La Torre dell'Alchimista
Truth & Salvage Co.
Tsuki no Wa
Head (2000, 63.08) ***½Mute
The Return of the Ultragravy
Argot (2001, 64.38) ****John Doe Number One
Call to Whoever
Shibboleth (2003, 66.21) ***½The Picture Slave
One for Sorrow, Two for Joy (2013, 57.21) ****½One for Sorrow, Two for Joy
A Fool's Journey
Of Sparks and Spires
Thieves Kitchen are a newish UK prog outfit, sadly cursed with the Modern Prog Syndrome, at least on their 2000 debut, Head, a.k.a. overly heavy guitar across the board, when a more subtle approach might make for a more varied and listenable end result. Spock's Beard are not the be-all and end-all of the genre, chaps... The only member of the band with any obvious track-record is drummer Mark Robotham, previously of the not-very-good Grey Lady Down, but to be fair, Thieves Kitchen sound little like them, although there are a few unfortunate musical neo- references here and there, particularly in the vocal department. Much of Thieves Kitchen's music has a fusionesque feel about it, giving them more in common with fellow Brits Sphere³ than anyone else, although Simon Boys', er, 'emotive' vocals (why?) change the emphasis considerably. There are some sublime moments on the album, not least one of the instrumental sections in The Return Of The Ultragravy, although it's overlong (again...), with far too much pointless noodling. Speaking of that track, what's with the crapola 'humour' plastered all over the CD? At least there's only one stupid 'joke' title (although I'm not sure I want to know what T.A.N.U.S. actually stands for...), but a couple of pictures in the booklet are completely unnecessary (put your tongue away, Robotham) and the album's title could be read as a tedious example of toilet humour at its worst, too. Good prog doesn't need bad jokes, gentlemen, so if that's what you aspire to...
German keys man Wolfgang Kindl does a pretty good job on the album, playing those jazzy chord inversions like a good'un, although it's quite clear that all his 'vintage' sounds are no more than that: sounds. OK, so he doesn't own any vintage kit, but the band must know owners of the real thing, not least Sphere³. Sad to say, all too many current bands, especially prog ones, seem to feel that samples and/or synth replications are perfectly acceptable recording tools. Live's another matter, but in the studio, use the best you can afford... Anyway, Kindl rather overuses his Mellotron string samples (source unknown) on all tracks, which is one of the biggest giveaways on the sample use front. They still sound more authentic than his 'Hammond', mind...
It would be easy to accuse the band of trying too hard on the following year's Argot and indeed, some of the instrumental sections (notably on closer Call To Whoever) are both endless and mildly pointless, but many of the band's fusion-informed chord and key changes can only bring a smile to the face of the jaded progressive fan. I have to say, despite the return on the unnecessary vocal front, this is a distinct improvement on the band's debut. Samplotron strings on all four tracks, but this time round, the sound isn't a major component of the band's keyboard arsenal, ironically making it sound more authentic. Two years on and Shibboleth sees a change at the mic, Amy Darby taking the lead vocal role and improving things all round. Musically, it's similar to its predecessor; the end of track five (of six), Chovihani Rise, sounds like the end of the album and probably should be. Why so long, guys? Too much of a good thing, I can tell you. We all love instrumental interplay, but not quite this much... Samplotron strings all round, excepting the piano-and-vocal Spiral Bound, the overly-sustained sound on De Profundis giving the sample game away.
Around 2007, the band hooked up with no lesser a Prog God than Thomas Johnson (hi, Thomas) from the mighty Änglagård, then studying in the UK, the resulting album, 2008's The Water Road, being their only genuine Mellotron album to date. After another lengthy disappearing act, the band reappeared in 2013 as the trio of Amy, Thomas and guitarist Phil Mercy, plus guests, including Änglagård's Anna Holmgren. One for Sorrow, Two for Joy is another superb fusionesque effort, if less... Änglagårdesque than The Water Road, centred around two lengthy tracks, Germander Speedwell and Of Sparks And Spires. My only (minor) complaint is that I sometimes feel the multiple fusionesque key-changes actually over-complicate matters slightly, although lovely acoustic-and-vocal number The Weaver acts as an antidote of sorts. I'm assured that Thomas uses samples this time round (mainly the Mike Pinder set), although the perpetually-sustaining string chord at the end of Hypatia and the sounds' overall smoothness had pretty much given it away for me already.
I have to say, Thieves' Kitchen seem to be trying to do something slightly different, at least as far as the appalling current UK 'prog' scene goes, being vastly more listenable than, say, fellow GLD refugees Darwin's Radio, or the truly execrable Magenta.
See: Thieves Kitchen | Grey Lady Down
Smile... it Confuses People (2006, 32.01) **
|When Horsepower Meant What it Said
I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (With
Flowers in My Hair)
What if I'm Right?
The Human Jukebox
Sandi Thom is a Scottish singer-songwriter-cum-pop star, whose debut, 2006's Smile... it Confuses People, is a lightweight piece of folk/pop fluff, although at least it sounds nothing like the ruling R&B hegemony, I suppose. As for the album's hit, I Wish I Was A Punk Rocker (With Flowers In My Hair), er, whaaat? Thom sings wistfully about a past she never knew in this bizarre historical mish-mash, making a brave (but failed) attempt to make a correlation between 1969 and 1977. Maybe she should've spoken to people who were there. Frighteningly, maybe she did.
Jake Field is credited with Mellotron on Lonely Girl, but you'd have to be deaf as a post not to spot the song's flutes as a poor sample, possibly not even actually from a Mellotron. This album has one major plus point: it's only 32 minutes long. OK, I've heard worse, but I've also heard a great deal better, so with one poorly-faked 'Mellotron' track, I think you know what I'm going to say, so I shan't even bother.
