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Steve Stevens — Memory Crash
Artist:
Steve Stevens
Album:
Memory Crash
Genre:
Instrumental Guitar Rock
Rating:
4 Stars
Bottom
Line:

Required listening for serious guitar players

Growing up in the ‘80s, I never understood some peoples comments alluding to how good a guitarist Steve Stevens was. To me, he was just another long-haired leather-clad bad-boy pop rocker, in this case supporting Billy Idol. And while Idol’s music is classic in that VH-1 “We Are The ‘80s” sort of way, the shred crowd really didn’t give him a second thought.

Forget whatever you think you know about Steve Stevens — his new solo CD, Memory Crash, totally rocks. This is the work of a seriously skilled, underrated and underappreciated, brilliant guitar player.

Throughout Memory Crash, Stevens displays not only superb mastery of the guitar, but mastery of great tone. Starting with the songs, Stevens avoids the boredom sometimes brought on by instrumental guitar records where all the songs sound virtually the same as each other. It’s hard to talk about the songs without talking about his tremendous tone pallet and his phenomenal use of effects. Songs like the title track are infectiously catchy with a totally modern rock sound, while album openers like “Heavy Horizon” create a grand soundscape from harmonized guitar lines over lush keyboard pads. “Hellcats Take The Highway” and “Small Arms Fire” have a more classic instrumental hard rock vibe but the clever and deliberate placement of effects make things sound current. On tracks like the remake of Robin Trower’s “Day of the Eagle” and “Cherry Vanilla,” Stevens breaks out his inner voodoo child. Not only does he supply vintage guitar tone ala Hendrix, but “Day of the Eagle” features King’s X vocalist/bassist Dug Pinnick supplying the perfect bluesy vocal vibe.

Have you noticed that Dug Pinnick has guest appeared on a lot of CDs lately? We can’t even keep track anymore! At this rate, it’s only a matter of time before we hire him to sing at our kid’s next party!

With sounds ranging from boutique Bogner tone to heavily processed effects-ladden tracks, Memory Crash serves as both an audio palette from which to explore everything you can do with guitar effects as well as what you can do plugged straight into a great tube amp. At times, we can hear a definite Satriani vibe to some of the melodic lines, and at other times he hints at some Tom Morello appreciation. But always, whether it’s these influences or the vintage vibe on some tracks, it comes back to the songs, and those years in the Idol camp paid off. Stevens is all about the hook — you’ll find it in virtually every track.

His acoustic and classical playing is also demonstrated in top form on tracks like “Water on Ares,” and despite all the great guitar work throughout the album, our favorite track was the final song, “Josephine” — a spacey, synthy, and acoustic song on which Stevens supplies some beautiful vocals and lays down an awesome bass groove. If you’re a bassist wondering how to put effects to use on your thunder stick, check out this track!

Stevens played everything on the album other than drums, which were performed by the very talented Brian Tichy. Truly worthwhile bass lines abound, as do gorgeous synth pads and keyboard leads. With an equipment list that features all the great names our boutique gearheads will recognize, irony must be found in the cover photo featuring Stevens with a Les Paul and vintage Marshall amp — two items not referenced at all in the extensive equipment list, and clearly not featured sonically in most of this diverse song collection. So get past the almost whimsical cover photo — what awaits you on this CD is music every serious guitar player will draw some new inspiration from.

— SK
 
RPWL —the rpwl experience
Artist:
RPWL
Album:
the rpwl experience
Genre:
Melodic/Progressive Rock
Rating:
4 Stars
Bottom
Line:

Another great European band reminds us how much American music sucks by comparison.

OK, I suppose that’s a harsh bottom line coming from an American musician myself, but really, the fifth studio release from RPWL is here to remind us that there are many bands out there making beautiful, melodic rock albums… we just don’t get to hear them on American radio or see them on MTV and VH-1!

Fans of Gilmour-era Pink Floyd will especially love The RPWL Experience. The band originally came together as a Pink Floyd tribute band before turning their energy towards original songwriting, and the influence of later Floyd albums is quite evident, though RPWL has a more up-tempo rock vibe than the sometimes-sleepy prog masters from England. Songs like “Breath In, Breath Out” (learn to spell English words, guys!) and the humorous autobiographical song “This is Not a Prog Song” are both catchy and well arranged. The band deftly mixes a wide variety of beautiful guitar tones with keyboards and multi-part vocal harmonies.

Featuring Yogi Lang on vocals and keys, Kalle Wallner on guitars, Chris Postl on bass, Manni Müller on drums, and Markus Jehle on keyboards, every member’s performance is in top form on the CD, and the recording and production values are what you’d expect from a serious melodic progressive rock band, which is top flight, of course.

While many tracks evoke the spirit and soundscapes of late-era Pink Floyd, RPWL do have some other influences at work on this CD. “Where Can I Go” shows a definite Oasis vibe, while “Watch Myself” could have been written for Coldplay. This CD has made it into regular rotation in our stereos and on our computers, and the vocal melody line and instrumental passages on the closing track, “Turn Back The Clock” are truly captivating. The song manages to combine our favorite elements of Pink Floyd with an obvious tribute to ELP’s “Lucky Man” thrown in for good measure.

