Charles Brown — A New Awakening
With A New Awakening, Colorado-based fusion guitarist Charles Brown proudly presents his tenth solo album. A follow-up to 2017's Explorer Of Life, this album has been completely arranged, engineered and performed without the support of other musicians. Brown plays all the guitars, bass, guitar-synths and drums.
Brown is greatly influenced by several bigger names in rock like Richie Blackmore, Billy Gibbons (ZZTop), Robin Trower and The Who's Pete Townshend. These influences come beautifully to the fore in his entertaining compositional escapades and versatile playing. In terms of his guitar playing, brown can surely compete with the best of them. This doesn't so much apply to his drumming, which tends to be fairly basic, albeit adequately functional and tight. As for production values, the album could profit from some fine-tuning. The occasional lack of mid-frequency (bass) makes the music sound shrill and cold. Something evident in the splendid melody-laced opener The Darkest Winter.
Over the course of this instrumental album, Brown frequently demonstrates his ability to write well-balanced and joyously entertaining songs. An excellent example is Dance Of The Sun in which Brown goes for a song with a delightful Rush-inspired bridge and a cornucopia of guitar melodies. The song's coda shows an appealing stroke of early Journey fusion.
Equally fine is Edge Of Time which opens in late 70s Alex Lifeson (Rush) refinement, after which it dives straight into enticing hard-rock with a multitude of varied melodies and extremely enjoyable guitar-play. Walking The Edge brings glorious guitar extravaganza with a compelling Barracuda (Heart) like-riff and elements that sparkle with visions of Mountain's Leslie West.
Solid Rock strengthens this image by expressing a moreish appeal of bombast and shredding heavily focussed on melody, which in combination with an 80s feel, brings Mountain's Go For Your Life to mind. Later on Rain Of Sorrow, which opens with a mood-setting windy synth wave, again takes me back to this day-and-age by merging shades of Deep Purple with the bluesy roughness of ZZ Top.
In addition to this heavier work, Brown shows that funk suits him equally fine in What The FUNK, and subtlety is no stranger to him as witnessed by the beautifully subdued acoustic final chords of Touch The Sunrise. Exhibiting a Pat Matheny-like jazzy freshness in Waterdance, where horns from guitar-synths bring warmth, and it becomes clear that Brown feels right at home in many musical environments.
Thankfully this also includes several progressive arrangements and influences, most apparent in A New Awakening and Sea Of Myst. Here the title track expresses a nice worldly feel with engaging, not overly complex, structures and melody lines that transition nicely past quiet moments . The synths add a proggy touch. The song's repetitive nature slightly overstays its welcome for me, but it's certainly one of the best developed songs on the album.
As is Sea Of Myst, which after an acoustic Spanish aphrodisiac moment, glides into ambient atmospheres that echo with walls of Pink Floyd and ends with some bluesy guitar parts in a slow-moving, melancholic scenery. This song could have lasted some more before it ultimately fades away. Hopefully for his next endeavour Brown will pursue this style some more.
Full of diversity and appealing compositions, lovers of instrumental, guitar-orientated prog/hard rock will find much to enjoy here.
District 97 — Stay for the Ending
Since their debut in 2010, District 97 has received much recognition for their diverse mix of prog, metal, pop, jazz, rock and just about every other form of music that you can think of. The positive vibe has included accolades from legends of prog such as Bill Bruford and John Wetton. Unique in every way, as their own website states, they are “the most musically adventurous rock band in the world, to feature an American Idol Top 10 female finalist.”
Stay For The Ending is the band's fifth studio release, and it continues their aggressively-complex stew of musical ideas. It is impossible not to be impressed with the sheer technical ability on display.However, for this reviewer, it is in the more subtle moments where the band really shines. I know that instrumental gymnastics are a part of their fabric, but the 'less is more' approach are often the most effective.
Songs like Many New Things, Crossover, Lifecycle, X-Faded and the epic-leaning The Watcher contain understated elements that work extremely well. In fact, the latter track, certainly justifies the title of the album. It is a fantastic song and builds in a King Crimson, Red era fashion. These songs also show a clear growth in the band's compositional skills.
Subtleties aside, District 97 is a hard-rocking prog band. At this point, their music is more compelling than what most of the better-known prog-metal acts are releasing. The title track, Mirror, Divided We Fall and Deck is Stacked all provide ample evidence of that.
Singer Leslie Hunt continues to be one of the best female singers in progressive rock, and honestly the entire rock genre. Her work often takes the songs to the next level. The performances by each band member are strong to the point of jaw-dropping-perfection. Such immaculate instrumentation is tough to criticise, but if I had a wish, I would love to see the band focus less on technique for a future release. There is no faulting how well they can play, but when District 97 are melodious, they are as soulfully-effective as any band out there.
