Friday, January 27, 2006

The frenetic life

Well loyal reader(s) (assuming we have even 1!), I want to apologize for the lack of updates lately. Life has consumed me, with worries and plans for the future conquering all else. But the time to kick it into gear here is upon us. Expect a slew of reviews in the next few days, as well as a special article or two (including a collaborative work). Stay tuned, Progged isn't dead, she just had to take a nap for a time.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Spiral Architect: A Sceptic's Universe

A Sceptic's Universe
By: Spiral Architect
Year: 2000

One of the aspects of prog that attracts me is the technicality of the music. While that certainly isn't everything I like, it is a huge contributing factor. Listening to much of the music reviewed here, one will find precision playing, unusual time signatures with rapid shifts from one to the next, and multilayered writing that really gives each instrument something interesting to contribute. But today's album takes that technicality to an entirely new level. This is no longer prog metal, this can be called nothing less than technical metal.

Spiral Architect is something of a dream group, though few will recognize any of the members. An effort to combine the considerable talents of many players, the band was brewing for a number of years before the actual release of their debut (and so far only) album "A Sceptic's Universe". For those who prefer their music to be something that rests in the background, this album is not for you. Just skip it and move on to something more mundane. For those who want an intense listening experience that demands repeated, concerted listens to even begin to fully appreciate all that is going on, this is the album for you.

The musicianship is stunning. Incredibly complex playing from each member fills the album from start to finish. Truly, in attempting to describe the music, words fail me. The bass is all over the place, doing things that most bass players would find obscene. Polyrhythms abound, leaving the careless listener lost in the wake. The lyrics, while certainly playing second fiddle to the amazing music, are surprisingly introspective and intelligent. Guitars and keyboards often merge to create excellent harmonies. Vocals are also great, sounding amazingly similar to Buddy Lackey (aka Devon Graves) of Psychotic Waltz fame.

Tracks to catch:"Insect" has one of the most jaw-dropping bass lines I have ever heard. "Cloud Constructor" is a whirling, mind spinning trip. "Conjuring Collapse" has moments of surprising accessibility. Finally, if you are lucky enough to find the Japanese version you get an amazing version of the stellar Fates Warning song "Prelude to Ruin".

Objective Rating: 8 out of 10
Stunning musicianship and out of this world writing combine to make this an excellent technical metal album. The production is great, and each song is mind bending in its own right. One of the weaknesses of the album is part and parcel of its strengths: the amazing technicality. It can make the album difficult to really get into, and most of the songs have a very cold, calculated quality.

Biased Rating: 6 out of 10
I truly appreciate the technicality of the album. But it really seems to lack soul. There is nothing that connects this disc to me. Because of this, I end up not liking the album as much as I might. I definitely need to be in the proper frame of mind to really enjoy it, and honestly don't usually make it through the disc from start to finish.

Saturday, January 07, 2006

Stream of Passion: Embrace the Storm

Embrace the Storm
By: Stream of Passion
Year: 2005

If there is one incontrovertible thing you can say about Arjen Lucassen's Ayreon project, it is this: he does not hold back. He gives every Ayreon album everything he has, and often seems to have to take a break and indulge his musical mastermind in other ways to help clear it out a bit. After the 2004 masterpiece "The Human Equation", Arjen decided to take that Ayreon break in yet another musical direction. This time he would form his first band in 10 years, centered on the vocal talents of Marcela Bovio (who sang the part of 'Wife' on "The Human Equation"). The result is "Embrace the Storm", the first CD from yet another female fronted rock/metal band. With the current glut of such female fronted metal bands (eg. Nightwish, After Forever, Tristania, Lacuna Coil, Flowing Tears), how does this newest project from Arjen stand up?

In one word: brilliantly. But a one word review would be boring, so I will go on. Stream of Passion is a band that took full advantage of the internet. Buzz and advertising was created quite simply by internet word of mouth. Many of the members submitted their work via the internet, and electronic communication led to the discovery of many of the members of the band. Yet, while technology played such a large part in the creation of the record, and even the band, the music is surprisingly down to earth. No sci-fi stories, other than guitars, no electronic instrumentation (in fact the book states there are no synthesizers whatsoever on the album). The writing is very evenly split, demonstrating the balance of the members. Arjen wrote the bulk of the music, Marcela the lyrics and vocal melodies. Yet each player also contributed their part, Lori writing her lead guitar lines, Johan contributing to the bass work, Davy with the drums and Alejandro with the piano. This balance of the writing helps to lend the music a distinctively fresh sound, and sets it apart from Ayreon.

