CD-Reviews

On this page I want give a little crosssection of my music taste and present reviews of records that mean much to me for one reason or another. If I sound too enthusiastic now and then: it is clear that the following records are the highlights of my collection. I won't bother to sit down and write reviews about mediocre records.


Camel: Mirage

A beautiful record. A very beautiful record, actually. But let us start at the beginning: Camel are a British band that in the early 70s started making music somewhere between progressive rock, jazz and orchestral music. In the 80s, like so many others, they drifted off to superficial pop music, without significantly more commercial success.

In my opinion, Mirage is the most brilliant work from their jazz rock phase. The record strongly depends on changes between mellow, dreamy parts with plenty of flute, soft e-piano and beautiful vocals on one hand and wild, complex instrumental parts on the other. The musicians are all excellent; but I have to single out Andy Latimer, one of my all-time favorite guitarists. Not only does he have an amazingly full, singing, pleasant guitar tone, but also an infallible feeling for the right melody at the right moment. Again and again, a few wonderfully played notes mark the perfect conclusion to excessive solo parts. Besides, Latimer also plays the flute, which is used in many of the other highlights of the album.

The climax and finale of the album is the twelve-minute track "Lady Fantasy", which features some of my favorite guitar parts and bursts with beautiful melodies and moods, as well as heavy, dissonant parts.

One remarkable aspect of Camel's music is that even the most melancholy pieces are never depressive, but always have a certain lightheartedness. This record could appeal to all who have a taste for playful, romantic music. If you turn out to especially enjoy the quiet parts, check out Camel's third album "The Snow Goose" - purely instrumental, very relaxed, very beautiful.


Dream Theater: When Dream And Day Unite

With this record, the New York quintet Dream Theater make their first appearance in 1989, and they left quite an impression: they single-handedly created a new style, became idols of the metal musician community, inspired dozens of more or less talented clones and received the highest average score ever in the "Rock Hard" magazine - not every band can boast of such achievements.

The first bars make it entirely clear that the band wil take no prisoners: heavy guitar chords, a piercing synth, then the drum staccatto sets in, and from then on they shred like hell. In previous metal styles, it had been the guitarist who stood in the spotlight and had a right to excessive solos. Now all musicians could show their skills to the same degrees: of course also a guitarist who isn't sparing of notes (John Petrucci), but also a classically trained keyboardist (Kevin Moore) who proves that synths make decent solo instruments too, a drummer who makes the listener suspect that he has more than the usual two arms and two feet, and a bassist (John Myung) who happily fits the clichee of the busy Asian. Unfortunately, his contribution is somewhat buried in the slightly muddy sound of the record.

I left out one person: singer Charlie Dominici, who has a very pleasant, soulful voice. His vocal lines give the tracks much of their catchiness, and not later than in the last track "Only A Matter Of Time" one has to acknowledge that he is as much a virtuoso with his with as his colleagues with their instruments.

The musical level of the compositions is amazing: despite tons of different parts and wild time change orgies, the tracks flow smoothly. The musicians' infectious enthusiasm, the bombastic arrangements and the awesome melodies invite the listener to sing along and head-bang along - boredom? What's that? There are no weak tracks; in my opinion, special highlights are the opener "A Fortune In Lies", the instrumental "Ytse Jam" and the mentioned "Only A Matter Of Time". "When Dream And Day Unite" is deservedly considered one of the milestones of progressive metal. If you are interested in music that is both complex and testosterone-laden, you absolutely have to know this record.


Fates Warning: Awaken The Guardian

You can hate this record, love it dearly or find it plain boring, even if you like metal in principle. I happen to be one of those who love it - but it is hard to explain in words why.

Fates Warning were one of the first bands who shaped the sub-genre "progressive metal". Their first work "Night on Bröcken" was a fairly uninspired Iron Maiden copy; "The Spectre Within" was a lot more interesting; and the 1996 album "Awaken The Guardian" represented the perfection of early Fates Warning's style. The sound is still very much in the vein of traditional heavy metal: heavily distorted guitars and a singer of the kind referred to as castrates dominate the soundscape.

However, in terms of song writing, Fates Warning took paths that had not been tried in heavy metal until then and that few managed to imitate well since. The usual structures of verse, chorus and solo dissolve and are replaced by flowing transitions, spaced-out interludes and epic finales. The tracks are hard to get a grasp on at first; but after a few times the vocal melodies etch themselves deeply into the brain, even if they are hard to follow and nearly impossible to sing. After a while, more details and connections that were overheard at first reveal themselves (I have listened to this record literally hundreds of times and still discovered new aspects).