Boys (2009, 43.44) **½
Son and Moon
So We Sing
Although she hails from an old-school country background, Cortney Tidwell (née Williamson)'s second full album, 2009's Boys, is more indie/shoegaze/electronica than Grand Ole Opry (with which, oddly, her parents were heavily involved); I believe the term 'country goth' was coined in direct response to her debut. While the record has its moments (opener Solid State, Bad News), too much of it falls into the 'overly simplistic indie' backwater to make very much impact, I'm afraid.
Although Ryan Norris is credited with Mellotron, the ultra-compressed choirs and strings on several tracks (least bad example: the strings on Bad News. Worst: all the choir parts) are quite clearly nothing of the sort, although they are, at least, actual Mellotron samples. I'm not entirely convinced that the world needs another mournful, post-goth chanteuse, but then, no-one's making me, or anyone else, listen to her. Are they?
Insolitariamente (2003, 61.09) ***½
Il Pensiero dal Basso
Dietro i Ricordi
The Letters: an Unconventional Italian Guide to King Crimson (2003, 9.11) ***½[Tilion contribute]
The Spaghetti Epic: Six Modern Prog Bands For Six '70s Prog Suites (2004) ***½[Tilion contribute]
Tilion formed at the end of the '90s from the ashes of Prowlers, recording a demo, Suoni, in 2001. Their debut album proper, 2003's Insolitariamente, alerts us to yet another good modern Italian outfit, top tracks including the ten-minute Buio, Torpore Celebrale and the gorgeous Epilogo, the whole falling only very slightly short of a four-star rating. I have a small problem with the riffing guitars and screaming solos (from Flavio Costa) on several tracks slightly spoil the effect, as does the rather unnecessary slap bass on a couple of tracks (notably Dietro I Ricordi), but these are minor quibbles.
Keys man Alfio Costa (Flavio's elder brother) was yet to buy his M400 at this stage, so the rather squashy-sounding strings on Buio, Il Custode and Dietro I Ricordi are all Roland samples, apparently. The band were to attain greater heights with their next release, 2008's A.M.I.G.D.A.L.A., also featuring real Mellotron, but Insolitariamente is certainly worth hearing, occasional instrumental issues aside.
See: Tilion | Daal | Prowlers | The Letters | Colossus Project
Dandelion (2009, 67.12) **½8:03pm (These Streets)
The Tale of the Sun and Moon (Dandelion)
Everything's Not Lost
Gone Into the Mountains
I Welcome You My Night
Time's Forgotten should probably be applauded for being one of the first (the first?) Costa Rican acts to make any impression outside their small Central American country, but their generic progressive metal causes the seasoned listener's spirits to droop within the first few minutes of their second album, 2009's Dandelion. The hammering riffs, screaming solos, Queensrÿche clone vocals, digital keyboard interludes... It's all here, folks. The last two tracks are slightly less generic and therefore better, but it's not exactly what you'd call a breakthrough.
It's hard to say just how many of the keyboard string and choir parts are definitely sampled Mellotron, but the strings on Second Time, The Tale Of The Sun And Moon (Dandelion) and closer I Welcome You My Night seem pretty certain. If you love Dream Theater and their ilk, you stand a good chance of liking Time's Forgotten (is that apostrophe deliberate, or just poor grammar?). I don't and I don't. Sorry.
Nine & Fifty Swans (2011, 37.17) ****
|O Do Not Love Too Long
The Cap and Bells
He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven
To a Child Dancing in the Wind
The Fisherman/Carolan's Ramble to Cashel
Before the World Was Made
|The Song of Wandering Aengus
The Song of the Old Mother
The Wild Swans at Coole
Ethereal Norwegian folkie Tirill Mohn took eight years to follow her debut, 2003's A Dance With the Shadows (reissued as Tales From Tranquil August Gardens) with 2011's Nine & Fifty Swans. To coin a phrase, it's an album of quiet beauty, its lyrics based on W.B. Yeats' poetry, Tirill's vocals and guitar enhanced by male vocals, violin and sundry other instrumentation. Best tracks? Difficult to say, since nothing here lowers the overall standard in any meaningful way, but opener O Do Not Love Too Long, He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven and string-driven closer The Wild Swans At Coole particularly caught this listener's ear.
Tirill is credited with Mellotron, although the distant flutes on Parting, The Song Of The Old Mother and The Wild Swans At Coole are, I'm afraid to say, quite clearly sampled. When push comes to shove, though, does it really matter? A real Mellotron might (OK, would) sound better, but this is a lovely album, whose charms are reduced not a jot by some minor sample use. Beautiful.
Can't Let Go (2007, 40.42) **½
|See Rock City
Take the Wheel
Got a Lot
Nothing at All
|Lift Me Up
That's All for Now
Can't Let Go
Liam Titcomb's second album, 2007's Can't Let Go, merges indie, pop, Americana and electronica in unequal measures, with different styles taking precedence on different tracks. To be brutally honest, the rather good, mournful, closing title track aside, this is pretty tedious fare; given that Titcomb grew up playing folk, couldn't he include a little more of it in his work? Please?
Giles Reaves is credited with Mellotron; what the strings on Love Can? Really? I mean, REALLY? No, not really, eh? If Liam Titcomb made an album full of material like Can't Let Go itself, I'd buy it, but this is nine-tenths dullsville, I'm afraid.
Hell Below/Stars Above (2001, 44.50) **
Push the Hand
You'll Come Down
Pressed Against the Sky
What We Have We Steal
Hell Below/Stars Above
After an abortive effort in 1997 to follow their '94 debut, Rubberneck, Texans Toadies finally released a reworked version of the sessions, Hell Below/Stars Above, in 2001, making this listener wonder what all the fuss was about in the first place. A desperately unexciting alt.rock effort, it bores and irritates in roughly equal quantities, its one-dimensional songwriting copping elements of several other crummy bands from the era, particularly apparent on punky opener Plane Crash, the vaguely Chilis-esque Little Sin, Sweetness and closer Doll Skin (U2 with a distortion pedal).
