prog rock

Black To The Future Tour: Ghost w/ Purson

Location: Columbus, Ohio
Date: September 23, 2015
Ticket cost: $27.60 ($40.30 with Ticketmaster’s asshole-ish convenience fees)
Merch purchased: None

By: Kris Kotlarik

I think it’s about time for a pre-review rant about concert ticket prices. Shows that are at Alrosa Villa or Ace of Cups and/or promoted by Columbus Events Group are very reasonable in terms of cost with minimal advance fees. But then there’s Promowest Live and Ticketmaster. How do they think that adding a 50% markup on ticket fees is acceptable? Why even bother working with the evil empire that is Ticket[ass]master in the first place? There are plenty of good shows both at the Newport and the LC Pavillion, but these fees price me (and probably others) out of their shows.

That didn’t stop the Newport from nearly selling out last night, easily eclipsing the Decibel Magazine 2014 tour stop for the largest crowd I have seen at this venue, approaching upwards of 1,700 strong. With more than a handful of audience members dressing up in their Papa Emeritus garb, Ghost put on a stellar show that engaged the entire crowd. But was their performance worthy of an all-time favorite designation? What about Purson? Read on, together as one.

Purson: 3.0*
Set length: 40 minutes

This might be one of the few occasions where I can say with a straight face that the opening band sounded better than the headliner. …why are you chasing me with pitchforks? At least give me a chance to explain.

Perhaps it was because they had one less member to work with; they had pretty much the same makeup as Ghost, running two guitars (with founder Rosalie Cunningham handling the lead vocals), one bass, the drums, and a set of keys. Having even one less person to mix can make all the difference in terms of sound quality; I took my usual perch on the balcony towards the center of the venue*, and their take on 70’s style psychedelic progressive rock sounded pristine. It was like I was watching them play in their practice space. The only issue I had with their sound was with the somewhat soft backing vocals, and half the time, it just looked like the person who would be singing backing vocals just had their mouth up towards the mic while playing his instrument, which brings me to my next point:

While that kind of intimate feeling in a large venue can be a good thing, the drawback here is that Purson lacked any semblance of stage presence, spending less than a minute talking to the audience over the length of their set. The band didn’t move around on stage and, with a few exceptions, showed little visible energy. The lighting was consistently dark and brooding, and their song selection was also puzzling; their last song, even with a brief uptempo section, was easily their slowest of the night. All of that adds to listener fatigue, at least from my perspective.

Two audience members who were more familiar with Purson than I was told me that they heard the band’s full studio releases and felt indifferently about them, but said they sounded significantly better live than on tape. After taking another whack at their music, I can’t help but agree. Their latest EP, In The Meantime, is solid, but the sound on stage is vastly superior. Even so, I’ll be looking forward to their next release, Desire’s Magic Theatre, when it drops in the near future.

They could also stand to lower t-shirt prices. I have a hard time paying $35 for a t-shirt for any reason, but that goes double for a band that I’m not especially blown away by. They’re good, but not “$35 for a t-shirt” good.

All that said, Ghost picked an ideal touring mate for their jaunt around North America, as Purson is a great complementary counterpart to Ghost.

Ghost: 4.0*
Set length: 110 minutes

Ghost has the art of stage presence down to a science. With Papa Emeritus leading the five Nameless Ghouls, the band’s performance took on a life of its own. Even before the set started, anyone who was, for whatever reason, unfamiliar with Ghost quickly got their answer as to what they got themselves into; with a large satanic alternate cover art banner in full display and church choir music blasting on the speakers, everyone knew they were in for a night of occult counter-culture shenanigans. And for those still confused, the crowd was chanting “Satan! Satan! Satan” shortly before they started.

Once the band took the stage and roared into the spooky “Spirit,” it was all smiles from the audience, and rightfully so. And while I greatly enjoyed their set, I had a few nitpicks with it. The obvious first complaint is that the band was a little bit too loud across the board. One of my favorite features of Ghost’s studio albums is the subtle mix of the drums, but that is nixed here in favor of a straightforward drum blasting. This was especially noticeable on “Con Clavi Con Dio,” arguably my favorite Ghost song.

Papa Emeritus III, meanwhile, was somewhat flat on his lower notes on occasion. And while all of the new tracks they played (the only one that wasn’t played was “Deus In Absentia”) sounded great, I was shocked at the largely ignored Kansas-esque keyboard riff in “Absolution,” and further puzzled by the use of a keytar on “Mummy Dust” instead of the former.

