Monday, December 24, 2012

"Food" Review - Banquet Deep Dish Sausage & Gravy

It was a pure impulse buy. But when I saw this bright, cheery yellow box at the store with the words "SAUSAGE & GRAVY" on it, I knew that I was soon to be parted with eighty-eight cents. So how was it? Even though it only contained 18% meat, as compared to the usual 25% meat in their regular meat pies, I can say that it was quite tasty. Yummy, even. Much better than the mini fruit pies they started selling recently. However against my better judgement I read the ingredients. Soy (probably GMO) protein, BHA AND BHT, hydrogenated (probably GMO) cottonseed oil, mysterious "flavoring". But for a manufactured food product the list was relatively short and included many normal ingredients such as nonfat dry milk (fortified with vitamins A & D) , wheat flour (probably GMO), and water (possibly fluoridated). It's been a full ten minutes and my stomach hasn't exploded so I'll give this one a thumbs up! Way to go, ConAgra Foods!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Confessions of a Weird Uncle

You may have already experienced it at Thanksgiving and will surely suffer at Christmas... maybe more than once: The weird uncle. But before you roll your eyes and try to think up a good reason for pulling slowly away (never make eye contact) let me remind you that being a weird uncle is not an easy task. In today's world, yesterday's conspiracy theories have an unsettling habit of becoming today's realities. Auditing the fed, a return to the gold standard, the Kennedy assassination and fluoride being harmful are no longer topics only heard out of the mouth of that ostracized uncle. No, it takes time and effort to maintain the "weird" adjective, researching and sorting through all the latest conspiracies, be it black-eyed children, FEMA camps, aliens working with government officials in bunkers under the Nevada desert, or the manipulation of our currency and a push to a one world order. So this Christmas/Festivus, when you see your own weird uncle, know that his ranting about aliens on the moon and doctored NASA photographs are the result of hours of research, and give him a friendly smile. Safely, from across the room.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review - Devin Townsend Project - Epicloud

Devin Townsend is one of those guys upon whom you could waste an entire review trying to describe, which means that for most people the adjective “weird” suits just fine. “Oddball” might also be allowable (the man has sold puppets on his web site… PUPPETS!!!!) During the last few years Devin did a massive personality probe, fracking it into four distinct parts and recording an album for each facet. Admitting that this was self-indulgent Mr. Townsend decided to clear the air by unleashing his “inner Def Leppard,” which in Devin’s hands turns out to be something quite different, but oddly similar to, the arena rock we all know and (go on, admit it) love.

Epicloud is that carnival view of arena rock and it lives up to its name. It’s big (epic) and it’s loud. Except the first track, where Devin apparently though it would be humorous to have a churchy choir singing a harmonious theme that makes appearances elsewhere in the album. It’s hard to kick that self-indulgent thing. “True North” follows and it’s fairly characteristic of the rest of the album. Heavy yet catchy guitar rhythms float on a spacey bed of reverb while Anneke van Giersbergen adds angelic vocals and Ryan Van Poederooyen (I’m not making that up, to steal a line) goes completely donkey kong on the drums. Now and then the band may change things around but mostly the songs are intentionally much simpler than much of Devin’s past work. This is never more evident than in the single “Lucky Animals (The New Beige)” which is so refined and streamlined that it will make a bee-line for your brain and stay there for weeks. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT watch the YouTube video Mr. Townsend made of himself for this song… in his back yard in one take. Okay, go ahead. I’ll wait. “Liberation” is another killer song, a kind of trip to the moon with Cheap Trick at the wheel and the cast of the Rocky Horror Picture Show in the cargo bay. I’m perfectly serious here. The entire album is a kind of raucous tent meeting as a full choir makes an appearance on many songs. But instead of, say, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” by The Rolling Stones where a choir signifies that you’ve jumped the shark, Devin pushes past irony with his use of the choir, having them sing such glorious lines as “Rock! Let’s rock! The time has come to forget all the bullsh!t and rock!” It’s impossible to listen to this album and not smile. To keep things balanced there are a few slower songs such as the touching “Divine” which features lyrics of “Loving you is the best thing in the worst thing in my life.” I think it’s a love song. In fact, maybe the entire album is a love song. Maybe it’s to himself. Or maybe it’s an anti-love song/album. One never can be too sure about such things.

While at times a bit lean in the ideas department, at least compared to his past albums where layers exist to enhance the layers that augment the layers of layers, Epicloud is a joyous, happy album that has more than its share of highly accessible songs. Sure, it’s a little off the beaten path but it’s a journey well worth taking.

Review - Neal Morse - Momentum

In two weeks world class drummer Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theatre) is scheduled to stop by and records on your next album. There’s just one little problem: you have only one song written and it’s short. Time to panic? Not if you’re Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard), master musician, composer, song crafter and all-around nice guy. Instead you double down and churn out an hour of music. And not just filler but solid, melodic songs that stand among the best of your long career. I’m doing my best not to be jealous.

While the album first fell flat on my ears it didn’t take long for the hooks to take hold. Both “Momentum” and “Weathering Sky” are high octane positive rockers. Though Morse is known for his progressive rock roots both of these songs are free from any “weirdness” such that they should find a tidy home with fans of classic rock. “Smoke and Mirrors” reflects acoustic guitars, electronic piano and strings, building from a gentle verse section to an impassioned, dramatic crescendo before backing off again. Fans of Neal’s more adventurous side will take heart with yet another installment in his “Thoughts” series, this one being part five. Layered a cappella sections via Gentle Giant battle with disjointed rhythms, creative sounds, scorching Hammond organs and invigorating extended instrumental sections. I’ll take this over a cuppa coffee any day! Stretching himself a bit, Morse presents “Freak”, an upbeat song built around a staccato string part, building big into a full orchestra before dropping off to accentuate the punch line.

And of course no Neal Morse album would be complete without at least one gigantic song. This time out its “World Without End” which runs a modest (by Morse standards) thirty three minutes. While I enjoy this song as it’s pumping through my brain the sheer scope of it has preventing the melodies from sinking in. I have little doubt that this is only temporary. I will say that this song gives Portnoy and bassist Randy George many chances to stretch out and dig deep into their immense talents and I’m hearing lots of sections that make me perk up my ears like a schnauzer hearing a can opener.

Neal Morse titled the album Momentum and a more appropriate title cannot be found. While his solo career had a rusty start as he found his footing every album since then has consistently knocked it out of the park. I keep waiting for the man to slack off and release a dud but to my immense pleasure he’s on a roll and I, for one, am happy to come along for the ride.

Review - Daniel Amos - Shotgun Angel Reissue

So, fans of classic rock operas, you think you’ve heard them all, do you? From Tommy to The Wall, you’ve got ‘em all. You even have a special place in your heart for Journey to the Center of the Earth and you’re comfortable admitting it in mixed company. But have you heard the end-times rock opera on side two of 1977s Shotgun Angel by Daniel Amos? That’s right. 1970s era end-times, as in The Late Great Planet Earth. Fortunately the anti-Christ has held off his appearance in anticipation of the expanded collector’s edition release of this unique album.

Daniel Amos started out as what would be called alt-country, if such a term existed in the mid 70s. This didn’t last for long because by Shotgun Angel, their second album, the band was less and less country (most of it to be found on side A) and more alt. Imagine Firefall or The Eagles morphing into 10cc and you’ll have an idea of the sonic transformation captured on this album. As you might expect, the vocal harmonies are incredible, the melodies indelible. And despite the 10cc influence being contained mostly to the aforementioned Side B, there’s a strong sense of humor throughout many of the songs which would help the country medicine to go down smoother (for non-country fans) if the A.M.-friendly medicine wasn’t so silky smooth to begin with.

As good as the first half is, you know you’re in for a treat when you turn the record over, or whatever it is you kids do these days. “Finale: Beresith Overture” is a true overture, blending in musical themes of every song on side B and played by an orchestra. Yep, cellos, flutes, timpani, woodwinds… the whole shebang. There was a big budget for album and it shows! All the digital scrubbing of the original master tapes doesn’t hurt either, allowing everything to shine through clearly. “Lady Goodbye,” a mournful piano ballad, picks right up after the overture, quickly fleshing out with full orchestral accompaniment to become a grand and gorgeous statement. Ominous sound effects lead the way to the creepy “The Whistler” while the brief, peppy, Beatlesque “He’s Gonna Do A Number on You” gives a break from the heady topic at hand. “Better” picks up the rock theme with loads of sizzling guitar parts injected between the vocals of “Just take my groceries and put ‘em in the sack / No checks, no cash, don’t give me no flack / ‘Cause my little number hasn’t failed me yet.” “Sail Me Away” is pure A.M. radio candy, oozing with strings and vibes and even a harp, a song which is presumably about the rapture. The alt-country element comes back in with the final song, “Posse in the Sky”, bringing the album full circle, just in time for the end of the world, er, the end of 2012, which is nigh at hand!

Review - Terry Scott Taylor - Return To The Neverhood

In the beginning Doug Tennapel, creator of Earthworm Jim, also created The Neverhood by utilizing hundreds of pounds of clay. And Doug said unto Terry Taylor, “Make me music that sounds like clay.” And Terry did. And it was very good. So good, in fact, that it won awards and cavalcades and a round of congratulatory back slaps so robust that Terry sought the anointing of St. Benjamin Gay.

