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  1. #11
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    What a busy guy Steven Wilson is, eh? In addition to helming Porcupine Tree, collaborating with Aviv Geffen in Blackfield, not to mention No-Man and Storm Corrosion, he's remixed the entire King Crimson catalogue for release, and also somehow found time to record and unleash upon us his second solo album. And even then, it's a double album, clocking in at a total of 83 minutes for the standard version, or over 125 minutes if you shell out for the deluxe, 3-CD unreleased material set. Any way you look at it, that's a hell of a lot of work! When does this guy sleep?


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    Grace for Drowning
    --- Steven Wilson --- 2011 (Kscope)


    The standard album is a two-disc set, featuring seven tracks on disc one and five on disc two, with one of the latter being a 23-minute composition. It opens with the title track, lovely lazy piano and a sound that reminds me of the summer days of my youth, great vocals and backing vocals adding to the seventies feel on this short track. It's almost ethereal, so soft and lulling that when it's very quickly over, you wonder did you hear it at all? Then we're into “Sectarian”, a much longer track at just over seven minutes, just as restrained though with easy keys and guitar, soft percussion which after a minute ramps up to allow the song expand and stretch itself, becoming more a prog-rock sound with warbly keyboard runs, dramatic filmscore-type music and somewhat discordant sax and horns, with choral vocals. Halfway though it all slows down for some nice piano and guitar, then deep horns and heavy percussion signal yet another change, and the song is only four minutes old.

    Speaking of time, we're now nine minutes into the album as a whole, and other than the choral vocals and the kind of Beach Boys-esque humming on the title track, I've yet to hear any vocals. Very jazzy piano improvisations coming up next, as the song settles down a little, and it ends as it began, quietly and softly, but still no-one has sung a word. “Deform to Form a Star” is a completely apt PT-style title, and like the previous track it starts out almost inaudibly until Wilson's beautiful piano line introduces the song proper, and finally we have singing!

    Wilson is now such a respected - almost revered - figure in the rock world, especially the progressive rock sphere - that being asked to perform on one of his albums must seem more like an honour than a favour, so both Tony Levin and the great Steve Hackett must have considered themselves blessed indeed to be allowed to participate. Wilson also uses many musicians well-known from the world of jazz, like Ben Castle, son of the late Roy, and Theo Travis, while he also enlists the help of King Crimson's Trey Gunn and Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess.

    As the first vocal song, “Deform to Form a Star” is a lovely little ballad, with gorgeous guitar work and sublime piano, and Wilson's voice lending the whole thing a real air of majesty and power. “No Part of Me” starts off with tinkling keys reminiscent of the work of Vangelis, joined by more solid piano while guitar moans in the background, then Wilson's voice comes in again, perfectly complementing the music, riding along it like a surfer riding a wave, certain in his confidence that it will bear him up and carry him where he wishes to go. String section swells behind him, the London Session Orchestra adding to his musical safety net as he travels on, a soul in flight. Guitars then get a bit sharper, a bit more insistent as the wave begins to break and Wilson heads towards shore, the roar of surf in his ears as the music bears him up. He no longer needs to sing: now he is a part of the music, playing it, involved in it, lost in it as the wave starts to dissolve and he falls forward into the raging sea, but still he knows he's safe, and continues on till he finally finds himself deposited gently on the shore by soft synth, and “Postcard” helps him to his feet.

    Another great little ballad, carried on guitar and piano, with delightful violin and cello joined by the rest of the orchestra, it's an aching, tender song with great yearning and desperation in the music. It's also the first single to be released from the album. There's a beautiful backing here from a choir, apparently called “Synergy Vocals”, and they do a fantastic job of punching you right in the heart, just at the right moment. Then it all drops away to piano and a single, lonely voice and in a moment it's over, leaving you with a sense of loss and wanting more.

    “Raider II”, which is on the second disc, is that 23-minute composition I spoke of in the introduction, and here we have a two-minute prelude, after which the curiously-titled “Remainder the Black Dog” closes the first disc. A nine-minute monster, this track opens with Genesisesque piano circa The Lamb, which is quickly joined by Wilson's vocoder-enhanced vocal, then a little later the guitars break in, courtesy of ex-Genesis man Steve Hackett, and another jazz/fusion jam results as the horns and the piano go to work, keyboards and guitar fighting it out as the song runs on. Like a lot of Wilson's work on this album there's not that much in the way of vocals, the voice being more just an onlooker or sometimes a conductor to marshall the various and varied instruments at his disposal, and ensure they're all in a harmony of direction.