Someone adds what sounds like background samplotron strings towards the end of Jigsaw Girl, to no great effect, unless it's real, in which case, it's still to no great effect. This is terrible. Avoid. Incidentally, the sainted Elliott Smith guests on piano on the title track. Why?
Renovating→Diverse City (2005, 52.52) *½
|Getaway Car (jazzadelic freemix)
The Slam (D Dubb remix)
Diverse City (club-a-dub remix)
Burn for You (shortwave radio mix)
Hey Now (D Dubb remix)
Phenomenon (Blanco e Chegro mix)
Gone (long gone remix)
|Catchafire (white rabbit mix)
Ill-M-I (Dutch mix)
Atmosphere (ambiente mix)
West Coast Kid
Burn for You (cat paw remix)]
Toby "TobyMac" McKeehan is that most appalling of things, a Christian rapper and former member of dcTalk, whose Renovating→Diverse City is a remix version of his second solo release, 2004's Welcome to Diverse City. And it's... shit. Is there anything worse than a Christian rap album? Yes, a Christian remix album. To be honest, it sounds like just about every other remix album I've had the displeasure to hear, but with vaguely devotional lyrics, just to add to the pain.
Christopher Stevens is credited with Mellotron on the Long Gone remix of Gone, but when you hear what sounds like MkII 'moving strings' and murky M400 choir on the same track, you know you're talking samples. Very, very poor. Avoid.
See: Freaked! A Gotee Tribute to dcTalk's "Jesus Freak"
Black Chamber (2003, 53.56) ***
Apartment Thunder (Eros + Sacrifice)
Raw Mouth Shape
Plume, Preceded By Far Off Inside
Ill-Faced Doll (Aozameta Omozashi Ni
|Gored Fig Sacs
Blind Eel Priestess
The Slapping Gun
Life in the Folds
David Toop is best-known musically for his membership of The Flying Lizards and journalistically, for his contributions to The Face and The Wire. All of which (OK, not The Face) make it no surprise whatsoever that his tenth solo album (including collaborations), 2003's Black Chamber, is a deeply experimental work, comparable to, say, the weirdest end of the Julian Cope spectrum. I'm not sure that Toop would be particularly happy at the comparison, but who knows? Er, he does, I'd imagine. Most tracks combine fragments of found sound and other samples with largely atonal instrumentation, although Plume, Preceded By Far Off Inside features a relatively normal jazz saxophone solo, while snippets of vocal, guitar and other 'mainstream' elements make themselves apparent every now and again.
Toop supposedly plays Mellotron, but the strings on The Slapping Gun, while loosely 'Mellotronic', are most unlikely to emanate from a real instrument, I suspect, while the strings on the title track sound more like regular samples than ones from a Mellotron. So; not one for neo-prog fans, I think it's safe to say.
Wonderful Life (1997, 57.09) ***½
Not What it Appears
This is Life?
|Might Be Late
Spaceships in the Sky
Don't Be Long
The Tories (terrible name, given its British political connotations) are an L.A.-based powerpop outfit frequently compared to Jellyfish (and not just by me, for once), their 1997 debut, Wonderful Life, being stuffed with joyous songs of the quality of Gladys Kravitz, Not What It Appears, Greenhill and Don't Be Long. Actually, although the album's rather overlong for the style (yeah, I know: value for money), there isn't a bad track here, just some that are less essential than others.
Steve Bertrand and James Guffee are both credited with Mellotron; if the only audible evidence were the brief flute part on Might Be Late and the cellos and strings on Strange, this would be in this site's 'regular' section, but the strings on Gladys Kravitz are the sample giveaway, especially the high notes. Overall, then, a powerpop 'must', if not quite up to the quality of their forebears. Most worthwhile.
La Torre dell'Alchimista (2001, 50.07) ****Eclisse
Delirio (in do Minore)
La Torre dell'Alchimista
I Figli della Mezzanotte
La Persistenza della Memoria
Neo (2007, 50.07) ****
Golem (Storia di una Goccia)
Suoni di Plastica
Risveglio, Procreazione e Dubbio pt. I
| Secondo Esperimento
Le Tre Teste
La Guerra All'Idrogeno
Risveglio, Procreazione e Dubbio pt. II
La Torre Dell'Alchimista set out their stall on their self-titled debut immediately, as Eclisse starts with the modulated roar of a full-throated Leslie cabinet as its speed races up and down, before they lurch into the track. The rest of the album covers a variety of progressive styles, which, while admirable, can sound a little disjointed at times, although there isn't actually a bad track to be heard, so despite a slight lack of musical cohesion, La Torre Dell'Alchimista is a most worthwhile release. Michele Mutti's 'Mellotron' work can only really be heard on a couple of tracks, although there are several 'possible sightings' that probably aren't, principally the male voices on Eclisse. La Torre Dell'Alchimista itself (their 'theme' song?) opens with a solo samplotron string part (its closing string chord is held just a little too long) and Delirio (In Do Minore) has some more muted strings, but that appears to be it.
Six years on, 2007's Neo isn't dissimilar to its predecessor, although the band go for more of a 'multi-part extravaganza' this time round. They also throw little bursts of fusion into the mix here and there, while highlights include Mutti's solo piano piece, Idra and grandiose closer Risveglio, Procreazione E Dubbio Pt. II. More samplotron this time round, with string parts on most tracks, sounding surprisingly real in some places, then the precise opposite in others.
So; La Torre Dell'Alchimista's a worthy debut and Neo's a very able follow-up. Incidentally, is it just me, or are the band's two releases exactly the same length? Odd.