Many years later, for reasons unknown to us mere mortals, after twenty years Doug and Terry decided to Return To The Neverhood, although substituting a more cost-effective comic book over a claymation-based video game. As I dearly loved to squishy, malleable, goofy, inarticulate music of the original I dutifully shelled out some cash but braced myself for the worst because we all know that sequels almost always stink like a three day old diaper. I’m happy to say that despite a reference to “pooping my pants” in the Spanish flavored song “The Love Sweet Love Suite” there is nothing stinky about Return To The Neverhood. You gots yer standard Dixieland combo on psychotropic drugs, a smattering of ethereal Star Trek vocals, a few jazzy combos with scorching trumpets, general goofing around and oodles of sticky melodies. In essence you’ve got everything that made the original so endearing. A favorite track is “Huh?” which is a peppy surf-like ditty punctuated by sax and clarinets that every now and then breaks into a spacey gush of noise that causes the mush-mouthed vocals to exclaim, “What’s going on here?” and “I don’t get it.” Seriously, I want this played at my funeral. Another zinger is “It’s a Ding Dang Day,” a lo-fi bluegrass romp that packs four minutes of fun into one minute. “Fishin’ With The Sculptor” perfectly captures the essence of the original Neverhood theme without directly quoting it, throwing in a drunken horn section that proudly makes a number of musical and amusical sounds not appropriate for mixed company.

Listen to this avant-garde folk album at your own peril: you may find yourself singing the nearly-legible lyrics at work, home, or play, thus bringing the curious looks of onlookers looking your way. You’ll have a “ding dong dickey dang day” and it will be very good.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Review - Phil Madeira - Off Kilter

This is one amazing album. Nearly every song is a homerun, or at least a triple. Out of print, though. Did I mention he used to play with Phil Keaggy and attended college at Taylor University, the Upland campus when they only had the Upland campus?

* * * * * If you saw Phil Madeira sitting alone in a café, a worn baseball cap on a head long abandoned by hair, a circle beard highlighting a face that has seen nearly fifty years of life, a sarcastic twinkle in his weathered eyes, you would find him quite approachable. Sit down and chat and you would find a very amiable, very normal "guy" making his way through life, enjoying sports and his family. Ask him about his job and you'll find that he is best "known" as a session Hammond B-3 Organ player in Nashville. He is also a co-writer of songs with many darlings of contemporary Christian music (including Amy Grant, Michael English and Michael Card), had a song included on the Touched By An Angel soundtrack and, oh yeah, one of his songs was recorded by Garth Brooks (well, his alter-ego Chris Gaines). Despite his activity in the Christian music scene, Off Kilter is not a Christian album. It is raw, dark and searching, full of the pain of life, not the pre-digested answers contained in much of the saccharine radio ditties of that genre. These songs are like the aching, unsettling part of you that only surfaces when things are very still, which is why we all stuff our lives so full of activities. But Madeira explores this hidden yearning, plumbing the depths of his own emptiness, not as someone who has all the answers as dictated by his church, but as a man in his late 40s, finding only more questions in the painful turns life throws you. While known for his B-3 work, this album is all guitar (played exceedingly well… didn't I mention that aside from drums he plays all the instruments?) matched with Madeira's naked and vulnerable tenor voice that at all times sounds like it's about to crack from the weight of the emotion it carries. The style is a kind of Americana, a blend of rock, pop, country, and blues that tends to fall into a stylistic no-man's land. While almost all of the twelve songs hit some kind of nerve with me, far and away the most resounding is "Jagged Heart". Here Madeira takes a hard look at his life with a chorus of "I've been carving/ Stripping back the bark / Rounding off the edges/ Of a jagged heart." Of course, it's the heart-rending melody that brings life to these lyrics and once again, words fail to capture such magic. Again and again, these solid songs supported by solid musicianship strike deep, hitting the hidden, longing part of you that can't be revealed to even your closest friend, and yet Phil bares his soul as only a master songwriter can, bringing the comfort of companionship to others in the midst of his own pain.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.

Review - Phil Madeira - 3 Horse Shoes

I saw Phil Madeira on tour with Terry Taylor and attended a writing workshop. Good stuff, there! I'm raking in the millions now! Plus I discovered an amazing songwriter.

* * * * *

It's always interesting when a studio musician creates a solo album, giving them a chance to showcase songs they have written instead of creating parts for the music of others. Phil Madeira is not a name you would recognize, or even know how to pronounce, but I guarantee you've heard this legendary Hammond B-3 player as he's plied his trade all over Nashville. One would suspect that this album would be drenched in the great B-3 but instead the listener is treated with lots of gentle guitar songs with many guest musicians. The entire album was inspired and actually written in 3 Horseshoes, a small pub in England, coaxed out by endless pints of British ale and the regulars who took him in as one of their own. At the time the album was written, Madeira was coming off a long concert tour and was spent, empty and exhausted. Under the caring fellowship of his newfound pub cronies, this collection of songs sing of coming out of a dark night of the soul, exploring life as just a regular guy hoping to live a meaningful life.

The music is more upbeat and looser than his previous solo album. Stylistically I am reminded of The Call mixed with Dylan and Van Morrison. Madeira's husky voice wraps around these thoughtful lyrics and sends them meaningfully into the ear of the listener. Songs like "Mysterious Ways" are typical of the hope Madeira found at this pub: "Here in the Midlands I found my spirit under a cloud in a field of green / I can't explain it, somebody woke me / I opened up my eyes and I walked into a dream." Expect to hear the unexpected: lots of acoustic guitars, fiddles, mandolins, exotic percussion, pedal steel and cellos adorn these gentle gems. Expect the unexpected... expect to find yourself in a small pub thousands of miles from home. Perhaps this is the theme of the album, this album of songs that grow on me with each listen, songs that grow deep and seem to sink into my bones and my soul.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2000.

Review - The Straw Theory

Another one that doesn't get any spin these days. It was just "okay."

When you center any band around a piano, comparisons to Ben Folds Five are inevitable. Fearing a mere rip-off band, I started the self-titled CD by The Straw Theory spinning and sat back without much expectation. And so it was that the first song tore past my ears with a runaway train tempo and blazing guitars. The piano was at the center of the song but more like a skeletal structure upon which the copious guitars would hang than an ebony and ivory skin that makes itself the auditory focus. Ben who? The album continued with song after song of solidly written songs of innocence and youth with poetic, thought provoking lyrics backed by catchy, intricately arranged melodies. "Joker's Wilde", with its excellent juxtaposition of a breezy, laid-back verse with an aggressive, angular chorus is the perfect foil to the dreamy "Man On The Moon", a song singer/songwriter Tyler Houston shares with Leigh Nash of Sixpence None the Richer and her ethereal vocals. Which is a good thing because the only weakness of this album is Houston's vocals. He handles the faster songs well but he tends to drone on in some of the slow songs, causing me great annoyance and ultimately, a quick punch of the fast-forward button. "Falling Forward" finds the band at their peak with a solid upbeat alternative radio song. Here the bass player plays sustained notes other than the chord root, creating some nice tensions in the verse that resolve in the chorus. And I would be amiss if I did not mention that "In The Future" may cause your speakers to blister and melt. All in all, an excellent first album that I would recommend to those who like their alternative rock fresh and innovative, but still rock.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2000.

Review - Lost Dogs - Real Men Cry

Lately I have really enjoyed their albums but in this period right after Gene died and they were refinding the mojo they had just found. 1992, eh? That couldn't have been all that long ago.

* * * * * Lost Dogs was formed when the leading members of four pioneering yet obscure alternative bands got together to rediscover the roots of rock and roll, resulting in 1992's Scenic Routes, a hodgepodge of musical styles running from country to gospel to blues to rock to alternative. Three more albums brings us to the release of last years Gift Horse and the passing away of member Gene Eugene, leaving many to wonder if he would be replaced, who would replace him, who could replace him, or if The Lost Dogs would even continue. Legally binding record contracts being what they are, The Lost Dogs have continued, sans replacement.

Being this is their first album as a three-piece (plus the usual ragtag of rhythm section players), it's somewhat fitting that album is quite reminiscent of the Merle Haggard-Johnny Cash feel of the very first Lost Dogs album. While Gift Horse unabashedly country with twang, this one runs the stylistic gamut, although not as much as their 1996 release Green Room Serenade. One of the joys in having four, er, three strong song writers in a group is each member has their turn at bat but as in last years release, Terry Taylor wrote nearly every song, resulting in a more uniform tone but one that is not as nearly as adventurous or as fun as it could be. Still, they take turns on vocals and guitars, including the copious vocal harmonies. Even for one such as myself who abhors the twangy end of country music, there are lots of well-written gems that are sure to be ignored by the general public. Mike Roe croons the effective ballad of a title track in a gentle tenor voice and later does his best Gene Eugene impersonation on the touching "In The Distance". "The Legged Dog" is a rollicking, humorous song about a dog (band?) that has "a few miles left." "Dust on the Bible" is appropriately of the gospel genre while "Certain Love" is an upbeat alternative country song spouting lyrics such as "I had a dream but it fell apart/ A trusted friend who broke my heart." True to form, the songs are sweet and sad, describing losses, loneliness and regret but always with a flicker of hope. While not my favorite Lost Dogs album, there is a definite charm and earnestness to these "sung from the heart" songs, a joy in being alive despite life's hardships and pains that makes this album a keeper.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2001.

