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Old 11-11-2012, 11:06 AM   #1591 (permalink)
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That special magic is back...
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See right through you --- Jadis --- 2012 (Jadismusic)


Turns out 2012, or at least the second half of it, is looking like being a good year for new releases from progressive rock bands. We've had new albums from established artistes like Marillion, Big Big Train and Neal Morse, among others, now comes the first new Jadis album in six years. Sadly, it only has eight tracks on it, and none of them are particularly long, certainly no epics. So are we being shortchanged, or is it a case of eight perfect tracks are better than twenty below-par ones, as I've alluded to before?

Well, rippling keyboards open the album, though it's new guy Arman Vardanyan who's behind the keyboard, then the signature guitar sound of Gary Chandler cuts in, soon followed by his vocals and the first track “You wonder why” is underway, with all the usual hallmarks of Jadis: great hooks, a soft but strong vocal line and great melodies. I've never fully been able to put my finger on why I like Jadis, I just do. Their music is very recognisable and has a sound all its own, and of course you have bandmembers who play, or have played, in the likes of Frost*, Arena and IQ, so there's great pedigree there. Chandler's guitar has always been an integral part of the overall Jadis sound, and it's put to great use here in a pretty mid-paced opener, leading into the harder, more rocky “Try my behaviour”, with a great little bassline from Andy Marlow and some quite funky guitar, supplemented by rolling keyboard lines from Vardanyan.

There's something almost magical about the music of Jadis; it just seems to leak into your soul and float around in there, filling your heart with warmth and good feeling. Central to this is the clear voice of Chandler, founder member and indeed only remaining original member, whose quintessentially English voice gives this band a sort of Big Big Train/Marillion sound, while yet retaining very definitely their own identity. There's one of many lovely solos on the album to be found here --- in fact, the track fades out on one such --- as well as some great vocal harmonies, another of Jadis's strengths. But the keyboards have their time in the sun too, and though I prefer the work of original keysman Pete Salmon, Vardanyan's intro to the next track. “What if I could be there” is a perfect backdrop for Gary Chandler's soulful vocal, with Marlow's bass slowly thrumming its way into the melody until suddenly it all bursts into a big uptempo rocker, taking off indeed on that bass pattern, locked in by Steve Christey's measured drumming and running alongside the powerful guitar line.

Great interplay later between the guitar and keys, then Chandler unleashes another smooth solo, chased by Vardanyan's bubbling keys, the whole song slowing down unexpectedly in the last minute for a beautiful little interlude on keys and soft guitar to take it to its conclusion. “More than ever” starts on a sort of tribal drumbeat with high keys and piano then hits a David Grayesque melody, and you have to hand it to Vardanyan here for his fine piano work as well as ethereal synthplay, then almost out of the blue Chandler knocks off a mad, dirty rock solo on the guitar, bringing in more interplay with the keysman, kind of Yes-style. It's more great guitar work though that sees out the song in style, with some final piano notes, then we're into a nice echoey guitar to takes us into “All is not equal”, pretty much the ballad on the album, where Chandler again displays his prowess behind the mike, impassioned and yearning as the keyboards paint a soundscape behind him, these selfsame keys setting up an almost electronica introduction to “Nowhere near the truth” until Chandler's guitar re-establishes the song's rock credentials; a great little instrumental, showcasing the band's prolific talents as it grooves along in a sometimes funky, sometimes electronic and sometimes rocky manner.

“Learning curve”, then, opens on a light little acoustic guitar against Chandler's vocal, with soft synth slowly swelling in the background, some digital piano finding its way in too, quite laidback and almost minimalist, a little Spanish guitar solo in the middle then the electric kicking in as the percussion gets heavier and the sound begins to fill out a little more. Jadis are a band who take their music seriously, and it's another smooth guitar solo that fades out this track rather perfectly, taking us to, already, the final track.

It's the title one, and indeed the longest at just over eight minutes, another mid-paced track. It's fair to say that there's no out-and-out rockers on this album, but then, that's not Jadis's way. They tend to do more thoughtful, introspective songs, songs that mean something, and each album is always more than the sum of its parts. As ever, Chandler's guitar is to the fore here, backed by Marlow's quiet and steady bass: Marlow's no John Jowitt, but he does know his way around a fretboard. Another great instrumental section in the middle, quite reminscent of 1980s Marillion really, climaxing in one last superb guitar solo and taking us almost to the last minute before the vocal comes back in for the final time as the song fades out on hard rock guitar.

TRACKLISTING

1. You wonder why
2. Try my behaviour
3. What if I could be there
4. More than ever
5. All is not equal
6. Nowhere near the truth
7. Learning curve
8. See right through you

It's been, as I said, six years since the last Jadis album, “Photoplay”, and since then the band has changed, with bass player and keyboard player leaving to join Arena and IQ respectively, but Gary Chandler has always been the heart of the band and like Gary Hughes in Ten, it's he who pulls everything together, writing most of the material and producing yet another fine album for this UK progressive rock band. My only complaint is that it's got so few tracks: I mean, six years and we get eight tracks? That's a little more than one song per year we've waited. Doesn't seem a fair return somehow.

