Tag Archives: Album Review

Journey – Eclipse

If they’ve heard more than one song, the general public only know Journey for their radio-friendly power ballads. But rock fans have always been aware of the other side of the band; the classy hard-rock outfit capable of filling quite major venues with their high energy live shows. In their eighties heyday there was sometimes a tension between these two aspects of their music. Interviews suggested the record company constantly demanding more ballads while at least some of the band wanted to rock out rather more. With less commercial pressure nowadays to be radio-friendly, this, like many of their recent albums, shows more of the hard rock Journey rather than the commercial power-ballad Journey.

After regrouping a few years back they’re now on their third singer since Steve Perry’s retirement. Following from Steve Augeri, forced out with vocal problems trying to reach Perry’s high notes, and Jeff Scott Soto, who never quite sounded right, comes Arnel Pineda. On his second studio album with the band he still sounds close enough to Steve Perry to make it sound like Journey, but on this disk he has enough of an identity of his own to be more than a mere clone.

From the opening guitar barrage of “City of Hope”, it’s clear that the songs on this disk are written more for live performance rather than for daytime radio airplay.  The following “Edge of the Moment” is in a similar vein, the sort of genre-defining hard-edged highly melodic AOR that Journey have made their own. There’s room for plenty of Neil Schon’s shredding jazz-metal guitar with songs typically stretching for five or six minutes, but they don’t neglect the stadium-friendly big choruses either. Other highlights are the Zeppelinesque “Chain of Love”, and “Human Feel” with the African-style drums and Hammond backed riff. The last three tracks are pure gold;  the epic power-ballad in “To Whom It May Concern”, the quintessential Journey pop-rock of “Someone” and finally the monstrous instrumental “Venus”.

The album’s by no means without it’s flaws. Jonathan Cain’s keys take too much of a back seat at times, and the album could have done with a bit more light and shade. And like too many albums it’s just a little overlong, and could have done with losing some filler towards the middle of the album. The mediocre “She’s a Mystery” in particular really shouldn’t have made the cut.

This album might leave some Glee or X-Factor fans disappointed, but reality TV viewers aren’t exactly Journey’s core audience. The is really an album for fans of melodic hard rock. While it doesn’t quite reach the standard of 80s classics like “Escape” and especially “Frontiers”, this album shows Journey are still as much a force to be reckoned in the studio as they are live, with a quarter of a century after their commercial peak. 

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Liam Davison – A Treasure of Well-Set Jewels

Liam Davison is best known as guitarist for Mostly Autumn. When he left the band at the end of 2006 he stated that he was to work on a solo album. In the end it would be three years after he rejoined the band before the album was to see the light of day.

Liam is something of an enigmatic figure on stage with Mostly Autumn. He prefers to shun the spotlight and lurk at the back of the stage; but his playing is not that of a typical rhythm guitarist, playing melodic fills and lead runs rather than merely strumming chords. His name has only appeared a couple of times in MA’s songwriting credits to date, both for folk-flavoured numbers. But he’s also been playing a live improvisation on tour with echoes of Robert Fripp. Which made it difficult to predict the direction his solo album might take.

The music varies from the indie-flavoured opening hard rocker “Ride the Seventh Wave”, the electronica loops on “Into the Setting Sun”, and the acoustic ballad “One in the Lifetime”. But throughout there’s a strong emphasis on atmospheric progressive rock with a very strong Pink Floyd flavour. Standouts for me are “Eternally Yours”, ending with that epic slide solo featured in the album’s promo video, and “Heading Home”, with it’s wonderful interplay between Liam’s soaring lead guitar, Iain Jennings’ swirling Hammond organ and Paul Teasdale’s propulsive bass riff. It’s a big, rich, cinematic sound, superbly engineered and mixed by John Spence.