There was also the small issue of Papa Emeritus taking off his anti-papal cloak during “Cirice” midway through the show and leaving it off for the rest of the show. I’m not sure if that’s normal, as this was my first time seeing Ghost live, but it was baffling to see him perform without that garb. But that doesn’t take away from how great of a live song “Cirice” is.

Minor shortcomings and/or question marks aside, this was a pretty special show; most notable was the debut acoustic performance of “Jigolo Har Migiddo,” adeptly showing off the skills of the Nameless Ghouls. Papa Emeritus III also gave several small percussion instruments to fans for them to play during this song.

Watching “Year Zero” was a spectacle in and of itself, and I was thoroughly pleased with “Ghuleh/Zombie Queen,” a song that I was already highly fond of and is currently stuck in my head. “Ritual,” “He Is,” “Stand By Him,” “Per Aspera Ad Inferi,” and “Mummy Dust” also stood out among their best songs as tracks that translate extremely well into a live setting.

Closing out the show with “Monstrance Clock” was simply masterful; it seems like an odd choice until you realize that there are few things better in a concert setting than having a huge crowd singing along with a backing track choir as the band exits the stage: “Come together; together as one. Come together, for Lucifer’s son.” Fucking genius.

Above all else, Ghost is right up there with Devin Townsend in terms of personally engaging with fans during the set. I counted at least ten instances where Papa Emeritus singled out a specific fan who said something to him, and there were nothing but smiles coming from those fans. It was a high-energy set that should be considered a must-see for any metal fan.

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*If you go to the Newport and are looking for the best possible sound quality, stand as close to the sound booth as possible, located behind the main concert floor and next to the bar. 

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Review: Amadeus Awad – Death Is Just A Feeling

Location: Beirut, Lebanon
Genre: Progressive Rock
Released: August 20, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Recent Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

I needed this.

It’s been a long summer; my writing pursuits have been hindered by a series of internal and external tribulations combined with standard 20-something existential malaise. It’s hard to feel inspired when life bears down on you.

Few people know this better than Amadeus Awad, who has repeatedly been dubbed as “the Arjen Lucassen of the Middle East.” I don’t buy that; I think Awad’s music better resembles that of Steven Wilson, and Death Is Just A Feeling draws a direct comparison to the latter’s most recent album, Hand. Cannot. Erase.

The lyrical concept for Death revolves around Awad’s personal experiences with attempted suicide and the death of several loved ones. This might be the best-executed example of using personal experiences as a concept for an album I have ever come across. Lyrically, this works in a way that few concept albums can claim.

Awad brings with him a marquee lineup that brings together a number of Awad’s influences; the most important (and best) guest contribution is Anneke van Giersbergen delivering another powerful vocal performance. It’s not quite the powerhouse display she put on The Diary by The Gentle Storm, as well as on Devin Townsend’s recent albums, but it doesn’t have to be; Anneke’s vocals are still quite evocative here.

Not far behind her is drummer Marco Minneman (The Aristocrats; Necrophagist; Steven Wilson), who particularly shines during the instrumental sections of “Monday Morning.” Arjen Lucassen also jumps on board as a cameo vocalist in the closing track. Elia Monsef, meanwhile, takes the male lead vocals on “Tomorrow Lies.” His vocal delivery reminds me of a combination of Pain Of Salvation’s Daniel Gildenlow and Katatonia’s Jonas Renske, and his performance here makes me want to look into more of his own music.

Now, back to my original point of comparing Death to Hand. Both albums deal with death and life’s hardships, although Wilson tells his story through the lens of another real person. Both artists use expositional narration to fill in story gaps (whereas Arjen has his characters sing in dialogue). And although they go about it in different ways, both artists effectively make their point, with Wilson opting for a more nuanced approach as opposed to the direct shelling dealt by Awad. So how do these two albums stack up against each other?

The short answer is that Steven Wilson wins by a slight margin, but that doesn’t tell the entire story. I reviewed Hand. Cannot. Erase. when it first came out and gave it a lukewarm 3.5 stars because it came across as robotic to me. I took some flak for this and I stood by it at the time, but Awad’s work inspired me to revisit it. I can now say that I was wrong, and Hand deserves all the praise it has been given by fans and critics alike. Consider this an official revision to 4.0 stars.

