Record Reviews Blog

Album, EP and DVD reviews, with an emphasis on the UK progressive rock scene.

Salvation Jayne – I’ll Be Damned

Salvation Jayne - Ill Be DamnedBack in July I booked in a hotel in Ashford for the Ramblin Man fair, and checked in on Friday night to avoid a stupid O’clock start on Saturday morning. It was raining stair-rods that night, so there was little incentive to venture out into the town. But there was a band setting up in the hotel bar, so I thought I’d give them a listen.

They turned out to be Salvation Jayne, a rather impressive guitar-shredding blues-rock quartet. Much of their set was covers ranging from 60s Otis Redding numbers to several Joe Bonamassa songs, but they did include several originals that stood up well amongst the standards and suggested they have their sights on being far more than a local covers band.

The EP “I’ll Be Damned” contains three of those songs, and the raw live-sounding production captures the energy of their gigs.It kicks off with the hard rock boogie of “Black Eyes”. The title track is perhaps the weakest of the three; the awkward time changes don’t quite work, although Holly Kinnear’s solo at the end is impressive. But the undoubted highlight is the final number, “Secret Sin”, a powerful slow blues number that sees lead singer Amy Benham pulls out all the stops with a gutsy and impassioned performance.

The EP can be bought from the Salvation Jayne bandcamp page.

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Vanden Plas – Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II

Vanden Plas You do wonder if their name might have held Germany’s Vanden Plas back. Back in the 1970s and 80s it was British Leyland’s badge for the top-end models of their memorably terrible cars from the worst days of the British motor industry. It’s like calling a band “Skoda” or “Edsel”.

Their eighth studio album “Chronicles Of The Immortals: Netherworld II”, is as the title suggests, the second part of a saga, the first half of which came out in 2014. It’s an epic involving dark godmakers and cursed blades based on the fantasy series of the same name by author Wolfgang Hohlbein.

The music fits the theme, a cinematic record combining the big choruses and showboating solos of power-metal with the ambitious song structures of progressive metal and the epic production and pomp of symphonic metal, with a bit of musical theatre thrown in for good measure. There are big soaring power-ballads, hard-rocking guitar and keyboard solo wig-outs and sprawling epics where razor-sharp riffs alternate with tinkling piano interludes. The songwriting and arrangements sound like a band who have been perfecting their craft for a long time, and the whole thing has a big rich wall of sound production. Vanden Plas don’t do anything in half-measures, finishing in gloriously over-the-top style with the choir and orchestra of “Circle of the Devil”.

This is an album that may be too bombastic and overblown for those who prefer more straightforward rock’n'roll; and sometimes the effect can be similar to an over-rich dessert when there’s only so much you can eat at once. But Vanden Plas do what they do extremely well, and fans of anyone from Threshold to Ayreon ought to find a lot to like about this record.

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Caligula’s Horse – Bloom

Caligulas Horse - BloomAustralian five-piece Caligula’s Horse take their name from a notorious episode in ancient Roman history when one of the most notorious early emperors made his favourite horse, Incitatus, a Senator. Incitatus means “at full gallop”, which is a good name for a band who play state-of-the art twin-guitar progressive metal, with serpentine riffs, memorable vocal melodies and some spectacular soloing.

It begins deceptively quietly with gently acoustic guitar, folk-flavoured vocals, and a delicate blues-flavoured guitar break before exploding into metal half-way through the opening number. Their use of dynamics recalls mid-period Opeth, especially on early highlight “Marigold” with its loud-quiet-loud structure, though they eschew the death metal growls in favour of clean vocals throughout. The highly melodic and atmospheric “Firelight” recalls Riverside, while the guitar-shredding epics “Dragonfly” and “Daughter of the Mountain” blending elements of metal and jazz with soaring vocal harmonies recall the modern sounds of Haken or Maschine.

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Bauda – Sporelights

Bauda - Sporelights Bauda started out as a project from guitarist and songwriter César Márquez which then slowly evolved into a full band. The music is inspired and informed by the landscapes of their native Chile, and the album “Sporelights” revolves around “the perpetual struggles of men against the enslaving nature of modern societies”.

The opening instrumental combines swirling electronics with a rhythm section that emphasises the drums as a lead instrument. It flows straight into the 7-minute “Vigil” which sets the tone for the rest of the album; dense, layered, and cinematic with shimmering effects-laden post-rock guitars, alternately rocking out and giving way to atmospheric reflective passages.