    And so closes disc one, and we open the second disc with “Belle de Jour”, very like the love theme from a movie, with all instruments played by Wilson, his only other accompaniment the London Session Orchestra again. It's a bittersweet little melody, with not surprisingly a very French feel, the autoharp in particular adding an almost spiritual aura to the song. It's a short song, just shy of three minutes, with guitar and piano both vying for top billing, then we're into “Index”, which starts off with an ominous, dramatic line on guitar and drum machines keeping almost a rolling beat as Wilson sings like a somewhat unhinged enthusiast, reminding me of Marillion's “A Collection”: ”I'm a collector and I've always been misunderstood/ I love the things others seem to overlook.” Chilling, and the somewhat dissonant music adds to this sense of unease. Probably the most disturbing song of “collectors” I've heard since Arena's “The Butterfly Man”.

    “Track One” - odd, coming as it does three tracks into disc two and so essentially being the tenth track on the album - is a pastoral ballad in the style of the Moody Blues or even the Beatles - oh, wait, no it's not! Just became hard-edged guitar, spooky synth and powerful dramatic drums. Then that fades away almost to silence, before being replaced by acoustic and electric guitar to its fade. One thing you can be sure of with a Steven Wilson track, is that you can't ever be sure of anything. It may start one way, but turn suddenly and veer off on a totally different track, and if you consider yourself a hunter of song styles, it'll lead you a merry dance before - if ever - you catch it.

    And so to “Raider II”, twenty-three minutes and more than half of disc two. Opening on bassy piano with cello and violin, the vocal comes up almost as an afterthought, like someone slowly climbing out of a pit, then suddenly the music bursts out like a prog-rock prelude, something out of the back catalogue of Yes or King Crimson, and Wilson's vocal is clearer, stronger and more persistent, taking the lion's share of your attention. Flute and clarinet from Theo Travis adds a folky/jazz feel to the song, then fades out as the piano and guitar take the track in a new direction. Again. Nice piano solo from Dream Theater's Jordan Rudess, while the enigmatically-named Sand Snowman keeps a great line in acoustic guitar.

    Things evolve then into something of another jazz jam, with clarinet, sax, piano and flute all having their say, till it all calms down around the twelve-minute mark (still only halfway through!) and there's a period of slow, low, relaxed instrumental that takes us towards the next peak, choral voices and humming synth driving us slowly, like sheep on the way home, to our destination as the piano chimes out in the background, lonely flute and harmonium beckoning us on. Surprisingly, it's vocals that greet us at the sixteen-minute mark, not heard for so long now that it's easy to have slipped into the belief that this was an instrumental, but Wilson reminds us this is not so. It's only a brief few words, but it's enough to remind us that Steven Wilson the singer is still around, watching Steven Wilson the multi-instrumentalist and waiting for his chance to get back in on the action.

    Things power up and get all dramatic again at the nineteen-minute point, and it seems like this is all building to something, as the piece is now coming towards its eventual conclusion. But in fact it all builds to a crescendo and then slowly, very slowly, with feedback guitar leading the way, fades away, leaving a single bass to mark the time left, joined then by a classical guitar, some violin and some low, slow percussion to finish off this monster masterpiece.

    And he's not finished yet! You would think after an opus like that Wilson would have left it and called it a day, but there's another eight-minute song to come. “Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye” is a guitar-led ballad, Wilson's vocals the strongest and clearest they've been since disc one's “Deform to Form a Star”, and a joy to hear. Gorgeous guitar workout and a return to the seventies style of the opener, which seems an age ago now (it is: the album has now been running for almost an hour and a half!), simple but very effective melodies directed by the master and becoming much more than the sum of their parts. The closing three minutes of the track is soft, ambient keyboard and programmed sounds, leading us full circle to how it began, and ending an album that certainly lives up to its promise.


    TRACK LISTING

    Disc One: Deform to Form a Star

    1. Grace for Drowning
    2. Sectarian
    3. Deform to Form a Star
    4. No Part of Me
    5. Postcard
    6. Raider Prelude
    7. Remainder the Black Dog

    Disc Two: Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye

    8. Belle de Jour
    9. Index
    10. Track One
    11. Raider II
    12. Like Dust I Have Cleared from My Eye

    There's no doubt there's a huge amount to work through here, a lot to get your musical head around. If you're not familiar with the work of Porcupine Tree (and I'm not that well-versed in their music), and further, you know little of Steven Wilson's styles, this is going to be a hard one to pin down, there are so many different influences and sounds on it: rock, pop, jazz, blues, ambient, electronic, acoustic, film music … it really needs to be listened to with all your attention in order to be able to appreciate it. I suppose I should have waited to hear it a few more times before giving my verdict, but time is not on my side, so I've had to judge this album before I've had a chance to really sink down into it and properly experience it.