Yet, although I said at the beginning none of the tracks were long, well they're not short either, the longest being as I mentioned just over eight minutes, but the shortest clocking in at five and a half, with a few over seven. And each track is just great, including the instrumental. It's a great album from a great band, with really no bad tracks and almost every one a standout. I just hope we don't have to wait another six years for the followup!
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Old 11-12-2012, 09:10 AM   #1592 (permalink)
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This week's planned reviews

Albums due for review this week as follows:

English Electric (Part one) by Big Big Train
La futura by ZZ Top
#3 by The Script (featuring the return of "The Very Best of Irish")
Sounds that can't be made by Marillion
Stop us if you've heard this one before by Barenaked Ladies
The world is a game by Mystery
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Old 11-12-2012, 09:32 AM   #1593 (permalink)
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Just as one bad ending track can potentially spoil an album you'd been enjoying up till then, the disappointment felt when a song suddenly veers off from the melody/direction it had been following up to then, or ends suddenly or badly, can be really annoying. I know more than a few songs that I've really been getting into and then suddenly someone decided to change the whole direction and the song ends really badly. We looked in the first edition of this section --- months ago now --- at Meat Loaf's classic “Objects in the rearview mirror”, but a song I feel just loses it right at the end is the subject of today's feature.

Tearing at the faerytale
Mostly Autumn
Glass shadows (2008)

Written by Bryan Josh


The first song I heard from what was, at the time, the new album, I really loved this at first, and it gave me high expectations for the coming album. Those expectations were not entirely met, but that's a story for another day. I loved the way the song moved along from a gentle, plucked almost acoustic guitar intro into a full-blooded keys and strings melody, and after running for something like seven minutes it looks like it's just going to fade out, which would have suited me fine. A good ending.

But then from out of nowhere, a hard guitar sets up a repeating riff, and for me the ending is ruined. I don't know why they didn't let it just fade, but they seemed to want to change it at the last moment. The intrusion by the rocky guitar is unexpected, and quite incongruous: it just doesn't seem to fit at all, and it's not borrowed from any other part of the melody, so I really just don't get it. It just changes the whole feel of the song, and for me at any rate leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It's almost like being told as a kid you were going to Disneyland, only to end up at the dentist! Well, maybe not that bad, but it is a major disappointment.
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Old 11-12-2012, 11:41 AM   #1594 (permalink)
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Been meaning to ask you this for a while. But how do you decide which albums and bands you are going to review. I'm sure that you have some kind of criteria to help you decide, or is it just done randomly?
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Old 11-12-2012, 02:56 PM   #1595 (permalink)
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Depends. A lot of my material is pre-written, as in, I write reviews in advance and then later on decide when to actually post them. I also have a list of "sections", which I add to and check as I go along, so that if I haven't done a particular section recently I might think about going back to it, as in today's "NO! It can't end like this!" slot. I'm also working on only the second "Crashing solo" feature, the last of which was sometime last year.

Often I just like to review albums I love, but sometimes ones I hate; then again it can be a case of well I did a prog album yesterday, a metal one the day before that, hmm... how about Barry Manilow? Or something similar; a chance to keep everything as varied and eclectic as possible. I prefer if possible not to review albums from the same genre too often together --- unless I'm doing a series or feature --- and even then, I try to ensure the journal isn't just jammed with album reviews, slotting in other sections like "What's in a name?", "More than words" and so on.

There's no actual set plan: I actually have too much music to ever be able to adequately review all my albums. In general I try if I've reviewed an album by one band to not do another of theirs for a while, perhaps months. This great restraint is shown in my only reviewing two Marillion albums in all my time here, even though they're my favourite band. Excuse me, three: I forgot "Somewhere else", which was reviewed in the "Last Chance Saloon" --- must do that again soon, but I digress. If I only concentrated on the albums I love then this could become quite a boring and predictable journal, but really, no-one knows what I'm going to come up with next, least of all me. I mean, who else would think of reviewing Black Sabbath and then Pixie Lott? Or Holst's "The Planets"? Or Vangelis? I like to surprise my readers, throw them a little off-guard. Lisnaholic said that on his first visit here last week he was surprised not to find just prog albums. That's the kind of reaction I'm going for. It's like, wow, you're a prog head but you listen to Robbie Williams/Steve Earle/Motorhead? Keep em guessing, say I!

But yeah, that's it. Sometimes I'll have an idea what I'm going to review, sometimes it's taken from something I've already written, perhaps weeks or months ago, and sometimes it's almost stick a pin in the map and see where we end up, as it were. Much more fun that way. But hey, that's my style, might not suit everyone.
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Old 11-13-2012, 05:07 AM   #1596 (permalink)
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La futura --- ZZ Top --- 2012 (American Recordings)


To most people there are two ZZ Tops. Well, that's not exactly accurate. Let's start again. To most people, there is the ZZ Top who wrote such hits as “Legs” and “Gimme all your lovin'”, and pretty much faded away after the initial buzz had faded and the hipsters moved on to the next big thing. They will forever be (I'm sure to their considerable delight) linked with videos of sexy girls in short skirts, which was, let's be honest, their window to mainstream success in the early eighties. I mean, these are great songs, but you ask any man (I specify man, not woman) in the street what they remember about them, and nine out of ten are going to grin and mention the women. Some will remember the tunes, yes, but all will remember the girls. I know I do. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but once a band establishes a pattern for their videos, people expect it, and if they don't get it then the next single may not do as well, or even chart. Madness were known for their comedic videos, and when they stopped doing them and tried to be taken more seriously --- that ship had already sailed --- people just weren't as interested.

