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Old 05-10-2011, 01:59 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Default A Rock Opera in Four Acts by Shadow Gallery

I recently got into this band; had never heard of them before but now have all their albums, and happily looking forward to any new material. They're a progressive metal outfit from Pennsylvania, who have been going since the late 80s, believe it or not, but who have only released six albums, though each one is a gem. Quality, right, not quantity? I particularly wanted to review my favourite of their output, “Room V”, but as this is a concept actually spread across TWO albums, I feel it's necessary and prudent to review also the first album in that concept. And it's a great album too!

Tyranny ---- Shadow Gallery --- 1998 (Magna Carta Records)

“Tyranny” begins the first of four Acts, spread over this and the next album, two Acts each. The opener, “Stiletto in the sand”, is a powerful, fast-paced instrumental driven by racing guitars and thundering drums, as well as frentetic keys. It's short, less than two minutes, and as such can be seen as a sort of “overture” to the rock opera, as such, to come. It tails off into arpeggio keyboards at the end and leads directly into “War for sale”, where the tempo picks up again and the powerful voice of the late Mike Baker declaims the story of a man whose works for the US Government, designing weapons to be used in various worldwide conflicts and who is now having an attack of conscience. “War for sale” powers along on the same sort of melody that introduced the album, but with the guitars of Gary Wehrkamp and Brendt Allman breaking out and making their own pointed comment, while Joe Nevolo's drumming keeps a frantic, thumping, militaristic beat, while Mike bellows “How long till we realise the truth?/ The bottom line of defence and world security/The bankers and the ministry of arms/Just cut the deal and the war is on!”

The tempo slows then, though the next track is certianly no ballad, as “Out of nowhere” the protagonist is fired when he brings his concerns to his bosses. Shutting himself away, he finds solace on the internet. This track is a heavy, brooding monster, reflecting the mindset of the hero as he realises what he has done, and wonders how it will turn out. “Is this a test of my faith?/What's to become of my life?/I used to see it so clear/ But now I've lived to see it/Pass away before my eyes.” Thing speed up again then, for “Mystery”, which once again retains the theme from the intro, and is replete with squealing keyboards. The story continues as the hero talks to people online, becoming friendly with a particular woman, who seems to share his view of the world. Desperate both to impress her, and to back up his convictions, he hatches a plan to hack into the computers of his erstwhile employer. The vocal harmonies on this song are next to perfect, Mike's somewhat falsetto voice counterpointed by Gary's rather deeper tones.

Next comes what is not only my favourite track on the album, but one of my all-time favourite Shadow Gallery songs. A true ballad, but without the love lyric, “Hope for us” is more a lament, beginning as almost an acoustic track as Chris Ingles's fingers gently caress the keys, painting a bleak picture of forlorn hopelessness, as our hero realises that the Corporation he once worked for have their hand in everything, and control just about all aspects of the world. As Joe's pounding kit punches out a fatalistic heartbeat to underline the gentle piano and later keyboards, the hero wonders if there is somewhere that their reach does not extend to? “I wonder is there hope for us? /A place where we can all be free? /I wonder is there life inside a soul that dies?/ I wonder is there hope for us/ To lift me up/ I don't know when I'll see the sun again/ I'd like to feel alive just one more time.”

“Victims”, the next offering, hits the gas again and the band thunders off into overdrive as the hero, coming to the aid of someone being mugged, is himself assaulted and awakes in a cheap downtown medical centre. Again, Mike's pure vocal soars above the somewhat staccato melody. Act I comes to a close on a bitter note, with the short lament of “Broken”, as the hero stares helplessly into his computer screen and wonders what he can do to change the world he has helped to build?

Act II opens with the pulsating “I believe”, with guest star James LaBrie (Dream Theater) on lead vocals, taking the part of the hero's father, remembering whose words the hero's determination to change the world, to make a difference, hardens into proper resolve. This leads into “Roads of thunder”, where the protagonist decides that he needs to speak to the person he has been communicating with on the net : really speak to her, on the phone. She is hesitant, and so, utilising their shared hatred of the Corporation and its power over the world, he creates a computer virus which brings down the world's banks. The song is broken into three movements, the first, “Empowerment”, covers the conversation online and the hero's attempts to create the virus. The second movement --- aptly titled “Virus” --- is an instrumental, meant to convey his creation of the virus, while the closing movement, “Powerless”, covers his desperate attempts to communicate with his friend on the phone, and at the end of the song his phone rings.

Picking up the phone he hears the voice of the woman who has until now only been his friend and ally online, and the first real ballad of the album gets underway in “Spoken words.” With guest vocals by Laura Jaeger (about whom I can find little or no information, after an exhaustive five-minute search!), the song is a beautifully-crafted piano acoustic ballad based around the conversation between the two, who now realise that due to the hero's creation and deployment of the virus and her complicity in same, they may now have attracted the attention of the government, and the Corporation, and may be in danger. The starkly sad violin of Paul Chou lends further pathos to this sad ballad, as the pair realise their act of rebellion may very well turn out to be one of treason. Despite that though, the two have obviously fallen deeply in love, and plan to meet up somewhere they can hide together. As the song comes to an end, a female computerised voice announces “You have an online visitor in your chatroom”...

This turns out to be their worst fear, as the visitor is a government agent, who advises the hero he has been monitored and wiretapped, and that agents are now on their way to apprehend him. Unable to believe his worst nightmares have come true, the hero listens in shocked dismay as the agent of the New World Order gleefully tells him that the Corporation have indeed infiltrated and taken over the government, and control everything, from the media to the armed forces. The song is carried along on a menacing, marching melody, with guest vocalist D.C Cooper (Royal Hunt) performing a star turn as the agent of the NWO. As panic sweeps through him, the hero runs, and this turns into the instrumental “Chased”, which, something in the vein of Pink Floyd's “On the run” from “Dark side of the Moon” gives the very clear impression of a man fleeing.

Finally, having escaped from the agents of the NWO, the hero is safe, but alone, living in North Dakota. The penultimate track, “Ghost of a chance”, is essentially a reworking of “Alaska”, from previous album “Carved in stone”, and is a wish that the hero could return there and be happy. It's a ballad in a way, a lament too, and possibly a statement of purpose. The album closes as Act II ends with the mournful ballad “Christmas Day”, as the hero wishes for the Christmasses of his youth, before he had to hide from the government. It's a lovely delicate piano intro, helped out by flute from Carl Cadden-James, which continues through the song as the track is carried along on the piano melody line, with the flutes providing accompaniment throughout the tune. Again, great vocal harmonies pin down a bittersweet closer to the album: “If you're chasing a dream to nowhere/ It's enchantment that leads the way/ Just believe in yourself and go there/ The gift of hope on Christmas Day.” Gary's squealing guitar solos add muscle to the song, and a cry for what once was, but the closer ends as it began, gently lilting piano taking “Christmas Day” to a sad fade-out.

TRACKLISTING
1. Stiletto in the sand
2. War for sale
3. Out of nowhere
4. Mystery
5. Hope for us?
6. Victims
7. Broken
8. I believe
9. Roads of thunder
10. Spoken words
11. New World Order
12. Chased
13. Ghost of a chance
14. Christmas Day

The story continues, and concludes, in “Room V”, reviewed next.

Room V --- Shadow Gallery --- 2005 (InsideOut Records)

Fittingly (as we'll see later), the sequel to 1998's “Tyranny” was not released until seven years after the curtain came down on Act II, and “Room V” begins Act III, taking the story up where “Tyranny”'s “Christmas Day” left off, with the hero eking out an existence in North Dakota, pining for the woman and the life he left behind, hiding from the government and the feared New World Order. The album opens with a frenetic, frantic instrumental, entitled “Manhunt” which, like “Chased” from the closing act of the previous album, denotes that he is once again on the run. The NWO have found his hiding place and he must once again flee. The tune leads into the first of three beautiful ballads on the album, this where the hero meets up again with his lover, again voiced by Laura Jaeger, and relaxes in her warmth and comfort, while yet aware that the forces of darkness are gathering outside, searching for them both. “Comfort me” features some truly sublime guitar work from Gary Wehrkamp, with crashing drums underlining the danger inherent beyond this brief romantic lull in the chase.