    But it's a big high-five from me. Grace for Drowning may only be Steven Wilson's second solo album, but it's clear he has honed his craft through years of playing with Porcupine Tree, as well as Blackfield, No-Man and his many other projects, to a point where he knows exactly what sort of sound he wants, and how to get it. He knows who to call in for help, and he knows also when to just let his own creative juices and immense musical talent take the floor on its own. Grace for Drowning is a personal triumph for Steven Wilson, and we can only sit and wonder what the guy is going to come up with next?
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  2. #12
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    One Among the Living --- Mystery --- 2010 (Unicorn Digital)

    You have to admire the spirit and determination of Mystery's drummer, Stephane Perrault, who in 1993 lost the use of both his legs, but refused to allow that to cut short (sorry, sorry!) his career, and became the first drummer to operate solely from a wheelchair. He's not with them now, but that story is such a triumph of the human spirit over adversity, and the power of music that I felt it needed to be related. Formed in Canada in 1986 by guitarist and keyboard player Michel St-Pere, Mystery have steadily grown their fanbase over the course of twenty-five years and now five albums, creating a name for themselves in the world of progressive rock.

    The album opens with a squealing guitar, lovely little keyboard and piano line with a vocal line by David Benoit, who later of course joined the nth incarnation of Yes, and is busily making a name for himself on their current album, Fly from Here. Just over a minute long, “Among the Living” leads into “Wolf”, a good rocker with great synthy keyboards and powerful guitars from St-Pere, plenty of typical prog influences: long keyboard passages, stabbing drum sections, intricate guitar workouts, all music to my ears! Most of the songs are relatively long, after the opener, which I see really more as an introduction or overture to the main event. This, and followup “Between Love and Hate” just miss the six minute mark, while “Till the Truth Comes Out” is over nine, but even that pales beside the multi-part composition “Through Different Eyes”, clocking in at around twenty-three minutes. More of that later.

    Right now, back to “Between Love and Hate”, which is slower, more relaxed and ambient, elements of Mark Knopfler's guitar in Michel St-Pere's almost lazy melody here, and indeed the track seems to rely more on the guitar, with less of the keyboard seen in the previous one. It seems St-Pere can shine as easily on guitar as he does behind the keyboard, and he really is the heart and soul of this band - in addition to being the founder - but much of the album stands or falls on Benoit David's gentle, soulful vocal, and in general, it stands proud. The blues influence St-Pere brings to this song marks the difference between Mystery and a hundred other prog-rock bands, that they can switch and mix styles, not being constricted to the one type of music, and it's very healthy.

    “Till the Truth Comes Out” opens on lovely acoustic guitar, reminding me of early Rush or the best of Steve Rothery, with lush keyboards joining it as the vocal comes in gently from David. You can see why he was a natural replacement for Jon Anderson in Yes: he really sounds so much like him, that if I didn't know better I might think it was the great man himself singing on this album. Speaking of great men, Mystery rope in some stellar talent to guest on the album, including Daryl Steurmer, John Jowitt and Oliver Wakeman, though on what tracks they play I can't tell you, as I've been unable to locate that information.

    In general, this is a slow, stately track with some lovely guitar and some fine keyboard melodies running through it, with a large instrumental section in the middle, vocals coming back in on about the seven-minute mark to reprise the opening and take the song towards its conclusion, acoustic guitar taking centre stage for the final part, at about 8:30, and the track finishes instrumentally, fading away which is perhaps a little of a disappointment, as I would have preferred a strong, dramatic end, but definitely a standout track so far.



    More jazzy and funky then is “Kameleon Man” (spelt that way, don't blame me!), with a lot of boogie and swagger about it, nice brassy keyboards from St-Pere as well as some pretty damn rocky guitar. It's probably the most out-and-out rocker on the album, with little of the prog rock about it, but personally it's my least favourite so far. It leads into the epic on the album; as already mentioned, “Through Different Eyes” runs for about twenty-three minutes in total, and is divided into six parts, the first of which is a nice slow ballad with great vocal harmonies and what sounds like violin or cello. “When Sorrow Turns to Pain” runs for almost four minutes, with some nice guitar touches , then “Apocalyptic Visions of Paradise” is a short instrumental, just short of two minutes, mostly carried on picked guitar backed by violin, though it's probably made on the keyboard. Very emotive though.

    One of the two longer parts, at just under six minutes, “So Far Away” reintroduces David's vocal over essentially the same melody as the previous section, still slow and stately and graceful, sailing on like some majestic ocean liner traversing a glittering sea of music and melody. The piece gets a little heavier as it reaches the halfway mark, though losing nothing of its beauty or fragility, then it drops back again to that guitar melody that opened the whole thing, joined by keys and slightly heavier percussion, choral vocals complementing Benoit David's as he sings like the very image of Anderson.

    Part IV, entitled “The Point of No Return”, gets a lot heavier with machine-gun drums and hard guitar, upping the tempo, though David's vocal throughout remains calm and composed, like someone standing in the very eye of the storm. As guitars wail, keyboards howl and drums batter him all around, he stays focussed, intent on his job and suddenly the storm passes as Part V comes in, on a gentle guitar and crying keyboard line. “The Silent Scream” is the other long section, again close to six minutes, a slow, measured, almost acoustic tune but with some truly beautiful seventies-style prog keyboard from St-Pere, and a Gilmouresque guitar solo which leads into a really dreamlike melody that carries the composition towards its final conclusion, in Part VI, “Dancing with Butterflies”.

