Monthly Archives: December 2013

The Greatest (3)

Standard

I was a devoted Metaller thru most of my school days, which made acknowleging the genius of artists in other genres an exercise in losing face, if not an outright no-no. Two ‘bands’ stood out from my hard-rockin’ playlist (not that I thought of it as such back then) Pet Shop Boys – from whom I first learned to love music – and The Sisters Of Mercy – who served as a kind of transition band who lead me from being a fan of chart music towards a more ‘hard rock’ direction.

I put bands in quotes, because at the time neither were bands in the traditional sense: both were duos and drawing on the emerging – into the mainstream – electronic music tradition. The original line-up of The Sisters had imploded whilst ‘living above the chemist’ and PSB were one of seemingly many acts eschewing the established vocals-guitar-bass-drums format in favour of newly-affordable sampling and sequencing technology. The Sisters had, since their inception made something of a feature of their ‘drummer-less’ line-up, relying on the talents of the so-called Doktor Avalanche.

More pertinently, both acts were unashamedly musical, not afraid to straddle the purported divide between striving for popular success and demonstrating intelligence and knowledge of pop history. Can you imagine a band like SoM receiving airplay today? Maybe you can, though – look at The Arcade Fire. I discovered them (SoM) tuning into TotP to hear the new PSB single, as it happens. Music was relatively hard to come by back then: you either had to tune into TotP or the radio at the right time or take a chance on a CD (or more likely an LP or MC) purchase. When Brandon Flowers (of The Killers fame) inducted PSB into The Brits award ceremony he spoke of having to choose between buying The Smiths and PSB‘s hits compilations: YouTube was some ways off. Thinking of that reminds me of another song that made my original top ten all-time greatest, so I’m gonna include it here as a seasonal bonus along with the alternative Sisters take below… Despite having abandoned my slavish, juvenile devotion to genre and its social trappings, I’m not a lover of The Smiths first album – though the following three are excellent and I remain a devoted Johnny Marr fan, His ‘new’ album has really grown on me, and he’s played lots with the PSBs, doncha know – but What Difference Does It Make is a killer track; one of the all-time great rock riffs.

Enjoy…

Merry Xmas… with bells on!

Standard

Had a bit more to drink than intended last nite so work today was a little more effort than it needed to be. Only fifteen lunches to cook so not too much of a trial though. Thanks to my good friend Sam for the loan of her couch for the nite, and Wayne for his company this evening. Managed to catch up with Mum & Dad, my sister Angela and my lovely girlfriend Julia by phone (she’s visiting family) so all in all, an Xmas well-spent. Off to bed in a mo – work again tomorrow before a clear run of a week off to carry me on to the new year.

Yay!

So without further ado here’s my Christmas song for the year, Marillion’s just-released charity single, their version of the traditional song ‘Carol Of The Bells‘:

If you like what you hear then click on the link to download the song in either iTunes or regular mp3 formats for just 79p. Alternatively, you can give a few quid directly to the Matt Elworthy Fund (or my lovely employer, The Sussex Beacon) whether you like the song or not: Matt, a resident of Marillion‘s hometown, Aylesbury is recovering from an operation to remove a brain tumour.

Goodwill…

Fresh from the vault (11)

Standard

There was much to like about Dream Theater‘s latest, self-titled 2013 release. Despite that neither of its two trailer singles, The Enemy Inside and Along For The Ride immediately grabbed me; and that the album as a whole does little to expand the band’s musical horizons. it’s an album that I’ve continued to play sporadically since purchase and has grown in my estimation with repeat listening. Understated harmonic references to the band’s own career history are juxtaposed with less-subtle allusions to its influences (particularly Canuck power-trio, Rush) and whilst they’ve not skimped on compositional depth and complexity, there’s a smoothness and accessibility, combined with expert pacing, to the songs which makes it compelling: very much an album-long listen rather than playlist fodder. It’s revelatory rather than revolutionary: a consolidation and refinement of what they’ve learned over their 30+ year career.

So if you’ll forgive me, I’m not exactly criticizing that album when I say I think they’ve managed this particular balancing act as well if not even better before. Octavarium (2005) is regarded by many as the definitive DT album, alongside the Images And Words sophomore effort: I favour the former. DT‘s first three albums (and also the A Change Of Seasons mini-album) have a thrilling exploratory quality, reflecting an ambition to marry classic pop and hard rock influences to ’80s metal bombast . Ironically, whilst not so well-received by some fans, it was their forth, ‘trying too-hard’ (for accessibility) – Falling Into Infinity (1995) – which marked a turning point. Octavarium represents in some ways a return to that mode of writing, albeit undertaken in a more honest spirit: there are parallels with the career of one of Mike Portnoy‘s musical influences, Marillion. Both bands had an unlikely ‘hit’ (Pull Me Under and Kayleigh respectively); both faced record company pressure – to no avail – to write another; and both gravitated of their own accord towards a more streamlined ‘pop’ mode of writing later on in their careers, and significantly, once said company pressure was lifted. Intriguingly, both albums (Octavarium and .com) climax with an archetypal prog epic featuring headfuck widdly keyboard solos that explode out of nowhere (Octavarium and Interior Lulu).