What lets this album down is the thin and sometimes tuneless vocals which don’t always complement the beauty of the instrumentation, and occasionally veers towards rather pedestrian indie-rock, though it always comes back to life with the next instrument passage. It probably doesn’t help that the best vocal, on the closing track “Dawn of Ages” sounds just a little too close to Knifeworld’s “Me to the Future of You” for its own good.

It does leave you with the impression that with stronger vocals Bauda could reach far greater heights. Not for nothing is the swirling Hawkwind-like instrumental “Tectonic Cells” the highlight of the album.

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Dave Gilmour – Rattle That Lock

Rattle That Lock Nine years after his last solo album “On An Island”, former Pink Floyd guitarist Dave Gilmour returns with a new record, featuring an impressive cast of guests including Phil Manzanera, David Crosby & Graham Nash, and even Jools Holland on one song.

Dave Gilmour is such an iconic guitarist that the very first note he plays on the opening instrumental “5 a.m.” is enough to give you goosebumps. It’s the following title track that sets the tone for the rest of the record. What he have is a highly polished singer-songwriter album. It does tend towards the middle of the road in places, through Gilmour’s immediately recognisable lead guitar that lights up every song sets this record apart. While it doesn’t reach the epic grandeur of Pink Floyd’s heyday. it’s as much about the gorgeous orchestrated arrangements as it is about the songs. There are occasional excursions into jazz on “Dancing in Front of Me” and “The Girl in the Yellow Dress”, while both album highlight “In Any Tongue” and the instrumental “Beauty” wouldn’t have sounded out of place on a late-period Floyd album. The album ends as it begins, with a guitar instrumental “And Then..”, another reminder of just why he remains one of the greatest guitarists of his generation.

In some ways, it’s a better album than last year’s Pink Floyd coda, “Endless River”, which despite some glorious moments featuring the late Richard Wright, never quite managed to transcend its origins as a collection of outtakes.

Dave Gilmour could be accused to playing safe on this record. But he’s a musician who’s more than earned the right to make whatever music he wants to make; he’s under absolutely no obligations to satisfy expectations of either audiences or critics. So if he chooses to make a record firmly within his comfort zone, that’s his right. And comfort zone or not, he’s still very good at what he does. Anyone expecting something as edgy and abrasive as “Ummagumma” should really be looking elsewhere.

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Thundermother – Road Fever

Thundermother Road FeverThundermother are an all-female blues-based hard rock band from Stockholm. From the opening blast of guitars at the beginning of the album, it’s clear they mean business. They specialise in short, punchy songs that recall early AC/DC with an occasional nod to ZZ Top, powered with a combination of gutsy vocals, big dirty guitars and an awesomely tight rhythm section.

On “Roadkill” they come close to punk with the shouty chorus, but it’s the likes of “Give Me Some Lights” that show them at their best; a driving riff, a relentless rhythm that’s like an unstoppable force of nature, and a riotous chorus.

The only weakness is perhaps a lack of variety; even with a running time of just thirty minutes it does start to get a little samey by the end. But there is no doubting this band are very good at what they do, and the energy levels on display here suggests they’re very likely to be killer live act.

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Chantel McGregor – Lose Control

Chantel McGregor - Lose ControlIt’s been four years since Chantel McGregor released her début album “Like No Other”. She’s been working on the follow-up for over a year, and many of the new songs have been lighting up the live set for quite a while.

She describes the concept behind the album as Southern Gothic; while it’s not a full-blown concept album with a narrative, the theme of loss of control in the album’s title recurs across many of the songs. To quote Chantel, she immersed herself in the “sinister, dark world of depravation, magic and voodoo, writing most of the songs from the perspective of the disturbed flawed characters“. It’s all rather different from the first album.

The album starts off with a bang with “Take the Power”, rocking out in a similar vein as the live favourite “Caught Out” from “Like No Other”. The grunge-influenced “Your Fever” has an interesting structure; it starts out dense and claustrophobic with a single battering chord in the verse, then opening out with a spiralling second part. The dynamics and use of strings for colour stand out. The strings even sound like Mellotron at one point; like Nirvana jamming with King Crimson. After that, “Burn Your Anger” is a more conventional driving hard rocker with a brief but very explosive solo.

Then the mood changes with “Anaesthetize”. There’s always been an acoustic side to Chantel’s music, originally expressed through stripped-down covers. This one is an original, a beautiful vocal accompanied with delicate and understated guitar work with subtle use of strings.