SMPTe (2000, 77.14/114.26) ****½
|All of the Above
Full Moon Rising
Camouflaged in Blue
Full Moon Rising (Reprise)
We All Need Some Light
My New World
|In Held (Twas) in I
['bonus disc' includes:
My New World (alt.version)
We All Need Some Light (alt.mix)
Honky Tonk Woman
My Cruel World (original demo)]
Live in America (2001, 100.03) ***½All of the Above
Mystery Train/Magical Mystery Tour/Strawberry Fields Forever
We All Need Some Light
Watcher of the Skies/Firth of Fifth
My New World
There is More to This World/Go the Way You Go/
The Great Escape/Finally Free/She's So Heavy
Bridge Across Forever (2001, 76.52/130.32) ***
|Duel With the Devil
Silence of the Night
You're Not Alone
Suite Charlotte Pike
If She Runs
Lost and Found pt.1
| Temple of the Gods
Motherless Children/If She Runs (reprise)
Bridge Across Forever
Stranger in Your Soul
Sleeping Wide Awake
Hanging in the Balance
Lost and Found pt.2
Awakening the Stranger
Stranger in Your Soul
|['bonus disc' includes:
Shine on You Crazy Diamond
And I Love Her
Smoke on the Water
Dance With the Devil
Roine's demo bits]
Live in Europe (2003, 140.52) ***Duel With the Devil
My New World
We All Need Some Light
Suite Charlotte Pike Medley
Stranger in Your Soul
All of the Above
SMPTe (The Roine Stolt Mixes) (2003, 77.47) **½All of the Above
Full Moon Rising
Camouflaged in Blue
Full Moon Rising (Reprise)
We All Need Some Light
My New World
In Held (Twas) in I
The Whirlwind (2009, 77.47/134.14) **
ii) The Wind Blew Them All Away
iii) On The Prowl
iv) A Man Can Feel
v) Out Of The Night
vi) Rose Colored Glasses
viii) Set Us Free
ix) Lay Down Your Life
x) Pieces of Heaven
| xi) Is It Really Happening?
xii) Dancing With Eternal Glory/
[Special ed. adds:
For Such a Time
Lending a Hand
The Return Of The Giant Hogweed
|A Salty Dog
I Need You
Whirld Tour 2010: Live From Shepherd's Bush Empire, London (2010, 183.21) **The Whirlwind
All of the Above
We All Need Some Light
Duel With the Devil
Bridge Across Forever
Stranger in Your Soul
The aptly-named Transatlantic are a prog 'supergroup' consisting of Spock's Beard main man Neal Morse, Roine Stolt from The Flower Kings, Marillion's Pete Trewavas and Mike Portnoy from Dream Theater and the end results, at least on their debut, were vastly better than might be expected from such a potential clash of egos. The wittily-titled SMPTe (in case you don't know, 'smpte' is a studio MIDI/video conversion protocol, and the four members' initials, of course, pronounced 'simpty') comes across as an amalgam of the 'Beard and various '70s bands, with very little of the other three members' outfits in there at all, although I suppose we should be grateful for that in at least two cases, if not all three.
All Of The Above is an overblown half-hour epic, but you know what? It works really well, although it could probably have been trimmed down a little. It opens with a chord sequence straight out of the Neal Morse songbook and carries on in fine form, moving through all the various twists and turns you'd expect, although it ends up being rather predictable in its unpredictability, or something. However, its saving grace is its strong use of melody, without slipping into the AORisms of which the 'Beard are sometimes guilty and which could be levelled against track two, We All Need Some Light. I personally really like it, but I can see why some critics have lambasted it for its near-'soft rock balladry' approach. Less sure about Mystery Train (not the Elvis number), but My New World's another grand epic and the album closes in fine style with a cover of Procol Harum's In Held Twas In I; the original was named after the first word of the lyric in each of its five parts, and Transatlantic left out the 'Twas' section, thus the brackets, just in case you were wondering. Roine Stolt is credited with 'Mellotron', alongside his usual guitar and vocal duties, but however good it sounds, I know for a fact that The Flower Kings neither own nor use a real 'Tron, relying on high-quality samples taken direct from a real machine, so it seems a fair assumption that these are what are being used here. Shame, really, as a real Mellotron always lifts anything on which it's used (well, usually) and it shouldn't be that difficult to find a working one, especially in Sweden, land of the 'Tron revival, but there you go. 'Trad' prog fans might not like this album, but in my book, it's well worth owning.
In 2001, the band released a double live CD, Live in America, with unseemly haste (can you smell the distinctive pong of a quick buck being made?), seemingly from their first ever gig. Of course, with a mere one album to promote (and they don't even attempt In Held (Twas) in I), much padding is needed, including covers good (a proggy Strawberry Fields Forever) and less good (a slightly pointless Watcher Of The Skies/Firth Of Fifth medley), while the grand finale is a medley of excerpts from material by all four members' parent bands, finishing with a prog take on the stupendous end section of The Beatles' She's So Heavy. As a document of Transatlantic's early live work, Live in America works reasonably well, but as a hundred-minute listening experience, it drags in places; judicious editing would've made for a less complete but more listenable product.
Later the same year, they rattled off what turned out to be their last album for nearly a decade, Bridge Across Forever. To be honest, it captures none of the manic joy of their debut; 26-minute opener Duel With The Devil feels far longer than that and not in a good way, while Suite Charlotte Pike is a bit of a disjointed mess. The title track is a by now typically schlocky Morse ballad and by far the shortest song on the album, leaving Stranger In Your Soul as the most cohesive piece here, though it says a lot that the best track here isn't much better than the worst on SMPTe. With hindsight, Morse's forthcoming breakdown/religious conversion/whatever is quite apparent in his lyrics, too; well, doesn't Duel With The Devil say it all? The 'Mellotron' is used more sparingly this time round, with the only real highlights being an unaccompanied string part in Duel With The Devil and some flutes at the beginning of Stranger In Your Soul. Disappointing, though the album's relative musical failure made their God-induced split less painful. Incidentally, in case you still feel the need to obtain this, don't go out of your way to get the 'Special Edition'; apart from a vaguely interesting take on Floyd's Shine On blah-di-blah and a genuinely good Morse demo of what became Duel With The Devil, most of it consists of tedious studio dicking about. Pointless.