…[so] this is where we came in…

Of Mike Portnoy‘s 12-Step suite – which in light of his and the band’s parting of the ways is now unlikely to be played in full as a live set, more’s the pity – The Root Of All Evil is perhaps the track that works best as a stand-alone song, certainly since 6DOIT barnstorming opening gambit The Glass Prison. If you own the Score DVD/Blu-Ray – a must-buy for any hardened DT fan, as well as a perfect introduction for newbies wishing to explore their varied career-history – you’ll know that it’s also a showstopping intro to their live set. ‘…tidily mixing heavy riffs with some progressive moments…’ to quote band biographer Rich Wilson. They follow it – in that show – with I Walk Beside You, a song which the band freely admitted showcased the members’ love of more commercial stadium rock acts including Coldplay and U2.

Now, DT has attracted its fair share of fan-disapprobation over the years for wearing its influences too boldly on its collective sleeve at times – of especial note, in addition to the above is Systematic Chaos (2007) which appeared to ape both Evanescence (melodically and lyrically, on Forsaken) and Muse (Prophets of War). Cynics have on occasion interpreted these as attempts to leaven their determinedly-virtuostic compositional approach with a little popular appeal. Actually, I’m not sure I completely disagree; but I’m certain that I don’t object. Sure, I can hear what said detractors are hearing, but I could care less because all the aforementioned are great songs.

The Answer Lies Within reminds me of nothing so much as a superior Elton John, even – horror of horrors, Robbie Williams –  ballad. Lyrically, it benefits from a simplicity that suggests (guitarist and lyricist) John Petrucci didn’t spend too long sequestered away with his thesauruses and dictionaries; and the string accompaniment from a stripped-down contingent of Jamshied Sharifi‘s Octavarium Orchestra is tasteful. It’s a strong piece of songwriting. Later, both Never Enough and Panic Attack (the former especially) attest to Portnoy‘s and the band’s love of Muse (the band occasionally performed Stockholm Syndrome, a song witha passing resemblance to DT, at soundcheck or as an encore). The latter’s song Assassin – from Black Holes and Revelations (2006) – might lead one to wonder if the Teignmouth trio haven’t returned the inspirational compliment: the resemblance to Panic Attack is uncanny and it’s not insignificant that Black Holes… is, in this writer’s opinion the finest example in recent years of progressive ambition and mainstream appeal coexisting in sweet, mutually-beneficial harmony.

The album ends with two satisfyingly ‘proggy’ epics; Sacrificed Sons and the five-part title track. The former features a rare lyrical credit for secretly-Canadian singer James LaBrie, inspired by 9/11. To quote Wilson (above) again ‘…The danger of such a topic, is that it could become over-politicized, mawkish, insensitive or even sanctimonious … the band just about carry it off…’ I think Wilson’s being less-than-generous: LaBrie handles the subject matter deftly and humanely, avoiding the obvious pitfalls of glorifying ‘The West’ and demonizing the Islamic terrorists. Musically, it’s dramatic not melodramatic and the second track to utilize the added depth only an orchestra can bring.

Octavarium (the song) is 24 minutes of showboating and homage, yet the attention to musical detail and obvious fun had by the band in composing and performing it save it from becoming a leaden exercise in indulgence. In classic ‘symphonic’ mode it moves smoothly (with one notably-dramatic exception) and confidently thru five ‘movements’ building drama along the way. It’s a masterclass in tension and release; surpassing their previous ‘symphonic’ high water-mark A Change Of Seasons and pointing the way to The Count Of Tuscany (Black Clouds And Silver Linings, 2009) which remains for me the apotheosis if DT‘s take on that style.  The live version documented on Score (and backed by a full orchestra, below) takes the song to even greater heights.

Like Dream Theater, Octavarium derives much of its strength as a piece from both its allusions to the band’s own history and its influences, albeit clever and well-chosen ones, delivered at times with a nod and a wink and at others with subtlety and reverence. It’s a conceptual album in more ways than one, with an overarching theme metaphorically relating the career of the band at that point to the musical octave (from which the title, Octavarium also derives, it being DT‘s eighth album) and also chock full of ‘nuggets’ of musical detail for attentive listeners to unearth. A whole blog post could be devoted to this aspect alone, and helpfully, one enterprising fan has already done just that. A couple such nuggets Spetang appears to have missed (in reference to the aforementioned titular song-cycle) are a bar of the Phantom Of The Opera theme at 11.37 and a the first phrase of Jingle Bells interpolated at 17.47. There are probably more yet…

Octavarium is the most complete DT album for me: it showcases every facet of their musical style and the songwriting is consistently-strong. The title track alone is worth the price of admission.