I'm reminded of Bart Simpson in the episode where he finds fame as the “I didn't do it boy”. Tired of milking the one phrase and desperate to be taken seriously, he goes on a talk show and tries to talk about the rainforests, but all they want to hear is the phrase. The public want what the public gets, as Paul Weller once caustically wrote. Or to put it another way, who would you rather see: the terrifying, all-powerful Oz, or the diminutive, somewhat scatterbrained old man behind the curtain? Often, it's the spectacle we crave, not what lies beneath. Style over substance.

None of which is ZZ's fault. They got great mileage (geddit?) out of those videos, but predictably their next album, though successful, was not the monster that “Eliminator” was. Ask anyone who's not a fan to name a ZZ track, I guarantee you next month's wages (I'm not working, but that's beside the point!) that they'll reel off one, two or three of those hit singles and not know one other. I'm no huge fan, but I can point to “Tush”, “Cheap sunglasses”, “Rough boy” and others. That doesn't qualify me as being more into ZZ Top than the chart-buying public, but I do know some things about the band that they don't.

Of course, real fans will talk about “Tres hombres”, “Deguello” and “Rio Grande mud”, perhaps even their album prior to this, “Mescalero”. I don't claim to know these albums, though I did come across a few of them when looking through record bins. I always put them back, thinking they looked boring. Hey, I was young once you know! But it's been twenty-nine years since “Eliminator”, and even nine years since “Mescalero”, and you have to wonder, are the tres hombres still relevant? Does it matter? More to the point, is this a good album?

Well, first let me disabuse you of any notions of an almost-thirtieth-anniversary “Eliminator”, because this album is nothing like their most famous one. If anything, it would seem to be a return to the blues rock of albums like “Tejas” and “Fandango!”, or that's what I think. You won't get any big commercial pop hits here: there are no drum machines, no synthesisers (though Billy does play piano) and no dancefloor fillers. What there is, is that old style Texas blues and southern rock they were once famous for. No real attempts to bust open the charts again; they've been there, done that. This is ZZ playing how they want to, and if the world don't like it they can just spin on this middle finger.

They set their stall out from the off with “Gotsta get paid”, a big growling guitar from Billy and heavy drumming from Frank Beard, Billy's gruff and instantly recognisable vocals cutting through the music like a Texas longhorn. Squealing guitar and thumping bass are the order of the day, and not a sexy model in sight! Well, okay, there are, but they're not driving the song, and they're only featured sporadically in the video. As for the music, hombre? It's downhome, it's dirty, it's raw, it's ZZ as they used to be, and it certainly makes an impression. Apparently it's, at least in part, a cover of a rap song called “25 lighters”? Fraid ya got me there, but so spake Wiki. “Chartreuse” hits right in as the opener cuts off abruptly, and we're into a big striding boogie rocker, with a lovely walking bassline from Dusty Hill, and almost on the very same melody “Consumption” piles in, boogeyin' on down the road. It's actually quite scary how similar these two songs are; they could almost be two parts of a suite. If ZZ did suites. Which they don't. Unless they're in the Rio Grande Hilton, I guess.

This one features a superb twelve-bar blues on the guitar from Billy, though I have to say so far I ain't heard nuttin' from that there pianner! Never mind, here comes the ballad. It's a lovely, slow, swaying piece driven by a soulful guitar line with Billy finally tickling those ivories, and it's impressive how he can be roaring and growling about booze and women one moment, and the next so sensitive and vulnerable, like a broken man crying into his whiskey. Kind of sounds like Tom Waits singing a ballad: although it somehow doesn't seem right, it somehow does. Great emotional guitar solo, while Frank and Dusty hold the line like comrades that have Billy's back, always. A song about realising it's finally over, and getting on with your life, it's a sobering piece of work and just really bookends the heavier, rockier tracks well.

Speaking of those, “Heartache in blue” gets back to the grind, more dirty guitar and although it's slower than what's gone before it's not a ballad, with some fine harmonica from James Harman which really adds to the rough, raw Chicago blues feel of the song, with some pained backing vocals from Dusty. Brilliant duet between the harmonica and guitar near the end, then the oddly-titled “I don't wanna lose, lose, you” is another hard rocker, with breakout guitar from Gibbons, and a real flavour of toolin' down the road on a hog, after which they take off on “Flyin' high”, upping the tempo a little, though there's nothing breakneck about this album. It's all hard, tough but grounded southern rock/blues, swaggering rather than running, reaching the same destination by a different route.