Transatlantic were stunningly dull the one time I saw them live, insisting on playing just about all of Bridge Across Forever and then, for some unknown reason, the whole of side two of The Beatles' Abbey Road, boring many of us into a bad prog-induced stupor, while Morse had the gall to berate us for not enjoying it! They then misjudged the audience enough to encore with All Of The Above, rather than something a little snappier, all this on top of lining all four members up along the front of the stage, Portnoy included. Egomania. The tour is documented on 2003's Live in Europe, recorded in November '01 in the Netherlands, the band augmented by Pain of Salvation's Daniel Gildenlöw, who stood at the back; what I remember as 'the whole of side two of Abbey Road' is actually some (all?) of it intercut with the Suite Charlotte Pike Medley (or probably vice versa), but it's no more interesting on a second listen, ditto most of the rest of the set, the honourable exception being We All Need Some Light, still a great song.
The following year, of course, Morse got God, leaving both the 'Beard and Transatlantic to concentrate on his Christian solo career. Yawn. The original version of the band bowed out with one of the most pointless releases it's been my displeasure to plough through for a while: SMPTe (The Roine Stolt Mixes). Er... why? I believe that this is actually the original mix, but was the released version that bad, Roine? Without exhaustively listening to both versions, minute by minute, all I can tell you is that the odd intro/outro has been left in and there's more guitar (big surprise there). Do you need to hear this? No, you do not. If anyone thinks they can convince me that this is any more than Stolt's total vanity project, good luck to you.
As the late 2000s approached, Morse obviously decided that his Christian principles (barf) would allow him to work with Transatlantic again. The other three (and Gildenlöw live) all came along for the ride, the end result being 2009's The Whirlwind. Were you expecting something as good as SMPTe? Dream on, dude... Essentially one near-eighty minute track, this is every bit as utterly overblown as you could wish for/feared (delete according to taste), stretched out to that unfeasible length by vast acres of musical padding and remarkably light on real ideas. Surprised? Nor me. The best twenty minute would make a decent Spock's piece (once again, Morse is clearly the main writer), but this just goes on and on and on... I know some of you love it that way, but since when did quantity outweigh quality? Oh, hang on, one of these guys is in Dream Theater... Actually, Portnoy left his band around this time, then had the gall to berate them for carrying on (in fairness, he'd apparently suggested a hiatus, then found himself replaced), but given that Transatlantic are just one of many side-projects with which he's been involved over the years, I doubt whether he'll find himself at a loose end any time soon. The inevitable special edition's bonus disc contains another four yawnsome Transatlantic pieces (none wholly by Morse) and four covers, three of which (Genesis' Return Of The Giant Hogweed, Procol Harum's A Salty Dog and Santana's Soul Sacrifice) are worth hearing. Actually, the best track on the entire set is the hidden ukelele/barber shop ditty stuck on the end of disc two. Well, I think so, anyway. Er, samplotron? Here and there throughout the title piece, here and there on disc two, notably extra parts on Hogweed and the strings on A Salty Dog.
The best thing about the following year's three-CD/two-DVD Whirld Tour 2010: Live From Shepherd's Bush Empire, London is the tour name; very witty, chaps. Now, a quick piece of disarming honesty from yours truly. I didn't listen to this all the way through. There. I've said it. Why not? Couldn't bloody face it, frankly. I mean, three bloody hours of this overblown drivel? It's actually getting to the point where hearing multiple versions of their first album material is beginning to put me off it, which would be a shame. Never mind the band's exhaustion at the end of a marathon like that, what about the audience? Oh, I'm sure they loved it. I wasn't there, as you might've guessed and after hearing (well, skimming) this, I'm extremely glad I was somewhere (anywhere!) else. Now, you think this is bad? 2011 brought another fucking three-CD/two-DVD live set, More Never is Enough: Live in Manchester & Tilburg 2010. Holy Mary, Mother of God, spare us. For the first time on this site, I actually point-blank refuse to attempt to review this. The Manchester audio's essentially the same as the Shepherd's Bush gig and no, I'm not interested in minor variations which I wouldn't spot anyway. So; I'm on strike. OK, back off strike, but I'm still not reviewing it. Yes, more really is more than fucking enough. Now just stop it.
The most shocking thing about Transatlantic is that they market their grotesque excess as a plus point. Then again, it's what they unashamedly do, so they're hardly going to apologise for it, are they? Not with two (possibly three) major egos on board, anyway (I'm assuming Pete's 'the quiet one'). Anyway, ignore albums two and three and everything live, but buy SMPTe, even with fake Mellotron.
See: Spock's Beard | Neal Morse | Roine Stolt | The Flower Kings | Dream Theater | Marillion
Sliding (1999, 66.31) **At Squaw Peak
The Seven Pools
Primordial (2003, recorded 1995-2003, 61.51/131.42) **½
|Heaven & Earth
Riding the Iron Rooster
A Stones Throw From Nowhere
How Lucky They Are
Blurring the Margins
For Will Alone
|Blurred Beyond Recognition
[The MP3 Section:
Two Stations Down
See it Now
Hang it Upside Down
LA Post (live)
A Stones Throw From Nowhere (orig.mix)]
Transience are (or, more likely, were) Lands End keys man Fred Hunter's occasional side-project, collaborators including Brazilian guitarist Francisco "Kiko" Neto and vocalist Jeff McFarland. Unfortunately, 1999's Sliding is a thorough bore of an album, insipid, dreary neo-prog with only the occasional 'symphonic' section to leaven the tedium, McFarland's wispy vocals being particularly deserving of criticism. It's also (here's a surprise) vastly overlong, the nineteen-minute The Seven Pools being entirely unnecessary. I suppose hardened neo- fans might describe this album as having 'a quiet beauty', or somesuch; 'very boring' seems a more appropriate description. For what it's worth, Hunter plays fairly obviously sampled Mellotron strings on the Latin/prog (no, really) title track, Desert Falls, Captiva Island and The Seven Pools.