Liam shares vocals with Heather Findlay and Anne-Marie Helder, and the three distinctively different voices complement each other well. While Liam sings much of the lead vocals, several songs are duets between Liam and either Anne-Marie or Heather with some great use of harmony. One exception is “Once in a Lifetime”, sung solely by Heather, who also contributed the lyrics. Heather and Anne-Marie give excellent performances, but neither of them steal the show, this is still very much Liam’s album, showcasing his songwriting, and above all his superb lead guitar. If you like it when the solos can last for two or three minutes, and are still good enough not to outstay their welcome, you will love this album.

While much has been made of Heather’s and Anne-Marie’s contributions, on an album like this the instrumental supporting cast are just as important. In particular, Liam’s Mostly Autumn colleague Iain Jennings excels himself on keys. It’s the sort of all-enveloping cinematic sound we heard on early Mostly Autumn albums, and as such provides the perfect instrumental foil for Liam’s own playing.

This is a superb album, and while it’s only February, it’s a potential candidate for album of the year. Like many independent releases, it’s got a general retail release in March, but is available online now

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Rhapsody of Fire – The Frozen Tears of Angels

Italy’s Rhapsody of Fire (formerly called Rhapsody) were one of the first symphonic metal bands when they emerged in the late 1990s.. Their style of “epic fantasy metal” is part operatic metal, part Hollywood film score, with Dungeons and Dragons lyrics and song titles like “The Ancient Forest of Elves”. I’ve half-jokingly described them as musically making Queen sound like XTC, and lyrically making Dio sound like The Arctic Monkeys. U2 fans have even been known to run away screaming in terror. But at their best their music can be gloriously over the top, and hugely entertaining provided you aren’t allergic to a little bit of cheese.

Their latest album “The Frozen Tears of Angels” has been out a few months now. It’s got most the traditional Rhapsody elements, such as choirs and spoken word parts by Sir Christopher Lee among others. The lyrics are another fantasy saga, rather more David Eddings than Tolkien (Seriously, a villain called “Necron”?  Come on guys, surely you can do better than that?).

While by no means a bad album, doesn’t quite seem to have the same spark as previous offerings. Perhaps it’s down to the fact they’ve not used an orchestra this time, with the symphonic parts played on layered keyboards instead. Yes, there are still some great moments, like the monstrous opening track with pseudo-orchestration backing Christopher Lee’s ominous-sounding narration – about as epic as something less than three minutes long can possibly be. And we stll have some huge soaring Carl Orff-style choral moments.  But there are also times when they fall back to some very generic Euro power-metal, which I find far less interesting than their more cinematic moments.

Perhaps the biggest problem is that they aren’t really breaking any new ground with this release. They’re largely repeating what they’ve already done before, at a time when other bands in the symphonic metal scene are still moving the genre forward. A dozen years after their debut, the likes of Epica, Nightwish and especially Therion leave Rhapsody of Fire sounding a little dated by comparison.

If you’re a fan of the band, you’ve almost certainly got this album already by now.  But if you want an introduction to Rhapsody of Fire’s gloriously over the top music, you’re probably better off starting with one of their earlier albums such as “Symphony of Enchanted Lands” or “Triumph or Agony” rather than with this one.

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New Dance Orchestra – Electronica

The New Dance Orchestra is a project by Geoff Downes of Asia and Buggles fame, which for this album features Panic Room’s Anne-Marie Helder on lead vocals. It was an unexpected surprise when I heard about it online, and I ordered it unheard based solely on the reputations of the people involved.

Billed as “Dance-Pop”, to my ears it’s more pop than dance, made up of well-crafted songs rather than Ibiza-style club anthems, Musically, comparisons with The Buggles are I suppose inevitable, but I can also see slight elements of late-period ELO when a disco flavour crept into their sound. The overall feel is certainly very 1980s, down to some synth sounds that are either delightfully retro or cheesily dated depending on your point of view. The arrangements are entirely keys and programmed rhythms, but one or two of the actual songs wouldn’t sound out of place on an Asia, or for that matter, a Panic Room album. Certainly the choruses of songs like opener “Shine On”, “Dance To The Music Of Time” or the gorgeous closing ballad “Golden Days” get lodged in the brain as earworms after just a few listens.