Ultimately though, Stay For The Ending is another easily-recommendable album from this extremely talented group of musicians.
P'Cock — The IC Years
It was at the turn of the century that I made the decision to part ways with the majority of my cassettes. Firstly it was a necessary move, as I was obliged to downsize my living space from a large family home, into a single-room flat. Secondly I believed that within the foreseeable future all these "albums" would eventually find their way onto CD.
Amongst those departed tapes were the P'Cock albums, The Prophet and In'Cognito. Albums I never owned which were originally released in 1980 and 1981 respectively. With the CD of their 1988 compilation album safely secured in my collection, I didn't expect it to take 23 years for the other pair to be fully issued on CD. This joyous moment is now upon us and I couldn't be more pleased.
First because of the fine music, which I will get to shortly. And second for the fact that this double-CD arrives with a booklet that includes original (scaled-down) vinyl-artwork and never-before-seen photographs complemented by delightful liner notes on P'Cock's history. These notes reveal that the origins of the band can be traced back to 1975, when drummer/percussionist Tommy Betzler, Axel Krause (bass, acoustic guitar) and three other musicians founded a band Peacock and tour the Rhine-Main area of Germany with self-composed songs.
It also tells of how Peacock's demo-tape at that time failed to attract the interest of record labels and shortly after resulted in the band's demise. That is until someone going by the well-known name of Klaus Schulze got hold of a Peacock demo and showed an interest, having just founded his own record label, Innovative Communications. Betzler and Krause jumped at the chance and quickly joined forces with Peter Herrmann (keyboards, synths) and Achim Albrecht (guitar) and Utz Bender (vocals, keyboards) to complete their new line-up. Able to impress Schulze during a live performance, this formation would start recording their debut album The Prophet a few days later, whilst simultaneously changing their name to P'Cock to avoid confusion with a contemporary band going by the same name.
Details as to which songs were part of the original demo isn't shared, but with 99.99% probability I reckon La Mer used to be on it. After its atmospheric, ambient opening of twittering synths that segues into melodies afloat with sparkling keys, engaging vocals and acoustic guitars, this excellent composition drifts onwards with refreshing streams of oceanic synths, awash with enchanting elements of electronic Berliner Schüle inspired melodies, which in my view expresses an attractive comparison to Schulze.
One year later, P'Cock would repeat this wonderful style with House In The Storm on In'Cognito. Also enclosed as a bonus track in its 45 rpm rendition (see also the review of Robert Schroeder — Floating Music), this song initially hears the band bring a more pop-orientated sound, reminiscent of Eloy, while catchy melodies and excellent synth/guitar soloing brings impressions of Anyone's Daughter. This is then followed by a lengthy Eloy-rich, synth-driven soundscape which is elevated by percussive rattlings and various EM movements.
Finally able to listen to all the songs again, it's easy to hear why many found P'Cock's music hard to pinpoint. Over the years reviews of the albums mention influences from the likes of Alan Parsons, Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Toto, which in a way all apply. But for me these are merely scratching the surface of P'Cock's electronic crossover prog-fusion.
Frankly, the longer you emerge yourself into their music, the more points of reference you are likely to find. Mother, with its synth-driven pomp-rock and bridge of blistering synth and guitar work, delivers firm images of early Saga. Funtime Sorrow's driving melodies, swirling synths and delicious guitar-work imprints visions of a rockier UK. Together with the jazzy key-driven Always Funny, and the instrumental expressions of Eloy and Anyone's Daughter in N 1,4 and Ban'cock, there's actually so much musical diversity on offer that I am simply stunned at the low ratings both of these albums have been granted over these past 40 years.
Narrowed down to classic prog values, I partly understand this. Especially with the emotionally sung AOR/soft-rock ballad Toby, the silky smooth melodic rock of Look (At Life), and the uplifting Pomp/AOR prog of Fly Your Kite in mind. Yet in terms of originality, execution, creative songwriting and progressiveness, I can't relate to these low scores at all.
Especially when it comes down to the outstanding The Actors Fun. This brilliant composition sure delivers bags of excitement and fun through its energetic, pomp-laden melodies surrounded by blasting synths and ravishing Eloy/Saga-styled prog. A bridge of sensitive play and wonderful guitars adds some Neuschwanstein. This well-crafted song still delivers a multitude of goosebumps and for me is worth the price of admission alone.
