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
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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.

Review: UFO – A Conspiracy of Stars

Review: UFO – A Conspiracy of Stars

Band: UFO
Album: A Conspiracy of Stars
Reviewer: Joe from When Prog and Power Unite

Official UFO Website

It’s hard to find a band that have rocked for as long as UFO. While most listeners are familiar with the band’s early work, which was instrumental in helping transition hard rock to the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, UFO have released multiple albums in each decade since their 1970 self-titled debut.  Their newest album, A Conspiracy of Stars, is the first in three years, as well as the first to feature longtime touring bassist Rob De Luca. Full disclosure: Until this newest album I hadn’t listened to anything since the dawn of UFO’s Vinnie Moore era. A lot has changed.

My first impression was: “Man, this is a lot of treble”, but my second and third impressions were “these guys can still rock” and “Phil Mogg’s voice sounds awesomely like rusted steel and worn leather”.  The fact is that this album treads on heavy like a slow moving steamroller. It’s a solid hard rocker from front to end; predictable, but with attitude. There’s a nice balance between catchiness and grit, which is something UFO have always been known for, and something they still excel at today.

Lyrically, A Conspiracy of Stars is what you would expect. Mogg and UFO are best when they balance road wisdom with heavy metal cynicism and heartache. Songs like “Ballad of the Left Hand Gun” and “Devil’s in the Details” are all the more memorable for it. Others, like “Messiah of Love”, feel far less authentic.

My other only other complaint about the album is that I did find things lacking in the production department. For one, Rob De Luca’s bass work is not very audible. I found myself having to toy around with my EQ settings before I could really make A Conspiracy of Stars sound complete.

There’s little to be said, other than that A Conspiracy of Stars is a good album for anyone that likes straightforward hard rock and classic metal. Just as UFO’s pre-metal output has a timeless metal sound, so does their music even after NWOBHM is over.  A Conspiracy of Stars may not rival the band’s best work, it can’t possibly be disappointing to fans of the genre. No special effects or surprise here; just good solid rock.

Video Teaser for Conspiracy of Stars

Review: The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Review: The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Band: The Gentle Storm
Album: The Diary
Reviewer: Nick from When Prog and Power Unite

Official Arjen Lucassen Website
Official Anneke van Giersbergen Website
Buy on Amazon

The Gentle Storm is the newest in a growing list of projects from Dutch maestro Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and features lyricist and vocalist Anneke van Giersbergen. While that pairing alone should have any prog fan turning their head, the pairings’ debut work, The Diary, is more than simply great composer meets great vocalist. The album comes in two discs, one “gentle” and one “storm”, featuring softer and heavier versions of the same songs. But don’t be fooled into thinking the softer album is simply your typical stripped down acoustic album. Instead the songs, while seemingly built from the same cores, are constructed quite differently on each disc.

The glue between the two discs is most certainly Anneke, who’s beautiful and melodic vocals shine through on both versions of each song. For those unfamiliar with her previous work, most famously on Devin Townsend Project albums, you are in for a treat. She manages to have a hauntingly beautiful timbre to her voice, but she has the ability to present it with significant power. Not to be confused at all with more “ballsy” female vocalists, she simply manages to hang on high notes without appearing thin.

Instrumentally I would say the “gentle” disc is certainly the more interesting of the two versions. There is an amazing diversity of instruments that put unique stamps all over the tracks. The “storm” album isn’t particularly heavy or metal by many standards, but has a traditional drum setup and is generally more guitar driven than its counterpart and is probably closer to Ayreon than Star One.  The “gentle” tracks however bring full on folk and eclectic sounds that have not been seen since Ayreon debuted with The Final Experiment. The “gentle” album is also where you will likely notice what a fantastic job Arjen has done with the piano on this album, as it is featured prominently on several tracks.