What really sets the record apart from other well-constructed progressive metal albums is its emotional depth. The songs radiate a dreamy melancholy, a haunted beauty, a sad hope. If you enter into the music, you can see the strange worlds painted by singer John Arch with cryptic words and beautifully illustrated by the album cover.

Unfortunately, the band underwent fundamental changes after the release of this album. John Arch was fired, and the style became more depressive and colder. On "No Exit", despair and escapism reign. "Perfect Symmetry" is very intellectual and cold - song titles like "Part Of The Machine" point the way. "Parallels" has perfectly crafted songs, but some boring ones too. "InsideOut" contains almost only duds, with the exception of the track "Monument". Only with "A Pleasant Shade of Gray" and "Disconnected" did Fates Warning regain the emotional depth that "Spectre Within" and "Awaken The Guardian" had, but with a more modern and more technical sound.


Nicholas Lens: Terra Terra

I found this record in the collection of my roommate. At first I could only consider it a curiosity, but after a few spins it dawned on me how brilliant this record is.

Nicholas Lens is a classical composer from Belgium who, as he says, wants to explore the contrast between classical and ethnic music. The instrumentation is accordingly diverse: piano and classical orchestra meet instruments such as koto and er-hu (don't ask), joined by various sweeps, hums and claps of probably electronical origin. From these elements, Lens builds a soundscape that is at times slightly dissonant, but mostly beautiful and always exotic and interesting. On this foundation, the singers can show off their skills.

With the vocals, Lens again pulls all stops: six classical solists impress the listener with volume and precise intonation, while two Bulgarian female singers set the contrast with their nasal, piercing voices. And since we don't want to be thrifty, a choir joins the party, too. The vocals are the point where many listeners might have difficulties: after all, opera singers do sing differently than typical pop or rock singers. Especially the bassist and the countertenor sound strange at first: the former reminded me of the mating calls of the giant ox frog, and the latter, well, he sings falsetto. But you get used to it, and then you can enjoy the truly beautiful . Especially the vocal lines of the tenor and the altist are plain fantastic.

It should be mentioned that the lyrics are in Latin. The booklet contains a (loose) translation which does not give full insight either into the somewhat obscure storyline, which involves all sorts of deities. On the whole, however, the topic is birth and renewal, as opposed to Lens' first CD "Flamma Flamma", which dealt with death and funerals. Consequently, the mood of the record is optimistic and dreamy.

This record is highly recommended to open-minded listeners searching for a fairly relaxed, but very complex, interesting and (have I mentioned it?) beautiful album.


Lordian Guard: Lordian Guard

This album from 1995 was the comeback of Bill Tsamis, guitarist of the epic metal band Warlord, after a long time-out. His wife is the singer, and a drummer is also mentioned in the booklet, although the drums sound very much like a drum computer.

This leaves Tsamis with the rest of the work - composition, lyrics, guitar, bass, keyboards - which means he does not have to compromise. The result is very melodic and epic metal with hymnical vocal lines, singing guitar solos and a good amount of medieval-sounding bombast. Most of the lyrics are inspired by biblical mythology ("Revelation XIX") or later works based on it, such as "War In Heaven", which is based on Milton's "Paradise Lost". This means that the lyrics are rather pompous, which suits the music perfectly.

In his compositions, Tsamis is not in a hurry - seven minutes is the average length of the tracks, which contain lots of instumental highlights, but still m a very organized and tidy impression. Each note is where it should be, no bad coordination between instruments disturbs the harmony and order, and even if some solos pile notes on notes, the melody always has a clear direction and leads smoothly to the next part.

The mentioned solos are usually the highlights of the tracks - with respect to the amazingly beautiful melodies as well as the wonderful singing tone and the precise, but emotional playing, most guitartists could learn a lot from this.

Two aspects have been criticized by other reviewers: the vocals are not everybody's cup of tea. I happen to like the deep voice of Vidonne Sayre-Riemenschneider, as well as her rather plain style of singing. The other aspect is the sound - as mentioned, the drums are artificial, and even the rest of the CD sounds rather synthetic. The dirt that you'd expect from heavy metal is missing, and with it some liveliness. If you think these aspects would bother you, you should check out the new Warlord album "Rising Out Of The Ashes", which features a live drummer (Mark Zonder, who played with Warlord in the early days and then joined Fates Warning), a different singer (Joachim Cans from Hammerfall), a heavier production and new recordings of some Lordian Guard tracks.


Magma: Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandöh

How do you describe a band that has founded a truly original style and that other bands are compared to? Maybe like this: MDK sounds as if Carl Orff had met with a bunch of jazz musicians and a gospel choir to celebrate a black mass. Rhythm is at the center of the music - drums and bass dig into repetitive jazz-rock gorrves, the pianist often restricts himself to rhythmic chords, and even the vocals are strongly accentuated and serve as an additional rhythm instrument. Magma create a hypnotic, gloomy, even sacral atmosphere; slow changes in dynamics and instrumentation lead from quite tension to frantic ectasy.