Hunter began work on what ended up as 2003's Primordial after the release of Sliding, but for various personal reasons, it took him over three years to finish it. Was it worth it? Well, it's a better album, the 'insipid' factor being slightly reduced, although McFarland's vocal contributions are just as irritating. As for the actual material, piano-and-synths piece Hollow Gardens is genuinely excellent, although nothing else stands out in any way. Unusually, Hunter has filled some of the disc's empty space with half a dozen MP3 tracks of material that didn't make the cut, for one reason or another, including the absurdly overlong Aquadream (half an hour) and the eighteen-minute original mix of the dullsville A Stones Throw From Nowhere, bringing the album's total length to over two hours; a great idea for actual fans, but rather gruelling for the rest of us. Hunter plays samplotron strings on opener Heaven & Earth and possibly one or two tracks elsewhere, but this isn't even a major player on the sample front, frankly.
Do you bother with Transience? Lands End and general modern neo-prog fans should probably give these albums a go, but I can't honestly recommend them to anyone much else. The website URL splattered all over Primordial's inserts appears to be long gone, so we can probably assume that the project has been allowed to die a death.
See: Lands End | Lands End (samples)
Traumhaus (2001, 60.12) ***½Aufwärts
Peter und der Wolf
Die Andere Seite (2008, 63.07) ***Die Andere Seite (part 1)
Die Andere Seite (part 2)
Die Andere Seite (part 3)
Traumhaus (Dream House/House of Dreams) are a superior German-language neo-prog outfit, whose eponymous 2001 release mixes'n'matches from various progressive eras, coming up with an amalgam of early '80s neo- (they cop some IQ moves in several places), prog metal and '70s symphonic. Sounds appalling? This could so easily be terrible, but the band's knack with a melody carries them through a potential musical train-wreck, examples being the album's Saga-esque opener, Aufwärts, parts of the lengthy Ausgeliefert, the bit that rips off '80s Yes (specifically 90125's Changes) in Peter Und Der Wolf and the triumphal major-key round that ends closer Am Abgrund. Most of the album's string sounds are either string synth copies or generic, leaving the only actual Mellotron samples as the strings on Am Abgrund.
I don't know why it's taken the band seven years to follow their debut, although I'd hazard a guess that an almost complete lineup change could have been involved. Sadly, the end result is that 2008's Die Andere Seite is a far more generic, mainstream prog metal album, far less appealing than its predecessor. The instrumental work is frantic, should you be into that kind of thing, not least the ridiculously busy drummer; calm down, man, calm down! Stacks of Mellotron samples this time round, with strings, watery choirs and flutes all over opener Die Andere Seite (Part 1), carrying on in similar fashion throughout, in a 'don't know when we're overusing it' kind of way.
In fairness to Die Andere Seite, it's a completely different album to Traumhaus, in a completely different style (relatively speaking), but I still prefer their debut. Anyone hoping to hear loads of (admittedly fake) Mellotron should go for album no.2, though.
The Invisible Band (2001, 45.29) *
Flowers in the Window
Follow the Light
The Humpty Dumpty Love Song
Travis really have to be one of the nastiest things to happen to British music in a couple of decades, and I don't say that lightly. Their utterly insipid stadium-MOR is fantastically popular, picking up the kind of fan that Simply Red got in the '80s; "Music for people who don't like music", as a friend of mine once put it. Their mainman is called Fran Healy; now I'm sorry, maybe Fran is an acceptable male abbreviation in Scotland, but where I come from, it's a girl's name. What's wrong with Frank? Anyway... The Invisible Band (though sadly not inaudible) was their third album, and if anything, was even blander than its predecessor, 1999's fairly nasty The Man Who (*½), although it lacks the true horror of that album's chief hit, Why Does It Always Rain On Me? Because God hates you, Frannie, that's why. God hates you, and so do I.
I've been told this horrible, turgid mess has some Mellotron on it, but close listening only reveals one potential track, Dear Diary. The high strings are far too 'clean' to be a real Mellotron, but a few notes towards the end of the song have that 'Tronness about them, although I'm certain they're samples. I paid 50p for this abortion of an album (and the same for its predecessor), and I feel ripped off. I won't even be able to flog them to one of London's handful of remaining second-hand shops, as they're flooded with the fucking things. Down the chazza, then, and wave goodbye to a quid.
Stereosonic Meltdown (2005, 32.07) ***
|Space & Time
Gimme Sum Skin
Can't Get High
Train 2 Nowhere
Shape of Things 2 Come
|20th Century Boy
Price of Love
Canadian Tim Karr moved to LA at some point, releasing a solo album as far back as 1989, although I've no idea what he's done in the interim before forming Triggerdaddy. They're something of an LA supergroup, featuring not only our old friend Gilby Clarke, but members of Guns N'Roses (and associated outfits), Alice Cooper's band and Love/Hate, amongst others. What I believe is their sole album to date, 2005's Stereosonic Meltdown, is a neat amalgam of '70s glam (notably T.Rex, who they cover) and the glam/powerpop crossover of some years earlier, typified by the storming pop/punk of Gimme Sum Skin and Can't Get High, although their pointless take on 20th Century Boy and a handful of lesser tracks (on an album barely over half an hour long) whisper, "Lack of material" in my shell-like.