In reality, Hand. Cannot. Erase. is a slow builder that took about ten additional listens after that review to really grow on me. To Awad’s credit, the fact that his work made me want to revisit Steven Wilson should put him in high regard. Lyrically, I would rank the two albums in a dead heat with each other, with the exception of a section of album opener “Opia,” in which Awad has Anneke break the fourth wall by singing:

You might be wondering why I wrote this song/
It’s not a lullaby for the broken/
It’s a breathless gasp from the depth of the weakest lung/
My nightmares, unspoken.

I get the approach that he was trying to make here, as this album is autobiographical in nature, but there is something about people writing themselves into their own lyrics in this way that drives me nuts whenever I come across it. With that said, Anneke sounds fantastic, her vocal delivery soaring over the melancholy melody.

The main reason I award this fictitious battle of the bands to Wilson is his superior use of dynamics. It’s hard to fault Awad here; Wilson was doing this before I was even born, and put out the first Porcupine Tree album when I was just a wee toddler. However, In “Lonesome Clown” (which is an amazing song title, by the way; Awad could have easily made this the title track, but didn’t, and I appreciate that), which serves as the album’s climax, there is a particularly beautifully-written bridge that builds tension. The way the bridge picks up steam, it should explode into the final chorus, but it’s a bit of a letdown. It could have benefited from a heavier production mix or a different drum pattern. Whereas in Hand, “Ancestral” serves as that album’s climax and nails it in every way imaginable. It’s only 50 seconds longer than “Lonesome Clown” but packs a dynamic range that should knock anyone out on the first punch.

“Temporary” closes out Death with a slightly more upbeat anthem about the temporary pains of existence than I would have expected, but with Arjen Lucassen on the vocals it wouldn’t have worked if he tried to do it in an overly serious way. I like the way the ending dialogue loops together with the beginning of “Opia.” The ending to Hand leaves you with tears in your eyes (that is, assuming that you’re not a robotic critic who doesn’t get it), sticking to the album’s overall tone, which is something I would have preferred to see here as well. But the ending loop is a nice touch as it also lines up with Lucassen’s portrayed character.

At this point, however, I’m just nitpicking. Death Is Just A Feeling is a powerful album with solid songwriting and a series of great performances from amazing musicians. At roughly 46 minutes in length, it’s nearly perfectly timed and doesn’t overburden the listener, giving it higher replay value than Hand. Cannot. Erase., which is significantly longer in addition to being an emotionally draining album. Awad also included two bonus tracks from a prior EP. And while both of those songs, especially “Poetry of Time,” are good, they serve as a reminder of how much of a leap Awad has taken in his songwriting prowess with this release.

Overall: A must-own for prog enthusiasts and fans of Anneke van Giersbergen.

Rating: 4.0*

Buy the album here

Behind the scenes clip

Video for “Monday Morning”

Review: Ayreon – The Theory of Everything

Location: Waalwijk, The Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Released: October 28, 2013
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Traveler In Time

By: Kris Kotlarik

In the review for The Gentle Storm’s The Diary, I made a funny about how The Theory of Everything (the movie) ripped off the plot from the Ayreon album of the same name. Honestly, I don’t think that is much of an exaggeration. The story revolves around a genius prodigy with a mental impairment and features a smart but neglectful and self-centered father, a caring mother, a love interest, an asshole of a rival who eventually works with the prodigy, and a teacher who guides the prodigy through the toughest of life’s problems. It has all the cliches for a blockbuster movie, right? The rival drops some especially cornballish lines that only someone like Arjen Lucassen could/would pull off. And yet, at least for the most part, it works.

Depending on how you feel about occasionally cheesy lyrics, there are two other possible weaknesses that could detract from your enjoyment of this album. The first is the over-the-top nature of the vocals; there are so many high-pitched climax-sounding notes that it’s often hard to tell where you are in the story. The second is that this album is long. About an hour and half long, spread out over 42 “tracks.” These tracks are more like segments of a significantly longer track, of which there are officially four. The continuous flow makes this feel overwhelming; even now, I still have a hard time listening to this in its entirety. Part of that stems from the expositional nature of the first disk, which takes its time in establishing the characters and the plot.