With Geoff Downes credited with all the songwriting, Anne-Marie Helder’s only contribution is as lead singer, and she gives a stellar performance on vocals; demonstrating once again what a versatile singer she can be. It’s quite a way from my usual tastes in listening, and an album I probably wouldn’t have given any attention had it not been for the people involved. But it’s still an enjoyable listen nevertheless.

Like many non-major label releases, it’s available as a pre-order now directly from The New Dance Orchestra website, and will have an official retail release in the new year. It gives no information about international shipping, or even which country it’s shipped from; Paypal billed me in US Dollars but the album turned up within 48 hours posted from a UK address. Don’t know what will happen if you order from the US.

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Pure Reason Revolution – Hammer and Anvil

Pure Reason Revolution are not a band to stand still musically. Their 2006 debut album “The Dark Third” captivated progressive rock audiences with hypnotic soundscapes owing a lot to Pink Floyd. Then their second album, “Amor Vincit Omnia”, confounded that same audience with an utterly changed sound. Gone were the Floydian atmospherics, replaced by hard-edged gritty electronica, sounding a lot more like Depeche Mode than any 1970s progsters. Where would their third album take them? A blend of the two styles, or something else entirely?

Some Doctor Who noises herald the opening number “Fight Fire”, which pulls no punches whatsoever, sounding like The Prodigy at their most mental, all harsh, scraping electronic clanging with an utterly relentless pounding rhythm. But just when you expect the album to continue in that vein, it changes tack. Subsequent songs are far more melodic with the multi-layered harmonies from Jon Courtney and Chloe Alper still very much present. The instrumentation is still very strongly centered around dance and electronica, albeit with churning guitars along with the electronic rhythms. First track aside, it’s really a logical progression from their previous disk, more evolutionary than revolutionary this time around.

The best moment has to be the lengthy “Open Insurrection” towards the end of the album, a dark intense piece that puts which puts electronica, metal and prog into a blender to come up with something hugely epic. That and the closer “Armistice” with it’s harmonies and chiming guitars are the few places we hear any echoes of the dreamy sound of their debut. All of which goes to show Pure Reason Revolution are still a genuinly progressive band, always moving forward musically, and never content to retread their own past.

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Mostly Autumn – Go Well Diamond Heart

It’s always hard for any band to replace their lead singer of many years, especially when it’s someone as talented and much-loved as Heather Findlay, and frequently the new singer has an uphill struggle to win over diehard fans. Add to this the fact that the past two albums, while they certainly both had their moments, both met with a decidedly mixed reaction from many fans, and you can see why Go Well Diamond Heart, Mostly Autumn’s ninth studio album, is really a make or break album for the band.

Former backing singer Olivia Sparnenn has already made a strong impression on stage during the spring tour in her new role as lead singer, but the new studio album is the way the revamped lineup will ultimately be judged, especially by those who haven’t had the chance to see the new-look Mostly Autumn live.

So does the new album succeed? After a few listens, I think it does.

This album is definitely one of those classed as “a grower”. While a handful of tracks made a strong impression on the first play, much of the album didn’t really come to life until I’d listened to the whole thing half a dozen times. I’ve read a one or two forum posts from people who seem to have written it off as ‘not very good’ after one or two plays. They should stick with it; it will be worth it in the end.

While some of the songs are not quite as immediately melodic as previous releases, the melodies are still there, they’re just a bit more subtle. The production is a lot rawer; rather than the polished approach of earlier albums this one has a very “live” feel to it, especially Bryan Josh’s guitar sound. Quite a few songs begin on acoustic guitar, switching to distorted electric part-way through. One thing that’s very noticeable is the number of times Bryan really cuts loose on lead guitar. On the last album, “Glass Shadows” I felt his playing was a little bit too mannered and restrained, with relatively little lead guitar; this time around he plays a blistering solo on almost every song.