Then it’s back to rocking out. “Southern Belle” with it’s bluesy riff and the opening line “I’ve been dancing with The Devil since the day that I was born” is the most out-and-out blues song on this record. There’s also a blues element in the Zeppelinesque serpentine riff of the title track.

After the album’s second delicately beautiful acoustic track, “Home”, “Killing Time” is the hardest rocking track on the album. The spiralling riff has a modern feel, with something of the vibe of contemporary bands such as Muse. Then in complete contrast again, the dark brooding “Eternal Dream” on unaccompanied electric guitar is Chantel’s tribute to the late Jeff Buckley.

The album ends with “Walk On Land”, the most ambitious song on the album, inspired by Steven Wilson’s modern take on progressive rock. It builds from from an acoustic intro, a chorus with complex layered vocal harmonies, an atmospheric instrumental section featuring piano and strings, ending with a superb extended solo, the sole lengthy guitar workout on the record.

The whole album shows Chantel’s growing talents as a songwriter, guitarist and singer. On this record her guitar playing puts the emphasis on riffs, and takes a less-is-more approach when it comes to soloing; the darker, denser sound is more Jimmy Page than Jimi Hendrix. It shows her great versatility as a vocalist; able to belt out hard rockers as well as delicate ballads. The vocals on “Eternal Dream” and “Walk on Land” at the end of the album are especially stunning.

It’s a very different beast from Chantel’s début. That was partly a singer-songwriter record and partly a blues-rock guitar record, and was really more a collection of songs. This one in contrast flows as a coherent album, far more hard rock than blues, though the acoustic numbers add variety and complement the heavier songs. It combines elements of 60s and 70s classic rock with far more modern sounds. And at just over forty minutes in length it doesn’t overstay its welcome; there’s absolutely no filler.

It’s been a long wait for this album, but it’s well worth the wait.

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Operation Mindcrime – The Key

Operation Mindcrime The KeyAfter making their name in the 1980s with the ambitious concept album “Operation Mindcrime” and its more commercial successor “Empire”, Queensrÿche crashed hard in the 90s. A combination of internal problems and an ill-judged attempt to move with musical fashions rather then play to their strengths saw a string of lacklustre albums including the dull “Q2K” and the directionless “Operation Mindcrime II”. It all ended in an acrimonious split that finished up in court over who would be allowed to perform what.

The result was singer Geoff Tate forming a new outfit “Operation Mindcrime” while his former bandmates regrouped with a new singer as a new incarnation of Queensrÿche. The name of the band and the legal agreement that only he can perform material from the album of the same name infers an intention to build on the legacy of the album that made his reputation rather than start anew with a clean sheet. So how does the album stack up?

Opener “Choices” builds on a repeating pattern sounding uncannily like “Eclipse” from “Dark Side of the Moon” and despite being a little derivative makes an impressive opener. But doubts set in when the bass-heavy riff of “Burn” swamps Tate’s rather tuneless vocal. The big guitar riffs and prog-metal stylings of “Re-Inventing the Future” and “Ready to Fly” both manage to evoke a hint of Queensrÿche’s glory days instrumentally but both are let down by weak vocals. When the next track, merely a short atmospheric piece to bridge the gap between two songs is the best so far purely because it’s an instrumental, the album’s biggest problem becomes apparent.

The truth is that Geoff Tate’s voice, once a magnificent lead instrument, is a shadow of what it once was. Even when Queensrÿche toured Operation Mindcrime II a decade ago he was relying on Pamela Moore to sing the high notes he could no longer reach, and now he’s got little of his former power and range. One could draw comparisons with former Marillion singer Fish, except that Fish has adapted his style over the years to work within his limitations, giving greater emphasis on lyrics and delivery, and still manages to make strong records. Tate, meanwhile, is trying to create the same sort of music as he did years ago, and much of it falls flat without the soaring vocals of old.

The album hits the lowest point with “The Stranger”, which marries an industrial guitar sound with what comes over as a half-arsed attempt at rapping. Things do improve towards the end; the instrumental “An Ambush of Sadness” leading into the ballad “Kicking in the Door” again give something of a Pink Floyd feel, and album signs off with the almost epic “The Fall” ending in some climactic soloing. But even here the vocals let things down.