I have to say, the cover of the album is odd: the guys (two of them, anyway) look more like Jewish rabbis than bearded Texans! Course, we're used to the bearded image of ZZ, but that particular silhouette? Nah, doesn't do it for me. Still, it's not what's on the cover that's important, and if you're a ZZ fan you're gonna buy the album no matter what's on the sleeve. Big heavy grinder as the boys fall back to earth with a bump for “It's too easy manana”, which I think is a cover of a bluegrass song by David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, who popped up somewhere ... where was it? Oh yeah: my review of Mark Knopfler's “Sailing to Philadelphia”. More great guitar work from Billy G, and it's a powerful, intense song delivered with real conviction, almost a Lynyrd Skynyrd feel about it.

ZZ has always been Billy's band. He was the founder, and he writes most if not all of the songs, plays the guitar, sings and, as mentioned, at least here plays piano too. As if that wasn't enough, he also produces the album. But that's not to say that Frank and Dusty are just along for the ride, far from it. However, as with many big bands, there's one big personality that stands proud to the foreground, and here that's Mister Billy Gibbons. “Big shiny nine” is one of those, I think, risque songs that ZZ love to throw in on their albums just to either confuse or piss people off, and we close then on “Have a little mercy”, a slow grinder that showcases Billy's rough, gruff vocals to the limit, the most “Eliminator”-esque track on the album. If I had to compare it to anything off “Eliminator” it would be “TV dinners”, with a slow growling guitar and lazily laconic vocal, with a brilliant twelve-bar blues ending.

TRACKLISTING

1. Gotsta get paid
2. Chartreuse
3. Consumption
4. Over you
5. Heartache in blue
6. Don't wanna lose, lose, you
7. Flyin' high
8. It's too easy manana
9. Big shiny nine
10. Have a little mercy

Anyone who comes at this album expecting to hear the chattering drum machine from “Legs”, or hear synthesisers warble away is going to be most disappointed. They would also be pretty damn stupid, unless they've just woken from a coma and the first thing they want to do is buy the new ZZ Top album. “Eliminator” was almost three decades ago, and ZZ Top, who have by now been in business for over forty years, are carving their own musical path, as they have always done, down the years.

“Legs”. “Sharp-dressed man”. “Gimme all your lovin'”. Great songs, great videos. Great times. But they're all in the past now, where they belong. ZZ ain't livin' in the past, they're lookin' to the future.

And from where I'm sittin', la futura es muy luminosa!
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Old 11-14-2012, 11:07 AM   #1597 (permalink)
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The world is a game --- Mystery --- 2012 (Unicorn Digital)


He's a busy man, is Benoit David! Not only has he replaced Jon Anderson in Yes, but at the same time he's fronting his original band, Canadian progressive rock troupe Mystery. I got into this band through their last album, “One among the living”, which I was very impressed with and which I reviewed, and from what I've heard of this to date I expect to go on being impressed. With only founder member Michel St-Pere and David left, the rest of Mystery is made up of session men or guests, like Spock's Beard drummer Nick D'Virgilio and some rather nice flute work from Marylene Provencher-Leduc. St-Pere helms everything as usual, not only playing guitars and keys but also producing the album and writing all but two tracks on it, those two he co-writes with David.

Mystery have been through some lineup changes, even suffered tragedy in their twenty-five year history: bass player Patrick Bourque committed suicide in 2007, while original drummer Stephane Perreault fell prey to a crippling disease which took his life two years earlier. The control Michel St-Pere exerts over the band could be seen as almost dictatorial; after their second album he formed Unicorn Digital and has released all their albums on that label since. However he's steered them through five albums and more bad times than bands twice their age have to deal with, so he must certainly be commended.

This is Mystery's sixth album, and it opens with a beautiful short acoustic guitar instrumental called “A morning rise”, with already that soft flute from Ms. Provencher-Leduc adding to its ethereal feel, some choral vocals on the keyboards from Michel building up the theme before it too soon ends and we're into the first song proper, with again guitar intro then heavy drums and organ as “Pride” opens, Benoit David showing his time with Yes has certainly not tired him out or left him uninspired or burned out. It's actually amazing (as I stated in the review of their previous album, and as anyone who's heard “Fly from here” will no doubt attest to) how much like Anderson he sounds!

Although this runs for just over eleven minutes, it's not the longest track, indeed a mere hors d'oeuvre when compared to the closer, of which more, obviously, at the end of the review. This track which we're concerned with now has exploded into a big prog rock monster, belting along in a Yes/Genesis style, with heavy galloping drums and squealing keyboards, then dropping down to unaccompanied acoustic guitar for short sections before taking off again. Above it all floats the voice of Benoit David, never having to strain or shout. He's a born singer, like Anderson, and it's delight to listen to his dulcet tones.

Of course, as mentioned, the star of the show really is Michel St-Pere, and when he's not running off complicated keyboard fills or playing delicate piano runs, he's firing riffs and solos like a man possessed, making the guitar an extension of his body, man and instrument in perfect harmony. His soft guitar accompaniment and fluting keys are the perfect foil for David's gentle but strident voice on the closing sections of the song, then he kicks in some overdrive guitar as the song reaches its conclusion. This is what Mystery do best: big, multi-part, epic songs that go through several changes along the way to their destination and leave you gasping, as often as not, at the end.