Review - The Lost Dogs - Gift Horse

Oh, how I miss new music from Gene Eugene...

* * * * *

Take four alternative music pioneers (Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, Derri Daugherty of The Choir, Gene Eugene of Adam Again, and Mike Roe of 77s), throw them into a studio for a few weeks, shake gently, and out comes... a country album? Originally a side project, the Lost Dogs have released their fourth studio album, Gift Horse. While the intent of these albums has always been to hearken back to their musical roots, never has a Lost Dogs album been so country and western. Previous releases included 50s rock, bluegrass, alternative ballads, and even a novelty song but this album is unabashedly grounded in country. As always, the songs tell tales, such as "A Vegas Story" about a gambling addict selling his life for "free drinks and a dream" while "Rebecca Go Home" is a touching, sad song about innocence lost. "Diamonds to Coal" is a straight-ahead rocker while "If You Loved Here..." is an all-out hick hootenanny! "Loved and Forgiven" breaks from the general feel slightly with more of a Beach Boys/ 77's vibe in the chorus but overall, the album is much more cohesive in content and feel than previous albums.

Which is the main problem with this album. Yes, the songwriting is solid and yes, the vocal harmonies are amazing but while in past albums each "dog" brought a number of songs to the table, on this album Taylor wrote all the songs. All of them good songs, mind you, but it is the unique chemistry between these four fantastic artists that has been the real draw of Lost Dogs. Plus it's about the only time you get to hear one or two new songs from Gene Eugene, one of the best songwriters alive, since Adam Again has been on hiatus for the last half-decade... and this time there were no songs by Eugene. So yes, the songs are excellent, winning over even such an anti-country music people as myself and my brothers, but Lost Dogs raised the bar so high on previously albums that Gift Horse is more like a well groomed show pony than the Kentucky Derby winner fans have come to expect.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, March 2000.

Review - Starflyer 59 - Leave Here A Stranger

I really like this album but it depresses me and needs to be listened to in one gulp so it doesn't get much time these days.

* * * * *

Some albums are great albums, full of wonderful songs. Some albums reek to high heavens. A very select few albums are works of art. Although it may sound pretentious, Leave Here A Stranger by Starflyer59 is definitely in the latter category. From the very first spin, something about the flow, the cohesiveness of the songs and how they interact with each other makes you realize that SF59 had high aspirations for this album and that they hit their mark perfectly. While listening to this disc I am reminded at times of the landmark OK Computer, early The Cure, and Pet Sounds, lofty sources of inspiration indeed. In a conscious effort to strip down their sound, SF59 recorded the album in glorious mono, forcing themselves to distill their vision into a potent concentrate. Much like Pet Sounds, there is an amazing breadth of instrumentation including harps, saxophones, strings, timpani and more. The fact that such lush orchestrations do not cloud the songs is a tribute to all involved. As with past SF59 efforts, there is a great bit of creative use of noise and heavily reverbed guitar alongside Jason Martin's trademark wispy vocals not unlike those of Radiohead's Thom York. The songs are low-key and atmospheric yet filled with haunting melodies and arrangements. For lyrical inspiration, the band looked to their immediate world. The opening track, "All My Friends Who Play Guitar" cascades a wash of sound like the waves on a beach as Martin sings about a life spent on the road. The chorus of "Can You Play Drums?" has Martin lamenting that "I already know what we're gonna play" and in "Things Like This Help Me" he "stays up late [to] fix all the sounds." For this musical brew, all influences are fair game including The Smiths ("Give Up the War") and Roy Orbison ("Night Music"), although like the best cooks, the ingredients are combined to create a completely new dish with only hints of the original sources. My personal favorite is "I Like Your Photographs", a mesmerizing epic of a song whose topic still eludes me. The six minutes of this song are a well-written novel with chapters that flow effortlessly into each other. This beautifully lonely indie-pop masterpiece will appeal to fans of Radiohead, Belle & Sebastian, and The Smiths and is sure to send shivers of delight down your wicked spine.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2001.

Review - Randy Stonehill - Uncle Stonehill's Hat

With limit exception, Mr. Stonehill's music isn't my thing. Which is odd because one would think it would. Wood. But when it hits it hits strong. This one fails to cut the cake. Maybe I should drag it out for my kids.

* * * * * Randy Stonehill has long been known in certain circles as an enigmatic and humorous entertainer. On Uncle Stonehill's Hat, his first children's album, ol' Randy has found a creative outlet for his many stage personas.

The album itself is a narrated adventure of two snobby, rude children who visit their Uncle Stonehill (a somewhat corny Willy Wonka-ish character whose house looks like a hat) and through many adventures come to appreciate imagination and the many fine aspects of politeness. The songs themselves are quite catchy and while suited more for children do have some adiult-appeal. The dialogue, however, is often corny with exclamations such as "Earthquakes and hotcakes!" and lots and lots of puns, the overall effect of which is to limit the repeat factor for at least this "adult". Stonehill populates the adventure with many characters and voices them all, with the majority of voices unfortunately identifiable as Stonehill just doing a silly voice. Still, with fourteen songs taking up most of the album (34 of the 53 minutes) one can always program out the dialogue and enjoy the music.

Some of the better songs are "Curious", an acoustic guitar folk-pop song that encourages curiosity and sets the tone for the rest of the album and "Mouse In My House", a very simple but very catchy song about a pet mouse named "Kitty." An amazing breadth of styles ensures that even ADD children will not become bored. There's alpine ("Switzerland"), Caribbean ("Shut De Do'"), fifties rock ("Mister Snail" sung by Snailvis) and medieval minstrel ("Beans and Franks"). One of the best is the sea-chantey "Stormy Winds", a rollicking pirate song full of accordions and sung by the members of the Good Ship Tuna Melt and the Admiral Pants Daily On. Closing the album is "Valley of the Echoes", a gentle, magical lullaby reminiscent of songs from Stonehill's timeless and much more consistent Wonderama album.

Overall I'm torn. There are some very good songs and there are some very bad puns. While there is some adult appeal, most of the album leans toward the pedantic, which makes up about 98% of children's albums on the market. My own kids (Joshua, 7, and Matthew, 3) weren't grabbed on the first listen but I did catch one of them singing the "Mouse in the House" song later that day. You can get a good impression of the album contents by visiting www.unclestonehill.com and snooping around a bit.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2002.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Review - Tony Levin - Pieces of the Sun

Tony Levin... a living legend. And yet another album that begs to be put on my MP3 player.

* * * * *

Should you look at the discography for Tony Levin you will surely wonder who he hasn't played for. In addition to his legendary work with Peter Gabriel and King Crimson, he's played for Carly Simon, Alice Cooper, Ringo Starr, John Lennon, Tom Waits, DC Talk, Michael W. Smith, Ric Ocasek, Pink Floyd, Stevie Nicks, Laurie Anderson, James Taylor, Yes, Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler, Indigo Girls, Warren Zevon, Paula Cole and Chuck Mangione, just to name a very limited few. Levin also developed Funk Fingers which are essentially small drumsticks attached to the fingers and designed to hammer on the bass string.

Pieces of the Sun is the follow-up to his 2000 solo album, Waters of Eden, utilizing the same group of uber-musicians to flesh out his ideas. The album opens with Larry Fast's immediately recognizable keyboard playing, epic and hopeful, before chaotic drums and manic bass stage a chase scene through an electronic funhouse. In the midst of this madness is a quiet acoustic respite compliments of The California Guitar Trio, followed by more powerful themes. With acoustic guitars and a medieval melody, "Aquafin" brings to mind a relaxed Phil Keaggy acoustic piece. Speaking of great guitarists, Jesse Gress plays a mean axe on the title track which opens with a simple drum pattern that repeats as ominous, thick keyboards drift overhead. Later, percussive Funk-Fingered bass provide stark contrast to the soaring Satriani-like guitar melodies. Originally written and recorded by Peter Gabriel but never released, "Dog One" is a fun, rubbery song that would have been at home on Adrian Belew's Twang Bar King. Also in the Belew-vein is "Ooze" with a monolithic melody, Funk-Fingered guitar, cello (played by Levin), and Belew-esque guitar noodlings, all reminding me of the more esoteric tracks from Belew's forgotten instrumental Desire Caught By The Tail. "The Fifth Man" is a wild experiment in cross-rhythms with excellent drumming by Jerry Marotta and Levin on the Chapman stick, a unique 12-string instrument where the strings are tapped, allowing for complex, multi-part arrangements to be played with both hands. Originally played exclusively with keyboards on Synergy's Cords album, "Phobos" is an intricate, fast-paced composition full of cross-rhythms and insanely complex parts, even for a computer, yet played to perfection by these impossibly talented musicians.

