Review: Queensryche – Condition Human

Review: Queensryche – Condition Human

Band: Queensryche
Album: Condition Human
Reviewer: Nick from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Queensryche Website

Buy on Amazon

Queensrÿche is one of the few bands around in which I cannot find myself easily separating the intra-band politics and history from the music. In 2012 the band had a very ugly and public split with long time vocalist Geoff Tate. The resulting legal battles led to multiple years of two competing entities using the name “Queensrÿche” while releasing new music and touring. Those issues are settled now, with Geoff Tate changing his band’s name to Operation: Mindcrime, and the remaining members retaining the name Queensrÿche, who have just released their 2nd album without Tate, Condition Human.

Many fans had put a lot of stock in the previous self-titled album. The band had been making statements of all the creative energy that had been put on the shelf for many years, and how excited they were to go out and prove themselves. What they delivered was an EP length collection of sonically horrible songs that were a return to the metal genre, but not necessarily a return to great metal music. Many fans pointed to the fact that the album was certainly better than the bands previous effort, Dedicated to Chaos, and this I certainly will not argue, however the lackluster album combined with the bands unwillingness to stand behind the material on tour had me writing them off as a modern and relative act.

With the release of Condition Human, my opinion on that is beginning to change. For starters, listening to the album doesn’t make my ears bleed. In fact, it sounds rather good. Scott Rockenfield’s drums and Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren’s guitars in particular cut through very clearly in the mix. While the bass is certainly more subdued, every other instrument stands out very well. Then of course, is the music itself. It no longer feels like metal for the sake of metal, and I dare say it actually stands out at times as Queensrÿche having a distinct sound again.

This is seen most notably on the album’s closing and title track, “Condition Human”. Not only does the song show what the band can do moving forward, but it also nods at the early days in a more tactful manner than anything on the prior album. On the flip side the band still finds itself making not so tasteful references to days gone by. The second track, “Guardian”, may as well be called “Revolution Calling II”. Not that the musical structures are similar, but when you match the primary chorus line of a  song from 25+ years earlier, it makes one ask, “Why?” The bigger issue at times is Todd la Torre’s vocals. Now I understand that he naturally sounds a bit like that man he’s replacing, but he sounds so much like a youthful Geoff Tate at times that I can’t help but feel it’s being done intentionally, either by his delivery technique or studio wizardry. While this certainly allows for familiarity for old listeners, it also limits their ability to carve out an identity moving forward. For a band that fought for years in court to move away from their former singer, it’s as if they retain his shadow in the band now. That issue aside, Todd’s vocals are powerful and consistent, and for that reason are a very nice addition to the modern Queensrÿche lineup.

As nice as the vocals may be, they are not the biggest part of Queensrÿche‘s resurgence with this record, not by a long shot. The biggest improvements have been driven by more interesting guitar parts and the songwriting. The previous album often sounded like a bunch of underdeveloped riffs made into short three or four minute songs.  On this record, the emphasis on simply being metal was put in the back seat, and the songs were given a chance to breathe as a result. Even a shorter track like “Eye9” seems to be far more developed than most of its contemporaries on the previous effort. As for guitarists Michael Wilton and Parker Lundgren, there isn’t much to say other than they’ve upped their game on Condition Human. The Queensrÿche album saw a return to solos, unisons, trade-offs, and stand out lead work, but there has been improvement across the board on this album. There isn’t a track that goes by without some sort of guitar work standing out and adding to the song.

One man that’s gone without mention so far is bassist Eddie Jackson, and that’s not without reason. As he has done for much of the band’s history “Edbass” manages to provide a great backbone, with a nice tone and nothing too flashy. He doesn’t standout much on the album, but with all the amazing guitar work going on he does a great job of complementing what Wilton and Lundgren provide, and not creating a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario.