The hero's lover starts working on a cure for smallpox, and succeeds beyond her wildest dreams. “The Andromeda strain” is a fast-paced track but not as breakneck as “Manhunt”, with again glorious vocal harmonies throughout. It's a heavy track, with plenty of guitar and pounding drumwork. You can hear the resurgent anger and determination in Mike Baker's voice as the hero realises the time for hiding is over and there is work to do. The woman uses her own DNA in creating the cure, but when they publish it the serum is stolen and the two must again go on the run, evidenced by a rather urgent instrumental passage about halfway through the song. As they flee again, the hero finds time to propose to his lover, in the heart-stirring and inspirational “Vow”, the second of the ballads on the album, and the last in Act III. It's a truly beautiful composition, replete with the hope for the future endenic to any nuptials: “Let's pack away all our memories of home/ Never look back/ Certainly never return/ Begin anew, you and I and snow and wind and ice/ Will you surrender all your all to me?” The song is carried along on the twin vehicles of lush guitars and rolling keyboards, and fades with a hopeful, powerful guitar solo.

The remainder of Act III is taken up by three short tracks, each of which moves the story along rapidly. In “Birth of a daughter” the couple are, obviously, blessed by the birth of their first and only child. This is reflected in the low-key, almost reverent keyboards and quietly picked guitar along which the song rides until about halfway in, when it suddenly picks up and gets fast-paced and a little frantic, perhaps symbolising the woman's labour? It kind of echoes the opening track in its intensity and urgency, and the melody is quite similar too. At the end of the track tragedy strikes as the woman dies in childbirth, leading into the second instrumental, “Death of a mother”, which takes its cue from the ending of “Birth of a daughter”, but getting much more frenetic particularly on the keyboards and piano as presumably the hero goes a little mad as his lover dies. This, and the preceding instrumental, are short, hardly each much over two minutes, and as this one winds down to a despairing conclusion the final piece of music in Act III kicks in. “Lamentia” is just over one minute long, echoing the melody from “Comfort me”, as the hero begs his lover not to die and leave him.

Act IV then opens with the appropriately titled instumental “Seven years.” The theme is very similar to “Christmas Day” from the end of “Tyranny” and also to “Alaska” from “Carved in stone”. The piece is another instrumental, detailing the growing up of the hero's daughter, to where she is now seven years old. The track is imbued with a sort of childish innocence, and is longer than the previous instrumental tracks. It's quite hopeful and upbeat after the lamenting tone of the last few tracks, almost like a new beginning for the hero. Some great guitar work in here again.

But suddenly the tone changes again, with the sudden breaking of a window and a child shouting “Daddy! Daddy!”, as the daughter is kidnapped by the nefarious New World Order. It's not even a track, as such, more a collection of sounds and ambiences, and lasts just over a minute, but gets the idea across very well. This then leads into the last of the ballads on the album, one of my all-time favourites, as the hero searches for his daughter, wondering where she could be, and “Torn” takes centre stage. Mike does a great job in the role of a desperate, grieving father trying to ascertain where his daughter has been taken as he sings “Broken windows, broken dreams/ Nothing but a vale of tears/ Oh my God my little lady/ Where have they taken you?/ I never heard you scream.”This is a real lament, and it pulls at your heart strings without doubt.

Setting out to look for his daughter, the hero is appoached by a soldier serving with the US Special Forces, who tells him that his daughter was kidnapped because the serum his wife created hasn't worked, and the NWO need his daughter's blood to create a serum. “The Archer of Ben Salem” is a steaming locomotive of a track, powering along as it carries the story with it. We also learn that the hero's wife was killed by Mossad, who are working with the NWO, and wanted to steal blood from her, the same blood that is now in his daughter's veins. This is the first outing on vocals for Carl Cadden-James, the bass player, as he takes the role of the Archer, explaining the situation to the hero, and setting him his mission. This track contains a lot of prog-rock standard melodies, and in some places could be a heavier Genesis, yet Shadow Gallery always retain their own identity, particularly when Gary Wehrkamp picks up his guitar!

Although I said there are three ballads on the album, in ways “Encrypted” could be considered a fourth. It's slow, with lots of jangling guitar and some lovely keyboard riffs, but heavy too, in a way the other slower tracks aren't. Having been told that the NWO plan to unleash the smallpox serum as a plague, and sell the vaccine only to those who can afford it, the hero is drafted into a large resistance movement. Here is where fantasy and reality rather cleverly come together on the album, as the hero is tasked with helping to create a vaccine for the serum and works on it, using the codewords “Tyranny” and “Room V”, and in the following track will set up his own band (Shadow Gallery of course) to spread the word and organise the resistance.

“You'd better worry, better listen and take heed/There's a storm on the horizon/ Clouds are black and deadly mean./ Be on the watch so when the victims start to fall/ You can harvest out a demon When the plague begins we'll fight to win/ Apply genetic sequence away.”

Forming his band, Mike Baker, also the hero, goes about spreading the word, using Shadow Gallery's albums to disseminate the code and induce people to join up and fight the forces of darkness. Basically, it's a straight-ahead rock jam that takes the title track, and fades out into the powerful closer, the bombastic “Rain”, where nothing is solved, all is left open-ended. The hero's daughter's whereabouts are still unknown, the N.W.O have not yet been defeated, and the world is still in danger. The hero's life has been turned upside down. Over two albums and seven years he has lost his job, fallen in love, gone on the run, married, fathered a daughter, lost her, joined a resistance movement, and now he is more or less alone, as the rain comes crashing down upon him. He seems to pray for death, though it's left very much to the listener to decide how the story ends. As Mike himself is now sadly deceased, it seems unlikely the band will ever finish the story, if indeed it needs finishing, and as a matter of fact their followup album, released last year, concentrates on totally different themes, and is not, as fans might have expected/hoped, the concluding acts to this seven-year drama.

Perhaps Shadow Gallery meant initially to write an ending, but with Mike's death they may just have decided it had to end there. Or maybe that was the end. I don't know. But over two albums they gave us some truly exceptional music to enjoy, and in the end, I guess that's really all that matters.

TRACKLISTING
1. Manhunt
2. Comfort me
3. The Andromeda Strain
4. Vow
5. Birth of a daughter
6. Death of a mother
7. Lamentia
8. Seven years
9. Dark
10. Torn
11. The Archer of Ben Salem
12. Encrypted
13. Room V
14. Rain

Note: The plotline for the two albums was culled from entries on Wikipedia, and I would like to thank the creators of these synopses for their work, as it certainly helped me understand better for myself, and so be able to explain to others, the vision Shadow Gallery had for these two albums.

Additional note: If you buy this album (and you should!), try to get the “Special Edition”, as it contains a second disc with almost 25 minutes of Pink Floyd medley....




Suggested further listening: "Carved in stone", "Legacy" and "Digital ghosts"
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Old 05-12-2011, 01:23 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Analogue --- a-ha --- 2005 (Universal)

When most people think of a-ha, they inevitably hear “Take on me” in their heads, but there's a lot more to this band than that one hit single, or the others they had around the late eighties. Although there's no way they could ever be called a rock band, a-ha for me transcend the usual formula of pop bands: their material is their own, they're not controlled by any mega-star producer, and they explore interesting themes in their songs. Okay, they're not going to set any rocker's world alight, but I consider myself primarily a rocker (albeit an old one!) and I really love this band.