While some solo albums written by bass players feature the low-end to ridiculous extremes, Levin is first and foremost a musician and while the bass is always present and always interesting, it is not the focus. Instead, the focus is on the twelve well-written, often cinematic instrumentals that will appeal especially to fans of King Crimson and Peter Gabriel but also to those who enjoy jazz-fusion, creative instrumental compositions and dead-on musicianship.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2002.

Review - Everygrey - In Search of Truth

So it turns out that at the time I apparently enjoyed Pain of Salvations The Perfect Element... GO FIGURE! I can't believe I ripped into this band like I did. I must have really hated the album. I received two more Evergrey albums in later years but declined to review them, meaning that like my elementary school peers, they must be somewhere in my basement.

* * * * *

The handful of my elementary school peers that aren't currently occupying real estate underneath my basement will attest that that I have an affection for monster, horror movies, and creepy things that make noises in the night that don't result in an expensive furnace repair bill. When I heard that Evergrey's third album, In Search of Truth, was a theme album based upon an ominous storyline I was able to overcome my aversion to usual Swedish prog-bands. As it goes, In Search of Truth should appeal to fans of the X-Files episodes that deal with aliens and government conspiracy, especially if said fans also like Dream Theatre, Queensryche, King Diamond and Iron Maiden.

"I have decided to keep this tape recorder with me at all times. Just so that I maybe one day can explain all the strange things happening to me… the sensation of never being lonely...always being watched..." And so begins the album which details an alien abductees struggle to understand what is happening to him before dive-bombing into fast and furious Swedish prog-metal with Yngwie Malmsteen-like chromatic solos. The nine tracks continue in this gothic prog-metal with constant displays of technical virtuosity and the occasional sidetrack of adding a passage of haunting piano, mixing in neo-classical ideas, or augmenting the male singers already emotive vocals with female vocals or a choir. The good points: strong vocals and lots of great keyboard. The bad: with few exceptions, it all sounds the same. And instead of eerie, this non-believer finds the story cheesy.

A lot of people are going ga-ga over this album but even after multiple listens spanning a period of two months, I'm still waiting for something to stand out to me, for some interesting hook to catch my tender flesh. So far nothing has, er, abducted my attention or imagination (sorry… I couldn't resist). Maybe I'm wrong and the "lot of people" are right, but the next time I'm in the mood for melodic, dark, goth, power-prog metal I'll put on either Pain of Salvation's The Perfect Element or Blackwater Park by Opeth. You know… the classics.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2002.

Review - Pain of Salvation - The Perfect Element

Blah blah blah... it's a prog metal band and if you like Queensryche blah blah blah...

* * * * *

With a name like Pain of Salvation, you might envision this band to be a hardcore death metal outfit. Have a seat and pour yourself a your beverage of choice because instead of songs about death and corruption, this album contains songs about death and corruption. Well, it's not quite like that. Poised to take over the crown of progressive metal from such heavyweight bands as Dream Theater and Queensryche, Pain of Salvation follows up their critically acclaimed One Hour By the Concrete Lake with The Perfect Element, disc one in a two part saga that follows two broken individuals, their losses, problems, and eventual violence. Stylistically POS combines a metal edge with diverse and melodic arrangements, utilizing aspects of jazz-fusion and classical music structures. At this point I admit that this all sounds a bit heady, but when it gets down to it, these boys can rock and not just in cold technical sense. The music is so well written and accessible that the melodies capture you even on first listen through this 72-minute opus. It's only after repeated listens that you detect the complex arrangements and repeated motifs that tie the album together into more of a journey, a complete book whose chapters are songs that melt seamlessly into each other. While at times the music gets a bit grandiose and the vocalist a bit melodramatic, the breadth of emotions and musical styles covered on this album are breathtaking and more than make up for any overcomings.

"Used" introduces the main characters with pounding poly-rhythms and harsh, rap-like vocals similar to Faith No More that break into a very melodic chorus. This bright chorus unfortunately happens quite a bit in the early half of the album but not so much that it distracts or becomes a cliché of itself. Acoustic guitars and piano contrast with powerful surges on "Ashes", creating a haunting and dark atmosphere set amongst whispered vocals of "This pain will never end/ These scars will never mend." "Morning on Earth" brings a calm to the storm, fully utilizing the "music box" musical theme that runs throughout this project. The album ends with the title track, a ten-minute epic that embraces the best of the previous tracks in terms of composition and atmosphere, summing up the album with fits of rage and rest. Throughout every song, astounding musicianship serves the songs instead of the other way around. Fans of Queensryche and intelligent rock owe it to themselves to check out this latest offering from Pain of Salvation.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2001.

Review - Pain of Salvation - Remedy Lane

Just like Dream Theater, POS doesn't do much for me. I'm glad that I don't have to write reviews anymore where I feel compelled to conjure up some positive statement just because the label gives me free music. But for a while it helped with the bills.

* * * * * Pain of Salvation has been heralded by many to be the heirs apparent to the Progressive Metal throne, seizing the crown from the head of Dream Theater itself. Remedy Lane, only their fourth album, is full of their deeply emotional melodies and accomplished technical prowess that is rarely used in excess, features that have made them favorites of fans and critics alike.

Instead of being part two of last years incredible The Perfect Element, the band decided to put off completing the set. What they have delivered instead is more of their raw, earthy sounds mixed with anguished melodic vocals. A concept album in the classic sense with the songs grouped into three "chapters", Remedy Lane is about failed relationships and the thin line between love and sex. The aptly titled "Beginnings" opens the album, setting the tone with ominous overtones painted by broad strokes of distorted guitars. An almost spooky, intricate guitar line from "Ending Theme" introduces a musical motif that repeats later in the album, creating continuity. Quiet, spoken lyrics alternate with jagged guitars that lead the way to "Fandango", a wonderfully aggressive song with staccato Faith No More vocals, complex drum rhythms, and an oddly figured melody. The melodic rock of "This Heart of Mine" conceals a sweet, appealing 70s pop melody that closes the first chapter.

The second chapter focuses lyrically on perspectives of sadness, anger and despair. Highlights include the chaotic, irregular rhythm of the cinematic "Rope Ends" and the "Celtic Rock Band in Arabia" sound of "Chain Sling" which evokes nostalgic wisps of Zeppelin and Jesus Christ Superstar. In stark contrast is "Dryad of the Woods", a five-minute instrumental of piano, acoustic guitars, and light strings that would be at home on any dental office radio station.

The final chapter ponders the question of "Am I my brother's keeper?" Nice bits here include the Blue Oyster Cult overtones of the reflective power ballad "Second Love" and the intricate layered vocal lines of "Waking Every God." The final track, "Beyond the Pale" includes just about a bit of everything. With aggressive and chunky guitar riffs, sections of choral calm, soaring vocal passages, and episodes of contemplative guitars, this ten-minute song is the kind of stuff that makes fans of early Dream Theater drool uncontrollably.

More than just one of the many Dream Theater or Rush clones, Pain of Salvation has the rare ability to assimilate their influences and create something new. In addition whereas much in the progressive genre is just head music these songs encompass a full range of emotions, digging deep into the heart of the listener. While this album is not as good as The Perfect Element 1, Remedy Lane is definitely stronger than the cheesy "80's metal" cover would imply.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2002.

Review - Derek Sherinian - Inertia

Heh heh heh... I said "Tickled the plastic planks."

* * * * *

Call me a doofus, but when I put on an instrumental CD written by one of prog-rocks best known keyboard players, I expect, nay, I demand lots of hefty keyboard chops to dazzle my brain and make my jaw drop like an amusement park thrill ride. At least that is what I hoped for when I spun Inertia, the first solo album by Derek Sherinian, a man who has tickled the plastic planks for everyone from Alice Cooper to Dream Theater to Planet X. It's not as if there isn't copious amounts of keyboard, but I was hoping for some serious shredding, and it just isn't here. Instead, most of the songs appear to be guitar-driven with keyboard interludes. Regardless, the ten instrumental tracks are all very well written, each showing Sherinian's mastery of composition and his generosity in allowing his guitar-playing friends to dominate the tracks.

Stylistically the title track reminds me of early Satriani, although the guitar is played by session guitarist extraordinaire Steve Lukather. Becki-ish melodies combine with a jazz-fusion groove and Holdsworthian keys to make an exciting album opener. Zakk Wylde joins the fray in "Evel Knievel", a thrilling rock ride as manic as any stunt performed by the title daredevil. With his signature metal riffs, Zakk brings an adventurous sense of danger to this arrhythmic song, one of the best on the album. "La Pera Loca" (The Mad Dog) opens with be-bop piano amidst a wash of percussion sizzle before becoming the raging beast, this time played by Lukather. Here the guitars and heavy rock organ trade licks like a mad dog, savagely running, spittle flying, only to stop abruptly, wait a beat, and then take off in the opposite direction. In "What A Shame", Lukather plays a heart-rending melody over arpeggio piano as the song slowly heats to a raging frenzy with Wylde adding his aggressive tone to the mix. Other highlights include a dark and heavy cover of the Edgar Winter's "Frankenstein", the very progressive "Rhapsody in Black", and the sultry jazz undertones of "Mata Hari". As stated above, you're not going to find buttloads of blistering keyboard here (which is not to say that there isn't any, just not buttloads) but you will find ten well-written instrumental tracks full of dead-on playing well worth multiple listens for instrumental rock fans. I bet this goes platinum in Japan.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, May 2001.