Fans of Breathing Space will of course be aware of Olivia Sparnenn’s talents as a singer. While her predecessor is inevitably going to be a really hard act to follow, Olivia acquits herself superbly. Her singing continues to develop; while she’s clearly not trying to sound like Heather (which would have been a mistake), she’s not singing in the quite same way she did with Breathing Space either. There are certainly moments where she uses her power and range to great effect, such as the closing section of “Deep in Borrowdale” where she demonstrates the voice that can allegedly shatter wineglasses.

And it’s also great to hear Iain Jennings back on keys. While it seems ages ago that he rejoined the band for the tour promoting “Glass Shadows” in 2008, this is actually the first Mostly Autumn studio album he’s played on since 2005′s “Storms Over Still Waters”. It’s also worth noting that while Gavin Griffiths has also toured with the band extensively in recent year, it’s the first time he’s played drums for them in the studio.

The first disk, which will be released as the retail edition in November starts extremely strongly with “For All We Shared”, with it’s lengthy celtic-style atmospheric introduction featuring Troy Donockley’s Uilleann pipes leading into Bryan’s acoustic opening verse before building into a superb mid-tempo rocker with Olivia singing lead. With it’s quintessential Mostly Autumn sound it wouldn’t have sounded that out of place on the album of that title. In contrast, “Violet Skies” (Now there’s a Mostly Autumn song title if ever there was one), also sung by Olivia and dedicated to Heather Findlay is a catchy four-minute pop song which would make a great single. “Deep in Borrowdale” and “Something Better” are both hard rockers; the latter musically excellent but somewhat spoiled by some truly awful lyrics.

The title track is quite harrowing if you know the back story. It’s dedicated to Lance Bombardier Ben Parkinson, a Mostly Autumn fan serving in Afghanistan, critically wounded by a landmine. The album closes with three songs co-written by Olivia Sparnenn, the last of which “And When The War Is Over” again featuring Troy’s pipes, and to my ears is has the same feel as some of Roger Waters’ solo material, musically if not lyrically.

The second disk, available only in the limited edition is more a diverse collection of songs, but these cannot be described as left-overs; the best songs are as good as anything on the first disk. High points are the atmospheric “Ice”, co-written by Iain Jennings, “Hats Off” dedicated to the late Richard Wright of Pink Floyd, and Olivia Sparnenn’s soaring “Forever Young”, very reminiscent of her work with Breathing Space.

I was a bit worried when I read the announcement that the special edition was to be a double album. I remember 2006′s “Heart Full of Sky” where the band had stretched themselves too thin trying to come up with two albums worth of material in a short space of time, resulting in an album that seemed rushed with too many songs that sounded half-finished. This time they’ve managed to avoid that; while there are one or two songs on the second disk that don’t quite work (at least for me), there is far more that one CD’s worth of great material here.

The 2-disk limited edition is available from Mostly Autumn records while remaining stocks last. The single-disk retail edition goes on sale in mid-November.

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Black Mountain – Wilderness Heart

Black Mountain - Wilderness HeartI bought this album of the strength of reviews likening Black Mountain to classic 70s bands such as Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin. But sadly this one completely fails to live up to the hype.

Rather than take the essential essence of those great bands and update them for the 21st century, all it does is take a few superficial elements and waters them down with a large dollop of generic corporate “alternative” rock. You won’t find the vocal prowess of a Robert Plant or the late Ronnie Dio here, neither will you find guitar wizardry of a Page or a Blackmore. Indeed, a single half-arsed tuneless strum represents just about the only solo on the album.

The most exciting it gets is when it purloins the riff from Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe”, but even then it manages to lose the visceral fury of the original. The one saving grace amongst the dumbed-down Sabbath riffs and tuneless indie-rock is the acoustic ballad “Radiant Hearts” which the weak indie-style vocals can’t quite manage to ruin.