    For a song as long as this, it's quite amazing that Mystery have resisted the urge to do the usual, as it were, and change time signatures, moods, speeds, tempos and styles, opting instead to keep the same general melody and theme throughout the whole composition, tweaking it a little here and there, but essentially not changing the overall formula, and yet ending up with an incredible piece like that. Quite astounding. And we're not finished yet.

    The title track reminds me of the general mood of “In the Air Tonight”, or perhaps some of Tony Banks' more atmospheric tracks, split open halfway through by powerful guitar and then upbeat prog keyboards as the song takes on a distinctly Genesis flavour: is that a mellotron? David's vocals are strong and forceful here, as he abandons his usual gentle tone for a much more urgent, persistent sound and Michel St-Pere cuts loose with another great guitar solo. Then “The Falling Man” has a very ominous guitar sound to it, as David cries ”Help me!” in the background. The song breaks into a pretty powerful cruncher, with heavy guitar taking the dominant role, fading right down to allow David to sing the opening lines then blasting along with him as he hits his stride, falling back again, coming in again in a mad dance that, though it seems arbitrary, is choreographed to the max.

    Certainly the heaviest track on the album, with more musical ideas than the other heavy track, “The Kameleon man”, it's a powerhouse that stomps rather than rocks, a sense of impending doom in the almost Metallica-like guitar, the keys keeping a dark counterpoint in the background. Progressive doom metal? Not quite, but definitely a different take on Mystery, a long way removed from the intricacies of the likes of “Through Different Eyes”, “Wolf” or “Till the Truth Comes Out”. They even throw in a little jolt of jazz/funk near the end. Special.

    The album closes with “Sailing on a Wing”, five minutes of very progressive rock, reminding me, inescapably, of Yes, with its acoustic guitar and alto vocals, tight bass lines and swirling keys. More great vocal harmonies put the finishing touches on the track, and indeed, on a very fine album.

    Mystery may not be known all that much outside their native Canada, but with musicianship of this calibre that is surely set to change. This album was released in 2010, so hopefully by now a lot more people have been turned on to their special brand of progressive rock, and discovered for themselves what a unique band these four guys from Montreal are. As for me, I'm off to check out the albums that led up to this. I need more Mystery in my life!

    TRACK LISTING

    1. Among the Living
    2. Wolf
    3. Between Love and Hate
    4. Till the Truth Comes Out
    5. Kameleon Man
    6. Through Different Eyes
    (I) When Sorrow Turns to Pain
    (ii) Apocalyptic Visions of Paradise
    (iii) So Far Away
    (iv) The Point of No Return
    (v) The Silent Scream
    (vi) Dancing with Butterflies
    7. One Among the Living
    8. The Falling Man
    9. Sailing on a Wing
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  3. #13
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    That’s what a music genre is really, isn’t it? A jigsaw, a puzzle without all the pieces of which you can’t really ever see the full picture. I consider myself something of an expert in progressive rock, it having been my genre of choice for nearly forty years now, but I’ve met people who make my knowledge of prog rock positively amateurish in the extreme, and who show me how very far I have yet to go if I’m to fully understand this wide and varied music. Sometimes, it seems sad to me that there are so many good (and probably as many, or more, bad) prog artists out there that I’ll never even have a chance to discover, no matter how long I may live (and vampires live for a very long - ah, forget you heard that. You are feeling VERRRRYY sleepy…) so I thought I’d have a go at this.


    I'll be listing and featuring all the prog rock artists I can find on the alphabetical list held by ProgArchives.com - picking randomly from the list, so that one post might be about a well-known artist like Yes or Gong or Spock's Beard, and another might be about one that is new to everyone, or some artist who recorded one demo in 1971. I'll put as much information about them as I can and feature any music I can. Comment is as usual invited and encouraged, though not really expected..

    Artist: vidna Obmana
    Am I familiar with this artist? No, not at all
    Subgenre(s): Electronic/Dark Ambient/Drone
    Nationality: Belgian
    Lineup: Dirk Serries – everything
    Active From: 1984
    Active To: 2007 (after which he changed the name to Fear Falls Burning)
    Albums: 25 solo, also 4 as Opera for Four Fusion Works, and a further 37 in collaboration with various other artists
    Comparable to: Asmus Tietchens, Brian Eno, Steve Roach, Biosphere, Robert Rich, Robert Henke

    The music of Belgian composer Dirk Serries, under the pseudonym vidna Obmana (a phrase which translates to “optical illusion”) has been described as “blissed out and dreamy textural drones, and space-age epic synthesised moves”; “anamorphic and organic” and “using the technique of looping and shaping the harmonies, minimising the configurations to a few notes.”