As befits a record from the seventies, there is a concept behind this album, which is more radical than those of many colleagues in the art rock genre. The album tells the story of the prophet Nebehr Güdahtt, who reveals the voice of the Universe to mankind and so and so forth - if you're interested in details, look here. However, you'd never know all this by yourself, since the lyrics are in Kobaian - an artificial language invented by band leader Christian Vander which, although it is spoken on the planet Kobaia, sounds like eastern European languages with a touch of German. Allow me to quote:
Ioss da etnah werdett dos da MAGMA udets klowits
Owile wisoi, owile wisoi
Owile risun dowe loi loi loi
Ioss da etnah werdett dos da MAGMA udets klowits
Ioss mitlait da felt dos funker uts stik reis stits klowits
If you think that these guys are slightly insane, you're probably right. However, as you know, genius and madness are not far apart. Most other Magma records use the same language; some of them are loosely connected to the storyline of Mekanik Destruktiv Kommandöh. The band refers to its music as "Zeuhl" - Kobaian for "celestial music".

Despite all the madness and the unconventional lyrics, Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandöh (adequate title, by the way) is astonishingly catchy. If you are looking for unusual listening experiences and don't dislike jazz rock in principle, you should check this out. It's not necessary to like Magma, but it doesn't hurt to know them. In this spirit: Da zeuhl wortz mekanïk!


Nightwish: Wishmaster

One of the few bands that really blew me away the last couple of years was Nightwish, a Finnish symphonic metal band. Their music is not exactly the invention of the wheel, but it is qualitatively the best in their niche, and Wishmaster, their third album, is their best effort so far.

It offers well-thought out metal tracks with lots of instumental finesses, classical elements (mainly from the keyboardist), wonderful melodies and a brilliant female singer. It is obvious that she is a classically trained opera singer, even if she does not use excessive vibrato and coloraturas (fortunately!): she has a strong enough voice to keep up with her rampaging colleagues even in loud parts without screaming, and she can put emotions into her voice and still hit the note. Besides, she has a very pleasant voice.

The rest of the band does not have to hide behind Tarja, though: everyone of them plays demanding parts, which however never sound too contrived or tacked onto simple songs just to show off. The interplay is excellent, and the music grooves and rocks like crazy. A crystal clear, super-loud, extremely fat production completes the good impression.

The songwriting is very good throughout the album, and despite the recognizable band sound, the songs span the range from simple speed metal shredding to epic tracks with many different parts to dreamy ballads. In my opinion, the highlight is "Deep Silent Complete", which might make even rocks cry, but as I mentioned, all other songs are very good as well. The entire CD bursts with enthusiasm and is lots of fun to listen to.


Rush: Exit Stage Left

This may be the record that, back in the days, made me get into progressive rock. Although they sell records like crazy in the US and Canada, hardly anyone has heard of Rush in Germany, so I have to write a few words on them. Rush are a Canadian trio that has been active since the early 70s in a nearly unchanged line-up (Geddy Lee: bass, vocals, keys, Alex Lifeson: guitars, Neil Peart: drums). The very first records featured rather straight-forward hard rock strongly influenced by Led Zeppelin, but from 1974 (with the record "2112") they expanded their horizons and included the complex song structurs, odd time meters and frequent harmony changes typical for progressive rock. They published a series of albums on which inspired song-writing, attention to details and virtuosity came together: A Farewell to Kings, Hemispheres, Permanent Waves and Moving Pictures.

At the apogee of this phase, the band recorded Exit Stage Left, which contains many of the most important and most brilliant tracks, even (and this is unusual for live records) the longer ones. "Longer" means 8 to 12 minutes - enough time to indulge in extensive instrumental parts. Since each band member is a world class virtuoso (particulartly Neil Peart, who has driven many amateur drummers into depressions), they have no problems with amazing solos (yes, drum solos too, and good ones!) and collective shredding, mixed with spacy soundscapes.

Despite all the details and complexities, the record is very accessible and can be enjoyed as just a rock record. This made getting used to the music easier for me - I had no clue what these guys were doing exactly and what the difference between a 7/8 and a 13/8 or a 4/4 was, but the music just sounded great. The rest came when I listened to it a couple hundred times.

Unfortunately the band took a more straight-forward, synth-based direction in the following years. They still wrote a couple of great songs, but the magic of the early years was gone. That is why this record is so important: it is a document of one of the greatest rock bands in history in the shape of their life.

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