The saddest thing is that there are still good musical ideas on the record, but Tate’s consistently weak vocal lines fail to do the rest of the music justice.

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Blackmore’s Night – All Our Yesterdays

Blackmores Night All Our YesterdaysIt’s a sobering thought that Richie Blackmore has been a part of Blackmore’s Night for longer than he was with Deep Purple, and has recorded more studio albums with Candice Night than with any other singer.

Steeped in the strange world of American renaissance fayres, the semi-acoustic project actually had had about as much in common with actual renaissance music as Dungeons and Dragons has with medieval history. The first couple of albums did have their moments, with songs that displayed a sublime beauty, but there were others that badly failed a saving roll against cheese. After the first few records they reached the point of diminishing returns; making a vaguely folk-flavoured pop-rock that was neither quite one thing or the other.

“All Our Yesterdays” starts out as more of the same. A couple of early numbers come over as a poor man’s Mostly Autumn, the same mix of celtic folk and rock elements, but with none of their atmospherics or emotional depth. For example, the instrumental rocked-up Celtic jig “Allan yn n fan” resembles Mostly Autumn’s “Out of the Inn”, only nowhere near as good, while the ballad “Long Long Time” is a reminder that Candice Night isn’t in the same league as either Olivia Sparnenn or Heather Findlay as a singer.

The instrumental “Darker than Black” is rather better, especially when Ritchie Blackmore lets rip on the Stratocaster and demonstrates he’s still got it as a guitarist, recalling the instrumentals that graced late-period Rainbow albums. The other instrumental, “Queen’s Lament” isn’t as effective, Blackmore noodling about on acoustic guitar without ever going anywhere.

The album then goes completely off the rails with some ill-chosen covers. The version of Mike Oldfield’s “Moonlight Shadow” is completely unnecessary, and their take on Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” is utterly horrible.

But even worse is to come. “Where Are We Going From Here” reworks a number from their own back catalogue, and attempts to turn what had been a beautiful ballad into a uptempo rocker, but only succeeds in cruelly exposing Candice Night’s limitations as a vocalist, who ends up murdering her own song. Which is a shame, because Candice does have a decent voice when she stays within her comfort zone.

Things do pick up slightly with the spirited folk-rock of “Will ‘o the Wisp”, one of the few songs that actually comes to life, but that’s thin pickings for what is ultimately a very disappointing record. It’s hard to believe this tepid album is the work of the musician who created “Burn” and “Stargazer”.

Listening to this album it’s very difficult to escape the conclusion that after eighteen years and ten albums Blackmore’s Night has run its course. Perhaps the time is right for Ritchie to do something completely different; there have been suggestions of some rock-orientated gigs in the near future. One thing is for sure, if Blackmore isn’t a spent force and still has anything to say, the evidence here suggests he needs a new project in which to say it.

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Praying Mantis – Legacy

Praying Mantis - LegacySome may remember Praying Mantis from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal in the early 1980s. Led by the Troy brothers, Chris and Tino, they never managed the success of the likes of Iron Maiden or Saxon, and like many of their peers they faded away after a couple of years.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. A decade later they were to reform, and aside from a hiatus in the mid-noughties have been touring and recording ever since. In their original incarnation they were a quartet with Chris Troy handling the lead vocals himself, but he’s long stepped back to focus on lead guitar. They’re now a five-piece with John Cuijpers as the newest in a long line of lead vocalists, and “Legacy” is their tenth album.

Today’s Praying Mantis play polished twin-guitar hard rock, more AOR than metal. It’s a long way from NWOBHM, though they were always on the more melodic side of things from the beginning. It kicks off with the Uriah Heep-like opener “Fight For Your Honour”. Songs like “The One” and “All I See” recall the hard rock side of Journey; the solo on the latter is very Neil Schon. “Believable” is a highlight with its a huge anthemic chorus, while “Eyes of a Child” and “Better Man” are heavier and darker. But this album is remarkable in its consistency, there is no filler and every track has something to like about it. Just occasionally it skirts on the edge of cheese, but most of the time this is a classy piece of work.

Even if nothing they on this record is particularly original, they’ve very good at what they do, and songcraft, performance and production is superb, polished just enough to shine but without taking off the raw edge. John Cuijpers has a great hard rock voice, and the other new member, drummer Hans in’t Zandt, also makes his mark with his propulsive drumming. It’s a rather different Praying Mantis from the failed metal band of the early 1980s, but it’s actually a far better one.

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