Exhibiting a remarkably fresh sound still after all these year, courtesy of Schulze's production, it goes without saying both albums do have a distinct feel of the Eighties. Which is only natural when recording years are taken into account.
In my view P'Cock were on occasion slightly ahead of their time. This for instance reveals itself in the instrumental tracks N 1,4 and Ban'cock which could be placed in a 1983/1984 time-frame in light of their electronic Eloy/Anyone's Daughter resemblances. Actually these songs nowadays make me wonder who influenced who during those years?
A different line-up, without Betzler and the recently passed-away Hermann, would go on to release a third album unimaginatively entitled 3 in 1983. My own recollections of this album are limited, as I found this effort fairly disappointing. As a result it didn't end up in my collection. Maybe one day this obscurity will also be issued on CD by MIG-records, who have done an outstanding job with this package, but for now I'm more than nostalgically happy with this marvellous release. Hopefully it will bring much deserved new exposure to P'Cock and their pioneering music. Re-issue of the year so far for me.
John Wetton — An Extraordinary Life
By way of his work in King Crimson, UK, Asia and other bands, John Wetton is deservedly a progressive rock legend. In his later years, he used that stature to support newer prog bands, such as Big Big Train and District 97. John also loved a great straightforward pop, rock or folk song. He was a significant admirer of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Carol King, Brian Wilson, The Beatles and Procol Harum; just to name a few. That passion was reflected in much of his solo work.
This wonderful box-set presents remastered versions of all of Wetton's solo albums and two CDs of what is described as "New, Live and Unreleased Tracks."
Although these albums never received the same fanfare as many of his band recordings, several of them are essential. The first of these, Caught In The Crossfire, is his impressive solo debut from 1980. Coming fresh off the heels of UK's Danger Money, the album's accessible approach daringly-defied expectations at the time. In many ways, it was a precursor to the style that Asia would utilise two years later.
Battle Lines (originally released as Voicemail), is another memorable release. The title track became a signature song for John, but the album also includes several of his best compositions. Hardly noticed when it was dropped into the rock wasteland of 1994, it is certainly deserving of any reappraisal that this box-set could bring.
Arkangel from 1997 is his best solo album. Lyrically more personal and musically darker in tone, there is a conceptual feel to this release. Featuring collaborations with Robert Fripp, Steve Hackett, Billy Liesegang and John Young, the prog and hard rock elements are stronger here. Creatively, it was a landmark release in Wetton's career, and it proved to be a tough act to follow.
Welcome To Heaven (also known as Sinister) from 2000, doesn't quite reach the same lofty heights. It feels less cohesive, but certainly contains some strong material.
On the other hand, Rock Of Faith (2003) is the hidden gem of John's solo career. He is supported here by a then newer breed of prog rockers; most of whom were a part of his touring band at the time. John Mitchell, Clive Nolan, Martin Orford and Steve Christey, all lend their very capable talents to this excellent album. Most notably, this release marked John's reunion with Geoff Downes, with whom he co-wrote two of the tracks. This homecoming quickly led to their Icon albums and the Original Asia reunion in 2006.
Raised In Captivity (2011), was Wetton's final solo album. It featured a talented group of guest musicians including Downes, Steve Hackett, Eddie Jobson, Tony Kaye and Anneke van Gierbergen. Billy Sherwood's production is top-notch and it does contain some very good songs. John was in great voice, and although it doesn't quite measure up to his best recordings, there is an enthusiasm to the performances and to the album as a whole.
For those who already own the solo albums, the calling card of this box-set is the two CDs of rarities. These 39 songs are a mixed bag, but they present an interesting perspective of John's career. The plethora of material includes collaborations, alternate versions, and examples of John as a voice for hire.
The success of Asia made him an in-demand vocalist for film soundtracks and other projects. Some of the 80s rock songs and power ballads included here sound dated and occasionally beneath his talent. The demos from the Sylvester Stallone film, Over The Top, are interesting in that only one of them ended up on the soundtrack with John's vocals. A version of Straight From The Heart (made famous by Bryan Adams) and a song recorded by Cher are fascinating curios. Also of note is the casual, freewheeling demo of Real World, performed with Ringo Starr. A finished version of the song appeared on the Welcome To Heaven album.
An Extraordinary Life presents a complete picture of a vital part of John Wetton's career. There is so much to appreciate and respect about the work that is documented here. Though you won't find the complex musical elements of bands like King Crimson or UK, his solo works display the same sense of artistry that he was famous for. These albums overflow with John's immense songwriting and performance talents.
Many of these songs were personal to John. He sang them with a power that was unique to him. A musical legend in every sense, this fantastic box-set is a must-have.