    25 solo albums, and if you add in collaborations with others it’s closer to the seventy mark. That's some discography for someone who's been going just over thirty years. Wow. And I never heard of him before. He's composed music for movies too, and even the soundtrack for the Antwerp Zoo Aquarium. Let's take a listen to something he's done. What to choose? What's available? Let's try his first ever album, which is called The Ultimated (sic) Sign of Burning Death, released in 1985.

    This is the only track I can find off it, called “Doom to Die”.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AvK_Hu4NlUc
    Yeah, don't think much of that to be honest. Mostly feedback drone with some electronic sound effects. Couldn't call that musical in any way. Sounds like static on the radio. Can't say I'd personally be into it though. Let's try another one. This is from 1994, from an album he called The Spiritual Bonding, and this is the title track.

    Kind of sounds like a didgeridoo there at the beginning, but all the credits say is “instruments”, so I don't know. Nice sort of spooky echoey thing coming in now as it fades out, around the three-minute mark (this runs for just over twelve) with slow percussion making its way through as well. Offhand, I like this better than the first example, so far anyway. Picking up a nice beat now, slow and sort of hypnotic, a little tribal in a slow, measured kind of way. Yeah that was really nice. I could listen to more of that.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pxo_hW-uYhQ
    But we must move on. So much to choose from! So where do we go now? Didn't I mention that he wrote a soundtrack for an aquarium? Let's check that one out. It's called, ahem, Soundtrack for the Aquarium and was released in 2001.

    This is the opening sequence, “Aqua 1 (Theme)” and you can hear either real whalesong or something synthesised to replicate it here, with some lovely ambient, atmospheric slow music that I could really see fitting in with the slow, majestic movement of certain fishes and of course whales, though I doubt the Antwerp Zoo has one of those. Maybe it does. Lovely stuff, just totally entrancing.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mQsQ7-P_mKA
    Honestly, I could stay here checking out this stuff all night, and you may very well want to. But I got to move on. We're going to check out one more album before we head, and I'm going to go for the last one he recorded under this project, which is called Opera for Four Fusion Works Series, Act 4: The Bowing Harmony and was, as it indicates, the fourth in a cycle, released in 2007.

    Okay I can't get anything off that. The only one that comes up at all is the first album, so we'll go for that then.

    The full title is Opera for Four Fusion Works, Act 1: Echoes of Steel and this, the only track I can find, is I guess the fourth movement, called simply “IV”.

    Seems to be some lovely relaxing ambient music, but it runs for a total of seventeen minutes, so I'll just leave it here and you can listen to it, if you wish, at your leisure.

    Final Conclusion: Definitely needs to be checked out more. Very wide and varied music, highly technical but with a lot of heart and emotion, and would definitely suit anyone into ambient or the softer side (mostly) of electronic music.

    Result:
    Last edited by Trollheart; October 8th, 2019 at 05:10 PM.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  4. #14
    Wɾ¡ʇ¡∩9 bdcharles's Avatar
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    I don't know if these guys fit on here, but I've heard Cardiacs described as "Progressive Punk". Have a listen. It's like music mayhem day down at the local asylum, with the guitarist in his dressing gown, the bass player in his pants, and the barking dog driving everyone potty. Interesting fact: I received an email from the lead singer once, years ago. He's pretty unwell now, the poor bugger. Great band. Imagine being forced to transcribe their songs.



    Hidden Content Monthly Fiction Challenge


    Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror which we are barely able to endure, and are awed,
    because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
    - Rainer Maria Rilke, "Elegy I"

    *

    Is this fire, or is this mask?
    It's the Mantasy!
    - Anonymous

    *

    C'mon everybody, don't need this crap.
    - Wham!





  5. #15
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    Make way! Make way for the master! Peter Gabriel has forgotten more about music, theatre, technology and merging the three than most other artists will ever know. If there's an innovation in music, chances are he's behind it, at the forefront (if that's not a contradiction!), spearheading the next muso/technical revolution. Unlike some artists of his generation, Gabriel sees emergent technologies not as taking over his music, but as a tool he can use to further improve that music. No real surprise then that he should once again try to step out of the box and engage in a new venture.


    Of course, setting an artist's music to an orchestra is nothing new. It's been done many times, whether it's The Symphonic Pink Floyd or the music of the Beatles for orchestra, or even The Genesis Suite from last year by Tolga Kashif, but in each case that has been a conductor, composer or indeed orchestra interpreting the music of the artist, but with no input from said artist. “New Blood”, Peter Gabriel's latest album, is the first instance I have heard of where the artist himself plays with the orchestra his own re-arrangement of his songs.





