No Religion”. Now, the first thing to hit you about this is the oh-so-familiar guitar riff. Yeah, it's BOC's “Don't Fear the Reaper”, shamelessly ripped off, note for note. Oh dear. This is where you start to hear Wetton's voice start to sound a little less sure, a little weaker and less committed, as if he's losing interest. It's paradoxically the heaviest track on the album, and one where he should really be letting it rip, but no, there's no heart or soul there. No religion? No interest, more like. And it doesn't get any better as the album wends what becomes its weary way on, as each song becomes more a trial to listen to, and my own interest begins to wane. “Faithful” sounds, to me, a little too close to “The Last Time” off Aura for comfort, and as Wetton sings ”I was hardwired to forget” I begin to wish I was! This is lovesong drivel of the worst kind, the sort of thing that got Asia pegged as “a bunch of old men singing to their girlfriends”, even back in the eighties! The lyric is awful: ”Wherever you may go/ You'll always know/ Faithful I'll be to you” Oh, again I say, dear. It's like mid-eighties Asia but without the class and the power. It just sounds desperate, almost as if they're trying to write a hit single one more time. Doubt this will manage it.

Even Steve Howe's guitar playing is subsumed in the album generally, although he does let loose with a nice solo here that helps to rescue the song a little, but even that can't prevent this from sliding down a deep hole from which it (hopefully) will never emerge. Awful. And as I say, unfortunately, it does not get any better, with Supertramp style piano opening “I Know How You Feel”. It's not the worst song, and I wonder how Payne would have handled it, but Wetton just doesn't come across as invested in it at all, and if he really did know how we feel, he would have put in a better performance on this album, while maybe writing some better songs into the bargain. Again there's a decent little Howe solo, but it's very restrained and almost lost in the backing vocals and Downes' keys.

“Face on the Bridge” isn't bad, to be completely fair, nice keyboard intro, good beat, and Wetton's singing is not too bad, but still way below par. It's very derivative though, like most of the songs on this album: I can definitely hear echoes of Astra and Alpha material in it. For what it is though, it's probably the last decent track on the album, which is not really a compliment, but a sad statement of fact. This is, as the man says, where things get ugly, where the precariously-balanced house of cards shudders and threatens to fall.

I don't know what “Al Gatto Nero” means, and have no idea what the HELL it's about. Wetton uses a mixture of English and either Spanish or Italian language in the lyric, and although I can't quite place it, the melody of the song comes across as very, very familiar, and I'm sure I've heard it in a previous Asia track. It is, however, notable for one thing: it will go down in my own personal history as THE most annoying Asia track EVER. I bloody hate it! It just grates on me, mostly perhaps because I don't know what it's about, but it seems to be very smug and self-serving. To understand what I mean you'll have to just bite the bullet and listen to it. Oh yeah, and just to add insult to injury they throw in the ending to “Here Comes the Feeling” off the debut album. But even at that, it's not the worst track on the album. Oh no.

If a band writes a song called “Judas”, you can be reasonably sure it's going to be about betrayal of some sort, treachery, backstabbing, that sort of thing, and that it should be sung in an angry voice. Whether that anger is a growl or rage or a mutter of cold reproach is a matter of style, but what you don't expect is for the lyric to be rattled off with no heart, no emotion, no feeling and no impact whatever. When John Wetton sings ”You put a knife in me” he sounds about as concerned about it as what he's going to have for his breakfast. He might as well be reproving someone for turning up late, or spilling his drink. There's not one iota of anger in his voice, it's completely matter-of-fact, flat and bored. Christ, if he's not interested in the song, how am I expected to be? It's the most one-dimensional Judas I have ever heard about, and it makes zero impact on me. A song without emotion really isn't a song at all, at least a rock song. This is terrible. Though it rocks in melody the vocal drags it down to the very bottom of the barrel; you can't believe in it, so you can't enjoy it. Well, I can't.

The only good thing about “Judas” is that it heralds the arrival of the final track. Yeah, that's right: thirty years in the business is marked by an album with NINE tracks. What a rip-off! And none of them are even any way particularly long. Then again, with quality this low it's probably a blessing there are so few tracks. Where is the heart and emotion that went into tracks like “Heroine” and “Orchard of mines” on Phoenix? No three-part compositions like on that album, nothing to stand out, unless it's how bad the material is. Well, the closer is called “Ghost of a chance”, and that's fairly appropriate, as that's how much it's likely I'll ever grow to tolerate, never mind like, this album. There is some lovely acoustic guitar from Steve Howe and some nice strings, and they do try to kick it up for one final last-gasp effort. It's not bad, but it'll take more than this to rescue such a poor album.

It's possibly telling that when you try to access their website (ASIA | XXX) it takes an absolute age to come up. Perhaps Asia are tired, perhaps they should think about calling it a day. Thirty years is a long time, even if this particular lineup hasn't been together all that time. If they can't find the creative spark that lit albums like Alpha, Aura and even Phoenix, they really shouldn't be foisting this substandard trash on their longtime fans, and giving ammunition to those who say Asia are a boring, tired band. If it's too much to mark your thirtieth year with a standout, or at least impressive album - hell, I'd have accepted adequate! - then I have to wonder if Asia have any business putting out new albums and expecting people like me to pay for them.

That said, I have no doubt the album will sell well, and the upcoming concerts will no doubt be sold out, and perhaps the songs will translate better live. But I don't have the money for concert tickets, even if they were playing Ireland, which I don't know, and I should be able to get the same basic feeling from their recorded output. On the strength of this, I wouldn't go see them if the tickets were free. Well, of course I would, as they have produced excellent music down the years. But I really feel they've let me down this time, and at a time when I would have wanted, and expected, them to reaffirm their love of music and their talent, and their commitment to the people who have, after all, put them where they are today.

To paraphrase Meat Loaf, this album is a lemon and I want my money back!

Or, as Fry once said in Futurama, this is weak.


TRACK LISTING

1. Tomorrow the World
2. Bury Me in Willow
3. No Religion
4. Faithful
5. I Know How You Feel
6. Face on the Bridge
7. Al Gatto Nero
8. Judas
9. Ghost of a Chance
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