Quiet digital piano and acoustic guitar then open “Superstar”, and it's a soft, exquisite ballad with alternately laidback and powerful guitar from St-Pere, effective percussion and great vocals from David, passionate and soulful. Some lovely choral effects on the keys too from Michel, but it's his guitar that really leads and gives identity and character to the song, whose lyric contains the title of the album, though there is a title track. In fact it's up next, after a less-than-a-minute instrumental called “The unwinding of time”, which features a beautiful little flute intro then minimal percussion and piano into a sort of musical-box melody, and ending with a powerful, rising guitar.

The title track then opens on that guitar, as the instrumental basically forms a prelude to it, then it drops away to more restrained guitar against a sort of distant choir sound, before acoustic guitar and piano lead in the main melody against David's soft but stirring vocal. Bass from Antoine Fafard fills out the sound then a beautiful gentle little guitar solo from St-Pere as David warns ”And so the world is a game/ But remember these pawns all have names”. We run then into a Genesisesque instrumental part as the tempo quickens, before it all slows down again for the final minutes of the track, David's voice rising high above the grinding guitar and thundering drums.

The standout for me comes in the form of another ballad, opened again on acoustic guitar with attendant flute. “Dear someone” is a stronger ballad than “Superstar”, with much more contribution from Marylene Provencher-LeDuc, and quite guitar-driven, with not much if anything in the way of keyboards from St-Pere. This, and the title track, are the only two on which Benoit David co-writes with the founder, and whether it's intentional or not, I would imagine he's the one who slips in the line “Love will find a way”, which is of course on the Yes album “Big Generator”. Beautiful, expressive guitar work from Michel and a very humanistic tilt to the lyric conveyed in David's singing.

Dolorous, forlorn church bells and acoustic piano open “Time goes by”, with a somewhat French feel to the melody, a lot of drama and tension in the music though it generally comes across as another ballad, played slow and without too much in the way of heavy guitar solos or rampaging keyboard arpeggios. Great vocal harmonies, though as no-one is credited for backing vocals, I would think perhaps it's Benoit David's voice multi-tracked. Very impressive though, and used only where they'll make the most and appropriate impact. Nick D'Virgilio's drums start to pick up the pace about two minutes from the end, and the tempo rises as Michel St-Pere introduces some hard electric guitar, the piano still playing in counterpoint, though it's his guitar that has, predictably, the final say as the song closes.

And that brings us to the final track. Remember I said that “Pride”, with its eleven-minute run, was nothing? Well, “Another day” runs for just over nineteen minutes! Talk about saving the best for last! It opens on harpsichordal keys and a nice little pastoral sound as David sings, a man watching the world go by and hoping for better days. More multi-tracked vocals with some sort of delay make the sound much more expansive, and the song then slows right down for a guitar and keyboard interlude as it heads into its fourth minute, then abruptly Nick fires off on all cylinders and everything kicks off before David comes back in with a harder, rockier vocal, the whole thing much more uptempo now.

Of course the comparisons will be made with Yes, and they're justified to a degree, especially as David has been, and is, in both bands, but to write Mystery off as a simple Yes clone band would be a huge mistake. They've been going for a long time now and they certainly have their own very definite and identifiable style. You could say they sound like Genesis too --- and at points they do, and Rush, and a hundred other great prog bands --- but that's just influence. There's a difference between taking the things you like or admire in a band and shaping them to form your own sound, and blatantly ripping them off.

St-Pere's piano takes over at the ninth minute, but the track keeps rockin' and David's multivoice performance is coming more to the fore now. The music turns a little funky, maybe the tiniest bit jazzy as it enters its eleventh minute of existence, then falls back to the pastoral style of the opening minutes in the twelfth, David's voice strong and clear while Michel's piano keeps the melody behind him. Of course there's a guitar solo coming, and it hits in the fourteenth minute, really effective, then a few soft piano notes and we're into a two-minute instrumental section as the tempo kicks up once again before on the back of Benoit David's returning vocal it slows down again as the song nears its end. There's a final flourish on the flute from Marylene as the last minute plays out, and she's accompanied by fading keyboard choral vocals and St-Pere's acoustic guitar, till that's all that's left.

TRACKLISTING

1. A morning rise
2. Pride
3. Superstar
4. The unwinding of time
5. The world is a game
6. Dear someone
7. Time goes by
8. Another day

This is truly a mesmerising album. I loved “One among the living”, and as expected I haven't been disappointed by the followup. It really is an essential album for any lover of progressive rock, or indeed just any aficionado of great rock music. It will certainly appeal to Yes fans, with Benoit David on vocals, but more than that, it's a testament to a great band who have quietly worked away for over a quarter of a century now, but who are still almost unknown beyond their native Canadian homeland.