As far as music is concerned, mostly Norway seems to be associated with death/doom/black metal bands, all Viking and brooding stares, gutteral growls and screeching guitars. Against this backdrop came a-ha, bursting onto the charts in 1985 and looking like escapees from a conventional of male models. They could have been just another flash in the pan, with the mega-success of “Take on me” and follow ups “The sun always shines on TV”, “Cry wolf” and “Manhattan skyline”, but when all the chart hits are done and the trendy kids have forgotten them and moved on to the next flavour of the month, a-ha have stood fast and weathered the test of time, producing nine fine albums over a career spanning almost 25 years, and though they are now no more, having disbanded in 2010, their music lives on.

“Analogue” is their eighth studio album, and in my opinion, one of their best. It contains both fast-paced boppy poppers as well as thoughtful tracks and of course ballads. Of the former, “Don't do me any favours” rattles along on the flowing keyboards of “Mags” --- Magne Furuholmen --- which have created the distinct soundprint of the band since the first arpeggios of “Take on me” smashed the charts wide open, while the guitarwork of “Pal” --- Paul Waaktar-Savoy --- may not be as overwhelming as you would expect in, say, a Gary Moore or Bryan Adams album, nevertheless hold the melodies together perfectly. And of course what need be said about the clear, unmistakable voice of Morten Harkett, still sounding like a boy of eighteen even after all these years?
“Halfway through the tour”, clocking in at almost seven and a half minutes, is a monster track that becomes more or less the denoument of the album, starting off as a fast, chugging, bopper and then slowing down near the end and becoming almost an instrumental waltz as it fades out. Great stuff! Other notable tracks include the rather poignant “Birthright”, the bittersweet “A fine blue line”, which showcases Morten's soulful and sweet voice as he croons “We read each other's books/Gave each other looks/Like we couldn't trust ourselves/And we knew it/ So tell me where you've been/ And I'll show you where you're going/ You can shout, you can scream your way through it.. “

Another fine ballad follows in “Keeper of the flame”, with Mags's beautiful piano lines forming a musical canvas on which Morten paints the most delicate vocal lines, while “Over the treetops” is a song that just makes you want to dance. No bad thing, I would say! The closer is an oddity. “The summers of our youth” is a beautiful, heartbreaking ballad, a fitting ending to the album, but for only the second time in his career in a-ha, Morten hands over vocal duties to Pal, and a very fine job he does on it, too, joined in the choruses by the mainman.

“Analogue” is not going to make anyone rush out and buy the album, or become an instant a-ha fan, I would expect, but it's well worth a listen if you have dismissed one of Norway's biggest and most successful musical exports as “that band who had that hit”....

TRACKLISTING

1. Celice
2. Don't do me any favours
3. Cosy prisons
4. Analogue (All I want)
5. Birthright
6. Holy ground
7. Over the treetops
8. Halfway through the tour
9. A fine blue line
10. Keeper of the flame
11. Make it soon
12. White dwarf
13. The summers of our youth



Suggested further listening: "Scoundrel days", "Stay on these roads", "Minor earth major sky", "Lifelines"
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Old 05-13-2011, 11:17 AM   #13 (permalink)
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Once and future king, part 1 --- Gary Hughes --- 2003 (Frontiers Records)

There are albums, there are concept albums and then there are musical phenomena. In the latter category you'll find and probably recognise behemoths like “Tommy” by The Who, Jeff Wayne's “War of the worlds” and of course “The Wall” by Pink Floyd. To this pantheon should also be added this perhaps lesser-known but in no way inferior double album, which you really have to hear to believe.

Based (not surprisingly, given the title) on the legend of King Arthur, “Once and future king” is the brainchild of Gary Hughes, vocalist and songsmith with Manchester melodic-rockers Ten, and was three years in the making, seeing the light of release in 2003. A true rock opera in every sense of the word, the album features performances from some of the very best talent in the world of melodic/prog rock, as Gary has assembled a cast of stars, among them Diamond Head's Sean Harris, Magnum's Bob Catley, superstar Arjen Lucassen, Lana Lane, Sabine Edelsbacher and Erik Norlander, who also helps engineer the whole thing. Each member takes the part of a player in the drama, roles listed below further on.

When I say this is a double album, that's not exactly true. Mindful of the cost to the fans of an expensive double-disc, Gary actually released part 1 and part 2 as separate discs, though in the same year, so that these are two physically separate recordings, though one follows on from the other. Think the original release of “Back to the future 2” and 3 and you'll get the idea. Together but separate. Nonetheless, although each track is self-contained and can very much be enjoyed on its own, or as part of a playlist, to get the real feel for the album you have to listen to both discs through from start to finish. It's an amazing achievement, and a fitting testament to Gary's vision for the project.

It's of course primarly a rock album, and there are loads of fast, upbeat, fist-punching rock anthems in there, with some really nice ballads too --- Gary writes some great stuff: listen to “Rainbow in the dark” or “Soliliquoy (The end of the world)” by Ten to get an idea ---but perhaps surprisingly on a rock opera, only the one instrumental, and that on part 2. And not, strictly speaking, an instrumental. But we'll get to that later....

The whole thing kicks off with as might be expected a sort of overture, piano and choral voices giving way to thundery keyboards as the mood turns dramatic and insistent, driven by the unmistakable presence of prog god Arjen Lucassen behind the keyboards. The overture swells and gets louder and louder until the opener “Excalibur” powers into life, and the album sets off at a breakneck pace, with the crowning of Arthur, as he accepts the magical sword that bears the opener track's name. First of several vocalists on the two albums, it's Damian Wilson (Threshold, Ayreon, Star One) who takes song duty on this track, narrating the crowning of Arthur, and the pace keeps up for “Dragon Island Cathedral”, with Gary himself taking over vocal duties as he takes the role of the eponymous king, while the guitars of John Halliwell and Chris Francis (Ten) battle it out in a glorious fight for supremacy, and Gary outdoes himself by providing swirling, squealing keyboards in addition to singing.

The approach taken by Hughes to the Arthurian legend is very different to some standard ones. Eschewing the tack taken by various movies, or the TV series “”Merlin”, and cutting out the more romantic/less historically accurate elements, Gary actually takes a page from Richard Carpenter's approach to the legend of another mythical British hero, Robin Hood, in his retelling of the story for Goldcrest's TV series “Robin of Sherwood”. Like that series, Gary's take on the legend of Arthur brings in more mystical and pagan elements, the old gods, and his characters are less black and white than other interpretations have painted them. Gary says he used “various sources such as the Mallory Poem and the Geoffrey of Monmouth version of the Arthurian legends which is probably the earliest. Various other documentation from various authors, things like the Bernard Cornwell novels Excalibur, Winter King, Enemy of God and various things like that which I thought were probably as close to my interpretation as I could get.
I tried to avoid the Hollywood-isms and tried to concentrate on Arthur the battle lord trying to unite the tribes which is what it was all about” (Excerpt from his interview with MelodicRock.com --- MelodicRock.com Interviews: Gary Hughes - Once And Future King.)

Guinevere makes her entrance in the next track, “At the end of day”, played by the multi-talented Lana Lane, performing a beautiful duet with Gary as Arthur. The song is, not surprisingly, a love song as each sing of their love for the other: “I saw a miracle arrive/ For an angel walked into my life/ You make the flames of a heart so cold/ Ignite, you melt my soul” While Guinivere sings “I will be everything you need/ For the timeless one brought you to me./ Safe in my arms as the torches fade/ With the light at the end of day “. The song is driven on a haunting piano melody, almost acoustic, though there is a tremendous guitar solo halfway through, though whether this is Chris Francis, John Halliwell or indeed Gary himself I don't know, as all three take guitar duties across the album, but the texture of the solo sounds to me like some of Gary's best work from Ten.

The mood stays generally balladic for the next offering, with Danny Vaughn taking centre stage as Lancelot, asking the eternal questions as “The reason why” gets underway. Vaughn puts in a fine performance as the honourable man caught up in a web of his own making as he sings “Show me the reason why we put chains on our lovers/ How can we justify this kind of control?/ Show me the reason why we enslave one another.” Things kick into high gear again then as Morgana makes her entrance, in the shape of Irene Jansen, who sings her heart out on “Shapeshifter”, a real rocker after the previous two low-key tracks.

