The Gentle Storm

Devin Dissection: Transcendence

Location: Vancouver, Canada
Genre: Progressive Metal
Released: September 9, 2016
Format Reviewed: FLAC

By: Kris Kotlarik

“I really wanted to knock (Transcendence) out of the park in terms of, this is what I’m trying to do with DTP. It may not be as vital as Ocean Machine, because that’s not where my mind is at, but all those things that make it what it is are in place now. I was able, through a real conscious decision, to exercise and go do a bunch of things that are outside of my comfort zone. I was able to really get some great material, emotionally, to draw from. And the whole record, Transcendence, is about getting over it and moving past it. It’s still there. It’s great. But dude, what are you going to write about next? I’ve exhausted the whole alien-coffee-drinking-puppet angle.”

-Devin Townsend in an interview with Greg Hasbrouck, found in the ProgPower USA XVII festival magazine.

First of all, let me begin this review by saying that if you live in the US and did not see the greatness and/or hilarity that was Devin’s performance at ProgPower with Anneke van Giersbergen, you missed out. But you can look at some behind the scenes shenanigans thanks to the tour’s daily mini-documentaries.

I’ve been out of the album review scene for a few months while working on other stuff (read: actual work, unfortunately), but reviewing Devin’s music as an unabashed yet objective fanboy is something that I can always get out of bed for. I’ve been listening to the album in some capacity or another frequently for the last two weeks, and now that I have officially received the CD and put it in FLAC (and listened to it another six times), I think it’s time to break this thing down properly.

The super-short version of this review would be to say that Transcendence is an amalgamation of Epicloud and Sky Blue that results in a marked upgrade over both albums. The former has this bombastic element to it but occasionally fizzles out (like on Divine, for example), while the latter is a solid effort with a melancholic atmosphere that hasn’t held up over dozens of listens as well as other Devin albums have. I think Transcendence has the right blend of bombast and dreamscape atmosphere to go along with a master-craft production across the board.

That blend is exemplified on “Stormbending,” a track that I haven’t been able to go more than a few hours without listening to since I first got it. With the winding instrumental that carries the girth of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, the delightful and soothing tones of Devin’s vocals on the verses, and his operatic vocals put on full display in the outro, I can say with full confidence that this would make the top twenty list of best Devin Townsend’s songs if it were drawn up today, an achievement that should not be taken lightly.

Not far behind that beautiful track in terms of quality is “Higher.” Clocking in at nearly 10 minutes, it essentially starts off as “Grace” before turning into Devin’s proggiest track since the release of Deconstruction. A walking, talking highlight reel in its entirety, some of the best parts include:

  • The screamed “I, the destroyer!” section at about 4:15, as well as the directly contrasting “change direction” section starting at 4:55.
  • The breakdown starting at 6:05 that leaves the entire track hanging in suspense before Devin comes in with a lyrical callback to “Fallout.”
  • The instrumental section that comes in at 7:27 that sounds a bit like the end of the intro to “Love” by Strapping Young Lad. Am I the only person who hears it? Regardless, I love that sound.

And then there’s the chorus, where the drums and guitar get heavier with each progression. “Higher” is truly a stellar track for anyone that has the patience to invest ten minutes into a song (dozens of times).

The title track took a while to grow on me; it begins with a march beat and takes quite a while to build up with a male choir before Devin asks that poignant question: Who transcends this? Sung in an operatic voice slightly lower than the ending of “Stormbending,” the chorus is great, but that’s not what makes this song stand out; it’s the ending over the final 1:15 that is relentless and makes the prolonged buildup much more meaningful to me.

Anneke van Giersbergen is used much more sparingly in this album than she was on any of her previous three appearances with the Devin Townsend Project, as she is mostly relegated, albeit with great effect, to providing vocal fills and ambiance in songs like “Secret Sciences” and the ending to “Stars.” But she does get one song on lead vocals; “Offer Your Light” is the “Silent Militia” of the main disc. That could be a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you feel about cheese; whereas Silent Militia was kind a revamping of “You Spin Me Round (Like a Record)” by Dead Or Alive, Offer Your Light is more of a power metal number that, like Silent Militia, is extremely difficult to get out of my head. Anneke sounds excellent here, even with rather simplistic lyrics, but the production around her blends marvelously with her voice.

The final two tracks could be where the album falters for some people; they combine to take up 16:50 in length and nine of those minutes are ambient sections that close out each song. To top it off, one song is a cover and the other is essentially an 80’s ballad that borrows its structure from a Hindi meditation track by Krishna Das. And yet, both tracks still have some solid moments; the chorus and outro to “From The Heart” is sung in Hindi with a beautiful vocal line that is inescapable. What follows the prolonged final chorus is a luscious ambient jam that was apparently done in one take and is worth a few listens.

“Transdermal Celebration” is easily the least interesting track on the album, this in spite of the fact that I am quite partial to Ween. It’s a fun way to close off the main disc, but otherwise doesn’t do all that much for me. The best part of this track is the ambiance that comes after it, with Devin adding some soothing vocals and a small section of spoken words on top of it. Other tracks I’m not overly fond of include “Secret Sciences,” mainly because it takes too long to build up with only a modest payoff, and “Stars,” the ToonTrack demo that is gloriously poppy and is starting to grow on me, but has a limited ceiling. The distinction between “least interesting” and “most terrible” is important, as there are no bad tracks on this album, and many other fans have liked the aforementioned tracks. Tomato, potato, gazebo, am I right?

