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Old 11-17-2012, 12:49 PM   #1601 (permalink)
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Writing to reach you or losing the plot?

#3 --- The Script --- 2012 (Phonogenic)



Having released their debut album in 2008 and seen it rocket to the top of the UK and Irish charts, followed that up with their second album (previously reviewed) which not only hit the top spot in the UK and Ireland but also blasted the US market wide open for them, we come to Irish band The Script's third album, and what you wonder is left to do? They've had a number three position on the Billboard Hot 200 with “Science and faith”, so you would have to say they've conquered America in that regard, and that's always a difficult territory for a band from outside the States to crack. They've already been hailed as musical heroes in the native land and across the water, so is it time to sit back and reflect on this, their third album? Is the pressure, as such, off?

Well you certainly wouldn't think so, listening to the album. But it does open another can of worms, so to speak. The opener is a hard rocker with a sort of rap feeling, rapid-fire vocal delivery from Danny O'Donohue and a lot of synthesiser and what could be drum machines, though I feel there are “real” drums in there somewhere too. “Good ol' days” is something of a hybrid I feel, mixing hip-hop, pop and rock elements, even coming close to dreaded boyband territory, though a deal heavier. There's a lot of energy and power in the song, and it's a good starter, certainly doesn't show The Script resting on their laurels, but for me it's just a little less rock than I prefer to hear from these guys. “Six degrees of separation” is better, with a nice piano and keyboard line backed up by some moaning violin, a more restrained vocal from Danny , but then a duet with will.i.am moves everything back towards hip-hop territory in “Hall of fame”, which though it has a nice sparkly piano line and some decent percussion isn't really what I think these guys are about, and it just sounds a little strained to me.

I'm also a little concerned that I haven't really heard too much of Mark Sheehan's guitar; I'm sure it's in there somewhere, but so far the album has been heavily keyboard and drumbeat based, and I'm waiting to hear a decent solo or even contribution from him that stands out like some of the material on “Science and faith”. The next song is acknowledged as intensely personal to the two guys, as they both lost their parents at an early age and “If you could see me now” is a tribute to both Danny's father and Mark's mother, but I'm again disappointed that instead of a tender piano ballad, which I had expected, it's another rap/hip-hop uptempo energetic song. There's no doubting the sincerity in it, but I personally hate the rap element of it, which is, let's be honest, almost all of it.

There's a boppy, almost soul/motown feel to “Glowing”, and at last we get to hear Mark's guitar, albeit not terribly strongly, but there's a great catchy hook in the chorus and this is probably the first track on the album I can honestly say I like. It's more a look back to their previous work, and as I've said I'm not too happy with the direction The Script seem to be heading in, so it's good to hear something that reminds me why I started listening to them in the first place. Ah yeah, but then we're back to rapping --- well, of a sort --- with “Give the love around”, though it does have a nice soft kind of gentle guitar melody to it, nice vocal harmonies and an almost gospel feel. There's also a nice sort of sweeping orchestral keyboard sound built into it.

Good to hear some old school acoustic guitar on “Broken arrow”, but then they start rapping again. I don't remember this being the style on “Science and faith”, and as a non-aficionado of rap I'm disappointed. There's a great mournful violin line though before it all breaks out into a big drumshot, and it's not a bad song in fairness. I'm just not a fan of rap singing, so I guess that's always going to be there. I'd probably listen to it again though to be fair. There's a lot more guitar in “Kaleidoscope”, and it's a more uptempo, rocky number, great bass line and some almost Edge-style guitar from Mark, then “No words” is a nice little mid-ballad, but we're back to the rap vocals with some female backing vox, not sure who's performing them though. The album then ends on “Millionaires”, about which the best I can say really is that it's okay.

I have to say I'm pretty disappointed by this album. To my mind, The Script seem to have totally changed their musical direction, and are heading much more in the way of pop and even hip-hop than the rock roots they displayed on the previous album. It's not a bad album, but it's by no means a great one, not in my opinion. It's changed my opinion of the band, and not for the better, obviously.

Third time lucky? Third strike? Take your pick. But it's not for me.

TRACKLISTING

1. Good ol' days
2. Six degrees of separation
3. Hall of fame
4. If you could see me now
5. Glowing
6. Give the love around
7. Broken arrow
8. Kaleidoscope
9. No words
10. Millionaires
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Old 11-18-2012, 10:50 AM   #1602 (permalink)
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There are no passengers on this train!
English electric, part one --- Big Big Train --- 2012 (English Electric)


If I had to pick just one word to sum up and typify Big Big Train, and notwithstanding the title of this album, it would have to be English. Whether they're writing about the Battle of Britain, as in the album “Gathering speed”, or talking about the building of Winchester Cathedral and Isembard Kingdom Brunel, as in their last album, “The underfall yard”, their quintessential Englishness is something that shines through their music and defines them. Put quite simply, they could not come from any other country. Their music resonates with images of the Devon hills, Yorkshire moors and the general beauty and wonder of the English countryside, and echoes with the long and often troubled history of England, but usually takes on a more reflective view of it, with gentle pastoral scenes painted in brushstokes of guitar and keyboard, flute and strings, creating a panoramic vista that is, as the poem says, forever England.

I must admit, I don't know how well they're known in the US, but I would hazard that their very Englishness might work against them. It's a peculiarly insular mindset, and much of their lyrics might not be fully understood by those who don't come from England, or at least Britain. Or Ireland. Genesis, whom they are continually compared to, and with good reason, found it difficult to break America under Peter Gabriel, their first few albums totally ignored “across the water”, and it wasn't until their charismatic frontman left and Phil Collins began nudging the band in a more commercial and modern direction that the USA began to warm to them. This is I fear the path BBT are heading down, and though I wish them every success, in every territory, and want to see them known across the world, I would yet prefer they remain unknown in America if it means that they have to change or tailor their sound to the, shall we say, less forgiving market over there.