While I guess this album is OK for people who like this kind of thing, I find it sad that this sort of aural Polyfilla is being marketed to classic rock audiences at the expense of vastly better bands who are completely marginalised.

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Karnataka – The Gathering Light

Ian Jones came in for a lot of criticism when he revived the Karnataka name in 2005. The previous incarnation of the celtic-flavoured progressive rock band had imploded a year earlier just at the point where they seemed to be poised for a major breakthrough. The new-look Karnataka played some live dates in 2007 with just Ian Jones on bass remaining from the original band, which led some critics to dismiss them as a ‘glorified tribute band’, despite a fair proportion of new material in the setlist, including the memorable title track for their forthcoming album “The Gathering Light”.

In the end it would be another three years before that album would finally see the light of day, but when it finally emerged,  it’s exceeded all expectations.  The original band was great on atmospherics, but the new Karnataka have gone and done an album of the sort of hugely epic symphonic prog I haven’t heard done this well since Marillion’s “Brave”.  The sound is massive and multilayered with impassioned vocals and soaring guitars augmented by guest appearances from Hugh McDowell of ELO fame on cello, Troy Donockley’s distinctive Uilleann pipes, and a string quartet on a couple of songs.

Lisa Fury has always impressed me as a live singer, her studio vocal performances here have just the right balance between emotional depth and technical precision that distinguish a great singer from a merely good one. But for me the real revelation is Enrico Pinna’s guitar playing; prog guitar at it’s finest, with occasional echoes of Steve Hackett or Pendragon’s Nick Barratt, but a symphonic style that’s still his own.

The album starts with two instrumentals, the short but evocative “The Calling” featuring Troy’s pipes, followed by the lengthy workout “State of Grace“.  The string-laden ballad “Moment in Time” is one song that wouldn’t have sounded out of place on “Delicate Flame of Desire”, and again features Troy’s pipes, along with some great slide guitar from Enrico.  The three-part epic “Forsaken” is perhaps the high spot of the album, tremendously moving vocals from Lisa Fury on the opening section, the symphonic instrumental “Glowing Embers” flowing seamlessly back into a reprise of the opening part.  Lots of prog bands have attempted epics like that over the years, but very few succeed as magnificently.

It’s been a long time coming, but Karnataka have delivered the first essential progressive rock album of 2010.

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Mostly Autumn – Live 2009

Mostly Autumn Live 2009Previous Mostly Autumn live albums have been something of a disappointment.  There have been quite a few, and they’ve all too frequently been poor-quality recordings that have failed to capture the power and beauty of York’s finest progressive rock band a live setting.

The two disks comprising Live 2009 are a quite different prospect.  Recorded over a number of dates on the spring 2009 tour, this time they’ve really managed to capture what it was like to be in the front row at one of the those electrifying gigs.  They’ve taken care in mixing and mastering so that you can hear every instrument and voice from the eight-piece live band clearly, from Bryan Josh’s Gilmouresque guitar to Anne-Marie Helder’s flute and Olivia Sparnenn’s backing vocals. The end result simply blows every previous Mostly Autumn live release out of the water.

They’ve very sensibly decided to release the entire show bar an ill-advised cover played as the final encore.  Somewhat controversially it’s being sold as two separate disks rather than a double-CD, but I’ve reviewing both of them together.

Part I, the shorter of the two disks comprises the first set of the band’s live show, and largely showcases songs with Heather Findlay singing lead.  Opening hard rocker “Fading Colours” is vastly superior to the studio version from “Heart Full of Sky” and sets the tone for the rest of the set, right through to the mesmerising closing number, Heather’s signature song “Evergreen”.  I’ve always found that song a sort of modern-day version of “Freebird”.  An unexpected highlight is Heather’s “Unoriginal Sin”, the song from the recent “Glass Shadows” transformed into an immensely-powerful emotionally-charged piece of music.  The harmonies from Olivia Sparnenn and Anne-Marie Helder show just what a band with three top-class female singers is capable of.