Like most Ayreon albums, a singer is cast as a singular character. There isn’t all that much star power here, at least in comparison to previous albums; Tommy Karevik (Kamelot, Seventh Wonder) does a sensational job in the prodigy role, while Marco Hietala (Nightwish, Tarot) goes toe to toe with him as the rival. Sara Squadrani (Ancient Bards) and Christina Scabbia (Lacuna Coil) play the girl/love interest and mother, respectively, but sound too similar to each other and often have to be deciphered based on their lyrics instead of their sound. Scabbia, however, is a star on the second disc, especially in the closing tracks. She also belts one for the ages at the end of “The Argument 2.” Yes, there are two “arguments.” But the first argument, which is on the first disc, isn’t that much if an argument. Maybe that’s exactly what Arjen was going for; the second disc has much more intensity than the first.

Since there are so many tracks to listen to, if you’re short on time and want to just listen to one song, I would pick “Collision.” It’s basically a vocal dual between the prodigy and the rival with strong energy to it. There’s also “Progressive Waves,” an instrumental that I am fairly certain was included only to showcase the godly synth talents of Keith Emerson (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), who plays the most ELP-esque solo ever recorded, as well as Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater). Also making a cameo appearance is Rick Wakemen (Yes) on “Surface Tension” and guitarist Steve Hackett (Genesis) on “The Parting.”

Those who know what Ayreon is all about already know what they are in for: A lot of classic prog melodies in the form of a rock opera. That said, this feels different from albums such as 01011001 in part because of the realistic nature of the story. There aren’t any space aliens here; no crazy extraterrestrial trials or tribulations that the main characters must face like Into The Electric Castle; and no time traveling using a dream sequencer from which you drink the fluid from the left terminal. We may not all be scientists (I sure as hell am not), but Arjen poses what could have been an impossibly complex story into something that most people can connect to. This may take several listens to get into, but it’s worth the wait if you give it time.

Overall: In the higher end of Ayreon’s albums and one of the best from 2013.

Rating: 4.0*

Star One Sunday: Discography Review

Location: Emmeloord, Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock/Metal
Feature: …because why not?

By: Kris Kotlarik

Arjen Lucassen has been a giant in the progressive metal realm for over 30 years, dating back to the formation of Vengeance. And it’s not hard to see why just by looking at him. He is so tall that the Dutch national basketball team (allegedly) called him in for a tryout. Even at the age of 54, he can’t do any worse than the current team, which hasn’t even qualified for the European championships since 1989.

In all seriousness, in addition to Vengeance, Arjen has been creating a variety of music since before I was even born. The Ayreon projects, a series of albums with a tight science fiction concept, are his most well-known. Then there’s Guilt Machine, Ambeon, Stream Of Passion, his recent solo album, and the upcoming Gentle Storm project with the one-and-only Anneke van Giersbergen, as well as other projects I am probably forgetting. With the exception of Ambeon, his music is engaging and top-notch, often featuring an all-star list of singers and musicians. The odds are that if you’re a well-known singer in the metal community, you have either appeared on one of Arjen’s albums, or have a huge ego and won’t work with other musicians. Or you’re Devin Townsend (he and Arjen are perfectionists to the core and therefore mirror images of each other in the studio) or Jorn Lande (who spent half of his time on 01011001 trying to tell the world how great he was instead of being a part of the story).

One knock on Arjen’s music are the lyrics and their cheesy nature. Enter what may well be the nerdiest project ever conceived, Star One. Every single track from the band’s two albums, with the exception of a couple of bonus tracks, are about a science fiction movie or television series. It also features a stacked lineup of singers, with Russell Allen of Symphony X and the terrible Adrenaline Mob; Floor Jansen of NightwishAfter Forever and Revamp; Dan Swano, who has produced or performed on approximately 5.2 billion different projects; and Damian Wilson of Threshold.

So without further use of bold font, let’s dissect Star One’s two albums.

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Space Metal
Released: April 29, 2002

As one might expect by the title, this album’s concept is rooted in space. The synthy space intro lifts off into “Set Your Controls,” themed around Doctor Who. Arjen has a knack for crafting exceptional album openers that follow a short intro, and this is no exception. The best part of this track comes in the second half with a series of guitar and synth leads, with a clever bridge section sandwiched in between them.

The next few tracks are good in bits and pieces; “High Moon” has a nice chorus and a nifty string break before the last chorus, but the verses are rather forgettable. “Songs of the Ocean” is a midtempo plodder, with the intro and outro instrumental sections being my favorite parts. It also marks the first time Floor Jansen sings real lines on this album instead of just providing a couple of words following the chorus. Every singer (except Floor, who is once again seldom used) shines on the uptempo and energetic “Master Of Darkness,” which revolves around the plot of Star Wars Episode V.