Enter Merlin, played by Magnum's Bob Catley (a good choice!), and we see that he is far from the kindly old magician of many previous Arthurian stories. Gary has chosen here to represent the wizard as someone longing for the old days, as magic begins to lose its grip on the emerging new world as the Dark Ages start to fade out, and he wishes to bring back the old gods, believing that only they can return the world to the way it was. “If I was king for a day”, he sings, “This land would burn in the mystical flames/ Born through the fire the old gods would reign.”

“King for a day” is a sort of slow heavy waltz, not a ballad, but a slowburner certainly. The grinding, doom-laden tone is driven by Paul Hodson's keyboards and piano lines, and paints a disturbing picture of the most powerful man in Britain at the time. It's followed by the return of Danny Vaughn as he reprises his role as Lancelot in what is perhaps one of the most commercial songs on the album, and could indeed have been lifted as a single. “Avalon” is pure AOR heaven, as Lancelot begs Guinevere to stay with him, despite knowing it to be wrong.

The rest of the album stays in fairly high gear to the end then, with “Sinner” another power-rock stormer, Diamond Head's Sean Harris taking the role of Galahad as he rails at Guinevere for her betrayal of Arthur with Lancelot: “You're the queen, it's obscene/ how you lied and schemed/ You're a fake; there's a snake deep within ya/ It's a web that you weave out of vile deceit/ You've got blood on your hands /You're a sinner.” This leads into Merlin's last turn on the first part of the album as Catley denounces Guinevere for her part in the fall of Arthur. “In flames” is an anthemic, powerful thumper, with swirling keyboards and groaning guitars mirroring the shame of the Queen's betrayal, and what it means for the Monarchy. Merlin cries “Crawl out, bruised by the landslide /Fool's fate, destiny's jaws/ Ground down, used and abused by Love/ Like a silent blade/ Shout out; bleed as the dammed die/ Too late, venom and claws, /Gouged out, wounded and tongue tied /Love! Love cuts you down in flames “

Merlin demands Guinevere be burned at the stake, but Arthur intervenes, instead sending her away, as he growls through his heartbreak “This web of lies is to blame, binding the pain./You betrayed me time and time again./ Why don't you answer me?/ You left me crying in the rain, blind and afraid/ Now the broken words I have to say/ Echo but my heart has turned away./You'll never lie me again “ The role of Arthur is again taken by Gary Hughes for the closer on the album, and “Lies” does not disappoint as an ending track, as Gary pours his entire heart into the image of a man who has been cruelly and unexpectedly betrayed and who, despite his wish to forgive, is in the position that he cannot do so and retain the respect of his peers, and so is forced to exile his Queen.

TRACKLISTING
1. Excalibur
2. Dragon Island Cathedral
3. At the end of day
4. The reason why
5. Shapeshifter
6. King for a day
7. Avalon
8. Sinner
9. In flames
10. Lies

ROLES

KING ARTHUR -- Gary Hughes
QUEEN GUINEVERE --- Lana Lane
MERLIN --- Bob Catley
SIR LANCELOT ---Danny Vaughn
MORGANA --- Irene Jansen
SIR GALAHAD --- Sean Harris
NARRATOR --- Damian Wilson

And so ends the first part of this excellent opera. See below for part 2, the continuation and conclusion.

Once and future king, part 2 --- Gary Hughes ---2003 (Frontiers Records)



As part 1 ended on a heartbreaking note, and with a slow, sad song, so part 2 begins with a juggernaut, echoing some of Rainbow's best work from “Rising”, “Kill the king” pounds its way out of the speakers (or headphones : whatever's your poison!) as newcomer to the project D.C Cooper from Royal Hunt takes the part of King Aelle, lusting after Arthur's crown. The track thunders along on metal hooves, kicking up dust all around as Aelle declares “I wanna kill the King of Britain dead /I wanna thrust a knife deep in his chest/ I wanna feel and see his blood run red!” No ambiguity there, then! The track is in some ways similar to the opener on part 1, “Excalibur”, even to the point of having a musical “overture” to get it going. Great guitar work in there, but the thing that really drives the track along is the pounding drums of Greg Morgan.

Time for introspection then as Arthur reminisces and Gary Hughes returns for another cruncher, “There by the grace of the Gods (go I)”, before he lapses into maudlin reproach as he croons to his now-vanished Guinevere in the first and perhaps best ballad on the album, “I still love you (I still do)” featuring another excellent guitar solo. “I'm still trying to fight the memories, it's my legacy of pain / I was broken but survived to fight another day / I will never understand your reasons: that will never change/ But wonder if the time has come to try again?” Guinevere, singing separately, answers in “Oceans of tears”, a more upbeat track in which Lana Lane accepts the Queen's culpability in her crime against Arthur, but there will be no reunion, no trying again, as she sings “I'll cry no more ocean of tears/ Don't know why I'm alive/ What my heart's beating for”

And that's the end not only of the Queen's contribution to the album, but of the King's too, as the story is taken up by other characters in the saga. “Rise from the shadows” powers out of nowhere as Morgana declares her opposition to Arthur and her wish to supplant him on the throne with her own son (and, some believe, Arthur's), Mordred. Irene Jansen reprises her role, putting in a great performance, which is to be her last on the album, and the melody itself echoes that of “Excalibur”, which opened part 1 and the entire saga, a nice touch.

Things slow down then for the final song from Bob Catley as Merlin, as he takes one side of a beautiful love duet with Nimue, played by Edenbridge's Sabine Edelsbacher, the song carried on a beautiful, luxuriant bank of keyboards and acoustic guitar. “Believe enough to fight” sees Nimue exort the wizard to find the courage and conviction to fight for Arthur against the hordes of Mordred, ranged against them, and he responds “I will return the gods to Britain/ This heart will burn/ I pledge my soul/ I will return the gods to Britain/ This tide will turn.”

And then the battle begins in earnest. As the climax of the story, and the album, approach, Doogie White (Praying Mantis/ Yngwie Malmsteen/Tank) takes the role of Mordred for “The hard way”, declaring he will defeat Arthur and take his throne. Nimue returns for “The pagan dream”, another fast rocker, and Mordred for “Demon down”, before the only instrumental on the album, “Deius”, brings a close to the battle, as Arthur is killed, but (if legend is to be believed) kills Mordred also. It's really more a chant carried on a military backbeat than a true instrumental, though it's credited as such on the album, and it takes us into the battle proper.

The finale of the album is taken up by two glorious pieces, the first sung by Galahad, played again by Sean Harris, as he laments Arthur's passing in “Without you”: “I thought I'd found the answers but I'll never understand/ The whys, the hows the wherefores/ In this godforsaken land/ You raise a man to saviour/ You bow to his command/ Then break him where he stands.” The closing lines are particularly poignant, and point to a prophecy mentioned in the closing track: “And now my eyes betray me/ Through this callous twist of fate/ Imprinted on the landscape like reflections in the lake / Across the sky at sunset/ With every dawn that breaks/ I swear I see his face....” It's a bittersweet song that in some ways deserves to be the closer, but then you get to hear the actual final track, and to be honest, there could be no other.

The finale is the title track, and is sung by Harry Hess. He's not given a credit as a player, so perhaps like Damian Wilson at the beginning of the first album he's more a narrator than a participant. The battle is long over, Arthur is dead, or taken to Avalon, depending on how much you believe the mythology, and his legend has begun to grow. In a stately homage to the Once and Future King, Hess sings “They've slain the man/ But not his heartbeat/ His spirit soars on the wind/ They claim the day/ But the fire inside remains/ For the lost once and future king.” It begins as a piano ballad, with a riff borrowed from Pink Floyd's “Echoes”, and later with the sudden introduction of a screaming guitar (one assumes Gary Hughes, but there's no way to confirm this) it morphs into a huge, powerhouse anthem celebrating the legend Arthur has left behind, the man he was, and the story he began.