Shine on you lazy diamonds (part one…)

Standard

If the very words ‘Progressive rock supergroup’ are enough to make your blood run cold – or indeed, boil – then, to paraphrase Obi Wan Kenobi, this is not the post you are looking for…

…If you’re still reading, then; there’s every chance you’re also as excited as I am at the prospect of an 80-minutes-long record, featuring just five ‘songs’; enrobed in psychedelic, sci-fi splendor and dreamed up by the cream of neo-prog talent. Transatlantic, for the uninitiated, is the collaborate efforts since 2001 of Mr Mike Portnoy (then Archduke/drummer of Dream Theater); Roine Stolt (guitarist-singer-songwriter for The Flower Kings/Kaipa); Mr Peter Trewavas (Marillion/Kino/Edison’s Children); and God-bothering prog polymath from Mars (ex-Spock’s Beard) Mr Neal Morse. In the decade-or-so since, they’ve recorded and toured three fantastic albums and the pre-order for their forth, entitled Kaleidoscope is about to open. Shine is the first ‘single’/album trailer, debuted yesterday on the Prog mag website:

Despite the ‘prog supergroup’ tag, Shine couldn’t be much further from the convoluted instrumental showboating of ELP or Mahavishnu. It’s actually a straightforward rock ballad which, if you’re a fan of other Neal Morse projects from Spock’s Beard to Flying Colors will doubtless have a familiar feel. If you’re detecting a whiff of criticism in that last, then you’re at least half right: Morse‘s skill as a writer and singer of ballads – and his melodic sensibility in general – forms a crucial part of Transatlantic‘s appeal for me. Whilst the band is a veritable heavyweight in the musical muscle-stakes, and not afraid of treating itself and fans to extended, demanding workouts – in common with their first two releases, Kaleidoscope is book-ended by two half-hour-long symphonic pieces – each album has included songs that show facility for more economical, pop-rock-oriented writing. We All Need Some Light (from SMPTe, 2001) and Rose Colored Glasses (The Whirlwind, 2009) are fine examples of this kind of vibe and both were highlights of their last tour (on which the band was complemented by ‘all-round utility guy’ Daniel Gildenlöw of Pain Of Salvation fame, upping the ‘super’ stakes). Shine is a song in a similar vein, but, frankly, not in the same league. Where those songs soared and took flight, it merely plods along, struggling for breath. Even Roine Stolt‘s second solo at 4.20 – my favourite thing about the song – sounds a little uninspired by his standards; derivative somewhat of David Gilmour (Comfortably Numb in the wrong key?) and also Trewavas‘ band-mate Steve Rothery, albeit as thrilling as neither.

The country twang that makes itself felt around the two minute mark is a slight departure for the band, though curiously-apposite given that the recordings were begun in Morse‘s adopted home of Nashville; whilst the brief interlude into Floyd-ey psychedelia at 3.47 – predictably, voiced by Portnoy – is sweetly-trippy, yet slightly out of place there. The effects processor conveniently disguises his shortcomings as a vocalist – he and Trewavas provide solid backups and harmonies, but truthfully neither cuts it on lead, Portnoy least of all – but it’s something of a mystery why the band chose to split up the vocal duties at all. The song sounds very Morse and he’s much the strongest singer, even if Stolt‘s more idiosyncratic tone remains more distinctive. And can I mention the video clip? It looks cheap – as much as I love the musty, tumbledown grandeur of the chapel – and is unlikely to either impress their select, if devoted legion of fans or win them any new ones. Maybe a fanclub competition along the lines of Marillion‘s Whatever Is Wrong With You marketing wheeze would have been the way to go. The spark of creativity therein went a long way towards mitigating the nonexistent budget.

Whilst I wouldn’t go as far as to say I don’t like the song, it’s by far the least immediately-impressive tune released by the band thusfar: not since Asia‘s 1982 debut has the ‘super’ been so conspicuous for its absence in a group so deserving, talent-wise, of the appellation. The collective talent in Transatlantic is indeed an embarrassment, yet had this been my introduction to the collaboration I can’t say I’d have been won over, especially given the £40 (+ P&P) price tag on the collectors’ edition hardback set. As it happens, my Trans-virginity (fnarr, fnarr) was taken by Mystery Train (see below) which is better indicative of the band’s general sound and compositional skill, whilst remaining melodic and accessible. I will be buying said product, mind: on the strength of their previous three excellent albums I’m convinced I won’t be disappointed. On The Whirlwind in particular, they did themselves proud, making a record that harked back to the heyday of symphonic prog whilst remaining fresh and accessible. I hope this single doesn’t – ironically – prove to be an indicator that the shine is beginning to wear off.

The Prog article can be read in full here and includes the full tracklisting for the album including a bonus CD of cover versions which showcases some of the band’s diverse roster of influences:

CD1
01. Into The Blue (25:13)
02. Shine (7:28)
03. Black As the Sky (6:45)
04. Beyond The Sun (4:31)
05. Kaleidoscope (31:53)

CD2
01. And You And I (Yes cover) (10:45)
02. Can’t Get It Out Of My Head (ELO cover) (4:46)
03. Conquistador (Procol Harum cover) (4:13)
04. Goodbye Yellow Brick Road (Elton John) (3:20)
05. Tin Soldier (Small Faces cover) (3:22)
06. Sylvia (Focus cover) (3:49)
07. Indiscipline (King Crimson cover) (4:45)
08. Nights In White Satin (The Moody Blues cover) (6:13)