All the members work wonderfully together. Marcela's voice is one of the best in pop, rock or metal. Period. Clear, with just a hint of her accent leaking through, soaring and haunting all in turns. The rhythm section is solid, with a rich, full base sound and great, driving, crisp drums. Alejandro's piano blends in perfectly, bold when it should be, subtle at the right times. Lori's lead guitar work is fantastic. She was quite the find. While she can certainly 'shred' with the best of them, what really sets her apart is the crystal clear, soaring and almost vocal quality to many of her solos. Finally, Arjen Lucassen has, in this writer's opinion, the single best electric guitar sound in rock or metal. It is powerful, full, thunderous. His chords simply rock.

Note: The special edition comes with a region free DVD that has a 30 minute 'making of', the video for "Passion", a trailer for the album, as well as the rough, acoustic demo tracks for each song. Also included is a video of the one take in with drummer Davy Mickers recorded the final track "Calliopeia". It is fun to watch him record the entire song in one take. The DVD is certainly worth looking for, and I highly recommend it to anyone with more than just a casual interest in the band.

Tracks to catch:The opener "Spellbound" begins with distorted, muffled tribal drumming. Piano and strings enter, followed by Marcela's amazing vocals. But the real kicker is the explosion of guitars about 1:30 into the song. Wow. I was speechless, and this was the first track. "Passion" is the most powerful, focused rocker on the album, with carefully balanced moments of calm. "Haunted" is a chilling track, living up to its title. "Embrace the Storm" encapsulates so well all that the band is about. And the final track "Calliopeia" is yet another example of musical brilliance. Honestly though, there is not a single bad track on the album.

Objective Rating: 9 out of 10
Overall, this is an unquestionably excellent album. The songs are catchy, yet still complex enough to keep the listener interested. The playing is impeccable, the writing equally excellent. The balance of Arjen's prog influence, along withe Marcela's prog/jazz/pop sensibilities really set this apart from the many other 'Gothic' metal bands with female vocalists. This really is one of the best albums of 2005.

Biased Rating: 10 out of 10
I admit fully to being an Arjen junkie. In my opinion, he has done no wrong ever since the very first Ayreon disc. Obviously that bias leads me to love just about everything he has a hand in. Nevertheless, it doesn't take much for me to love this album. I have been listening to regularly since I picked it up, and it doesn't show any signs of leaving my player soon.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Linkin Park: Hybrid Theora

Hybrid Theory/Meteora (Hybird Theora)
By: Linkin Park
Year: 2000/2003

Author's note:One of the biggest perils of reviewing albums that you own is that you likely aren't buying it in the first place if you don't like it. This has lead to a lot of highly rated reviews here. In an effort to demonstrate that we can, in fact, give low reviews I am taking this opportunity to review an album I purchased in a moment of weakness.

Linkin Park hit and hit big. "Hybird Theory" was the top selling album of the year when it was released, and you couldn't turn on popular radio stations without hearing a song from them come on the radio. But there was a problem. Were we ever hearing more than one song? I mean, really, almost every song sounded the same.

Capitalizing on the rap/rock fad, Linkin Park combined traditional nu-metal vox from Chester, with rapping from Mike and a DJ to boot. Short, catchy songs, with easily remembered melodies and choruses coupled with lyrics full of teen angst and despair that so seems to fascinate teens. Wrap it in an industrial looking case, and you had a winner.

But the music simply cannot stand up to anything more than a cursory, half-eared listen. Listening to "Hybrid Theory" all they way through and you get some 30 minutes and change of a pretty continuous drone. Throw in "Meteora", the follow-up, and you have two discs full of one single, repetitive track, beat into your head time after time after time. It is not even worth considering them as two separate albums. It takes but a moment to be grateful that the songs are so short, just so you finish sooner.

Tracks to catch: How can you recommend the same song more than once? Sorry, nothing to add here. Once you have heard a track, there just aren't any surprises left.

Rating: 1/5
The production is slick. The guitars do have a nice, crunchy sound. Too bad they are playing repetitive, mindless crap. This scrapes the bottom of the barrel, simply for playing the same thing, over and over again, and passing it off as something new and exciting.