    New Blood - Peter Gabriel - 2011 (Real World)


    You might expect Gabriel, in this sort of setting, to pick the obvious tracks to get the orchestral treatment. What a show “Sledgehammer” or “Big time” would make, or maybe “Games Without Frontiers” or “Biko”. But that's not the path he takes. Instead, he goes for some hits, but mainly tracks that may not be that well known outside his fanbase, but that translate the best (to his mind) for orchestral arrangement. “Freedom from the tyranny of guitar and drum” is how he announces the project, and indeed, you won't find either here. It's all completely on strings, woodwind, brass and piano that these songs are carried.


    So how does it work out? Well, the atmospheric opening to the album, which also opens the album it comes from, 1982's album, one of four all self-titled (though this one does apparently carry a sub-title of Security) should I think impress more. It's introducing the whole thing, and though “The Rhythm of the Heat” is a slowburner, I just don't think it works that well here, at least not as an opener. The song is pretty much built on a heavy drumbeat, and I personally think it suffers without it, though the violins and cellos do their best to maintain the menace of the original, at which I'm sorry to say I feel they come up short. Gabriel's voice is as desperate and urgent as ever, almost as if he's calling for help, but this song kind of falls a little flat for me, and it's a disappointing beginning.

    “Downside Up”, from 2000's Ovo, features Melanie Gabriel, whom I'm assuming is his daughter, and is better. A slow, sedate song, it's almost perfectly suited for the orchestral treatment, almost a mini-symphony in itself. Bassoon and oboe lead the song in on slow string accompaniment ++ and then Melanie's lovely angelic voice just takes over the song, lifting it to Heaven on silver wings. Her father joins her then, and the orchestra gets a little happier and more a-buzz, the violins setting up a joyous melody not a billion miles removed from Handel's “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”. One of my very favourites of Gabriel's is up next, the dreamy “San Jacinto”, and again this is well served by the orchestra, tinkling piano and low trombone carrying the opening of the tune, Gabriel's voice low, almost a mutter, as the violins and cellos come in alongside a vocal chorus.


    Gabriel's voice gets stronger then as the song goes on, and as it reaches the crescendo in the song, the string section rises with him, creating a soundscape that is almost perfect, man and musical section in complete harmony. I can't understand why this wasn't the opener: it would have been perfect. Nevertheless, as the happy flutes and violins pepper the song, memories of “The Rhythm of the Heat” have now faded, and the album is turning out to be what was really expected, and that is a triumph, a seamless melding of Peter Gabriel's flawless and amazing songwriting and musical skills with the sublime power of the orchestra.


    The unsettling “Intruder” from his third album is next, and this will be a test. The track, again an opener, relies on building a sense of tension and fear, and the violins and cellos manage to convey this quite well, rather like setting this song to the soundtrack of a movie. Gabriel's voice is less threatening, I feel, on this version, but it's a good treatment of the song. The choral arrangements help, and the strings are very effective, but again this is a track that is built originally on a solid backbeat, and the loss of drums is again I feel to the detriment of the song, making it a lot less effective than it is on the original album. I also miss the shouted “I AM THE INTRUDER!” which is abandoned in favour of a whisper. Effective, yes, but not as much as on the song proper.


    I only know the fourth album through what I've heard of it via the Plays Live album, so “Wallflower”, which is from the Security album, I can't really comment on as I haven't heard it before, but it comes across as a nice piano led ballad with some good strings and oboe, possibly French horn in there too. Lovely cello line takes the main melody and complements Gabriel's yearning vocal well, while piano keeps a counterbeat in the background. Very restrained, but not an awful lot for the orchestra to work with. Nice duet with Melanie again though.


    The next three tracks are from his 1986 So album, his most commercially successful and the first to actually have a title (despite Security being retitled for the US market), kicking off with the boppy “In Your Eyes”, a concert favourite, here given full strings opening with bassoon and horns taking part, slowing down then to allow cello to accompany Gabriel's voice, then speeding up again and getting very busy as the song goes towards the joyous chorus, vocal choir adding its power to the song, the tempo considerably slowed down nevertheless from the original.

    I find the exuberant African mood missing from this version though, and that was one of the things that in my opinion made it such a good song, almost gospel in its way. “Mercy Street” was always a restrained song, very sparse, so there's not a whole lot the orchestra can do here, though the cellos and violins carry the track well, but for me it's an odd choice. Better is “Red Rain”, and even though this opener from So does rely quite heavily on drums and percussion, the orchestra manage to make it work this time, with flurries of violins, bassoons and trombones replacing the rhythm of the original.


    “Darkness” is another song I'm unfamiliar with, coming as it does from the album I tried so hard to get into, but failed, that being Up. There's a nice sense of menace and power conveyed by the string section, then flute takes centre stage for a few lines, as Gabriel's singing gets less manic, then the strings come back in full force as he goes over-the-top again. This however as I say I can't really comment on, as I really hated Up, and this version of “Darkness” doesn't change my opinion of that album, even though I don't actually remember it. Next up is a classic, that surely had to be included in this reimagining of Gabriel's catalogue.