Because what BBT have right now, and have had for almost twenty years, is an identity all their own which is inextricably linked and merged with the English countryside, the English way of life, English history and English lore, and it informs and drives their music in an almost supernatural way, as if the band are conjuring up the pagan gods of ancient Britain to stand beside them and be their muse. Should that Englishness be diluted or marred in any way, we will be unlikely to again hear albums of this incredibly high calibre.

As soon as David Longdon starts singing, if you haven't heard him before you instantly do a doubletake and wonder if Peter Gabriel has joined the band? His voice is that close to the ex-Genesis frontman's it's actually scary. Add in his flute playing on the opener “The first rebreather” and you're almost instantly back in Genesis territory, circa “Selling England by the pound” and “Trespass”. But there's much, much more to Big Big Train than a Genesis clone: they manage to somehow imbue the somewhat retro-progressive sounds with a spark of modern flair, so that you in essence get the best of both worlds: 70s original prog and bang up-to-date modern prog for the twenty-first century.

There are only eight tracks on this album, but each one is a revelation in and of itself. The gentle acoustic guitar of Greg Spawton merges with the harder electric from Dave Gregory to produce something that is very much more than just the sum of its parts, and Andy Poole's at times gentle, at times cantering keyboards lay another stratum on the beautiful edifice BBT are slowly building here. It is however the use of strings and woodwinds that truly sets this apart from some of the more comparable albums of this year, even Marillion's recently-reviewed “Sounds that can't be made”, although I love that album.

Everything from recorders and piccolos to trumpets and trombones is utilised across this album, making it much more than just another progressive rock album, and “The first rebreather” --- though I have no idea what it's about --- is a fine starter, preparing you for the lavish main course yet to come. Odd, then, you might think, when the next track opens on a hillbilly/bluegrass banjo and turns out to be a folky/country style eclectic little song, but it shows the band so confident in their ability, and in their fanbase, that they're not afraid to take a chance, and have some fun while doing it. It works quite well, Nick D'Virgilio's steady but happy drumbeats driving the song along, though the main melody is taken by the somewhat incongruous banjo, with some more fine flute from Longdon, who puts in a great performance on the light, crisp and whimsical vocal.

Flute and soft guitar leads in the laidback “Winchester from St. Giles' Hill”, with some beautiful vocal harmonies but with the main focal point of the piece being Longdon's lazy, gentle, again totally Gabrielesque voice, with the midsection graced by some truly beautiful sparkling piano, almost classical and certainly again recalling Genesis at their seventies best from Andy Poole, a sublime guitar solo from Spawton and then closes with some gentle flute. Ramping up the tempo very much then is “Judas unrepentant”, with a running organ line from Poole, heavy, solid percussion from D'Virgilio, and again sorry for the Genesis comparisons, but this reminds of nothing more than “In the cage” from “The lamb lies down on Broadway”, with its urgent, hasty rhythm and the frenetic keyboard line. It's not in any way meant to be a criticism.

A beautiful instrumental section follows at the midpoint, where flute, clarinet, violin and other orchestral instruments mesh with the keys and guitar and percussion to form a gorgeous backdrop to the song, until David Longdon's vocal comes back in, powerful and triumphant, and Poole goes off on a mellotron solo for a short moment before being reined back in by the vocal as the melody slows down to a sort of swinging, waltzy rhythm, lots of organ as it heads towards its end, finishing indeed on a drumroll flourish from Nick worthy of the ending of “The musical box”. Changing tack completely again, “Summoned by bells” is a soft, gentle, pastoral opening with the melody mostly driven by repeating piano and soaring violin, with some great bass lines by Greg Spawton. It's in fact the longest song on the album, over nine minutes, but just beating out the closer by twenty seconds, and meanders like a babbling brook winding through the English hills under the summer sun, evoking all sorts of images of bright sunlit days.

It's Spawton's bass pattern in fact, backed by trumpet and trombone that informs the last part of the song, as it moves into its seventh minute for an almost slow-jazz instrumental, with slow, measured and calculated drumming from D'Virgilio helping it on its way to the close. A lovely lilting guitar melody then opens “Upton Heath”, with Longdon at his vocal best, soft yet powerful with accompanying mandolin lines adding to the folkish flavour of the song, and some fine backing vocals from, among others, Martin Orford, and a real celtic feel added by accordion, also played by Longdon. Lovely interplay between the various violins, cellos and violas too.

But savour that feeling of innocence, of happiness, of enjoying life, because the mood is about to turn decidedly dark, with a tale about the plight of young boys who were sent down the mines in nineteenth century England. “A boy in darkness” is driven on sad cello and violin, with pealing church bells in the distance, then D'Virgilio's drums hit in like hammerblows and along their punching rhythm runs the urgent, almost screaming keyboard of Andy Poole, dramatic and tense. The tension is delineated even more by the dropping back of everything to a quiet, almost reflective vocal and soft melody for the verses, while everything explodes in a burst of anger and frustration for the chorus.

Suddenly everything is let loose, as Poole and Gregory go on something of a musical rampage, joined by flutes, violins, and of course the hammering drums until it all calms back down in the fifth minute, the soft violins crying their way back into the melody, with Longdon now sounding to my ears more like current Marillion vocalist Steve Hogarth. A big organ and guitar collaboration close the song, fading away on ominous dark keyboard chords.