Clarke is credited with Mellotron on Shape Of Things 2 Come, but are we seriously supposed to believe that the vaguely flutey sound on the track has anything to do with a real Mellotron? Just because Clarke's used one on several of his own albums doesn't mean that this one's necessarily real and indeed, it isn't. This actually isn't a bad effort at all - Gimme Sum Skin is a minor classic of the genre - but with too much filler, it's difficult to wholeheartedly recommend this.
See: Gilby Clarke
Tortoise (2003, 50.08) ***½
The New Moon
Radiation part 1
Radiation part 2
Spectrum of Colours
Pilgrim (2007, 76.09) ***
Silence of the Universe
Walk on Land
How We Used to Go
The Magnificent Forest
Reveal the Mystery
The Deep Ocean
Out There Somewhere
Frank (new version)
There's been quite a bit of fuss about Netherlanders Trion ever since the release of their 2003 debut, Tortoise. The band (Their name is a conglomeration of 'trio' and 'Tron') is actually a side project (guitarist Eddie Mulder and keyboardist Edo Spanninga usually play in Flamborough Head, while drummer Menno Boomsma hails from Odyssice), formed as a deliberate attempt to play 'seventies' styled progressive music', according to their site, in which they're largely successful. The trouble is, it all seems a bit... ersatz. The all-instrumental material's perfectly good, within its limitations, but the band have no obvious character of their own; the opening title track has a two-chord 'Mellotron' sequence that is one note away from ripping Watcher Of The Skies, before shifting into a solo Hackett feel, although the rest of the album is less openly derivative. The sleeve art is even more derivative than most of the music, unless it's a deliberate joke? It's a dead-ringer for Gentle Giant's Octopus, only with a... tortoise. Oh, it's got to be a joke. Please.
In fairness, the band are perfectly open about their use of samples; their website credits Spanninga with "Flute, Oboe, Strings, Organ, Cello, Vibe and Choir Mellotron samples". See, told you. I like to think I'd have spotted it without help; the chief giveaway is the overly-smooth strings, often shoved right to the front of the mix, although the flutes almost convince, except when they're played slightly faster. No key-click, no hiss, no... grit. Hey, that's Mellotron samples for you. Spanninga oddly chooses to use 'Tron organ samples rather than an actual fake ('actual fake?') Hammond, giving the sounds a rather dull uniformity, to no particular purpose, as they're not even from an actual 'Tron. Anyway, massive use of all seven sounds, particularly the strings and flute, although he holds back on the choirs, making a nice change for a modern prog outfit.
Although Trion had never been intended as anything more than a one-off project, the trio recorded and released Pilgrim in 2007. To be searingly honest, it's not as good as their debut, too many of its tracks veering towards the insipid end of the progressive spectrum, the rather cheesy Reveal The Mystery being an obvious example. Originality isn't at the forefront of the band's concerns, either; a couple of tracks have a distinct 'Canterbury' feel to them, while Blue Shadows sounds like Führs & Fröhling with a hint of The Doors' Riders On The Storm thrown in for good measure. Spanninga expands his sound palette to encompass pseudo-versions of several other vintage 'boards this time round, although those Mellotron samples (chiefly strings with a smattering of flute) still crop up on most tracks, with particularly bad strings on Reveal The Mystery.
Incidentally, I feel I must quote a section from Spanninga's sleevenotes on the subject of Mellotron samples:
|"Proggers expressed their doubts about our use of mellotron samples (instead of using the original mellotron tapes) which is quite hilarious as the mellotron itself is a sampler".|
Er... Isn't that missing the point by a country mile? Or is it just me? No, the Mellotron (note capitalised 'M') is not a sampler; at best it's a sample player (a very different beast). An A/B comparison between a real machine and perfect samples made from that same machine will be pretty much indistinguishable while playing single notes, but as soon as two or more are played together, the samples suddenly sound flat and lifeless, as the sampler reproduces them exactly, rather than with the unintentional imperfections of a real Mellotron that give the machine its 'character'. So no, Edo, it's not the same at all. Also incidentally, the album 'proper' is actually just under fifty minutes long, but the band have included two 'bonus tracks': Out There Somewhere, from The Cyclops Sampler No.6 and Frank, seemingly a new version of their contribution to Musea/Colossus's The Spaghetti Epic: Six Modern Prog Bands for Six '70s Prog Suites and the best thing here by some way.
The trouble with Trion is that these come over as rather knowing tributes, as against albums full of music made for the sheer joy of it. For all that, Tortoise is actually quite good (not so sure about Pilgrim, sadly), although I don't know whether repeated plays will make it grow on me, or grate. Come back next year and I may be able to tell you.
See: Flamborough Head | Odyssice | Colossus
Onwards (2006, 47.11/53.18) ***
|Onwards part I
Onwards part II
The Silver Lining
Gunnin' for Glory
Onwards part III and part IV
[Japanese bonus tracks:
Onwards part V
The Road Less Travelled (2010, 56.21) ***
Death of Jane Doe
The Road Less Travelled
The Anger and the Silent Remorse
The Last Haven
Triosphere started as a three-piece (there's a surprise), releasing their debut, Onwards, in 2006. They're very clearly in thrall to Queensrÿche, despite the occasional bursts of rather needless double-kick work, copying that outfit's patented riffage perfectly. You really can't tell they've got a female vocalist most of the time; Ida Haukland's contralto sounds like your typical prog-metal male tenor for the bulk of the album, thankfully steering well clear of the more typical shrieky female metal vocal clichés, or, indeed, that tedious mock-operatic thing that seems to be so inexplicably popular at the moment. Lumsk's Espen (W.) Godø is credited with Mellotron, but even more than on that band's Det Vilde Kor, its couple of brief appearances here sound fake. Incidentally, I know they've supported them, but covering W.A.S.P.'s Mean Man as a bonus track was a mistake.