Part II carries on where the first disk left off, starting after the interval and including the encore, which makes it significantly longer than part I. It’s more of a balance between the two singers, with more of Bryan Josh’s vocals on songs like the electric folk-rock of “Winter Mountain” and “The Dark Before The Dawn” and of course the epic encore “Heroes Never Die”, with that flute intro from Anne-Marie Helder that never fails to raise the hairs on the back of the neck. Heather’s vocals shine again on the sparse-but-beautiful “Above the Blue”, and the magnificent set-closer “Carpe Diem” culminating in the intertwining vocal and guitar lines building to a symphonic wall of sound. We’ve also got Heather and Olivia performing “Never the Rainbow” as a duet, closing with Olivia’s voice duelling with Bryan Josh’s guitar.

I thought at the time that the 2009 line up of Mostly Autumn was the best live incarnation of the band I’ve ever heard; the return of Iain Jennings on keys and Liam Davidson on second guitar filled out the sound, and Gavin Griffiths on drums added a boost to the energy level that was missing from previous tours. And while Heather Findlay has always been my favourite female vocalist, she lifted her singing to a new level; pouring her entire heart and soul into songs like “Unoriginal Sin” and “Carpe Diem”.  With Heather now announcing her departure from the band to embark upon a solo career, these two disks are a fitting way to mark what has turned out to be the end of an era.

The albums can be ordered online from Mostly Autumn Records.

This album came out at the end of last year, but although I commented extensively on message boards about how good it was, I was too busy at the time to write a proper review.  This review is therefore better late than never.

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Panic Room – Satellite

Panic Room’s debut, Visionary Position was a complex multilayered album largely composed in the studio, which gave the band some real headaches when trying to work out how on earth a five-piece band were going to reproduce it all live. In contrast, the followup is largely made up from songs the band had been playing live before entering the studio, many of them very familiar to people who’ve seen the band on tour over the past couple of years.

This result is an album of shorter, more direct songs – there are no sprawling epics along the lines of Visionary Position’s “The Dreaming” this time around.  The very different musical backgrounds of the five members combine in an alchemical mix which results in far more than the sum of the parts. Elements of hard rock, prog, pop, folk and jazz contribute to a sound that defies easy pigeonholing beyond the broad category of ‘rock’.  It doesn’t really pretend to be a prog album, or worse still, pretend not to be.  It’s precisely the sort of thing with crossover appeal; just enough musical depth to appeal to the prog fan, but without being too dense or complex to appeal to the fan of mainstream rock.

As with the debut, the musicianship is superb throughout, although always playing what the song requires rather than playing loads of random notes just for the sake of it.  Anne-Marie Helder again demonstrates that she’s not only a tremendously expressive vocalist but a very thought-provoking lyricist, and Jon Edwards shines on keys, especially his Ray Manzarek-like playing on “Picking Up Knives” and the doom-laden organ chords heralding “Dark Star”.

Musically it’s hugely varied, ranging from powerful hard rockers to gentle semi-acoustic numbers to big soaring ballads, all of which show just how versatile a singer Anne-Marie can be.  “Black Noise” written by bassist Alun Vaughan might even be described as ‘Industrial funk-metal’, and “I am a Cat” with it’s meowing guitars has to be the strangest song on the album.  High spots for me are the heard-rending “The Fall”, the atmospheric “Yasuni”, a tale of environmental destruction in the name of oil, and the apocalyptic organ-driven “Dark Star” with it’s lyrical theme of the destructive potential that lies within all of us.  We are all dark stars, Anne-Marie reminds us.  As the anthemic chorus of the epic title track fades away it’s clear that talented rock bands do not recognise the concept of the ‘difficult second album’.

As with many independently-released albums the band financed it with a fan pre-order, which was dispatched towards the end of last year.  The retail edition was released today, January 25th.  The band are on tour during March, and are well worth catching live.

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