    Although I'm disappointed Kate Bush couldn't lend her talents to this version - I always consider her duet with Gabriel to be the iconic version of this song - the incarnation we get here of “Don't Give Up” starts off well, but then Swedish singer Ane Brun chimes in, and she is not a patch on Bush: her contribution to the vocals is shaky, hesitant and has none of the heart or power of Kate Bush's desperate plea to keep going despite everything. In fact, I'd go so far as to say she ruins the whole song. There, I said it. My god, what a terrible voice, in comparison to Kate. What was Peter thinking?? Jesus, this girl sings like she has a cold! I can't believe how much she's ruined one of my favourite classic Gabriel songs!


    Still smarting from the betrayal of “Don't Give Up” being butchered as it has been, the only song from 1992's Us almost passes me by, but “Digging In the Dirt” gets a pretty dramatic treatment with powerful horns and frenetic violins managing to come close to the somewhat unhinged tone of the original, then the beautiful, fragile, sensual “The Nest That Sailed the Sky”, the only other track taken from Ovo, loses none of its soft, gentle beauty, still a classic instrumental and one of the very few Gabriel has ever written.


    Following this, and preparatory to closing the album, is a weird little thing called “A Quiet Moment”, which is essentially almost five minutes of nature and pastoral sounds, like rain, birds, waves and the like, interesting and certainly different, but surely a bit of a cheat when another track could have been included, considering how large Gabriel's repertoire is?


    It does end well though, with the all-time favourite “Solsbory Hill” given the orchestral arrangement, though I still prefer the original. It's something of an annoyance to find that, should you decide to shell out for the “extended edition” with extra disc, all you get is instrumental versions of all the songs here, plus one additional track, right at the end, “Blood of Eden”. I would have thought extra tracks, information, out-takes, different versions other than just instrumental (this is an orchestra, after all!) would have been better value. As it is, I'm not going into that disc, even though I have it here: I see no reason to. I don't believe it would add anything to what has already gone.


    As it is, I have to admit, somewhat in surprise, that I'm a little disappointed. While many of the tracks work well with an orchestra, many don't, and some are actually worse for the treatment. After having listened to this, I don't so much feel the need to hear more songs given this arrangement as an urgent need to revisit Gabriel's catalogue and hear them again as they should be heard. Sometimes the clever thing is not to do anything, to leave the classics as they are. I really believe that, on balance, that's the lesson that should be learned here. Perhaps, stunning a revelation though it may be, the master actually has something to learn?


    I had expected so much more, but sadly, though Peter Gabriel crowed that his songs had been liberated from the “tyranny of guitar and drum”, I personally feel that his music needs that tyranny, and that, taken away, the stalwart servants of every musician are sadly and most effectively missed. Pushing the boundaries is all very well, but in the final analysis, I really don't feel it worked this time. I'm probably in a minority here, but after the disappointment of Up, here's another Peter Gabriel effort that has not made the grade for me.


    And I so wanted it to...


    TRACK LISTING


    1. The Rhythm of the Heat
    2. Downside Up
    3. San Jacinto
    4. Intruder
    5. Wallflower
    6. In Your Eyes
    7. Mercy Street
    8. Red Rain
    9. Darkness
    10. Don't Give Up
    11. Digging In the Dirt
    12. The Nest That Sailed the Sky
    13. A Quiet Moment
    14. Solsbory Hill



    ++ = I'm no student of the orchestra, and I certainly can't distinguish too many instruments one from the other, and information as to what is played on what song is very hard to come by. As a result, I've made my best guess when commenting, but I could be wrong. So if something I describe as a bassoon is an oboe, or a violin is actually a viola, or whatever, don't jump on me. Correct the text if you can, let me know, but bear in mind I'm winging it here as far as orchestral instrumentation goes. And writing “string section” or “woodwind” every time is both repetitive and boring, and shows a lack of interest or originality.
    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

  6. #16
    Offline: Depressed Trollheart's Avatar
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    The City Sleeps
    - Touchstone - 2011 (SPV)



    Although they've been together since about 2001, Touchstone's first album proper wasn't released until 2007, while their second, 2009's Wintercoast earned rave reviews and widened the band's fanbase considerably. This, then, is their third, and the first released on a major label, which if handled correctly should see Touchstone go from strength to strength and gain even more fans.


    At heart a progressive rock/metal band with symphonic overtones, Touchstone are fronted by Kim Seviour, who may be small in stature but certainly not in voice. She and the original founding member Rob Cottingham form the nucleus and present the face of the band, despite her having only joined in 2007, kind of the same way Mostly Autumn is represented by Bryan Josh and Heather Findlay, or was, before Heather's departure to pursue a solo career.