After the darkness, the light, as the album closes on the upbeat and cheerful “Hedgerow”, with its almost Byrds-like guitar and happy Beatles-style drumming. Quite psychedelic in its way, it's a whimsical song, standing very much in contrast and apposite to “A boy in darkness”, and though you can't forget the former it's the latter you'll be humming to yourself as you put the album away. A song of hopes and dreams, simple things and desires, a song of a less complicated world, it does sound like it belongs more in the sixties than here, but then that's Big Big Train for you: fusing the old with the new, taking influences from the past to create the music of the present, and the future.

Every review I've read of this album has praised it to heaven, and I concur, with good reason. It's a brilliant album, and deserves all the kudos it's received. It shows Big Big Train maturing as a band, accepting some of the slight criticisms levelled at them --- for instance, being “too English”, sounding like a Genesis rip-off --- and instead of brooding about them or trying to change them, incorporating them into their sound and their music, and forging their own identity. BBT stand proudly and say “Yeah, we're influenced by Genesis, what of it? Doesn't mean we are Genesis, or would ever want to be!”

They know who they are, if they didn't before. They know where they're going, and if you like good progressive rock music that tips its hat unshamedly to the masters of the past, then you should hop along for the ride. Who knows where they're going next? Well, actually, we do: this is labelled as “part one”, and we're told part two will be released in March. It seems a long time, but I guess once we get past Christmas, that won't be all that long after all. I personally can't wait.

Big Big Train: long may they roll!

TRACKLISTING

1. The first rebreather
2. Uncle Jack
3. Winchester from St. Giles' Hill
4. Judas unrepentant
5. Summoned by bells
6. Upton Heath
7. A boy in darkness
8. Hedgerow
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Old 11-19-2012, 11:16 AM   #1603 (permalink)
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This week's planned reviews

As I mentioned in last night's music journals update thread, I kind of overreached myself trying to review too many albums at once, and it's become a bit of a strain, so from this week I'm taking it down to four per week. To keep both journals current, two will appear here and two will be shorter reviews which will go into "Bitesize", though I'm not telling you which is which (mostly as I haven't decided myself yet!). So with that in mind, here are the albums due for review over the course of this week:


On the 13th day by Magnum
Intersection by Nanci Griffith
Focus X by Focus (Yeah, they're still around!)
Ghostory by School of Seven Bells
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Old 11-19-2012, 11:19 AM   #1604 (permalink)
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Been a long time since we looked at a cover version, so let's set that right now. I guess Rod must be something of a Waits fan; he's covered two of Tom's songs, both of which were hits for him, but of the two I prefer his cover of “Downtown train”. Now, I prefer Waits' version of course, being a big fan of his, but I have to admit Rod didn't do too bad a job with it. Mind you, he didn't exactly rewrite or rearrange it, and it's fairly much the same song, but sung without Waits' world-weary drawl and his vision of the world seen through the grimy window of a run-down motel. Rod did change a few things, like the phrasing, but stuck more or less to and retained the general spirit of the song. His version is also more polished, more fleshed out whereas Waits' is rawer, stripped-down, sparse but this is the very reason that it works as it does. Here anyway are the two side-by-side for you to compare, and decide which you prefer.
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Old 11-21-2012, 05:43 AM   #1605 (permalink)
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Time to redress the gender balance here a little. Up to now I think I've only had one female artiste featured here, and that's not because I'm biased against women --- far from it --- but somehow my mind just tends to gravitate towards male artistes. I'll do my best to feature some more ladies, starting with this one.

One of the most accomplished songwriters I've come across, Suzanne Vega often picks odd topics for her songs. Sometimes they're dark and scary, like “Luka” from her “Solitude standing” album, or just weird, like “Small blue thing”, from her debut. But one thing she usually does is weave a story, however unsettling or fractured, around her lyrics, resulting not only in some amazing songs, but some damn fine prose too. This is one of those, taken from that debut, self-titled album that launched her career over a quarter of a century ago and gave her an instant hit with “Marlene on the wall”. This however was not a hit, but is a fine song, almost an adult fairytale, in which nobody gets to live happily ever after!

The queen and the soldier (Suzanne Vega) from “Suzanne Vega”, 1985
Music and lyrics by Suzanne Vega

It tells the story of a soldier who, tired of fighting, climbs the hill to the castle that overlooks the battlefield, demanding an audience with the queen, for whom the armies fight. Declaring he will no longer take part in battles that seem to be for her own personal amusement, he is surprised by how young and beautiful she is and despite his anger at her falls in love with her. He then makes an appeal to the young queen to come with him. She makes as if to agree, but at the last moment she gives the order to have him killed, and so the battles continue, endlessly.

At its heart, of course, it's a parable of the futility of war and, perhaps, the pointlessness in trying to find a reason for it. It's also the tale of an essentially spoiled brat --- worse, a royal spoiled brat --- who can command her subjects to do anything she desires, including die for her, for no reason, and does. And who takes a perverse delight in doing so. It's clear from the song as it goes on that she sees the wisdom in what the young soldier says, and part of her does yearn to leave it all behind and go off with him, but reality asserts itself and she decides she would rather be alone and in command than the wife of some lowly soldier. The young man has uncovered a weakness within her, one she did not know existed and one which, as the queen, she cannot afford, so she makes the decision, tearing it out by the roots, and the status quo remains.