As I said, I truly believe this is an underappreciated magnum opus, and would definitely recommend a listen, but again as I said, to get the full benefit from the project, you really have to listen to both albums through all the way at least once. Okay, so that's over 100 minutes of your time, but I promise you, it will be time well spent!

TRACKLISTING
1. Kill the king
2. There by the grace of the gods (go I)
3. I still love you (I still do)
4. Ocean of tears
5. Rise from the shadows
6. Believe enough to fight
7. The hard way
8. The pagan dream
9. Demon down
10. Deius
11. Without you
12. Once and future king

ROLES

KING ARTHUR --- Gary Hughes
QUEEN GUINEVERE --- Lana Lane
MERLIN --- Bob Catley
NIMUE --- Sabine Edelsbacher
KING AELLE --- D.C. Cooper
MORGANA --- Irene Jansen
MORDRED --- Doogie White
SIR GALAHAD --- Sean Harris
NARRATOR --- Harry Hess



Suggested further listening: "Babylon", "Return to Evermore", "The twilight chronicles", "The robe" and "The name of the rose" by Ten
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Closer --- Josh Groban --- 2003 (Reprise/Warner)

I first heard Josh singing “Remember when it rained” on an unnamed American internet radio station, and was so impressed that, although I couldn't remember his name, I had a very basic idea of it and searched the record shops around Dublin, asking questions until I finally found out who he was, and bought this album. When I first hit PLAY I was initially a little disappointed/taken aback,as the first track (and seven others on the album, out of 15) were sung in a foreign language. I could hazard they were (some of them) Spanish, Italian, maybe Portuguese, but the truth is I didn't then and don't now know. However I persevered; the voice was so enthralling, and so I luckily avoided making a major and ill-informed decision that would have been to my detriment.

In other words, I listened on, and even though I could not tell what he was singing about, the songs were so beautiful and the voice so captivating that I found I didn't care. I would find myself trying to sing along with efforts like “A quiera sella mon ni ere!” which means absolutely nothing, is not correct and probably nothing like what's on the track, but hey, I really liked them that much that I had to (try to) sing along!

That's the beauty of Josh Groban's music. It really doesn't matter what language the songs are sung in, and whether or not you can understand them, or know what they're about: the songs are enough on their own, and to be fair, it's a rare artist that will convince me, through the pure power of their songs and their singing, to ignore, or try to surmount, the language barrier.

Most of the songs on this, his second album, are sung in a classical/operatic style (think Andrea Bocceli or Il Divo), with powerful and effective orchestral arrangement, and the whole thing is wonderfully produced by one of the top men in the field, David Foster who, I'm reliably informed, actually discovered Josh Groban and gave him his first big break.

There are tracks sung in English too (hey, if there are 15 tracks on the album and 8 are in other languages, then there are 7 in English, right?), but the beauty of this album is that it really doesn't matter either way. “Si volvieras a mi” is just as enjoyable as “Broken vow”, and “Caruso” stands up perfectly beside “When you say you love me”, or his wonderfully understated version of the late Michael Jackson's “She's out of my life.” Music that transcends language barriers, without doubt.

They're pretty much all slow ballads ---- what many people would refer to as Easy Listening, which is probably where you'll find Josh Groban's albums stored in a music shop, or on itunes, but some of them are very powerful, like the opener, “Oceano”, once it gets going, and “Per te”, later on. Other tracks are gentler, more restrained, such as the heartbreakingly smooth vocal delivery on “Remember when it rained”, and the triumphant yet low-key cover of “You raise me up”. Although none of these songs are written by Josh (you can't have everything!) he makes each and every one his own, even “She's out of my life”, made mega-famous by Michael Jackson, although it was actually written by Tom Bahler in 1979.

“Closer” is an album I find perfect for relaxing to, even falling asleep to, though that's not to say that it's in any way boring. True, it's not an album you'd put on to work out to, or while driving down the highway with the top down, but it's an excellent, flawless album which deserves a listen. Don't be put off by the non-English songs: they're worth getting into, and you may after a short while find yourself, like me, very unsuccessfully trying to sing in another language as you try to sing along to “Caruso” or “Mi morena”....

TRACKLISTING

1. Oceano
2. My confession
3. Mi mancherai (Il Postino)
4. Si volvieras a mi
5. When you say you love me
6. Per te
7. All'improvviso amore
8. Broken vow
9. Caruso
10. Remember when it rained
11. Hymne a l'amour
12. You raise me up
13. Never let go
14. Mi morena
15. She's out of my life



Suggested further listening: "Awake", also "Here's to the heroes" by the Ten Tenors
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Old 05-14-2011, 05:06 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Rainbow Rising --- Rainbow --- 1976 (Polydor)

Boasting what was probably the classic Rainbow lineup of the late Ronnie James Dio on vocals, Ritchie Blackmore on guitar, the late Cozy Powell on drums, Jimmy Bain on bass and Tony Carey on keys, “Rainbow Rising” (often just called “Rising”) represents this phenomenal band at the height of their creative career. Though this was only their second album, and they would go on to cut many more before splitting in 1984, reforming after a fashion and then finally disbanding for good in 1998, I personally feel that with this record they reached the zenith of their creative peak, and although other albums were good --- “Long live rock and roll” springs to mind, as well as “Down to earth” --- for me, they never quite hit the “sweet spot” on other recording as they did on “Rising”. Sure, other albums yielded hit singles, and sadly for those outside the rock world it is those songs for which Rainbow will be remembered, but for me, this album was what Rainbow were all about.

You can see it just by looking at the sleeve. The imagery there grabs you --- you know this is not going to be an album full of truckin' or love songs: the themes explored here are what some would probably call neo-classical, mystical, legends and folklore being used in the lyrics, and in some ways I guess you could argue this is the Rainbow album that comes closest to being progressive rock, though nobody would ever describe them as being a prog band. Of course, RJD (may he rest in peace) was always interested in these sort of ideas --- dragons, princesses, towers, castles, and of course, rainbows! --- and would go on to explore them deeper, both with his own band and during his short time helming Black Sabbath after Ozzy left. Blackmore, weary and disillusioned by the “funk/jazz grove” his former band, Deep Purple had been slipping into, wanted to return to his rock roots, which is why he formed Rainbow in 1975, and this album is a triumphant vindication of his vision.

The prog influences are definitely there though. The opener, “Tarot woman”, kicks off with a two-minute keyboard intro by Tony Carey before it's joined by Blackmore's chugging guitar, and Ronnie James belts out the opening lines. The song itself is a good hard rocker, galloping along at a decent pace, and no doubt made a great introduction for the band's live shows around that time. Even the title has prog rock written all over it! Great solos as always from The Man In Black, with Cozy thumping out a solid beat and reminding us why we miss him so much, now that he's gone to the Great Gig in the Sky. The song ends as it began, Carey taking us out on a long warbling keyboard riff that fades out. It's followed by a song which would become the hallmark of Dio's solo work, as “Run with the wolf” lopes out of the speakers. It's a bit more funky (ironic really, as part of the reason Blackmore quit Deep Purple was that he thought they were getting too funky and less rocky!), slower and sort of remiscent of “Sixteenth Century Greensleeves” from the previous album.

The next track is probably the weakest on the album, and you can see it having possibly been written with one eye on the singles charts, as it's the most straight-ahead rocker, almost pop in its way, recalling the likes of the Sweet as the band launch into “Starstruck”. I personally find it an anarchronism: I could see it on the debut, but here it seems out of place. Nonetheless, Ronnie's in fine voice and the band certainly have fun with the song, and I'm sure it proved popular at gigs. It's kind of more a jam than anything else, I feel. Things kick back into high gear then for “Do you close your eyes?”, a great anthem and power-rocker, with RJD in top voice and Blackmore cranking out the solos and making his guitar scream as he does so well.