If there's a mystery here, it's why these guys aren't filling out stadiums across the known world. Hopefully, with the release of this, their sixth album, that may very well soon change.
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Old 11-14-2012, 01:58 PM   #1598 (permalink)
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Tres Hombres and Fandango are ZZ Top's best albums in my view. I would go as far as to say Tres Hombres is one of the all-time great blues rock albums. It does not contain one single weak track. In the eighties, when the band started to use synthesizers, released Gimme All Your Loving and made pop videos, it was a shock from which I still haven't recovered and I don't think I will ever hear them in the same way again!
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Old 11-14-2012, 03:57 PM   #1599 (permalink)
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Tres Hombres and Fandango are ZZ Top's best albums in my view. I would go as far as to say Tres Hombres is one of the all-time great blues rock albums. It does not contain one single weak track. In the eighties, when the band started to use synthesizers, released Gimme All Your Loving and made pop videos, it was a shock from which I still haven't recovered and I don't think I will ever hear them in the same way again!
I first saw ZZ Top on "The Tube on channel 4 in the early 1980s (I'm sure you remember The Tube) I was amazed with their boiler suits and beards! I then bought Eliminator and fell in love with the band. I loved the idea that here was a blues based rock band, playing with a more synth based sound, but in essence those songs were still the songs of rockers and the videos with stunning chicks and cars kind of proved that. I've always had a soft spot for ZZ Top no matter what they did.
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Old 11-16-2012, 01:13 PM   #1600 (permalink)
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Seventy-four minutes of pure perfection.

Sounds that can't be made --- Marillion --- 2012 (Ear Music)


Marillion's first “proper” album in four years --- the acoustic set “Less is more”, while certainly an album is not what I'd consider a new one from them --- comes on the back of considerable fanfare from the band and their website, and with I would think high expectations from their fans, certainly this one. A Marillion fanatic since Day One (October 25 1982), I had enjoyed (that is, loved) every single album of theirs up until the year “Somwhere else” hit. Something of a sledgehammer blow to me, this album refused to reveal itself to my ears, and persists in doing so. No matter how many times I listened to it, how carefully, with or without as much bias as I could, there was very little I liked about that album. Well, to be fair, I liked it but I did not in any way love it. I tried, I failed, I eventually gave up.

That, it has to be said, shook my hithero solid faith in the band. Up till then, I bought every album as it was released without question or delay, not expecting but knowing that it would be great. And it always was. Without exception. Until that album. So after that I became, for the first time in my life and the first time in my association with the band, wary of future releases. Oh, I wanted that album to be a blip, make no mistake, and I didn't really see any sort of possibility I would lose my devotion to Marillion, but whereas before I had been as certain about the quality of their future albums as I was that the sun would rise, now there was just that tiny little sliver of doubt, that almost infinitesimally small, but still there, worry that my heroes might fail to live up to the high standards they had set for themselves, and which I had judged them by.

In the armour of my belief in them, the most miniscule ch1nk had appeared, and I could only hope and pray it would not lead to larger tears in the fabric of my --- let's be brutally honest here --- adoration of this band.

And to be fair, in general that armour has held, even strengthened. With the release of “Happiness is the road” the following year my faith was repaired, and although that album is not perfect --- and the only one since “Somewhere else” to even fall left of that divide --- it was nine thousand percent better than the 2007 effort. This was followed in 2009 by the aforementioned “Less is more”, which I did buy, but as it was basically a reworking of older songs (their version, I suppose you might say, of Bon Jovi's “This left feels right”) I didn't pay it that much attention. I liked it, yes, but it's hard to get overly excited about songs you already know, even if they're presented in a new and interesting way.

So “Happiness is the road” began the healing process, and now we're five years down from the site of that blip, that bump, that unaccountable twist in the fabric of Marillion spacetime, where suddenly the old laws I had become accustomed to over a period of thirty-five years briefly failed to apply. Since then, I've returned to the universe I know, and here really Marillion can do no wrong. Or can they? I mentioned “Happiness” was not a perfect album: it's not. But to be fair, even going back three years prior to “Somewhere else”, 2004's “Marbles”, while a brilliant album in its own right, did suffer from the odd bad track, which again is something I had never, up to then, associated with Steve and Steve and the boys. However, in the case of that album, the rest of it was so top-notch that I felt justified in just claiming the bad track --- “Ocean cloud”, featured recently on the “Bad Apples” section --- was just that: one bad track, and the rest of the album, taken as a whole, was excellent, just what I would and did expect from Marillion.

Not so with “Somewhere else” though. No matter how I tried, no matter how many excuses I made or how I looked at the album, it pretty much sucked, and I had to face up to the fact that my idols had suddenly developed feet of clay, if only (hopefully) temporarily. Perhaps it made me a more mature music listener: I stopped just accepting each new album and started really listening to, judging, and rating it. I realised with something of a shock that no matter how good the band or artiste, it's always possible to make one bad album. On the flip side though, it should and hopefully always is possible to put that behind you and come back stronger than ever. That's the sign of a really good artiste.

So have my heroes come through for me this time around? Well, to be fair I haven't listened to the album all the way through yet, so this will be essentially a first impression. One thing I do notice is that this is one of the shortest Hogarth era albums, in terms of tracks, and by far the longest of any Marillion album, clocking in at a mighty total of 74 minutes and nineteen seconds running time: for those of you who can't do the math, that's 1 hour, fourteen minutes and nineteen seconds. That's a lot of music!