The first time I heard the song I was shocked by the ending. If you don't know it's coming it's hard to predict, as it really does seem as if the tortured queen has had enough, and is going to give up the pointless wars and leave the castle. When she gives the order, it's almost as if you've been shot yourself; it's that much of a surprise and a twist. And that's what Vega does best; creeps up on you from behind and hits you over the head with an iron bar of shock, leaving you reeling. It's still my favourite song from her.

”The soldier came knocking upon the queen's door
He said, "I am not fighting for you any more".
The queen knew she'd seen his face someplace before
And slowly she let him inside.

He said, "I've watched your palace up here on the hill
And I've wondered who's the woman for whom we all kill?
But I am leaving tomorrow and you can do what you will:
Only first I am asking you why?"

Down in the long narrow hall he was led
Into her rooms with her tapestries red
And she never once took the crown from her head;
She asked him there to sit down.

He said, "I see you now, and you are so very young
But I've seen more battles lost than I have battles won,
And I've got this intuition says it's all for your fun
And now will you tell me why?"

The young queen, she fixed him with an arrogant eye
She said, "You won't understand, and you may as well not try"
But her face was a child's, and he thought she would cry
But she closed herself up like a fan.

And she said, "I've swallowed a secret burning thread;
It cuts me inside, and often I've bled."
He laid his hand then on top of her head
And he bowed her down to the ground.

"Tell me how hungry are you? How weak you must feel
As you are living here alone, and you are never revealed
But I won't march again on your battlefield"
And he took her to the window to see.

And the sun it was gold, though the sky it was gray;
And she wanted more than she ever could say;
But she knew how it frightened her, and she turned away
And would not look at his face again.

And he said, "I want to live as an honest man
To get all I deserve and to give all I can
And to love a young woman who I don't understand:
Your highness, your ways are very strange."

But the crown it had fallen, and she thought she would break
And she stood there, ashamed of the way her heart ached.
She took him to the doorstep and she asked him to wait:
She would only be a moment inside.

Out in the distance her order was heard
And the soldier was killed, still waiting for her word;
And while the queen went on strangling in the solitude she preferred
The battle continued on.”
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Old 11-23-2012, 05:30 PM   #1606 (permalink)
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Take me back to school --- I'm ready to learn.

Ghostory --- School of Seven Bells --- 2012 (Ghostly International)


Strange thing about School of Seven Bells: I would never have been exposed to their music had it not been for the inclusion of the review of this album in my favourite mag, “Classic Rock presents Prog”. I was intrigued, and thought they were in fact a progressive rock band, when in fact it turns out they're really more ambient, electronic, and if Wiki is to be believed, my first introduction to shoegaze. Hmm. Well, I can definitely say that I'm impressed. Having realised they weren't really what I would think of as my normal prog rock band, I was still interested and attracted enough not to discount them, and their music continued on my playlist as I got more and more into the album.

So, who are School of Seven Bells? Well, they're a three-piece consisting of two identical sisters, Alejandra and Claudia Dehaza, and Benjamin Curtis, who met while in other bands and decided to leave their various projects and form School of Seven Bells. Though only together since 2007 they've already released four albums, two this year, of which this is the first. After the first two, however, Claudia left for personal reasons, reducing SSB to a duo, which is how the last two albums were recorded. Rather surprisingly, considering the type of music we're talking about here, I don't see any credits for keyboards, and indeed the only instruments mentioned are guitar and drums, though Curtis is shown also as “mixing”, so perhaps that involves some samples/synthwork? Can't see any evidence of such on the album though.

There are only nine tracks on the album, and no real epics, with the longest being the closer, coming in at just over eight and a half minutes, so the question has to be asked: is the album good value for money? On the strength of what I hear here (hear, hear!) I would have to say yes, it is, because each track is great and there are no real low points at all, rather rare on any album, although given this is my first --- albeit unwitting --- step into what's termed shoegaze territory, perhaps that's standard for the subgenre? I don't know, but this is certainly impressive.

The first thing that hits you is some pretty cool guitar, then the drums kick in and riding along a jaunty bassline the vocals of Alejandra are wispy, ethereal, almost elemental, like mist rising off a moor, a spirit in search of her former life. They drive everything about School of Seven Bells, and it's rather amazing really to think that this whole thing is created by just three people. The soundscape is certainly full, as “The night” opens proceedings with a big, bouncy, almost rocky beat, some clangy guitar reminiscent of the Police with a pounding drumbeat from Chris Colley that stops short of hammering into your head, and some great little tricks on the guitar that I definitely would have attributed to a synth.

The track ends on Alejandra's almost acapella vocals, then “Love play” opens on another sharp guitar line, augmented by thick bass and percussion, much slower and almost broody, showing the versatility of the singer, that she can handle slow, almost downbeat vocals with as much aplomb as she does the more uptempo material, and sounds quite comfortable in either sphere. However Ben Curtis's massive contribution to the music should not be overlooked; after all, without him Alejandra would be singing acapella, or at least, with only percussion as backup. It's really impressive how expansive he makes his guitar melodies sound, and you really do have to remind yourself that this is his only instrument.