As someone once said, “It's a game of two halves”, and I know I've used that reference before, but again it's appropriate here. In particular, as when I bought the album we had none of yer compact disc rubbish, and it was on vinyl, and so “Do you close your eyes?” actually completes side one of the album. Even though on today's CDs and MP3 recordings there is no longer any distinction between “sides”, and no dividing line, there is clearly a change in the whole approach of the album from here on. Side 2, as it were, is taken up by two tracks only, but they're monsters, each over eight minutes, and linked by a central theme.

“Stargazer” is the story of a wizard who believes he can build a tower to the heavens, and touch the stars, and for whatever reason, is able to recruit slave labour from the surrounding lands to carry out the work for him. One would assume it's similar to the ancient pharaohs press-ganging the local citizenry to build their pyramids and tombs. The song centres on the lament of one such slave, who wonders how long they will have to remain there, what will happen, and what it is all for? “In the heat and the rain/ With whips and chains/ Just to see him fly/ So many died/ We built a tower of stone/ Out of our flesh and bone/ To see him fly / Don't know why!”

The song is a majestic, epic slowburner in the tradition of Led Zep's “Kashmir”, and uses many Arabic and Eastern-sounding themes and sounds, so that you really begin to feel the sweat dripping off the slaves as they labour under the harsh, unforgiving sun. But their revenge is at hand: “All eyes see the figure of the wizard/ As he climbs to the top of the world/ There's no sound, as he falls/ Instead of rising! / Time's standing still/ Then there's blood on the sand.” This sort of melody would be echoed in years to come, in part at least, in Dio's second album, “The last in line”, on the track “Egypt (The chains are on)”. As the song fades out and winds down, Ronnie sings “ I see a rainbow rising/ back on the horizon,” an obvious nod to both the title and the artwork on the sleeve.

The closer, “A light in the black”, takes off the kid gloves and the band, heads down, legs no doubt firmly planted apart, thunder to the conclusion of the album, as RJD as the now-released slave heads for his home, wondering if he will ever see it again? “Won't forget his face.” he sings as the song opens, “What a lonely place/ Did they really let us go?/ All the time that's lost/ What's the final cost? / Will I really get away?” Cozy really comes into his own here, the backbone of the song as it careens along, with perhaps one of Blackmore's most powerful and evocative solos halfway through, when the man's grasp of the use of classical music is left in no doubt. In fact, his extended solo covers almost half of the entire track: it's a real showcase for his talents. Showoff? Maybe, but when you have the talent this guy has, why not?

The song comes to an explosive end, with RJD singing his lungs out, and by the end, you're left literally catching your breath. Now THAT's rock and roll!

TRACKLISTING
1. Tarot woman
2. Run with the wolf
3. Starstruck
4. Do you close your eyes?
5. Stargazer
6. A light in the black



Suggested further listening: "Long live rock and roll", also "Heaven and Hell" by Black Sabbath (featuring Ronnie James Dio) and Dio's albums "Holy diver", "The last in line" and "Killing the dragon"
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Paradise in flames ---- Axxis --- 2006 (AFM Records)


I've always had something of a soft spot for German metal bands --- Accept, Helloween, Bonfire, Scorpions, Vanden Plas, Primal Fear, MSG... the list goes on. There's something very sincere about what they do, as if they're really trying their best to emulate the better of the British and American metal gods, and sometimes they reach these dizzying heights, sometimes fall short. Axxis have been together for over 21 years now, and have produced 12 albums over that period, some good, some not so good, some occasionally brilliant. This is the album I would rate as their top to date (though I readily admit I have not yet heard 2007's “Doom of destiny” or their most recent, 2009's “Utopia”) --- it just hits all the right places and I really think there's hardly a bad track on it. From opener to closer it's metal heaven all the way through, and while Axxis may not be as “seriously metal” as, say, the Scorps or Blind Guardian, I really like their approach to music in general: they sort of become the German Bon Jovi for me --- whether that's good or bad I guess depends on your attitude towards New Jersey's finest...

“Paradise in flames”, their tenth studio album, opens with a short instrumental, keyboard and choral voices, very fantasy movie-like, but in my opinion it could be longer than the one-minute-plus it clocks in here. Nevertheless, it serves as an interesting intro to the album, and things immediately blast off with “Dance with the dead”, a track we used to call “a real headbanger” in my day! Duelling guitars, thundering drums and the distinctive voice of frontman Bernard Weiss rising over everything, with some truly excellent backing vocals by a lady whose name so far I have only established to be Lakonia? A great keyboard solo by Harry Oellers completes the track, which then powers into another without taking breath, as “Tales of Glory Island” gets going. Like most of the tracks on this album (and indeed, most of Axxis's material) it's not going to win any awards for innovation, or even originality, but if you enjoy good melodic metal then you'll likely have little to complain about with this album.

The same sort of theme continues in tracks like “Will God remember me?”, “Lady moon” (with snippets of a reprise of the intro) and “Talisman”, with the only real reduction in speed being for the rather lovely ballad “Don't leave me”, where Bernard truly sings his heart out, in a romantic duet with Lakonia, and “Stay by me”, which is not so much a ballad as a mid-paced rocker, but with some very balladic elements. The elusive Lakonia adds her lovely feminine vocals to “Take my hand” as well. To be honest, the only track I don't like on this album is “Passion for rock”, which comes near the end of the record, and is to my ears anyway a far too simple straightforward rock song with very little thought put into the lyric. I feel the songs here, while as I said not breaking any moulds or any new ground for heavy metal, are thoughftul and well-arranged and written, whereas “Passion” seems like a throwaway, something added in for the sake of it. Just doesn't do it for me.

The real point about this album is that it's very melody-friendly: you find yourself singing along with just about every track, and they do stay in your head long after the laser has shut down and the CD has been returned to its sleeve. The keyboard playing on the album is flawless throughout, almost classical in places, and serves to raise this above the level of much stereotypical German heavy metal. You can tell there was a lot of thought put into the album, and a lot of time spent creating it. Personally, I think it was well worth it!

TRACKLISTING
1. Paradise in flames intro
2. Dance with the dead
3. Tales of Glory Island
4. Take my hand
5. Will God remember me?
6. Talisman
7. Don't leave me
8. Lady moon
9. Ice wind
10. Stay by me
11. Gods of rain
12. Passion for rock
13. Break your soul
14. Tales of Glory Island (Extended version)



Suggested further listening: "Back to the kingdom", "Kingdom of the night", "Eyes of darkness"
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Oceanic --- Vangelis --- 1996 (WEA/Atlantic)


Without question one of not only my favourite Vangelis albums, but a favourite to fall asleep to, or just relax to as well. Oceanic is themed, not surprisingly, around the ocean and the sea, and such is Vangelis's talent and skill that not only do the titles reflect this, you can hear it in his music. Opening with the sound of surf rolling at the beach, this soon gives way to a cinematic introduction, all rolling drums, string sections (probably played by the man himself on several banks of synthesisers!), swelling and falling like the very sea itself captured in music. Stirring stuff, and it leads neatly into the first real track, “Siren's whispering”, featuring choral voices sounding like (as presumably they're meant to sound) mermaids, enticing the listener in until he or she is lost in the music, floundering and drowning, and quite happy about it. The music reaches for you, wraps around you and drags you under, and for just over 50 minutes you're in another world, sailing the oceans and exploring the undersea depths with Vangelis's music as your guide and companion.

The music itself is never anything less than relaxing and restful, making this perhaps Vangelis's most “new age” recording, where he eschews the stabbing keyboard chords, drum machines and the more electronic synth sound for an album which is much more organic, where you can almost imagine a full orchestra playing the symphony of the sea. An environmentally friendly musical experience, indeed!