Review - Event - The Human Condition

I'm sure having intelligent Christian lyrics didn't hurt but this band is one that I dug back out years later and currently enjoy now and then. They only had two albums, at least that I received to review. Time to do some research and see if they're still active.

* * * * *

The first time I heard this CD it left me cold- indeed, this is a strange bunch of animals. But the more I listen, the more I discover and the more it grows on me. Formed by gaggle of Berklee Music School grads, Event reinvents progressive metal by combining a dizzying array of influences, shellacked in a cold, metallic, mathematical, futuristic vibe. Juxtaposed against this mechanical music are startlingly personal lyrics expressing rage and doubt, plus the usual intellectual musings. As an extra bonus, lots (and I mean oodles) of wild electronic washes and sounds that defy description are entwined in the often arrhythmic melodies. But how about those songs, eh? "Blind" begins with a dirty, crusty bass sound that explodes into a chunky rhythm similar to vintage King's X while "The Director" is all over the place, combining a King Crimson sense of experimentation with a frenzied wall of noise that threatens to tear your speakers to shreds. The title track has some freaky background vocals and while the lyrics aren't horribly original, of all the songs on the album this one has the most solid and consistent groove with only three or four ear-bending about-faces. "Drug of Choice" mixes Fates Warning with Queensrych in a raw, funk groove that intentionally stumbles in the chorus like a shattered theorem. Switch to "New Chemicals" and you'll find Alice in Chains and Faith No More. Other tracks on the album dip their toes in Tool, Soundgarden, Nine Inch Nails, and Gluelag while musical styles blend in blues, jazz, fusion, industrial and some stuff which is downright disturbing and definitely outside the lines. True to progressive metal, each member of the band is an outstanding technical player. Of special note is guitarist Shaun Michaud whose style bridges the gap between Brian May and Primus. While the music is a bit too clinical for my tastes, it is fascinating nonetheless. Dream Theatre prog-rock this is not. In fact I can say with certainty that this is like nothing you've heard before - it's creative, edgy and innovative. Odd riffs combat lush melodies in a sea of molten plasma... a walk on the wild, weird side of progressive music. It's about time someone took us there.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2001.

Review - RPWL - Trying to Kiss the Sun

A decent band that got better with subsequent albums. Not being a huge Pink Floyd fan they only wound my clock halfway, but sometimes a halfway winding is what a body needs. This was one of the early albums that Inside Out America sent me. Before long this prog-rock label was sending me everything they put out, giving me a deep exposure to the genre.

* * * * * While RPWL started as a Pink Floyd cover band, it wasn't long before the muses took over, forcing them to create original, albeit similarly styled, music. Trying to Kiss The Sun is the long-awaited follow up to their critically acclaimed 2000 release God Has Failed. Reveling in the mid-to-late 80s Pink Floyd sound, the five-piece RPWL creates music that ebbs and flows like the ocean, sonically filling the aural landscape with shimmering sounds that fill every crevice.

The title track opens with a coral sitar, giving a mystic mid-eastern feel before the equally ethereal guitars enter. With elements of The Church, RPWL offers soundscapes that are rather song oriented but with poppy edges, which makes them appeal to more than hardcore shoegazer music lovers. More sitars are to be found in the up tempo and melodic "I Don't Know (What It's Like)" which bears a striking resemblance to the later music of Irrwisch. "Side By Side" passes eight minutes in length but uses this time to create a nice build up, starting with a lone vocal and acoustic guitar and moving to a near orchestral level, ending with wind chimes and appropriate whispy sounds, all in a nice Floyd-ish manner. Another lengthy song is "You" with nearly seven minutes of sonic glee, starting strongly with hints of later Kansas but immediately backing off, allowing the song to grow and breath. The vocal harmonies and chorus of this track especially reminded me of Lapse of Reason-era Pink Floyd. A bit out of character but of great appeal to my ears is "Sugar for the Ape", a gritty, near-rock song with a great riff in the verse and a lofty, clean, soaring chorus that adds nice contrast to the previous dirt. The song ends with a solo piano fade out featuring a variation of King Crimson's "Court of the Crimson King." The closing track, "Home Again" is another stretcher at nine minutes in length, pleasantly combining innovative guitar tones with a strong melody and hints of 80s pop from bands like Asia and Toto.

More than just a Pink Floyd rip-off band, RPWL captures the essence of this great band and filters it through their own lens, creating memorable, well constructed songs that bear their interesting and developing sound. For fans of 80s-era Floyd I cannot recommend enough this tantalizing album of powerful, melodic, mentally and emotionally engaging songs.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2002.

Review - California Guitar Trio - CGT+2

The problem with reposting all these ten year old reviews is that I keep reminding myself of albums that I probably should revisit but I don't have time to listen to my current crop of music. When I DO go back and listen to these I find my original conclusion stands. But I'll dutifully dig out CGT and see if they are still "pretty good" or if this time they blow me away. Every now and then this happens... like with Mark Heard.

* * * * * You'd be tempted to think that three amazing guitarists all going at once would be prone to step all over each other's toes, making a muddy sonic mess of battling egos. But if those three guitarists are really, really good and are secure enough in their musicianship and masculinity they know how to work with each other instead of battling for aural territory. Such is the case with Bert Lams, Paul Richards, and Hideyo Moriya, who collectively are known as California Guitar Trio.

For their latest album, CGT+2, these three former students of guitar visionary Robert Fripp have teamed up with the bass-man's bassist Tony Levin and the always masterful Pat Mastelotto on "traps and buttons" to create fourteen memorable instrumentals that range from Japanese traditionals to classic rock to full-out bizarre. Unlike their past albums, which at times had the tendency to become a bland flurry of riffing fury, the addition of these seasoned veterans seems to have added some soul and passion to their compositions.

The first track that caught my attention was their amazing version of the classic Yes song "Heart of the Sunrise" which CGT begins with the intro to "Long Distance Runaround", a well-known riff that is then strategically placed throughout the song so as to keep the listener off balance, resulting in a fresh take on a familiar favorite. "Zundoko-Busho" is based on a traditional Japanese melody but with excepts from King Crimson's "21st Century Schizoid Man", all set against a pulsing Peter Gunn riff. Spanish guitar and flamenco flourishes set against a 14/4 time signature open the album in "Melrose Avenue" in a track so well paced and arranged that the listener is caught up in the dramatic development of the melody instead of being mired in the technical prowess of the musicians. "Train to Lamy" opens with scorching, dirty blues the morphs effortlessly into a jaw-dropping country hoe down with a barrage of fancy picking sure to satisfy any banjo aficionado.

While most of the music is full of warmth and emotion, CGT could not resist adding a few experimental tracks for those who prefer to think about, rather than feel, their music. "What I Am" and "The Chase", the last two tracks on the CD, fall into this category, each a patchwork of sound clips, hyper guitar noodlings, other-worldly sounds, and oddly juxtaposed rhythms. Equal time is given in "Eve", a simple but romantic ballad of acoustic guitars that is all melody and emotion.

Instead of intimidating the listener with impossibly complex technical music CGT was able to weave these behind great melodies and well-paced instrumentals. While the breadth of music on this album will impress even non-guitarists, those who will drool the most are fans of progressive guitar music, fans whose lives are but empty shells until they hear these astounding compositions.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2002.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Review - Galactic Cowboys - Let It Go

The drummer switch on this last album was because Alan decided that he wanted Wanda, who just happened to be married to Ty Tabor of the cousin-band King's X. Whole lotta mess because of that. Whole lotta really good music, too. There's rumors that fences have been mended and that the Cowboys are back working together again, but I've yet to hear anything concrete.

* * * * * When I heard the Galactic Cowboys debut album in 1991, I was convinced it was too heavy for me. By the end of the album I had been thoroughly seduced by their great song writing, heavy rhythms, intricate four-part vocal harmonies, and ability to turn on a musical dime. They only improved on their next album, Space In Your Face which I consider one of the top twenty albums ever. Over the years, GC has dropped much of the progressive trash/metal aspects of their music, putting out heavy modern rock albums that fellow Texans musicians (and similarly styled) King's X would do well to observe. Their latest, and last, album Let It Go is no exception.

More than on previous albums, Let It Go is full of great songs that could easily receive radio play. As eclectic as ever, these songs range from the acoustic "Ordinary" to the pop/rock of "Disney's Spinning" to the prog-metal meets Sabbath of "Different Way". As always, the rhythms are heavy and infective with a sweet layer of rich vocal harmonies over the top. With their usual humor, these anti-Indigo Girls take on NP radio, the media, TV talk shows, and even take a jab at Korn and Sepultura. As they are disbanding after this album and tour, they've included more studio-outtakes than usual, "additions" that actually detract from the album. The majority of these are short and you can skip over them, but by far the worst is at the end of the last song, a nine-minute montage of noise that is neither pleasant nor humorous. But that said, there is plenty of incredible music here. There are full-out scorchers like "T.I.M." and "Dirty Hands" with enough energy and melodic hooks to make even the most jaded misanthrope crack a smile. The emotive "Life And Times" is a modern day version of The Beatles' "In My Life" with the same melancholy feel and tight vocal harmonies. The last song, the appropriately named "The Record Ends", has the forced peppy sound of Foo Fighter's "My Poor Brain" and includes such telling lines as "Don't' be a beast / At least I gave the thing a try." With this last and final album, the Galactic Cowboys have more than tried, they have succeeded in creating yet another album of compelling songs that mix melody, energy, emotion, and originality in a way that only they can. Adios Cowboys, thanks for the veal!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, August 2000.