Like I said, if this is what shoegaze is all about I think I may like it. “Lafaye” edges more into trance territory, with big, heavy, thumping drumbeats and low bass, and it sounds as if Curtis is adding his vocal in here too, the net effect reminding me of The Eurythmics at times. Turning things a bit more on the industrial side is “Low times”, one of the longer tracks, with sharp, almost metallic drumming and a soft yet powerful vocal which for the first time almost --- how can I put this? --- solidifies. If we go back to my analogy of Alejandra as a disembodied spirit, her voice floating like a ghost, this is the first time she takes corporeal form and you hear a little more of the punch in her vocal. It's quite a boppy number, shades of New Order's “Blue Monday” maybe --- I don't know; I'm not that familiar with this sort of music. But there's definitely a part in the middle that mirrors that famous isolated drumming during that iconic song. Curtis's guitar is almost a heartbeat running through the music, simple but very effective. I don't really see him as being the kind of guy who does much shredding, or even rips off that many solos. He's more a workmanlike guitarist, concentrating on making it sound the best he can rather than showing off or being clever. There's a point near the end of the track however where I find it hard to believe he's not using a synth, but if that's the case then he's damn innovative. I can only go on what I've found about SSB, and no keyboards of any kind are mentioned.

Everything goes right down then for “Reappear”, with virtually no percussion and a very laidback, moody guitar line and sweeping soundscapes, Alejandra's vocal slow and dreamy, reflective and melancholic. Very ambient, and definitely the most downtempo on the album thus far. Some nice sliding bass accompanies the main melody, which is very ethereal, and then we're into “Show me love”, which fades in on a squeaky guitar line allied to a hard, churning guitar after which the drumbeat joins the melody and finally Alejandra's voice, ghostly and echoing, drifts across the music, painting her own little brushstrokes on the tune as the percussion gets a bit heavier and some sequenced voices come in and it definitely sounds like there's a keyboard in there. Hey, sue me if not. Or give Ben Curtis proper respect.

The tension in the melody builds up nicely right to the end, then “Scavenger” comes in on a driving drumbeat again somewhat reminscent of New Order, or what I've heard of them, which isn't much. Perhaps Depeche Mode. Something in that line. I'm not quite in my wheelhouse here, as they seem to be saying these days. Kind of reminds me of The The, now that I listen to it develop. Good uptempo track and again Alejandra's vocals are a little more back on earth and not quite so ethereal, with Curtis's guitar verging into Big Country/U2 territory. Time-delayed backing multi-tracked vocals add to the lady's already powerful and hypnotic vocal delivery, and there's a definite sense of OMD hidden away there in the melody.

One thing that really impresses me about this album is that really nothing drags. None of the songs are that overlong, to be fair, but every one seems to go by without any low points or bad ideas, and I doubt I'd skip a single track here. True, there are only nine tracks, but damned if they aren't all close to perfect. “White wind” rides on a recurring rocky guitar phrase from Ben Curtis, with again Alejandra's voice fuller, less ethereal, more grounded, and either some very fast basswork, or else it has to be a synthesiser. Very catchy anyway; I'm sure this would be great music to dance to. Or get stoned to.

School of Seven Bells have, however, saved the very best to last, and the standout comes in as also the longest track. Eight and a half minutes long, “When you sing” is a true triumph and really encapsulates what this band are all about. It starts on what surely must be strings, or at least a synth, then slow growling guitar slides in with spiralling soundscapes, some feedback and then a jangly guitar melody before everything stops for half a second, starts back up and the tempo rises. We don't hear any vocals till about two minutes in, and it's Alejandra at her ghostly, ethereal best, rising above the music, looking down and smiling upon it but subtly disconnected from it, a living spirit who can't touch the ground but can use her singing as her only communication, which is answered by Ben Curtis and drummer Chris Colley, the three meshing as one entity to produce something really special.

It's pure expressionism through music, ambient to the max, and yet with a rocky touch and some new-wave influences that really brings the song together into one cohesive whole. All through the album I've found it hard to make out the vocals, and really that would normally be a minus, but somehow with SSB this hasn't mattered to me as much as I would have thought it would. The pure, ambient, almost organic nature of the music makes it such that really, Alejandra could sing the telephone book or instructions for setting up Sky Plus on my TV and I'd still listen to her. She just has that sort of power, that magnetism in her voice that does, as I said before, really hypnotise you and you just want to listen to her sing. It doesn't matter what she's singing, you just want to hear her. And so this closing track is very appropriate, because Alejandra Dehaza, when you sing, I listen. And I enjoy.

TRACKLISTING

1. The night
2. Love play
3. Lafaye
4. Low times
5. Reappear
6. Show me love
7. Scavenger
8. White wind
9. When you sing

Sometimes there are happy accidents, and I would classify this as just such. Had this music not been quoted as being progressive rock, it's unlikely I would have got this album --- though I do tend often to be drawn to intriguing band names or album titles --- and I'm really glad I did. I'm not saying that I'm automatically going to like everything they do, or that I'm going to become a shoegaze aficionado (if this is indeed shoegaze), but I definitely want to hear more of this band's material.
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Old 11-25-2012, 09:13 AM   #1607 (permalink)
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It's not always an unlucky number...
On the thirteenth day --- Magnum --- 2012 (SPV/Steamhammer)


What a joy it is to hear an album like this! Yeah, so prepare for a real nasty review, picking apart this sub-par load of ... no, seriously, this is one excellent album. I can't pick out a single track I don't like, and even then it's hard to tie down just one standout. It's a real triumph, and shows that the boys from Brum are still going as strong as ever, almost thirty-five years later. How bands who have been in the business that long can still manage to churn out releases of this quality is both amazing and uplifting. There's no sign of weariness, tension or even complacency as Magnum launch into what is now their sixteenth album, and their sixth since the reformation of the band in 2002.