As you might expect on such a concept album, each track flows into the next, like the sea itself, and if it isn't the actual music that melds the tracks it's the ocean sounds as they flow from track to track, the pulsating, living heartbeat of the album, the natural glue that holds it all together, the musical map that takes yoo on your journey and never misses a step. The music is never less than beautiful, and I defy anyone to remain in a stressed-out, bad mood after listening to this: it's the perfect antidote to a bad day at the office!

“Dreams of surf” slips in almost unnoticed from the previous track, a truly lovely piano carrying the tune as it gently caresses your ears and seems to waft you along on the calm seas, flutes and what sounds like a harp taking it out to wider seas, and then inward towards shore, where “Spanish Harbour”, with its rolling synth and gorgeous Spanish guitar washes over you, gentle percussion taking the track to its conclusion, where once again we put out to sea as “Islands of the Orient” picks up the pace just ever so slightly, with some lovely piano and synth runs, some bassy piano chords giving this piece just a little more bite. It's also one of the longer tracks on the album, clocking in at just over seven minutes. The drums get going here, whereas up to now they have just been keeping the beat. Here, they come to the fore a little more, underlining the track and marking its departure from that which has gone before. As it comes to an end, “Islands” momentarily sounds a somewhat more ominous tone than previous tracks, before all is suddenly and gently restored as “Fields of coral”, the longest track on the album by a few seconds, comes into play.

Carried on an echoing synth-line, the track ebbs and flows, and you definitely get the impression of diving undersea to watch the many-coloured shoals of fish dart among the coral reefs beneath the ocean. There are slight echoes of “Alpha” from “Heaven and Hell” here, just the barest remembrances. It's actually quite amazing how a track that lasts for seven minutes and forty-three seconds can flow along on basically the one theme, the one melody, and yet never get boring or samey. True genius at work. It seems Vangelis never has to work to make his music meaningful: it just seems to happen in the same way as day follows night, and the sun rises. Effortless, or so he makes it seem.

The final minute (yes, a full minute) of the track is taken up by the sounds of surf and wind, with just the tiniest of keyboard notes here and there to acconpany it to the end, then the pace lifts again slightly for “Aquatic dance”, with the return of the choral voices from “Sirens' whispering”, some lovely harp-sounding runs, steady heartbeat bass and sad violin --- one can almost imagine the lovely mermaids or sirens performing their hypnotic dance in the sea, to attract unwary sailors. The track ends on a sad fluting sound which takes us into the endgame, as “Memories of blue” begins, with its almost retrospective of what we have experienced on this journey, taken along by crystal clear piano, its notes floating on the breeze as we sail along, turning now towards home, our journey almost at an end.

As our home harbour drifts into sight, “Song of the seas” takes us there, the sounds of surf and seagulls and wind wafting us closer, Spanish guitar leading us along as the percussion clicks gently in the background like a metronome, counting out the beats as we sail towards our home once again. The album ends, as it began, with the sounds of the sea breaking against the shoreline, and our journey is over.

It's hard to review a Vangelis album to be honest. He does everything: there's no band to single out, he composes all the music and he also produces his own albums, so it's in every sense of the word a one-man-band, but what a band! The music really has to be heard to be properly appreciated: no words I've written here can ever do justice to the beautiful tapestries Vangelis weaves with his music, so if you're unsure then click on the YT offerings above. If you're having trouble sleeping, need to relax or just want an album that will make you forget, for nearly an hour, the rat race, then “Oceanic” is one you should definitely have in your collection.

TRACKLISTING
1. Bon voyage
2. Sirens' whispering
3. Dreams of surf
4. Spanish harbour
5. Islands of the Orient
6. Fields of coral
7. Aquatic dance
8. Memories of blue
9. Song of the seas



Suggested further listening: "Spiral", "Direct", "Apocalypse des animeaux", "The city"
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Perfect balance --- Balance of power --- 2001 (Massacre Records)


Balance of what? Never heard of them? Not surprising, as Balance of Power, despite going now for over 14 years, are less well-known in their native UK than they are in Japan and most of Asia. With five decent albums under their belt, and making music of this calibre it really is a shame that more people don't know about them, but I'll attempt to educate you, my readers, here, through the medium of what is perhaps their best album, 2001's “Perfect balance”.

Think a (much) heavier Journey, a metal Asia or a lighter Iron Maiden, and you'll be somewhere within the framework of what this band can do. Kicking off with the stormer “Higher than the sun”, it's the frenetic keyboards of Leon Lawson and the twin guitar attack of Pete Southern and Bill Yates that pull you in, but it's when vocalist Lance King opens his mouth that you really take notice. A graduate of the Bruce Dickinson School of Power Vocal, his voice grabs you and shakes you about like a pitbull going for the throat. There are definitely similarities to the “Air-Raid Siren” in his vocal delivery, and no doubt he spent his formative years spinning Maiden albums on his stereo, and yet King manages to stamp his own style and signature on the music his band creates, so he's not just a Dickinson wannabe or copy.

The main thing about BoP is that they are without a doubt melodic. Many metal bands make the mistake of thinking you only have to be loud, or fast --- or loud AND fast! --- to be a good band, but I've always preferred to be able not only to discern what the singer in any band is singing about, but to be able to hum the tune --- try doing that to Motorhead! So in a way I guess Balance of Power are a mix of melodic metal and AOR --- perhaps AOM? Anyway, they're a joy to listen to, and really should be better known.

“Higher than the sun” is a long track --- just over seven minutes, how's that for an opener? --- and no sooner has it snapped off than we're treated to another opus, as “Shelter me”, one of the best tracks from the album, gets into gear. King's voice really comes into its own here, running from one end of the scale to the other, with the super-tight band painting a fantastic melody behind him, a song which is so catchy it really should have been in the charts. The bombast of Lionel Hicks's drumming knits with the spot-on bass work from Tony Ritchie (hah! Imagine if they switched first names?) and keeps the track well on course, as the next offering keeps up the pressure. “”Fire dance” is a “Metal-march” in the tradition of “The last in line” by Dio or “Open fire” by Journey, with a fine solo by, well, either Pete or Bill, no way to know which, and slams into “One voice”, another slice of absolutely radio-worthy commercial rock/metal, with steamhammer drumming from Hicks and stabbing guitar from the guys pulling it along. The melody on the chorus could easily be Journey, Styx or even Europe or Bon Jovi, with a great keyboard solo to boot, but like every other track on this album it's carried by the powerful and distinctive voice of Lance King.

Rather surprisingly there are no ballads at all on “Perfect balance”, not even a real slow song. In that respect I suppose nitpickers could be excused for pointing out that the album is not a “perfect balance”, as all the songs are hard rockers, but it's a small imperfection in what otherwise is an album that really lives up in all other respects to its title. The mood slows slightly for “Pleasure room”, but it's more a hard-crunching rocker in the mould of Heart's “Bad animals” or Ten's “Spellbound”, even if it does feature some fine piano by Hicks as well as the obligatory guitar solo. Things continue more or less as they began right through to the end of the album, with “Searching for the truth” powering things out and recalling bands like Glass Tiger and Night Ranger.

It's been six years now since Balance of Power's last album, and that was a live double, and eight since their last studio offering, which could perhaps indicate that they are broken up, though their website mentions live dates for 2008. Even at that, you're talking about three years ago now, so perhaps that's the end. If so, then it's a pity, but I would still advise any self-respecting rocker to check out their product, especially the above reviewed.

TRACKLISTING
1. Higher than the sun
2. Shelter me
3. Fire dance
4. One voice
5. The pleasure room
6. Killer or the cure
7. House of Cain
8. Hard life
9. Searching for the truth



Suggested further listening: "Heathen machine", "When the world falls down, "Book of secrets"
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Old 06-02-2011, 12:10 PM   #19 (permalink)
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Default Apologies for the absence....

To any who may be bothered enough to read my journal, my apologies for the somewhat longer than expected delay in posting. Sometimes life gets in the way.... Normal service has now been resumed.