Review - Supershine

I haven't listened to this one since I reviewed it and I have no interest in hearing it again. For some reason Ty Tabor's side projects often make me giddy while Dougs, or Dugs, side and solo stuff doesn't work for me.

* * * * *

King's X was one of my favorite bands during college thanks to their powerful guitar riffs, rich vocal harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, and a penchant for melodies. It's no surprise then that I check out each album their various members work on as the band enters their "White Album" phase. The latest is Supershine, a pairing of King's X bassist/vocalist Doug Pinnick and Bruce Franklin of the classic stoner-rock band Trouble. This debut album contains hints of both bands but the balance is maintained such that the songs are not derivative of either. Instead, these twelve songs combine the fuzzy guitar tones, minor key melodies, and massive riffs of Franklin with Pinnick's hefty vocal cords and thundering bass lines. Indeed, both King's X and Trouble cite Black Sabbath as an influence and this is clearly evident in these songs.

The album explodes with "Take Me Away," a song with a very heavy, very catchy riff that is about as close to King's X as this album gets. Here especially Pinnick's highly underrated vocals are honest and full of emotion. "Kingdom Come" contains a mud-on-yer-boots Sabbath riff that is quickly followed by the melodic "One Night", an almost upbeat, almost pop song which contains some of Franklin's best playing in years. Supershine shows their classic rock influence with a dead-on cover of Grand Funk's "Shinin' On". Other album highlights include "Candy Andy Jane" which takes the opening riff of the Ten Years After classic "I'd Love To Change the World" and transforms it into a powerful metal riff and a great song. The final track, "Shadows/Light" is a departure from the Sabbath-soaked riffs into a sobering song filled with acoustic nuances and a moody Hammond B-3. Although comparatively quiet, the song is a powerful tribute to Pinnicks ability to write lyrics that go straight to the soul. Not to be outdone, Franklin's solo work on this song is equally haunting and effective, bringing out the solitude of the lyrics.

If you're looking for King's X with this album, you'll be greatly disappointed. Instead, the chemistry between Franklin and Pinnick has brewed up a pot of groove-based, heavy-edged 70's rock, massive, rumbling bass lines, and a mind-melting array of guitar riffs that are perfectly at home in these well-written songs.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, February 2001.

Review - Jughead

This album lead to the discovery of The Mustard Seeds, another super duper band of Christian heavy power pop. It's been over ten years... how about another Jughead album? Pretty please?

* * * * *

Every now and then, just as I'm slipping into a chronic state of musical ennui, an album comes along to rudely shake me out of my doldrums. The self-titled album by Jughead was just such a musical slap in the face.

When you consider the members of this new band it's no surprise. Ty Tabor, best known for his amazing guitar prowess as part of the legendary King's X, adds his astounding fret skills but in an unusual turn, only sings lead on two songs, although his frequent background harmonies are prominent. And who better to match Ty's impeccable technique except accomplished Jazz bassist Matt Bissonette who adds his impressive vocals to the project. Forming an ultra-solid rhythm section as only symbiotic siblings can, Greg Bissionette plays drums. Together these brothers have played for such luminaries as Joe Satriani, Santana, Steve Vai and David Lee Roth. Adding a tastefully restrained amount of keys is Derek Sherinian, formerly of Dream Theater. With all these progressive and technical credits one would think that the music would be equally esoteric, but one would be wrong. Infusing hints of Beatles and 70s arena rock with the best of today's modern sound, Jughead is quality rock music without pretension, destined to appeal to anyone willing to listen. I can really see this album going over well in Fort Wayne but it would take a station like WXKE (nudge, nudge) to play music not programmed by the radio illuminati.

Many of the songs fall into the "fun, fast guitar rock" category. "Halfway Home to Elvis", "Snow In Tahiti", "Be Like You" and the aptly named "Bullet Train" with it's rich vocal harmonies all satisfy your need to rock hard and fast with each song containing enough combustible energy to make the bedridden attempt the jitterbug. "Promise" is a continuation of Tabor's Safety solo album where he contemplates his broken marriage and a time before "feelings were stronger than a promise." Unlike Safety, this song is neither depressing nor self-indulgent, thanks to buzzing guitars, classic overdriven Hammond organ, and a rollicking rhythm. Capturing the same lonely feel as Zeppelin's "The Rain Song", "Waiting on the Son" contains a wonderfully fun and bouncy bass line along with some tantalizing vocal harmonies. Matt opens "Yesterday I Found Myself" with the lyrics "Yesterday I cried balloons / Rubber tears came out like water on the moon" before a crushing wall of guitars enter, dark, heavy and very reminiscent of classic King's X. If you weren't having fun yet, "Flowers" will most certainly make you smile. Opening with a zooming rhythm and group whistling, the verse contains a strong Spanish influence before charging into the big, bright, happy sing-along chorus of "Today's the day/ I'm on my way / I'm bringing flowers to the girl I love." The final track, "Paging Willie Mays" is Magical Mystery Tour- era Beatles meets Pink Floyd at a Foo Fighters concert with a sedate, hypnotic verse rudely pushed aside by a gruff wall of guitars, all adorned with cello and mellotron.

There's nothing startlingly new or innovative about Jughead's sound or songwriting structures, it's just eleven hyper-kinetic, mind-melting, huge sounding, colorful, uber-melodic rock/pop/power pop songs in the vein of Foo Fighters and Stone Temple Pilots. Buy this album now!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2002.

Review - Jelly Jam

My, what a long, long review. Not much else to add, I suppose, except that I still listen to this one now and then, a whopping ten years later. The trio just put out a new album, their third, and the rumors are that a fourth is in the works. Oh joy! Oh rapture!

* * * * *

To me, the last King's X album sounded like they were just going through the motions, hashing together ten quick songs to fulfill contractual obligations. Doug dominated the tracks, making it sound like a Pound Hound project, and Ty apparently spent most of the album in the john.

Or maybe his creative juices were busy collaborating on his latest side band, The Jelly Jam.

When the keyboardist for his first side project, Platypus, decided to leave the band, the remaining members knew that there was still plenty of magic to be mined. Working in the familiar confines of a three-piece combo, guitarist/vocalist Ty Tabor of King's X, bassist John Myung of Dream Theatre, and drummer Rod Morgenstein of Dixie Dregs have created an album of songs that far surpasses anything recorded by Platypus. Less jazzy and more rock-n-roll than their earlier work, these songs start strong and get stronger. On the first listen you may find a track or two that you enjoy but give it three more spins and it'll plow into you line an angry linebacker on steroids. So good are these tunes that I've been putting off reviewing this album just so I can justify a few more listens. Where most albums begin to lose their luster after five spins past these jaded ears, this album is well into the twenties and I still love what I hear.

Imagine crunching 70's era rock with a bit of classic prog, add Beatlesque vocal stylings, astounding guitar tones, appealing melodies, and death-defying drum work that even non-drummers notice, and you have The Jelly Jam. The first track, "I Can't Help You", is dense and heavy, charging through gritty progressive meter changes with a great in-the-gut riff. The funky wah guitar of "No Remedy" will remind fans of prime King's X while "Nature's Girl" features frenzied guitars battling to reach the half-time candy chorus. "Feeling" is the first song that broke me wide open. Lyrically set on Ty's "busted marriage", this song is packed with emotion. Loping bass lines and a complex drum figure in the verse make way for an ultra-crunchy and powerfully intense bridge. Ty's clean vocals part the waters with "Leave me my red cherry wine/ And I know I'll be doing just fine / 'Cause I'm keeping this deep heart of mine / From feeling" as the song segues into a placid, extended solo section reminiscent of "The Burning Down" from the classic Gretchen album, later rising again like the Phoenix, building more tension to unbearable levels. With no chance to recover, The Jelly Jam next hits you with "Reliving", a song slower in tempo but just as heavy with heartfelt anguish and crying, screaming guitar. The title track opens with the same guitar figure used in "Reliving" but these talented musicians turn it into a spacey six-minute impromptu jam. I'm not sure if Ty is trying to say something about his "home" band with "I Am The King" but this heavy humdinger with killer drums packs a powerful wallop, juxtaposing an angsty chorus with a calm verse. "The King's Dance" is an instrumental based on the melodies from the previous track, all of which melts into "Under The Tree". Here an Asian-influenced verse comes head to head with a crushing ball bridge full of distortion. The second half of the song is an extended, spacey solo, again like the classic early King's X albums, featuring Ty's signature guitar tone.