It opens with the sound of synth and thunder, building slowly under the familiar humming vocal of Bob Catley until it all explodes into life and “All the dreamers” gets us underway with the screaming guitar of Tony Clarkin and the pounding drumbeats of Harry James, augmented by the instantly recognisable keys of Mark Stanway. I hear elements of the title track to “Brand new morning” in parts of the melody, and it strides along on cocky, confident lines showing a band with nothing to prove, just in it for the pure joy of making music. A great guitar section by Clarkin in the final minute really ramps up the power and tension before the end, then “Blood red laughter” is a punch to the face with a big churning guitar opening but dropping back quickly into an AOR-style melody, Catley's vocals less raw and gruff and Stanway's piano keeping a nice line behind him, the whole song possessing a sort of progressive rock vibe.

A violin-like keyboard melody opens “Didn't like you anyway”, stop-start with guitar backing it up, and it rides along a bouncing beat with Catley's vocals again dark and rough, the song ending as it began on those stabbing strings keyboards of Stanway's and then segueing directly into the title track, a big heavy AOR monster with driving guitar and that familiar Magnum sound, some great vocal harmonies between Catley and Clarkin, and a great guitar solo from the latter which shows he is certainly one of the most underappreciated guitarists in rock today. Nice piano intro into “So let it rain”, then it becomes a real anthemic pounder with a great hook and surely must be a contender for one of the singles from the album?

Much heavier, with grinding guitar and bassy piano, almost metal is “Dance of the black tattoo”, with another excellent hook delivered by Bob Catley's powerful drawl alongside Tony Clarkin's machine-gun guitar attack. This is a song that sticks in your head long after it's over, with elements of Ten and Dio in it, and a heavy enough effect to satisfy even the most discerning of headbangers. A rippling, jaunty piano line drives “Shadow town” in the finest of AOR melodies, with Catley's vocal pulled right back in just the way he knows how to do, toning down the growl but without losing the passion and power that characterises his singing. There are enough hooks in this album to outfit a tackle shop, and “Shadow town” is no exception as it drives along on a rollicking drumbeat and the bright, happy piano of Mark Stanway.

A big strings-heavy synth opens “Putting things in place”, the ballad on the album and again Catley is able to reduce the power in his voice to deliver a tender, passionate vocal as Stanway's piano takes the lead, some more great vocal harmonies courtesy of Clarkin and indeed Al Barrow on bass. It's another of Magnum's special power ballads, and really would be worth the price of purchase on its own, but there's so much on this album that you almost feel like you should be paying more for it. If you paid for it, that is. Quite country-influenced piano, reminds me of the best of Bob Seger, very emotional and very dramatic, then we're into “Broken promises”, with a big expansive guitar opening, leading into a real rocker riding on the twin rails of Clarkin's guitar and Stanway's organ work. Another big rocker then in “See how they fall”, very anthemic, lots of energy and the album then ends on a slower but no less heavy “From within”, a very worthy closer.

TRACKLISTING

1. All the dreamers
2. Blood red laughter
3. Didn't like you anyway
4. On the thirteenth day
5. So let it rain
6. Dance of the black tattoo
7. Shadow town
8. Putting things in place
9. Broken promises
10. See how they fall
11. From within

As I said at the beginning, a great album from a great band who have been going for almost three and a half decades now, and every time seem to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Since they reformed in 2002 Magnum seem to have found a new purpose, a new energy and a new determination to produce the very best music they're capable of. They've certainly succeeded in creating here an album that will go down on the shortlist for my best of 2012. Who'd bet against their fortieth anniversary concert?
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Old 11-26-2012, 11:50 AM   #1608 (permalink)
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This week's planned reviews

There's something of a progressive rock flavour to my choice of album reviews for this week (what a surprise!), with albums which, unlike last week's crop, you probably have never heard of. There's something for metalheads too, though. So with that in mind, here are the albums due for review over the course of this week:


Guardians by The Winter Tree
Music for sharks by Red Sand
Arrivals and departures by The Calm Blue Sea
Wolfsbane saves the world by Wolfsbane
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Old 11-27-2012, 11:35 AM   #1609 (permalink)
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Quality over quantity, always.

Behind the mask --- Red Sand --- 2012 (Self-released)


Okay, so I made a mistake in announcing what albums were to be reviewed this week, but it's sort of understandable. I've been listening to “Music for sharks” for a few weeks now, and it's a damn fine album. Unfortunately, for our purposes here it's not eligible as it was actually released back in 2009, but from what I've heard from this band this album should be as good if not better. So apologies if you were expecting a review of “Music for sharks” --- I'm sure I'll get around to it in the new year. But for now, we're concentrating on albums released this year, so we're looking at their new one.

All of which probably means nothing to you. Red Sand, you ask? Who the hell are they, and why should I care? Essentially the solo project of one man, Simon Caron, who you're unlikely to have heard of unless you know the other bands he was involved in, such as Fenix and Ocean (yeah, thought not: me neither), who took a break from the music biz for some time but eventually returned to it and put together Red Sand in 2004, putting out their first album that year with four more following, the last being released in 2009, that aforementioned “Music for sharks”. This, then, is their fifth and latest album. Based in Canada, Red Sand have been receiving a lot of praise from those over there in the know about progressive rock, and look to have a pretty bright future if they, in common with many Canadian acts, can break out of the somewhat insular world of Canadian rock music and walk out onto the world stage.

Red Sand are a little unusual in that their albums are usually quite low in terms of track count. Their first three albums had only four (yeah, I said four!) songs each, though some of them were epics in fairness, with 2005's “Gentry” having one that was eighteen minutes and one that was nineteen, while “Human trafficking” had a sixteen and an eighteen. In fact, “Music for sharks”, although it had two extra tracks, so six in all, was the first album not to feature two songs over ten minutes long, having just the one, “Shark man”, which runs for just over sixteen. This one pushes that boundary even further, with six tracks but the longest of which is a mere (!) eleven minutes, with some quite short ones too.