Again, to any who care, I will shortly be introducing two new sections to my journal. The first will be a focus on a particular band or artiste, doing the best I can to give you a flavour of what they're about, reviewing if not their full catalogue then parts of it, and of course posting some of their songs. I'll be calling this TAKING CENTRE STAGE.

The second part will be called SPINNING THE WHEEL, and will involve random albums from my collection being reviewed. Up to now I have picked my favourite albums to post here (who wouldn't?), and this practice will continue, however for each favourite album that I review I will do my best to parallel this with one chosen at random from my database. It could be a terrible album, a great album, a so-so one, or even one (and there are many in my collection like this) that I haven't even listened to yet! Hopefully it'll make things a little more interesting, both for my readers, and hey, for me too!

Hope you enjoy the changes and again sorry for being away so long. Nice to have yaz along and hopefully you'll stick with me for what will, with any luck, be a fun ride!
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Old 06-02-2011, 12:21 PM   #20 (permalink)
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Default American badlands, acoustic highways


Nebraska ---- Bruce Springsteen --- 1982 (Columbia)


There are a lot of singers, a lot of good singers and some great singers, but the proof of the pudding can often be the answer to the question: how does the singer/star stand up without his/her band behind them? In other words, are they accomplished enough an artist to stand out there and do their thing solo, or do they perhaps hide behind a great guitar player, keyboard wizard or drummer? Bruce Springsteen has long been acknowledged as one of the music world's premier singer/songwriters, a consummate artist and entertainer, and in many ways a voice for his age. He had nothing to prove really, having “made it” by the early eighties with albums like “Darkness on the edge of town”, “Born to run” and of course “The river”, but when he released “Nebraska”, only two years after that chart-smashing double album, it was very much against the grain and not what people had been expecting, least of all his fans.

Recorded originally as demo tracks for the next E Street Band album, every track is acoustic, sparse and with very little in the way of production, leading to a very raw feeling on each. Springsteen eventually decided to release the demos as the next album, and “Nebraska” was born, as he recounts below:

"I was just doing songs for the next rock album, and I decided that what always took me so long in the studio was the writing. I would get in there, and I just wouldn't have the material*written, or it wasn't written well enough, and so I'd record for a month, get a couple of things, go home write some more, record for another month — it wasn't very efficient. So this time, I got a little*Teac*four-track cassette machine, and I said, I'm gonna record these songs, and if they sound good with just me doin' 'em, then I'll teach 'em to the band. I could sing and play the guitar, and then I had two tracks to do somethin' else, like overdub a guitar or add a harmony. It was just gonna be a demo. Then I had a littleEchoplex*that I mixed through, and that was it. And that was the tape that became the record. It's amazing that it got there, 'cause I was carryin' that cassette around with me in my pocket without a case for a couple of week, just draggin' it around. Finally, we realized, "Uh-oh, that's the album." Technically, it was difficult to get it on a disc. The stuff was recorded so strangely, the needle would read a lot of distortion and wouldn't track in the wax. We almost had to release it as a cassette."

(From interview with “Rolling Stone” magazine, December 1984. Courtesy of Wikipedia)

Whether it happened as he relates above, or whether it was all planned ahead of time to be this way, what emerged was an album which has polarised opinion among his fans. Some loved it, seeing it as the “real” Springsteen, stripped of --- well, everything! --- and the man going back to basics. Others thought it was a bleak, depressing record, and after the highs of 1980's “The River”, it was a real come-down. Personally, I love it, and though it's not an album you listen to if you want to be cheered up (!), it stands as a classic in the man's considerable repertoire.

Kicking off with the title track, you get a good idea of what you're in for here. Low, mournful harmonica, sparse acoustic guitar, no percussion whatever, and Springsteen's powerful yet quiet voice, like a prophet crying in the wildeness. Similar to Steve Earle's “Billy Austin”, “Nebraska” tells the tale, in the first person, of a “Bonnie and Clyde” couple who are so bored with their humdrum lives that they decide to go on a killing spree in a car: “From the town of Lincoln, Nebraska/ With a sawed-off four-ten on my lap/ Through the badlands of Wyoming/ I killed everything in my path.” Apparently this song is based on tbe real-life killer Charles Starkweather. There's no explanation at the end, no reason why the couple did what they did, when they're caught and sentenced to death: “They declared me unfit to live/ Said into the great void my soul'd be hurled/ They wanna know why I did what I did/ Sir I guess there's just a meanness in this world.”

These are not songs of love, nor redemption, nor good-time songs. They're not songs of hope, but mostly of depair, as the characters realise they can never break out of their situation, like “Johnny 99” later in the album, or the unnamed driver in “State Trooper”. There's no escape for these people, and the sense of brooding frustration that coats every track, every line, bleeds through the album like liquid desperation. It's America, far from the land of the free, or the home of the brave, that Springsteen sings about here. It's honest, ordinary, unremarkable for the most part people, going about their dull lives and doing their best to survive, doing what they have to do to make it through to the next day.

“Atlantic City” is a “Jungleland” for the 80s, a more uptempo track but still in essence a tale of people trapped by their circumstamces and their station in life: “I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end/ So last night I met this guy/ And I'm gonna do a little favour for him.” The aforementioned “Johnny 99” is almost funny in its way, as the poor guy gets 99 years for an attempted bank robbery, but the message is clear as Johnny makes his plea: “Your honour, I do believe I'd be better off dead/ And if you can take a man's life for the thoughts that's in his head/ Won't you sit back in that chair/ Think it over just one more time/ Let 'em shave off my hair/ And put me on that execution line?”

After the bleak introduction of “Nebraska” things do rock out a little more with tracks like the above, “Atlantic City” and later on “Open all night”, but mostly they're dark, desolate ballads which always tell a story. The paucity of instrumentation and lack of a band pushes you to concentrate on the content of the songs, to listen to the stories, like the tough decision faced by the cop in “Highway Patrolman” as he tries to balance doing his job with looking after his troublesome brother, Frankie. “I catch him when he's fallin'/ Like any brother would/ Man turns his back on his family/ Well he just ain't no good.”

One of the best tracks, in my opinion, on the album, comes up next, the toe-tappingly catchy “State Trooper”, with nothing but Springsteen's voice and his strumming guitar to carry the song, his voice echoing into the darkness like the cry of the damned on a highway to oblivion. The guitar work gets quite loud and insistent here, the closest to electric on the album, apart from the later “Open all night”, which truly rocks out. Before that, there's a stark contrast between Springsteen's current status of rock god with the kid sung about in “Used cars”, as he declares “Mister the day the lottery I win/ I ain't ever gonna ride in no used car again.”

Then we're up to the standout track, as already pointed towards earlier. By far the fastest and rockiest, and even most upbeat of the songs on “Nebraska”, “Open all night” is a fifties-style rocker that just radiates exuberance, joy in the face of bleak despair, for a while. A real “cars and girls” song, the kind of thing Springsteen made his name on, it's a real “Two fingers to the world”, and a short oasis of hope in a sea of despair. In some ways, it really doesn't belong on the album, which is so dark, and yet, through every night must shoot some shaft of light, be it the first glimmers of the dawn, the stars blinking in the sky high above, or just the moon peeking out from a cloud for just a moment, before it is once again swallowed by the night, and the world plunged back into darkness. "Open all night" is that shaft of light on "Nebraska".

If you approach “Nebraska” expecting another “Born in the USA” or even “Tunnel of love”, you'll be disappointed, but if you want to hear WHY Springsteen was once rated as the best songer/songwriter since Dylan, this is the album you want to listen to. Just leave the razor blades out of reach, okay?

TRACKLISTING

1. Nebraska
2. Atlantic City
3. Mansion on the hill
4. Johnny 99
5. Highway patrolman
6. State trooper
7. Used cars
8. Open all night
9. My father's house
10. Reason to believe



Suggested further listening: "Born to run", "Darkness on the edge of town", "The river", "Tunnel of love", "Born in the USA"
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