Much has been made about Devin’s decision to re-record Truth from Infinity and open Transcendence with it. While I would never have changed a thing from the original recording, the new version makes a lot of sense in the context of the album. The unrelenting grandeur of the “Hallelujah” section was replaced with more subtlety, but the overall production is airtight, and that new ending induces goosebumps. It was the first of several such moments, an effect that only a select few artists can achieve on me. Devin does it over and over again.

OVERALL: Perhaps the best DTP album to date in close competition with Addicted, as well as the best production from a Devin Townsend album since Ghost (or Casualties of Cool depending on whether you count the collaborative project with Che’ Aimee Dorval, who makes an appearance on the second disc, as a traditional Devin Townsend release).

Rating: 4.0*

14222107_10207060395180414_4459222951373475078_n

Who transcends this? The Devin Townsend Project, that’s who. The digipak and booklet were signed by all five members of the DTP at ProgPower USA in Atlanta on September 10, 2016. The show was the first to have Anneke van Giersbergen join the band on stage in the United States and, despite some technological hiccups, the set was a great way to cap off a stacked four-day lineup featuring Haken, Green Carnation, The Gentle Storm, Blind Guardian, Spock’s Beard, and Stream of Passion, among numerous other great acts.

Coming soon: a review of Holding Patterns, the second disc of this album.
_____________________________________

Buy the album at this link.
Listen to Stormbending, Failure, and Secret Sciences on YouTube courtesy of InsideOut Music
Featured image accessed via blabbermouth.net

 

 

Advertisements

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*

Review: The Gentle Storm – The Diary

Location: Waalwijk, Netherlands
Genre: Progressive Rock, Acoustic, Folk
Released: March 23, 2015
Format Reviewed: FLAC
Feature: Global Conquest – Upcoming Releases

By: Kris Kotlarik

Arjen Lucassen is at it again! To which I say, “thank goodness.”

This is a unique album, even for Arjen, a man who has written many a rock opera about everything from space sci-fi to a story about a scientist that was later made into a movie.* The closest comparison that can be offered is to Ayreon’s Universal Migrator albums; it is widely known that he believed that his fans were divided into two camps: The light, progressive rock camp, and the metalheads. So he put out The Dream Sequencer for the former, and Flight of the Migrator for the latter, releasing both albums at the same time. Although fans, myself included, generally liked both albums, he did figure correctly that some people would prefer one album to the other. I’ve had a draft typed up for a while for my review of Flight of the Migrator, which might make my Top 50 all-time list. The Dream Sequencer would probably rate in the 3.5 range if I were to review it today.

My rambling about these albums is important because The Diary is the same album done twice in two different styles. The Gentle version is very folk-oriented and should be regarded as a treat for those who enjoy modern folk rock bands. There are even some lounge jazz elements in “Heart of Amsterdam” and “Brightest Light.” Meanwhile, in “Shores of India,” Arjen makes use of traditional Indian instruments, making them sound authentic in the process.

The Storm version, in contrast, is significantly heavier and makes use of a choir, as seen in “Endless Sea.” The title track, if it can be called that, is full of symphonic metal goodness mixed with the occasional electronic effect (as seen in “Age of Shadows” from 01011001), and is probably the heaviest track here, like an Epica track written by someone with a significantly better ear for melodies. And yet, this isn’t a “metal” album. It’s a fun listen, but (and this is going to sound strange coming from me) I believe the “Gentle” version is the better disc.

The concept is also unique by Arjen’s already-lofty standards; the (based on a true) story revolves around a couple, Joseph and Suzanne, that is torn apart during the peak of The Netherlands’ golden age of exploration. Joseph is called away to visit India, and while he is gone, the two exchange letters to each other, as narrated by the illustrious Anneke van Giersbergen. This is not the first time the two have worked together; she also had parts on Into The Electric Castle and 01011001. But this is a direct collaboration between the two.

And that’s why I consider the Gentle disc to be the better one. The concept, which has a diverse setting, lends itself better to the array of acoustic instruments that Arjen uses in this project. Furthermore, Arjen, who has a reputation for bringing out the best in the musicians he works with, did a great job utilizing Anneke both discs, especially on the Gentle side. While her voice is powerful in nature, she dials it down considerably, and to great effect. Despite that, the Storm version is also a great listen.

Overall: An ambitious project that should wind up on many year-end album lists.

Rating: 4.0*

P.S.: Anneke, if you ever read this and happen to bring The Gentle Storm to the United States, please play “Strange Machines” like you and Arjen did during the European acoustic tour. Or perhaps “Probably Built In The Fifties?” Oh who am I kidding, any song from The Gathering. Actually, I really just want to see this band play live. Otherwise I’m just going to have to move to Europe, and I don’t think Europe is ready for me yet.

*Wait, you mean Ayreon released The Theory Of Everything a full year before the movie of the same name? I smell a lawsuit! All joking aside, that album is also a good one, albeit even more over the top than usual, occasionally to its detriment.