“Zero of war” opens the album, with strong eastern elements in the melody, powerful guitars from Simon Caron and thundering percussion from Perry Angellino, a thick bassline from Matthieu Rosselin carrying the opening melody until vocalist Matthieu Lessand comes in with a strong vocal and then the keyboards that have characterised Red Sand for years and damned them --- unfairly --- as Fish-era Marillion rip-offs take control, and you can see why people say this about them. Like recently reviewed Mystery's links to Yes though, or even Big Big Train's protestations that they are not Genesis, these similarities, while striking, are surface, and if you dig below that veneer to the real music and heart of this band you'll find a lot more going on.

Again, there's Steve Rothery-like guitar in the piece, but then Simon has been influenced over his life by the work of the Marillion guitarist, as well as giants like Gilmour and Albert Collins, so something is bound to translate through into his own work. But listen for the subtle nuances in his playing, and though at first you might think you were listening to Steve, you can soon make out that this guy is a whole different kettle of fish (sorry!) and has his own style, which blends the influences of all his heroes into one overarching whole.

Truth to tell, over its eight and a half minute run there's not that much in the way of vocals on “Zero of war”, making them the more effective when they come back in near the end and you realise what an asset Matthieu Lessand is to Red Sand, and how well, and sparingly, they use him. But of course it's Caron's band, and his guitars and keyboards take centre stage most of the time, showing him to be a real virtuoso on both instruments.

The title track then is the longest, as mentioned, just under eleven and a half minutes, and opens with indeed a very Marillionesque chiming guitar, with some squealy keyboards backing and then we hear how Lessand sounds when he tones it down, his voice still strong and powerful but quite restrained. You can hear the French accent (should I say Canadian? I'm not sure which is more acceptable) leaking through, but his English is perfect and the end result is a sort of exotic blend of dialects and tones which makes his singing that much more effective. It's a slow start to the song, but there's plenty of time to change it up, as we're only in the third minute.

Big breakout guitar solo from Caron then, on the back of slow, steady drumbeats from Angellino, more Mark Kelly-style keys coming into the melody as it ramps up then falls back in the fifth minute, before Caron unleashes a second solo, very evocative and emotional, continuing into the seventh where it picks up the tempo a little, the percussion and bass changing to match Caron's lead. And still it goes on, into the eighth with no signs of stopping: certainly one of the longest guitar solos I've heard, falling finally to rippling piano and bass as we head into the ninth minute, and again it's clear that the vocal line on this song too is going to be sparse, in fact it's well into the ninth when Lessand comes back in on the back of the piano melody. He sings more strongly now as the song moves towards its final minutes and begins to wind down, ending on, you guessed it, another fine guitar solo, but this time evoking much more of Gilmour than Rothery, quite similar in small ways to the ending of “Comfortably numb”.

It's clear, as the album goes on, that Red Sand are primarily a vehicle for Simon Caron's guitar playing, and this is shown again in the short instrumental which he calls “Reflection”, a minute and a half of lovely laidback acoustic work, featuring him solo, and then “Memory of past” opens with a big growling synth then some sharp strummed guitar lines, the synth settling down to a nice soft piano which then takes over the song, joined by what sounds like a violin or cello, and with the song two minutes already into its five, you have to wonder if this is another instrumental? As the drums crash in and the electric guitar fires off, it seems obvious that it is, and the tempo rises slightly as Caron's guitar again takes over, the piano replaced by synthesiser lines now a good bit further down in the mix.

You could, perhaps, chide Caron for his overuse of the guitar, and it certainly is the star of just about every track, but then, when you hear him play you sort of understand why he gives so much time to his weapon of choice. I mean, he's good on keys too, but it's at the fretboard that he really shines, and really, it's hard to imagine getting tired of listening to his playing. That said, some variety might be nice, not to mention some more vocals. The Marillion influences come back on the rocky “Mask of liberty”, with an opening almost lifted out of “He knows you know”, but some nice choral vocals on the synth lift the song away from such comparisons as it develops.

Lessand emulates Magnum's Bob Catley as he breaks in with the vocal along a busy keyboard line and as another guitar solo hits, and for the first time I hear backing vocals here, though they could be his multi-tracked. Nice little carnival-style keyboard-driven melody about halfway through before the choral vocals come back in and the guitar chimes in workmanlike as the squeaky keys return, then a lovely mournful little guitar solo backed by bass brings the song home as slow, steady percussion joins in, then we're into the closer.

“Veil of insanity” features some nice violin and acoustic guitar, a slow, balladic feel to it, then a sort of incongruous hard guitar before piano takes over and Lessand's tortured vocal takes the song into new dimensions with a fine performance, perhaps his best on the album. It does however fade out a little too ineffectually, though strangely enough my copy has an unnamed seventh track on it which is a really nice instrumental, mostly led by keys and percussion. Whether that's meant to be part of the album, is a track from another, or is an extra I don't know. Not surprisingly, information on Red Sand is not exactly Wiki-friendly. I would like it if this were the closer though: it would make more sense.