Three years on and the band have expanded to a quartet for The Road Less Travelled (UK spelling! Yes!), adding another guitarist to perfect their Queensrÿche twin-lead-and-harmony moves. The material's slightly more mature than before, but at the end of the day, it's a prog metal album and is never going to sound particularly innovative, although there's no denying it's a highly competent recording within its genre. More of Godø's 'Mellotron', particularly the strings on opening instrumental Ignition and at the end of the title track, although it doesn't really sound any more real than before.
At least Triosphere don't sound like Dream Theater, although I doubt whether anyone not at least partially attuned to the genre could tell. Perfectly good at what they do, but not an ounce (or gram; this is mainland Europe) of originality, nor, by the sound of it, any real Mellotron.
True Illusion II (2000, 43.16) **½Maré
Sérgio Benchimol is one of Brazil's more active progressive musicians, releasing albums as True Illusion and Semente, as well as under his own name. 2000's True Illusion II is a passable release, switching between a rather laid-back progressive feel (opener Maré, Indispensável) and a slightly more aggressive jazz approach (everything else), although I'm afraid to say that it all palls somewhat after half an hour or so.
Benchimol adds very obviously sampled 'Mellotron' strings to Indispensável; on the offchance that the word translates as 'indispensible', I can fully assure you it's not. I've heard vastly worse albums than True Illusion II, but then, I've heard vastly better ones, too. It has its moments and as it's available for free, there's nothing to stop you having a listen for yourself, but unless you're big on jazz, you may not wish to bother.
Truth & Salvage Co. (2010, 45.47) ***
Welcome to L.A.
Heart Like a Wheel
Jump the Ship
|She Really Does it for Me
Brothers, Sons & Daughters
Pure Mountain Angel
Although most of Americana outfit The Truth & Salvage Co. hail from the East Coast, they coalesced in LA in 2005, releasing their eponymous debut five years later. Truth & Salvage Co. is a good, if not outstanding album, top tracks including Old Piano (perfectly straddling the sincerity/corn divide), Jump The Ship and Rise Up, although nothing here appals.
Adam Grace supposedly plays Mellotron, but the overly-smooth strings on Jump The Ship really aren't convincing me, I'm afraid. A good album, then, but not one obviously sporting any real Mellotron.
Ninth Elegy (2000, 44.01) ***On Mother's Day
Yoake no Coffee
Hare Nochi Ame
Tsuki no Omosa
Oka no Ue de
Festive in Borotanyo
What to make of Tsuki no Wa (who appear to be almost synonymous with Japanese improv artist Natsume)'s debut, 2000's Ninth Elegy? Its overall feel is sparse and jazzy, typified by opener On Mother's Day and Oka No Ue De (although the two pieces have little else in common), although Yoake No Coffee's ethno-fusion and Festive In Borotanyo's creaky strings rather buck the trend. Best tracks? Hard to say, frankly; closer Going Home's layered vocals are possibly one of the album's most successful experiments, but approaching this record expecting to hear anything even remotely close to the mainstream, even in the jazz world, is to precipitate disappointment.
Tetuzi Akiyama allegedly plays Mellotron strings on Festive In Borotanyo, but the samples are so poor (wildly obvious looping and all) that I'm wondering whether they're being ironic. So; not one for R&B fans, then. In fact, not one for non-fans of the avant-garde, end of.
Lialim High (1997, 50.40) ***½Twelve Feet Tall
The Pelican Lie
Famous Last Words
A Sign of My Decline
The Final Decision
Twin Age produced three albums in the mid- to late '90s, but seem to have gone very quiet lately. Going by the second, Lialim High, unlike several other Swedish bands of that era, they're quite firmly members of the neo-prog camp, with relatively simple song structures, few key changes and a vocalist who seems to aspire to be IQ's Peter Nicholls (who in turn, of course, aspires to be Peter Gabriel...). 1996's Month of the Year (***½), funnily enough, is slightly more adventurous than its follow-up, although there aren't even any Mellotron samples on board, never mind the real thing. The material on Lialim High's not actually bad, and better than several similar I've heard lately, but its lack of musical challenge wears me down after a while. Not that I've got a 'thing' about it; I'll quite happily listen to any number of more straightforward acts, but if one aspires to be 'prog', then please BE prog, and don't sit on the fence!
Jörgen Hanson plays 'Mellotron', although I strongly suspect he's using samples. It's slathered all over every track, although Hanson's use is far from innovative, to be honest; loads of string pads, and the choirs sound strangely muted. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I think it's samples; the album opens with stately solo 'Tron strings, but it all sounds too... clean. Anyway, if you haven't got a problem with 'neo' stuff, or the possibility that the Mellotron may be fake, you may well like this more than I did.
Under the Angels (1996, 46.39) ***
I Never Liked the Way You Looked
Under the Angels
Life in a Bottle
Shouting at The Big Wall
Don't Let Me Sleep
Joan of Arc
I've always had a bit of a soft (rock) spot for Judie Tzuke; she had quite a way with a tune on her first several albums and her first live release, Road Noise, is well worth hearing. I have to admit, however, that I'd lost interest some years before her tenth studio release, 1996's Under the Angels. Hearing it over fifteen years on and a rather scary thirty since I first saw her live, I can say that it's a very pleasant, inoffensive album of, well, soft rock, I suppose, similar to her early work, although without its obvious highs. Better tracks include
Someone plays a murky Mellotron string sample solo on the title track, but it's hardly anything to write home about. Those who, like me, lost faith in Judie over the years will, in Under the Angels, find an album that's probably best described as 'another Judie Tzuke record'; you know what you're going to get, up to you whether you want it.