One man that’s gone without mention so far is bassist Eddie Jackson, and that’s not without reason. As he has done for much of the band’s history “Edbass” manages to provide a great backbone, with a nice tone and nothing too flashy. He doesn’t standout much on the album, but with all the amazing guitar work going on he does a great job of complementing what Wilton and Lundgren provide, and not creating a “too many cooks in the kitchen” scenario.

There have been a lot of albums since 1994’s , and I’ve enjoyed most of them to some extent or another, but as a creative force I’ve never seen them as anything other than a shadow of themselves since that album. 21 years later, may be the album that re-establishes this band. It was especially refreshing to see the band correct the blatant audio issues with the last album, and put so much time into the writing. A major test going forward for the band will be to see if they go out and play these songs, and stand behind them. They replaced an iconic vocalist, and the fan base has been very accepting of Todd la Torre, which is quite a feat. They’ve been given the chance to resurrect their career and their image, and I hope that this particular phoenix doesn’t find the chains of nostalgia clasping around its neck, because I want more albums like from .

There have been a lot of Queensrÿche albums since 1994’s Promised Land, and I’ve enjoyed most of them to some extent or another, but as a creative force I’ve never seen them as anything other than a shadow of themselves since that album. 21 years later, Condition Human may be the album that re-establishes this band. It was especially refreshing to see the band correct the blatant audio issues with the last album, and put so much time into the writing. A major test going forward for the band will be to see if they go out and play these songs, and stand behind them. They replaced an iconic vocalist, and the fan base has been very accepting of Todd la Torre, which is quite a feat. They’ve been given the chance to resurrect their career and their image, and I hope that this particular phoenix doesn’t find the chains of nostalgia clasping around its neck, because I want more albums like Condition Human from Queensrÿche.

Review: Nordic Giants – A Seance of Dark Delusions

Review: Nordic Giants – A Seance of Dark Delusions

Band: Nordic Giants
Album: A Seance of Dark Delusions
Reviewer: Joe from When Prog and Power Unite
Audio Review

Nordic Giants Website
Buy on Amazon

A Séance of Dark Delusions is the long-awaited debut album from Nordic Giants, a post-rock/prog band from Brighton, England.  Though the duo previously released several EPs on their own record label, A Séance of Dark Delusions is the band’s first full length effort, as well as their first new recording under progressive rock label KScope.

At its core, Séance is an album that relies heavily on sampling and ambient synth patches to create a dreamy sense of atmosphere and haunting empty space. Some obvious comparisons to make might be modern Mogwai or Explosions in the Sky, though Nordic Giants fit nicely besides act such as Anathema and Lunatic Soul, as well as other bands on KScope who are representative of the recent “post-prog” scene. The band also put a premium on their experimental live performances, which include short films, animations, and a digital mapping experience. The elaborate setup is something you might expect from an artist such as Bjork, but not your typical post-rock or prog rock band.

Musically, Séance is not all that different from the band’s earlier EPs such as Build Seas and A Tree As Old As Me, though the full length does feature some of the band’s busiest and most cinematic arrangements to date. Several songs are airy and minimalistic, such as “Give Flight to the Imagination” which features longtime collaborator Freyja. Others, such as “Rapture”, contain flurries of percussive arpeggios and driving rhythms that are reminiscent of the cathartic buildups to be found in modern Anathema.

As I was listening to the album, I found myself wanting more songs featuring guest vocalists, and fewer songs where heavy speech samples are used. While I have enjoyed albums that feature heavy sampling in the past, I found those used on A Séance of Dark Delusion to be a little bit too heavy-handed and literal. Also, I thought the guest vocalists really helped to add extra variety to the album, which sometimes starts to sound too much like itself.