It's also the first Marillion album to feature three songs which are over ten minutes long: the opener runs for a staggering seventeen and a half minutes --- a feat they haven't equalled since the aforementioned "Ocean cloud", and prior to that, 1982's “Grendel” --- while there is also a fourteen minute song and the closer is just over ten and a half minutes. This of course adequately explains the paradox of how this can be both a short and an incredibly long album at the same time. But length of songs is only a factor if they're any good, and whereas before 2007 I would have just assumed that would be the case, now I'm a little more nervous, eager not to repeat the experience of “Somewhere else”. So, as those Americans say, what's under the hood?

As mentioned, the album opens with the longest track on it, and the second-longest Marillon track ever, beating out their epic “Grendel” by about fifteen seconds (I don't count the title track from “This strange engine”, as although it's shown as over thirty minutes long, over half of that is silence, so the actual song itself runs for about fifteen minutes; “Ocean cloud”, however, runs for approx twenty seconds longer). It's also the most outright political song they've ever written. Marillion have dabbled in current affairs and the state of the world on tracks like “The last century for man” and “When I meet God”, but this is the first time they've come out strongly to talk about a political subject since 1989's "Berlin", the very year that barrier fell.

With the simple title “Gaza”, you know what it's going to be about, and though Steve Hogarth has confirmed the band is not taking any particular political stand, neither condoning the attacks by Hamas on Israel or seeking to denigrate the jewish nation in any way, the song manages lyrically to navigate what is mostly a tricky path through a minefield of possible controversy, leaving essentially the politics and the warring factions, and the reasons for the ongoing conflict behind, and looking instead at the human face of the refugees struggling in the Gaza Strip.

Opening on spacy synth lines that contain sound effects that could be rockets flying, walls falling and then definitely people praying, it suddenly breaks out on a big heavy militaristic melody with an eastern tinge, as Hogarth takes the persona of one of the refugees relating his tale of woe, the drumbeat becoming almost mechanical and Steve Rothery's hard guitar cutting in angrily, counterpointing Hogarth's pleading vocal delivery. Marillion have come a long way since the days of Fish and the Jester, and though I love and always will love those first four albums, this is a new band for a new millennium, and one thing Marillion have always known how to do is adapt, change and survive, remain stubbornly relevant. Here they mix screaming guitar solos with soft synth backdrops, almost orchestral keyswork and patches where there is almost no music, ambient in the truest sense of the word, while above and along and within it all floats the sad, despairing, tired and bluntly angry voice of the man they simply call “H”, who has become by now identified as the signature sound of the “new” Marillion, a band which has been going for over two decades.

At this point, I think it's prudent and indeed important to give you Hogarth's thoughts on the song, as taken from the article in Wiki: ”This is a song for the people – especially the children – of Gaza. It was written after many conversations with ordinary Palestinians living in the refugee camps of Gaza and the West Bank. I spoke also to Israelis, to NGO workers, to a diplomat unofficially working in Jerusalem, and took their perspectives into account whilst writing the lyric. It is not my/our intention to smear the Jewish faith or people – we know many Jews are deeply critical of the current situation – and nothing here is intended to show sympathy for acts of violence, whatever the motivation, but simply to ponder upon where desperation inevitably leads. Many Gazan children are now the grandchildren of Palestinians BORN in the refugee camps - so called "temporary" shelters. Temporary for over 50 years now. Gaza is today, effectively, a city imprisoned without trial."

That really says more about the sentiments behind this opening song than I ever could. As you would probably expect from such a long track, it goes through various changes and different movements, but it is I think in the tenth minute that it really starts to come together, with some soft keys and gentle percussion, echoey guitar joined by Steve's singing before a whole choir comes in to help him and the true heart of the piece reveals itself. Against Mark Kelly's simple piano notes and Steve Rothery's impassioned but restrained guitar Hogarth mourns ”Nothing's ever simple/ That's for sure/ There are grieving mothers/ On both sides of the line” followed by a breakout emotional guitar solo from Rothery as the other Steve roars "It just ain't right! / It just ain't right!” and goes on to say "We all want peace and freedom / That's for sure/ But peace won't come / From standing on our necks”.

An incredibly moving and emotional song, and pretty much worth the price of purchase on its own. I am impressed, heartened for what's to come, but I have to ensure that “Gaza” is not just one good track among seven bad ones. I don't expect that, not in any way, but I want --- I want so much! --- for this album to be the return to the great Marillion albums of the nineties and early noughties that “Happiness is the road” and “Marbles” so very nearly were. So on we go, shaken and moved, a tear (okay, more than one: Hogarth has that effect) in my eye, and next we meet the title track. It's not a seventeen-minute behemoth like the one we've just heard, and from the off it's far more uptempo, with a driving drumbeat from Ian Mosley and almost new-wave keyboards from Kelly, a pulsing, thumping bass from Pete Trewavas, who often gets overlooked on Marillion albums, but who is one half of a pretty perfect rhythm section.

Kelly's keyboards change to an almost orchestral, strings-driven sound, and Rothery's guitar adds the final touch, with some great backing vocals. Then some dramatic downturn keys and some very ELO-style vocoder work before Hogarth returns with the vocal, the sound now quite bright and boppy, very optimistic with Rothery's signature sound, until about halfway in it goes into a lovely, laidback, soft and lush keys melody with flecks of guitar around the edges, the tempo slowing right down and we get one of Mark Kelly's famous keyboard solos, followed by one from Steve on the guitar. THIS is more like the Marillion I know and love! Hopefully, with two openers like this, high quality such as this can be maintained throughout the album. If it can, I'll be a very happy reviewer, and an even happier Marillion fan.