“The Eye Of Ra” is Space Metal’s most unique track. It starts very slowly, to great effect, before gradually building up. Russell Allen is stellar on this track, and the four singers unite for a solo at the end. If I were to do a list ranking Arjen’s top 10 songs, this would be in the top 10 or 15, which is high praise given his immense discography. “Sandrider” is relatively similar to “Master Of Darkness” and goes down as a good track. “Perfect Survivor” and “Intergalactic Space Crusaders, meanwhile, is similar to “High Moon,” which means I don’t like it nearly as much.

The closer, “Starchild,” reminds me somewhat of “Into The Black Hole” off of Ayreon’s Flight of the Migrator. They’re not the same track by any instance, but it has a similar vibe to it, as they both have a slow and melancholic feel to them. The lyrics to “Starchild,” however, are more uplifting. This is Damian Wilson’s turn to shine, and Arjen lays down one of the most technical guitar fills I have heard from him.

As for the bonus tracks, some of them, such as the remixes to “Starchild” and the alternate version of “Spaced Out,” as well as the complete joke of a track that is “Intergalactic Laxative,” don’t serve much of a purpose. But the Hawkwind medley is an amazing tribute to one of the true pioneers of space-laced progressive rock. The “War I Survived” segment, in particular, is splendid to the senses. The bastardized (meant endearingly) cover of “Space Oddity” is also a nice touch that could have easily fit on the second disc of Lost in the New Real.

While Space Metal is generally a solid album, it suffers from two things. First, it’s a little uneven. There’s great tracks on here, but they are scattered around the album. The rest range from pretty good to ambivalence. The second factor to consider is Floor Jansen’s sporadic use in what essentially amounts to the role of backup singer. As the world has found out in her recent endeavors with Nightwish, she is capable of so much more than the occasional bit part.

Overall: I feel like Arjen spent much of this album trying to get an idea for how to use the talents of these great singers. All told, a solid album.

Rating: 3.5*

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Victims of the Modern Age
Released: October 25, 2010

This album is centered much more around dystopic and/or apocalyptic movies, and in general, I love this album. Everything on this go-around seems more refined and concentrated, and much heavier.

Everything that was said about “Set Your Controls” stands for “Digital Rain” as well, except for one key difference: It is really heavy. It also boasts an outro similar to that of “The Eye Of Ra.” Hey, if it’s not broken, don’t fix it. Simply put, I love this track; there is something fascinating about having synths be such a driving force in your sound, and Arjen nails it here, along with Russell Allen. “It All Ends Here,” based on the classic film Blade Runner, is just as heavy but much slower. It’s a titan of a track, and the second half is an almost-legendary display of vocals from everyone involved. There is an especially stellar instrumental just before the vocals really kick in.

Other great tracks include the title track, as well as the uptempo “Human See, Human Do.” Both tracks are the only ones in Star One’s discography to feature growls from Dan Swano, or anyone else. The ones in “Human See, Human Do,” in particular, are great and come in a section that was just begging for some growling.

The weaker tracks, such as “Earth That Was,” “Cassandra Complex,” and “It’s Alive, She’s Alive, We’re Alive,” the last of which is based on one of the best modern movies I can think of in Children of Men, still have some good parts. “Earth That Was” is the heaviest track here and contains an impressive guitar/synth solo with some throwbacks to “Age Of Shadows” off of 01011001. Calling these tracks “weak” is entirely relative, as they would have been in the upper tier on Space Metal.

As for the bonus tracks, it’s a mixed bag. “Lastday” and “As The Crow Dies” are merely average, with Arjen singing lead on the former. On the other side of the spectrum, “Closer To The Stars” and “Two Plus Two Equals Five” are special, and their cover of Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s “Knife Edge” could best be described as glorious. Unlike the cover of “Space Oddity,” it is fairly in line with the original…except heavier.

There are so many driving synth/guitar riffs that it would consume far more time than I presently have available to break them down. But if synths, guitars and nerdy lyrics are in your wheelhouse, you’ll love this album. And Space Metal, for that matter. But the songs here feel so much more organic, in spite of Arjen’s insistence to the contrary in a video from Lost In The New Real. Everything that I addressed as concerns from the first album seems to have been corrected here. Floor is much more prominent, and it shows, especially on “It All Ends Here.”

Overall: If I were to rank Arjen Lucassen albums from top to bottom, this would be right up in the top three discussion with Ayreon’s signature albums. It’s that good. 

Rating: 4.5*