One of the aspects I enjoyed about the “storm” album, is that the only keys are the piano; no minimoog, or synthesizers; truly a first for Arjen. With that in mind, if you take a moment to notice the sounds you’d so often associate with a keyboard patch on the albums and listen closely, you can fully appreciate how nice the plethora of instruments sound in their place. Even on the heavier “storm” album the violins, double bass, and other strings really stand out. The analog synths that Arjen has often employed has always been one of my favorite parts of his sound, and so for an album without them to be so good is a big credit to him.

Arjen’s songwriting and use of the many instrumentalists is stunning throughout both discs. Arjen clearly did not set out to make the “gentle” album more than an album featuring cheap acoustic versions usually used as b-sides and fillers by other artists. The thought and arrangement of the music clearly shines through, and the albums don’t feel identical songs with instruments swapped out. Anneke’s lyrics and vocals are captivating and powerful, as to be expected based on her recent collaborations. With every listen new songs and new parts always seem to stand out, and in the end this looks like another home run from Holland’s leading progressive mastermind.

Video for The Heart of Amsterdam

Review : UPF’s –  Fall in Love with the World

Review : UPF’s – Fall in Love with the World

…And out of the ashes of Unitopia arises the phoenix named United Progressive Fraternity (UPF), a Mark Trueack led band. Surrounding Mark are some familiar faces from Unitopia as well as two well-known special guests – Steve Hackett and Jon Anderson. The menagerie does not stop there as Ian Richie, Guy Manning, Steve Unrah, Claire Vezina, Guillermo Cides, Brittany and Holly Trueack, Jonathan Barrett and Steve Layton all are involved with UPF’s debut album, Fall in Love With the World – an album that takes listeners on a musical journey that brings forth questions of the current state of the world’s environment.

We Only Get One World works as the overture to Fall in Love With the World as the first few measures bring to mind an opening sequence to a science-fiction series – my ears hear Earth: Final Conflict. The introduction is as lush as you might expect from this well-crafted team of musicians. Backing vocals add to the sumptuous tones. A vocal “one world,” becomes more and more audible as though our lead is emerging from an other-worldly portal.

Choices We Made, an 8-minute track, illustrates what a great ride musically and emotionally we are on listening to this album. The soulful voice of Mark and the brass accompaniment from Marek Arnold set the tone for the environmentalist slant that takes shape as the album progresses. The song Water is foreshadowed here. The apex of this song occurs at the 5:10 mark where the sense of spinning has only been captured as well for me in the past by Genesis’s The Cage.

Intersection begins an implied trilogy of songs questioning listeners as they ask the question of “How Long?”

The Water, a song that has taken on many incarnations, has been refined for this album and features Jon Anderson on backing vocals. Mark’s native Australia has been suffering from more and more droughts and this is a song that resonates with many – not just Australians.

Don’t Look Back, Turn Left has taken a small amount of inspiration from the Doctor Who episode of a similar name (season 4 episode 11). This song is the second track on the album that infers an intersection and a choice must be made in order to save the planet.

Travelling Man (The Story of Eshu) is a 22-minute neo-prog epic full of interesting changes. Eshu is the morally ambiguous sprit of Chaos and Trickery on the roads and crossroads. This incarnation of Eshu seems to be full of trickery as the lyrics reference, “deceptive points of view lead to disarray… fool us time and time again…, another wrong direction” The crossroad is the third reference to the intersection of choices that must be made if we are, “going to take care of the planet”. Eshu then taunts the listener with the words “What if it never happened?” The tension builds at the 10:30 mark. Steve Unrah plays a spiccato passage with his violin to underscore the tension ultimately leading to the song’s resolution.

Fall in Love with the World is a just that – a love song to our planet. It is a pop song with wonderful melodies. Guy Manning’s mandolin harkens to Venice and Styx’s Boat on the River.

Overall, UPF puts forth a thought-provoking musically-rich album that shines as the band’s debut offering. The album’s themes tie together well both musically and lyrically and grow more compelling upon each listen.   

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