    The album opens with strong Marillion influences in the guitar and keys, circa Script for a Jester's Tear and Fugazi, and it's some pretty powerful guitar courtesy of Adam Hodgson that gets “Corridors” underway, then Kim Seviour's clear, sharp vocals cut in and you can see why she's being touted as one of the most promising “new” female vocalists. It's almost Nightwish or Edenbridge, but with a softer edge, less emphasis on the operatic side of the vocals and more on the rock singer. “Corridors” is a fast, uptempo rocker with some really great guitar parts, but it's Cottingham's keyboard work that really reminds me of Fish-era Marillion, or maybe early Pendragon.

    One of the longest tracks is up next, ten minutes of “When Shadows Fall”, which starts off very slowly and quietly, building like the approach of a coming train, chiming keys and choral voices gradually getting louder and more powerful, with guitar coming in, quite reminiscent of “The King of Sunset Town” from Marillion's Holidays in Eden. Yes, there are quite a few comparisons to be made with Marillion here, which is no bad thing. It's almost two minutes before hard guitar chords and feedback guitar announce what must be the beginning proper of the song, then as suddenly they're gone, replaced by tinkling piano, then that's joined by angry guitar and loud, loud drums, and abruptly the keyboards cut in as Cottingham does a fantastic impression of Tony Banks at his most classic.


    It's almost four minutes before we hear Kim Seviour, but when she starts singing she takes over the song, both with her vocals and her personality. You just can't really listen to anything else once she opens her mouth. The song has by now become a fast rocker, the keys of Cottingham carrying it on a synth-rock infused wave of pomp and melody, then he switches to piano for a beautiful but short little run as the whole song slows down, Hodgson's guitar taking the main melody as Cottingham joins Seviour on the mike. More gorgeous piano, then Cottingham takes over the vocals, Josh-like, before Hodgson launches into an inspired solo, piano keeping pace with him as Seviour goes back on vocals, backed by Cottingham.


    It's a real prog-rock masterpiece, and worth the price of the album on its own. “These Walls”, on the other hand, is far less intricate, a straightforward rocker with snarly guitar and an impassioned vocal from Seviour. “Throw Them to the Sky” is another good rocker, full of guitar hooks and with a nice vocal passage by Cottingham in the middle, though Seviour takes main vocal duties on this song, like most of Touchstone's material. Some very brassy keyboard gives the song a feeling of later eighties Yes, while “Sleeping Giants” slows things down with some sweet pizzicato strings on the keyboard from Cottingham and some really nice digital piano in the first ballad on the album, with a truly exceptional keyboard solo and some great guitar providing a really dramatic and energetic song.

    “Good Boy Psycho” opens with some frenetic guitar and keys, then settles into a nice mid-pacer, with some pretty heavy guitar work from Adam Hodgson against some progressive keyboard from Cottingham. Never in any danger of getting lost in this musical interplay, Kim Seviour's voice rises high above it all, coasting on the wave and singing out clearly and powerfully, always grabbing the attention. I would, however, single this out as my least favourite track on the album, in fact the only track so far that I haven't been totally impressed with. Just seems a little confused, jumping from idea to idea without any really clear direction.


    “Horizons” doesn't suffer from any such problems, powerful and gritty throughout, and “Half Moon Meadow” is a lovely half-ballad, where Rob joins Kim on vocals and they perform a rather outstanding duet. Something very Mostly Autumn about this song, even the melody is quite evocative of Bryan Josh's guitar playing. The song ends on a great combined guitar and keyboard solo, and leads us into the title track, an eleven-minute opus. It goes through some major changes along the way, and features some pretty stunning vocal poetry by Kim as they hark back to the last album, Wintercoast, continuing the story begun there.

    The album ends on a little instrumental, called “Corridors Epiphany”. It's interesting but the record would not have been any the poorer had it been left off. A bit of a distraction, but I guess it forms a sort of a coda to the album and to the title track.


    I'm very impressed with this. It's the first Touchstone album I've managed to listen to, and now I want to hear more. It's both very up-to-date in its sound and firmly rooted in the progressive rock of the early eighties as already mentioned. Kim Seviour is a fine vocalist and with the rest of the band performing as they do here, I think it may not been too long before we hear about Touchstone outside of progressive rock circles.


    Remember the name!


    TRACK LISTING


    1. Corridors
    2. When Shadows Fall
    3. These Walls
    4. Throw Them to the Sky
    5. Sleeping Giants
    6. Good Boy Psycho
    7. Horizons
    8. Half Moon Meadow
    9. The City Sleeps
    10. Corridors Epiphany

    Come away, human child to the waters and the wild
    With a faery hand in hand.
    For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. - WB Yeats "The Stolen Child"

    I drink to forget, but I never forget to drink.

    "If the real Jesus Christ were to stand up today
    He'd be gunned down cold by the CIA" - The The, "Armageddon Days Are Here (Again)" - Mind Bomb, 1989


    The most destructive force on the planet is not nukes or global warming...it is the human ego. - Ralph Rotten

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