TRACKLISTING

1. Zero of war
2. Behind the mask
3. Reflection
4. Memory of past
5. Mask of liberty
6. Veil of insanity

To be fair, I like “Music for sharks” better than this album. For one thing, the vocalist is better utilised there, although maybe that's because it's Matthieu Lessand's first outing with Red Sand. But the music just seems a little tighter on MFS than here. That's not to say this is not a great album; it certainly is, but with only six tracks to judge them on I think it was something of a mistake to have so much of it instrumental. The album is, essentially, an instrumental one with the odd vocal thrown in. A strange idea, but yet it does seem to work. I'll be watching closely for their next release, and having only listened to MFS up to now, I think I'll have to go back and catch up on their earlier work too.

Don't let the strangely cartoonish album sleeve fool you: these are some very serious musicians!
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Old 11-28-2012, 12:50 PM   #1610 (permalink)
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Not as calm and collected as I would have wished to have been...
Arrivals and departures --- The Calm Blue Sea --- 2012 (Modern Outsider)


Here, once again, is a band I know nothing at all about, just liked the name and had a quick listen then decided to buy. What I can tell you, from their own website, is that they appear to be natives of Austin, Texas, but other than that their site falls into the fatal trap of assuming everyone who visits it knows who they are, like a Facebook page. I don't, and I can't get even a band resume or biog from their site, which I feel deserves pointing out. You're not superstars yet, gents! If you want people to find out about you, post some bloody information on your website!

I had to dig around on the web and came across a blog, which helpfully informed me that the band are a quintet, and that their names are Chris, Max, Steve, Noah and Jeff, but that's it. No surnames. Jesus guys, you may be a great band but tell someone who the **** you are! It's really frustrating, having to search so hard for this very basic information that anyone needs, whether they're going to buy your albums, go to your shows or write a review of you. Calm, calm, calm... (blue sea)...

Okay, well that didn't work. Going to their record label's website I get even further frustrated, as here they're trumpeted as a four-piece, named Chris Patin, Steve Bidwell (okay so far) and, er, Kyle Robarge? Taylor Wilkins?What the hell? What happened to Noah and Jeff? And Max? And where did these other guys come from?

Ah, me head hurts! Let's just listen to the music, shall we? Hopefully it'll calm me down.

The album, their second, has only eight tracks, and they're all instrumental. Well, mostly. Sort of. It opens with the title, nice soft piano with swirling synthy sounds behind, simple tune which lasts just over a minute and segues directly into “Samsara”, the piano getting a bit deeper and fuller but retaining the same basic melody. Somewhat similar to recently-reviewed band The Deadstation, there are vocals it would seem, but they're buried deep in the mix, quite echoey and distant, which I think is intentional, so as not to distract perhaps from the purity of the music. They also don't last too long, fading away as percussion hits in and guitar thrums in on the back of it, and the song appears to be slow and laidback but with a certain power of its own.

Piano certainly drives this track, though from the fragmented information I've managed to piece together I can't tell you who plays it, which is a pity. Good guitar work though from Chris Patin, as the tempo jumps and the song gets a good deal faster, mostly on the back of his fretwork and Bidwell's drumming. There's a big, unexpected, almost metal guitar ending to the song, falling back to the lone piano to take it out, and then we're into “We will never be as young as we are tonight”, which again opens on strong piano but this time backed almost immediately by guitar, and coming across as much heavier altogether. The song slows down then about halfway through, keyboards coming in to soften the sound and wispy, ethereal vocals drifting in like morning mist.

Then it all changes again as the guitar ramps up, putting the punch back into the track before it slips back on piano and bass to its conclusion. “Pont des mouton” comes in very slowly and quietly on chiming keyboard notes and soft guitar, then heavy percussion cuts in and the guitar gets a bit more snarly, getting again quite metal in the closing minutes of the track as it powers ahead. Some more fine guitar work here from Chris Patin. “Diaspora” then sort of revisits the theme of the opener, but with ghostly vocals added --- really not sure about this. I don't think it adds anything to the music, in fact I believe it detracts from it. Better if they just left this as instrumental. Nice languid tune though with sort of repeat pattern on the keyboard beneath the piano melody, almost like pizzicato strings in a way. Moving on into “Mary Ann Nichols” we have another soft piano melody with more echoed/faded vocals and some nice guitar lines, another slow song, quite laidback though again that's not true, as Patin fires up his guitar and pulls the whole thing off-course and into heavy metal/rock territory, changing the whole shape of the song, and not for the worse.

“Tesoro”, at least, starts as it means to go on, with big heavy guitar and pounding drums, a pulsating bass line and a nice driving rhythm that pretty much keeps constant throughout the song, and we end on “To approach the Vivian girls”, which is slow and lazy, downtempo and really rather beautiful, with some soft introspective guitar, some echoey, slow drumming and a nice piano line to it. It builds up about halfway with what sound like vocal harmonies and powerful guitar, and fades out quite nicely.

The problem reviewing instrumental albums has been mentioned by me here before, and yet this is not quite an instrumental outing, as there are some vocals, albeit sparse and even then not very discernible. The music can't be faulted, but I would definitely have preferred to have had some more information about the band before writing this, and I just could not find it. I'm not sure whether to take that as arrogance, that The Calm Blue Sea believe everyone knows who they are, or if it's a genuine oversight, though obviously I hope for the latter.

TRACKLISTING

1. Arrivals and departures
2. Samsara
3. We will never be as young as we are tonight
4. Pont des mouton
5. Diaspora
6. Mary Ann Nichols
7. Tesoro
8. To approach the Vivian girls

There are, of course, a lot of these bands around now, and you'd have to ask yourself what makes these guys stand out from the many others out there. I really don't have the answer; they may not be destined to be the biggest band in the world, even the biggest instrumental (or nearly instrumental) band, but I really like this album and I can see them doing well.

How well, only time will tell.
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