Having done a bit of research on the band, it would be disingenuous of me to fail mentioning that I have not experienced the visual components the band consider to be so important, nor have I attended one of their elaborate live performances.  Taken in a vacuum, Séance can sound over-homogenized and too wrapped up in its own beauty, but part of the challenge for those of us across the Atlantic and elsewhere in the world is that we are missing out on the ever-important visual presentation the band give on stage. It’s increasingly rare to find a band that put so much work and effort into their live show that their studio album becomes secondary, but I have every impression that the eyes are just as important as the ears when it comes to enjoying Nordic Giants. One can only hope that, with this new album and new record deal, Nordic Giants the momentum they need to take their show across the globe.  Until then, consider me a believer.

Review: Gavin Harrison – Cheating the Polygraph

Review: Gavin Harrison – Cheating the Polygraph

Band: Gavin Harrison
Album: Cheating the Polygraph
Reviewer: Joe from When Prog and Power Unite

Gavin Harrison Website
Buy on Amazon

Some tribute albums are genuine labors of love. Most feel more like quick cash-ins. Thankfully, Cheating the Polygraph is something different entirely; it’s not a tribute album as much as it is a challenging and imaginative recreation of its source material.

While Gavin Harrison is best known for his work with the indefinitely suspended Porcupine Tree, he’s contributed his talents to acts such as King Crimson, OSI, and a myriad of others in recent years. Harrison has also continued to enjoy acclaim from music critics and fellow drummers on the national scale, even after his day job disappeared to make room for Steven Wilson’s solo career.

Those who have followed Harrison’s post-Porcupine Tree career know to expect the unexpected, and Cheating the Polygraph is no exception. While I admit I was initially skeptical of the idea of turning Porcupine Tree into a big band, I now just feel guilty for ever fearing Harrison would put out something as thoughtless as a note-by-note recreation with jazz instrumentation. I can’t emphasize enough that Cheating the Polygraph is not a Porcupine Tree cover album. It’s a completely new perspective on Porcupine Tree. The melodies may be familiar, but Harrison and his band have painstakingly recreated these songs from scratch, often painting them on completely new emotional landscapes. In fact, if I hesitate to recommend this album to anyone at all, it would be out of concern that it is just too different from Porcupine Tree, and some fans will potentially struggle with the material.

I’m no jazz critic, and truth be told it’s difficult for me to say too much about this album knowing so little about the genre. What I can say, however, is that Cheating the Polygraph will offer Porcupine Tree fans the same level of challenge and reward that can be reaped from repeated and attentive listens of Steven Wilson’s new solo albums. As Wilson continues to move forward with his solo project, a Porcupine Tree reunion seems to grow more distant by the day. But, at the very least, Cheating the Polygraph is a statement that Wilson wasn’t the only musical genius in the band.

Review: IZZ – Everlasting Instant

Review: IZZ – Everlasting Instant

Band: IZZ
Album: Everlasting Instant
Reviewer: Nick from When Prog and Power Unite

IZZ Website

Let me start with a confession. Two IZZ releases have come and gone with people suggesting I check them out, and both times I let their albums slip through the cracks. This changed with their newest release, Everlasting Instant. From the very start of the album I enjoyed the lack of denseness in the music. Too often bands seemingly play all their instruments, all the time, creating walls of sound that get packed into the music. Clear keyboard or guitar melodies often lead the way, without a plethora of other instrumental gymnastics fighting for ear space in the background. Where you will probably notice more immediately is that IZZ features four vocalists, two women and two men, who split the lead vocals and complement each other very well.

It took me a few listens to truly notice, but the bass parts on the album truly shine through when the tempo and groove pick up. The bass work throughout the album is top notch, but when it takes lead, such as the instrumental section on the song “Keep Away”, it certainly stands out. Intentional or not, that track also happens to have the only bit of musical déjà vu on the album, with a guitar part in the middle being strikingly similar to a part of Queensrÿche’s Operation: Mindcrime. Now get that album out of your mind, as overall they are absolutely nothing alike! A much fairer comparison of overall sound, at times, might be ELO.