The flow of this album, with songs borrowing themes from one another, leads to a very coherent and always interesting album. The music is complex but doesn't reveal it's true nature unless you are listening for it, masked as it is in easily digestible melodies and great vocals. While I've made many comparisons to early King's X albums, the biggest hit is in terms of feel. There is a chemistry going on here, a spark between three musicians at the top of their craft, each excited to be a part of a kinetic creativity that can't be formulated by studio gizmos. This one's a solid 10… what more can I say?

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, April 2002.

Review - Atomic Opera - Gospel Cola

Atomic Opera was yet another Sam Taylor band, the same guy who brought King's X and Galactic Cowboys to the public, so my hopes were high. He also did a Third Day album or two but I haven't checked into those yet. Or ever. Maybe one day. But back to Atomic Opera... it just doesn't do it for me. It's too, what, clean? Surgical? Medieval? Sorry, guys.

* * * * *

I'm supposed to like Atomic Opera. I mean, it has all the ingredients that I like: heavy rhythms, intelligent lyrics, shifting meters, eccentric instrumentation and plentiful harmonies, just to name a few. But something is missing from this recipe that makes it more of a swill than a stew. With the above facts in mind, I've given this album more than its share of spins in the hopes that something will click, hoping that I will learn to like it at least as much as their first release For Madmen Only. Perhaps it is the vocals. Frank Hart has a clean, nearly operatic tone that is horrendously free from any grit. Likewise for Kemper Crabb whose voice is at least original but so mellow that its soothing timbre is more fit for a choir than a rock band. Perhaps it is the whole baroque/metal feel of the album, a kind of internationalization of the music without remembering that music needs a soul. And that, more than anything, is probably the key. Yes, they switch meter with the ease of a master juggler, yes they mix calypso with rock with folk with medieval song, but without a soul, without the means to reach into my chest and make me feel something, it's all just head music.

But for all of the above, I can respect the music of Gospel Cola and what they are trying to achieve, much in the same way that I can enjoy the music of Rush, Kansas, and Dream Theatre, music that also fails much of the time to reach me emotionally. For fans of this ultra-progressive type of music, dive right in... the water is great! Not only will you find pentatonic and eastern tone scales-a-plenty but some great intellectual lyrical fodder. The opening track, "Jesus Junk" finds the band taking a humorous look at the same sub-sub-culture that created WWJD bracelets while in "Silence" Hart implores "Why is there so much hate?" against some of the most emotive, chunky rhythms on the album. Fans of Kemper Crabb will not be disappointed as this medieval sage gets plenty of room to play mandolin, dulcimer, recorder, bouzouki, harmonica, and ocarina. "The Circle Is Closed" is classic Crabb, with a slightly lilting melody and soaring chorus backed against a deluge of buzzing guitars, progressive percussion and monkish backing vocals. All in all, I admire what this band is trying to do and they are so close in achieving it. If they could only get that magic ingredient into their mix, perhaps the right producer, they would have a fine stew indeed!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, July 2000.

Review - Crunchy - All Day Sucker

There are quite a few Crunchy albums but at the time it sounded a lot like Good Charlotte and I've not jumped back to find out what else Monty has been up to. Plus, at the time, I wrote to Mr. Monty and feel like he kind of brushed me off. It's not like I needed him to come over for crumpets and tea but I got the impression that he was annoyed by my e-mail, which is only fitting because I'm a very annoying guy. My wife is a saint for putting up with me.

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When I learned last summer that Galactic Cowboys were going to ride off into the sunset for the last time, I cried like a schoolgirl. Well, perhaps not but they did put out two incredible albums and a number of releases that fell into the "better than most of the trash out there" category. It turns out that Monty Colvin, the frantic red-haired bassist (who nearly sweated on me at Piere's back in '93) wanted to pursue other ventures, those ventures becoming his band Crunchy and their eventual album All Day Sucker. A more appropriate name would be difficult to find as this collection of supercharged power-pop songs buzz along on a cloud of crunchy guitar tones. Alas, fans of Galactic Cowboys won't find the heavy, progressive rhythms of the early GC albums but instead will be treated to fourteen well-written excursions into the mind of Monty Colvin who incidentally wrote quiet a bit of the Galactic Cowboys material. For most of this album, Monty plays rhythm guitar and I miss his bass antics. Although the bass is capably handled by Scott King, he doesn't have Colvin's ability to invoke the instruments humorous charm. But Colvin's humor is evident in the arrangements and the lyrics, when they occasionally surface through the blizzard of guitars. I love a great guitar tone probably more than the next guy but on every track they bury the lead vocals, making it a chore to decipher the amiable and cynical lyrics.

The album jolts to life with the title track, a moody but energetic power-pop gem full of the trademark Galactic Cowboys vocal harmonies. "If Only" is a definite toe tapper with more candy harmonies in the chorus while "The Thing" takes good-natured aim at the "kiddie pop" bands, many by cleverly working their names into the lyrics ("Back on the street / Bunch of pretty boys.") The sarcastic "Love (Comin' Out Of Our Ears)" makes fine use of the members of the Liberty High Pep Squad to compliment its chunky, upbeat guitar rhythms and arena-rock melody. Far and away the best track on the album is the stellar "Sorority Girl", a love song from Monty to his wife during their college days where he finds himself attracted to her because she hates R.E.M., pearls, and sorority girls. While each song is strong in it's own rights, I can't help but feel that the album would have done well with two or three less tracks. Nearly all the songs have the same tempo and while the guitar tones are wonderful, they aren't exactly varied, resulting in the loss of my full attention about 2/3 through. For all these production faults, there are some really good songs and some great melodies on this platter. Nothing mind blowing, mind you, but definitely better than most of the trash out there.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, December 2001.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Review - Spock's Beard - Day For Night

Score one for automated album recommendations! I can't believe I only sorta-liked this album... it's amazing all the way through! This was back before I admitted my love for progressive anything (rock, pop, metal, polka) so I was probably deep in denial.

I first heard of this group when CDNow recommended it based on my past purchases. Feeling adventurous, I shelled out some plastic and placed my order. At first, I found it stiff and orchestrated with too much head music and too little feel. There was too much late-era Kansas and the songs all seemed to nag at me like I had heard them before in some form or other. Knowing that sometimes "prog-rock" takes a while to grow, I made a copy for my car and decided to let it fester a while. A month later, I find it much more enjoyable than originally but still somewhat stuffy and not as alarmingly original as I had been led to believe it would be. That said, there is a lot of good in this album.

Spock's Beard is made up of five top-notch studio musicians who can honestly rock, though most of the album seems like it has been carefully laid out beforehand. Missing are the extended guitar and keyboard outings most associate with progressive rock, though in true prog-rock style many of the songs are seven and nine minutes long. This is not to say that all the songs are massive suites for of the thirteen tracks, about half are shorter, more song/melody oriented and about as radio friendly as prog-rock in the 90s can be. Their sound is a decent mixture of Yes and Gentle Giant with some very nice vocal harmonies a la' Crosby Stills and Nash. And let's not forget the dash of Cheap Trick! Of the tracks, I liked "Gibberish" with it's vocal and instrumental fugue and the tasty jazz trio found at the beginning of "Crack the Big Sky". Instruments such as saxophone, french horn and cello make appearances throughout the album, bringing with them some refreshing novelty. Perhaps the most touching song is "Can't Get It Wrong", a quiet piano-driven song that would have really gotten me as a typical teen with lyrics of alienation such as " I don't want to be alone anymore/ Why can't I be somebody else?/ Why must I see through these strange eyes?" The album seems geared for both the prog-rock and modern rock audiences and while both would probably enjoy this release if they got a chance to hear it, the album will probably miss targets.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2000.

Review - Spock's Beard - V

This is the Spock's Beard album that grabbed me but good! Yeah, I liked Day For Night and often reach for it to this day, but this is the one that is perfection in my ears.

Well scoop me off the floor and call me Nancy! The first time I heard Spock's Beard was their last album, Day For Night. While the songs eventually grew on me, I still find the album to be a bit melodramatic. This time around, though, I was hooked from the very first note.

The album opens with a mournful grouping of cello and oboe in a chamber music-like theme. This soon explodes into the sixteen minute "At The End of the Day" which is filled with some great melodies and guitar rhythms, not to mention some badbutt bass playing. Following this huge, incredible song are four more, each one clocking in at around four to six minutes. In particular, I enjoyed the schizophrenic "Thoughts (Part II)" which begins with a soft melody and the lyrics "I thought it might be really great / To show you how I feel inside / Then I think... maybe not". The song kicks in with a wicked bass and drum riff that is interrupted briefly by a cappella fugues and string quartets before building to a heated rock frenzy. All this in under five minutes! The album caps off with its greatest achievement, a twenty-seven minute six-part opus entitled "The Great Nothing." While most bands flounder in anything longer than four minutes, the long form is the natural habitat of Spock's Beard. There is a common lyrical theme that permeates this song as well as melodies that resurface periodically and tie the entire song together. At the risk of turning off would-be listeners, this song is quite symphonic in its approach to melody and form, and yet it still rocks and rocks hard. Amazingly, none of the songs on the album are bloated: every note is there for a reason. As an added bonus, the singer does not have the standard prog-rock operatic voice that unfortunately sends my teeth a'grinding.