“Pour my love” opens on lovely soft digital piano, faintly reminiscent of the great Tony Banks, then Trewavas's slick bass slides in, and I'd hazard this to be a ballad; Marillion are certainly not averse to them, though they don't sprinkle them around their albums like some bands tend to. There's a great smooth guitar sound to this too, and it sort of puts me in mind of those old soul classics from the sixties and seventies, nice gentle vocal from Steve Hogarth and a beautiful and expressive solo from Steve Rothery. A clever little keyboard part at the very end recalls the opening of “Beautiful” from the “Afraid of sunlight” album.

Also slow in tempo but not quite a ballad, “Power” rides along on a heartbeat bass pattern from Trewavas and Mosley's measured percussion, which shows how well the two knit together as an almost seamless unit. With a certain ominous feel to it, the vocal is almost isolated, with just the rhythm section backing Hogarth as Kelly and Rothery add little flashes of colour to the tune without taking it over. Different story in the chorus, where both come in strongly, but their retreat for the verses helps build the sense of tension in the song, making it all the more effective when they power (sorry!) in.

That takes us into the second-longest track, just over fourteen minutes of “Montreal”, which opens again on a soft piano line but accompanied by a striding bass line with the very barest of percussion, then everything, including the vocal, falls away for a sweeping synthesiser melody before Rothery's guitar throws a few soft notes in, and Hogarth comes back in with the vocal, now set against the gentle rise and fall of Mark Kelly's susurrating keyboard soundscape, then a memory from over thirty years ago as he runs off the introduction to “Fugazi” on the piano for a moment, before switching to mellifluous organ, Mosley's drums coming in stronger now, and we're only five minutes into the song...

It's another instrumental section then, with some chiming soft guitar from Steve, almost sitar-like at times, and a deep, rolling keyboard line from Mark, peppered with other keyboard and piano melodies as Steve H comes back in to relate the trials of being on the road, the people you leave behind and how hard it is to see your children grow up without you in their life, but it's all for the love of music and they wouldn't have it any other way. Still, it's a touching and very personal glimpse into the private thoughts of the band, mostly Hogarth, as he writes all the lyrics. Another fine Rothery solo as the song enters its tenth minute, and it all speeds up in the last two minutes, everything coming together for the conclusion of the song.

Almost Peter Gabriel-like in its mood and structure, “Invisible ink” actually clocks in as the shortest track, a few seconds short of six minutes. It's a slow, morose, somewhat brooding song again carried on Pete's bass, which is soon joined by Mark's soft piano upon which it takes an upswing in terms both of mood and tempo, Steve Rothery's guitar then taking command as the song breaks out, Ian's drumming fiercer and more insistent as it grows in intensity. The guitar in “Lucky man” reminds me very much of “Asylum Satellite #1” from “Happiness is the road”, and certainly starts off heavily but then settles down into something of a guitar groove, with Hogarth's voice showing just how powerful and controlled it is as he belts out the lines without a single trace of effort or strain, despite the strong backing from the guitar and bass.

It's hard to know whether Hogarth is being sarcastic/ironic when he sings ”I truly am/ A lucky man/ I have everything I want”, or whether he is being thankful for the life he has achieved, but I think the latter. Marillion don't tend to write anything that doesn't come from the heart. The closer is another long track, though of the three long ones on this album it's the shortest, just over ten and a half minutes. Opening, as so many of the songs here do, on Mark Kelly's delicate piano line, “The sky above the rain” reveals itself to be a tender ballad in the style of “House” from “Marillion.com”, with some lovely slide guitar from Rothery and a soft, almost laconic vocal from Hogarth. Strings-style keyboards rise like the morning mist from the music, the gentle piano still rippling along the melody like a stream. The tale, again, like “House”, of the breakup of a relationship, it's tender, touching and really pulls at the heartstrings as the protagonist tries to see the good in the world when his own world has fallen apart. Featuring some of the best work from Steve Rothery on the album, it's a fitting and exceptional closer to an album which has certainly restored my faith in Marillion, if indeed it needed to be restored. If not, it's strengthened it, and I think that tiny spark of doubt I had in my mind since 2007 is flickering, fading, all but gone.

TRACKLISTING

1. Gaza
2. Sounds that can't be made
3. Pour my love
4. Power
5. Montreal
6. Invisible ink
7. Lucky man
8. The sky above the rain

It's taken a long time --- five years --- but I think I can now say that Marillion have returned to the excellence of albums like “Radiation”, “Afraid of sunlight” and “Brave”, and that they can only go from strength to strength now. Okay, there won't be any hit singles from this album --- all of the tracks are too long --- but then they've never been about chart success. For Marillion, certainly since Steve Hogarth took over, they've always been about the music. And here, they shine as never before. Vindication? Certainly, without the shadow of a doubt. No, not even that one.

Sounds that can't be made? You've just been listening to them.
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