To me, the biggest knock against the album is its slow start. I know that others may certainly disagree, but I find it isn’t till halfway through the album, at the title track, that songs really start to grab my attention. Don’t misunderstand, I find everything up to that point enjoyable, but I tend to recall the closing tracks when I think about the album, and not the opening tracks. In a rarity for a release of any genre, particularly an album that isn’t a concept album, I actually find the final three tracks, “Illuminata”, “Sincerest Life”, and “Like a Straight Line” to be the albums strongest. One reason for this is that in the latter half of the album I find a greater abundance of quality keyboard parts in more prominent roles.

As I mentioned earlier, the album features four vocalists, and as a general rule I’d say if you have people who can sing well, use them, and IZZ certainly does. While neither keyboardist/vocalist Tom Galgano, nor bassist/vocalist John Galgano has a strong enough voice to be winning American Idol anytime soon, they are very good at using their talent and weaving it into the musical tapestry, which helps IZZ carve their own musical niche. Having two male and two female singers gives the band greater flexibility in writing the vocals and not relying on guest musicians, and having that many capable voices allows them to create nice vocal harmonies, as well as giving different songs or passages different tones simply by changing the vocalist. I would argue that Anmarie Byrnes and Laura Meade might be classified as the stronger vocalists on the album, but I certainly wouldn’t have them replace any of the parts sung by the Galgano brothers. As I said, everyone has a nice comfortable spot on the album.

I am certainly impressed with the band’s ability to restrain themselves and keep their focus on the song, and not exploring musical tangents unnecessarily. There are prog bands with three of four members who would jam three times the notes into the same amount of time this seven piece outfit did on Everlasting Instant. The foundation on the album is strong, and had some of the early tracks had better staying power this would definitely be a letter grade higher. I am certainly intrigued, and will soon be rectifying my mistake of not checking out their earlier work.

Review: Not a Good Sign – From a Distance

Review: Not a Good Sign – From a Distance

Band: Not a Good Sign
Album: From a Distance
Reviewer: Joe from When Prog and Power Unite

Official Not a Good Sign Website

From a Distance is the latest record from Italian retroprog group Not a Good Sign. Fans may remember Not a Good Sign from their well-received debut record in 2013, but this time around the guys have changed their approach. While the hallmark 70’s rock organs and guitar tones heard on the debut are still present, From a Distance features shorter songs and melodies that are deliberately more contemporary than that of the previous album.

The album kicks off with “Wait for Me”, a five minute song that features an introductory display of blistering chops from the instrumentalists. After only a minute though, the instrumental gives way to a slower, more melancholic space where emotive vocals are left to carry the song. Eventually, the volume of the band begins to swell and coalesces in another powerful instrumental section, but the players never outstay their welcome. The song wraps up quickly and concisely, coming to a close before you could ever accuse of the band of trying to be showy.

The album is incredibly well sequenced, and features a variety of songs ranging from slower ballads to all-out rockers where virtuosity is on full display. In general, the mood of the album can be dark and haunting one moment, sentimental the next, and perhaps aggressive after that. Not once during my first couple spins of the 60 minute record did I ever feel bored, or like I knew what was in store next.

Also worth noting here are the guest instrumentalists, who provide a number of live instruments including a glockenspiel, vibraphone, and English horn.  Whereas many other (and frankly more successful) progressive rock groups would be happy to substitute these instruments with synthesizer patches, Not a Good Sign seem to put a premium on authenticity, and it truly does breathe life into the album.

Sometimes the album feels lost in translation, and I encountered a few strange lyrics and not-so-conscientiously titled tracks along the way. But, in a genre that is often accused of gratuitousness and naval gazing, Not a Good Sign have managed to borrow the aesthetics of the 70s while still offering something that appeals to the low attention spans of the modern age. Their English might not be perfect, but it’s obvious that Not a Good Sign have put a lot of thought into their new record. The album may lack any tracks that truly stand out as exceptional, but the band have picked a direction and executed it very well.  From that perspective, it’s hard to consider From a Distance anything but a glowing success.

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