Normally prog-rock doesn't flip me wig. I try to listen to prog-bands and can appreciate their stunning musicianship but soon grow tired of the poorly written songs, lack of attractive melody, and pretentious "intellectual for the sake of being intellectual" lyrics. With this latest album, Spock's Beard blows all that away. Like Kansas, they are able to create music that is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying, writing melodic songs that are more than just exercises in endurance. These are simply great rock songs with enough of a progressive edge to grab your ear and make you cry like a schoolgirl!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, September 2000.

Review - Spock's Beard - Snow

All the Spock's Beard albums are filled with great music but when I get a hankerin' to have my beard scratched I reach for almost any album BUT this one. Oh Spocky, why did you have to go out with a double instead of a home run?

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Spock's Beard is a band combines the progressive elements of Yes and King Crimson with astounding song writing and immediately pleasing melodies in a way that satisfies on many levels. I really loved their last album and I mean that in the Biblical sense. The songs were inventive and catchy, melodic yet progressive, and they always hit the spot, even the thirty-minute opus based on the short life of Kevin Gilbert. It seems that the band was just ramping up to Snow, a double CD concept album that has been compared to Tommy and Lamb Lies Down. The set comes in a nice hardcover book with lots of great photographs that illustrate the story of Snow, a teenaged albino with the gift to discern and change the future, as he wrestles with his changing identity from outsider to messiah to freak and back to outsider, all the while struggling to maintain his identity and humanity.

Here is where I get conflicted. There is some incredible music on this album that surpasses anything Spock's Beard has attempted but there seems to be quite a bit of filler. The first CD holds the lion's share of good tunes. "Made Alive/Overture" is perfect Spock's Beard with lots of intricately interwoven melodies in true overture fashion. "Stranger In A Strange Land" introduces Snow with acoustic guitars while "Long Time Suffering", also tasty, includes the obligatory a cappella passage. "The 39th Street Blues" is another outstanding track with some mind-blowing guitar sounds backed by grinding, distorted organs, interlaced with some Zeppelin influence and gutsy saxophone to round out the jazzy, aggressive rhythm. With acoustic guitar and flutes, the seven-minute "Solitary Soul" packs a wallop with rich Crosby, Stills & Nash vocal harmonies throughout.

A few other gems are to be found on the second disc, such as "4th of July" with a menacing piano and intriguing vocal harmonies, the angry, cathartic "Freak Boy" and "I'm Dying" with it's crunchy guitar riff and plaintive chorus melody. But to my ears there seems to be a lot of padding to make a full second disc, tracks such as "Freak Boy 2", "Devil's Got My Throat Revisited", and "Ladies and Gentleman…", which is a three minute live keyboard solo that contains no discernable melodies found on the rest of the album. While Spock's Beard tends to end their longer songs on a dramatic note, "Made Alive Again/Wind At My Back" is melodramatic and little more than cheerleading, especially at six minutes of the same brief melody played over and over, it is nearly identical to "Wind At My Back" that closed the first CD.

While I am definitely of the camp that keyboards can be used to great effect in rock music, there is just way too much synthesizer in this release. Fans of this instrument will drool at the extensive keyboard solos in the aptly named "All Is Vanity", "Devil's Got My Throat", and the many, many, many other instances that deluge the album, but they just tired me out. I also got the distinct impression that much of the second CD served to propel the story to it's conclusion while not meeting the outlandishly high musical bar that had been set by the first CD and the earlier Spock's Beard albums.

Don't get me wrong. I like this album very much and many of the songs rank among the best Spock's Beard has ever recorded. With some judicious editing to reduce the content to a single CD, this could have topped their last album. As it is, I'd recommend this release to fans of rock opera, keyboard fanatics, and Spock's Beard die-hards, of which I include myself.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, October 2002.

Review - Karma - NDV

A nice little album with some really nice songs. Add another one to the stack of albums for another listen!

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There's an old saying passed around by the old-timers that loosely translated becomes "Beware solo albums." The older village old-timers pass around an even older saying: "Beware solo albums by drummers." Fortunately, there's an even older saying quoted by old-timers on their death beds that when taken literally involves the ingesting of large amounts of guar gum, but the meaning behind this ancient wisdom is that if the music is really good, you can ignore the previous two sayings. While he calls the band Spock's Beard his home, Nick D'Virgilio, the man behind Karma, has beat the skins for bands ranging from Sheryl Crow to Tears For Fears to Genesis. On his debut solo release D'Virgilio presents himself as a talented multi-instrumentalist, playing just about every instrument, and singing, on an album full of songs that cover a wide spread of genres. Progressive rock, blues, fusion, pop, funk, country, alternative, jazz, and all kinds of things in between… they're all here and all done amazingly well. While many solo albums suffer from the "look at how technically proficient I am at all these instruments you never knew I played" syndrome (patent pending), NDV again keeps perfect time by presenting eleven exceedingly well-written songs packed with memorable hooks and melodies, all cloaked in such a broad array of styles that music lovers don't stand a chance of escaping Karma's seductive tendrils. As if this weren't enough to make any musician jealous, D'Virgilio is also an accomplished studio guru so the arrangements are top-notch and the production is crystal clear.

The treasures inside this jewel case are many. "The Game", co-written by deceased musical genius Kevin Gilbert, is a pure aural treat. Pianos and bongos explode into brilliant, melodic vocals with powerful drums in a genre halfway between a power ballad and pure rock. The title track consists only of layered vocals and percussion yet is so full and complete that you'll never miss the guitars, mostly because the chorus will haunt your every waking hour with it's chanting tribal rhythm and lyrics of "You can't hide when your karma follows you." The first three minutes of "The Waters Edge" contain overtones of Queen with solo piano and plaintive vocals but then the cello enters with powerful vocals and an amazing chorus that I would give my left buttock to have written, and you know you're a goner. Feel like a little jazz with your pop? "Dream In Red" fits the bill. For a soul fix try the ballad "Will It Be Me?" or "Come What May" for a classic piano ballad. Pure rock with heavy drums and a thick guitar riff so textured you can almost feel it on your tongue? That would be "Anything", third aisle on the left, right next to the gnarled mass of distortion marked "Forgiven." If progressive power-pop is what makes your life worth getting out of bed, there's "The River Is Wide" or the three-part "Paying The Price" which comes complete with attachments by Yes, Pink Floyd, Kansas and early King's X, all for one low price.

While it's not the greatest thing since pre-cooked pimento loaf, this album does so many things so well that it belongs in eight homes out of ten. Well-crafted, catchy songs backed with solid musicianship and flawless production… to put it simply, this is good stuff!

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, January 2002.

Review - Transatlantic - Bridge Across Forever

I like this one better than their most recent but both are still better than any album by Marvin Suggs and His Amazing Muppephone. Almost.

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Here's a good idea: take four musicians from critically acclaimed but widely unknown melodic progressive bands and make a "supergroup". Now put out an album with only four songs, two of which are almost thirty minutes long. Commercial suicide? Probably. Good eats? Definitely! The suspects in question are multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Neal Morse of Spock's Beard, Flower Kings guitarist Roine Stolt, Marillion bassist Pete Trewavas, and Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy. Last year they released their first album, SMPTe, which received the expected critical acclaim, ensuring this year's follow-up Bridge Across Forever. As a fan of melodic progressive music (as opposed to those bands which only want to show off their technical chops and the song be damned) I held my breath as I spun the CD, hoping for the former but fearing the latter. What I found is a nice amalgam of classic progressive rock and modern pop/rock, lots of memorably, hooky melodies, all presented with astounding musicianship cloaked in the guise of a good song. Actually, to this corn-fed Hoosier, the songs all have the indelible fingerprints of Morse on them (making the album sound quite a bit like the best albums by Spock's Beard) but with everyone sharing the vocal responsibilities, giving some nice variety to the mix. The entire album is very symphonic in it's structure. Each song is made up of a variety of recognizable melodies that cross-pollinate to other tracks, giving a nice cohesion to the album. For instance, the first track opens with a moving, melancholy, Morse-ish orchestral string section that develops into the "motherless children" theme that appears later in the second track. Elements of Dark Side Floyd surface later with the addition of sax and a gospel choir, which are later revoked and replaced with an aggressive rhythm and some really spicy guitar tones. The second track, at a puny thirteen minutes long, has a very "Abby Road side 2" feel about it and is literally brimming with hooks. The title track is a somber respite from the grandiose aural assaults of the previous tracks with Morse singing against piano and strings. The final track, "Stranger In Your Soul" begins with the same string passage that opened the album, albeit in a different key. After many musical changes, drawing from Supertramp to Gabriel-era Genesis to straight ahead 70s arena rock, the song, like the opening track, ends with an overblown, dramatic finale which to my ears sounds a bit overdone: a small Achilles heel for an otherwise remarkable project. As far as I'm concerned, any album that leaves it's songs in my head for days after last vibrating across my eardrums is a winner and this one has plagued me for weeks with it's astounding musicianship and catchy powerprogpop melodies. Now if only the voices would stop.

This review first appeared in WhatzUp, November 2001.