– SK
 
Saga — 10,000 Days
Artist:
Saga
Album:
10,000 Days
Genre:
Melodic/Progressive Rock
Rating:
3.5 Stars
Bottom
Line:

Still going strong, despite their relative obscurity.

For almost thirty years, Canadian prog rockers Saga have been releasing albums and touring. Despite a lack of interest from the mainstream American radio audience — their only big domestic hits, “On The Loose” and “Wind Him Up,” came from 1981’s gold-selling release, Worlds Apart — Saga found enough of a worldwide audience to keep doing what they’re quite good at: delivering catchy, melodic, tight, rock music.

With more keyboardists than your typical rock band — vocalist Michael Sadler plays, as do bassist Jim Crichton and dedicated keyboardist Jim Gilmour, there’s still plenty of beautiful electric and acoustic guitar supplied by Ian Chrichton, all anchored by drummer Brian Doerner. Big multi-part vocal harmonies adorn this collection of nine songs.

In addition to some great dueling leads on guitar and synth, and clever vocal deliveries, there are catchy musical hooks throughout the album. If you’re a fan of ‘90s-period Asia, you’ll find a lot of familiar territory style-wise on 10,000 Days, but also be sure to throw in a splash of classic Queen (especially on some of those Broadway-esque Freddie Mercury-like vocal performances) and Fish-era Marillion (which I suppose could suggest an early Genesis vibe).

While there are some modern sonic treatments and a handful of new synth tones, it is mostly Doerner’s percussive style that sticks the album back in an ‘80s vibe. Fortunately, the song arrangements and production values aren’t quite so dated, and we still can’t help but listen to the CD regularly. It’s both retrospective (style-wise) and refreshing — a nice combination!

From the clever opening of the first track, “Lifeline,” which has a cool deliberate tempo change that leads into a Crowded House-sounding verse and then onto more traditional Saga fare, the CD’s theme is established up front. “Book of Lies” could almost be a theatrical hit, and while “Sideways” makes spectacular use of vocoding and displaying that Asia vibe, we have to fault it for blatantly ripping off musical elements from Yes’s “Changes.”

The album advances with multiple tracks that are compelling throughout, but while we’re being picky, we have to fault the mastering of this CD. The dynamics of the CD are clearly optimized for an MP3 world, and we think that less overall compression would have enhanced the emotional impact and delivery of this fine collection of songs. (We’re starting to pay more attention to this detail on new recordings.)

This will be the final CD recorded with longtime vocalist Sadler. He’s “retiring” from the world of touring rock bands to spend more time with his family, and presumably to focus on other recording projects that don’t entail months on end traversing the globe. Check out the band’s website for news about a new vocalist — the band hosted open auditions across the Internet, supplying instrumental versions of their biggest hits for singers to submit demos via YouTube (which are quite entertaining to watch). We look forward to hearing what the next chapter in Saga’s evolution provides.

— SK
 
 
Billy Ward — Voices in my Head (DVD), Out the Door (CD)
Artist:
Billy Ward
DVD:
Voices in my Head
Genre:
Instrumental Drumming
Rating:
4 Stars
Bottom
Line:
Billy Ward takes Jazz drumming to a new level of creativity and expression. This DVD is a must have!

Voices in My Head is the second instructional drum video from the accomplished drummer, producer, and educator Billy Ward. A follow-up to Billy's award-winning Big Time DVD, Voices in My Head is packed with nearly three hours of drum instruction and also includes the latest CD release from the Billy Ward Trio, Out the Door. This is definitely not your typical prosaic instructional video!

Billy starts by highlighting the evolutionary changes of jazz drumming while providing historical context by demonstrating the unique styles of drummers ranging from Elvin Jones to Tony Williams. Many drum videos focus on technique perfection and precision, however Billy avoids that convention by encouraging experimentation and assuring drummers that it's okay to make mistakes during practice. To emphasize this point, Billy uses various percussion items ranging from crushed tin cans to playing with his bare hands to demonstrate the broad range of sounds and colors that can be cajoled out of a standard drum set.

He also spends some time talking about his unique cymbal stacking, tuning techniques, sticks, and grip. Finally, these concepts are put into action as he discusses and demonstrates drum parts that he has composed for various projects and artists, including tracks from the Billy Ward Trio release, Out the Door.

The included audio CD, Out the Door, is an amazing collection of eleven compositions that exemplify the breadth and depth of Billy's drumming. Accompanied by Barry Coates (guitar) and Bill Urmson (bass), Billy takes the listener on a percussive journey that showcases his highly creative style and incredible chops. The drum accompaniment for each track will blow your mind as Billy throws down deep pocket grooves as well as rich, colorful embellishments that blend in beautifully with the other instruments.

Billy's holistic approach to drum instruction is refreshing, and the Voices in My Head DVD should be required viewing for every drummer. .

– ES

 
Winger — Live
Artist:
Winger
Album:
Live
Genre:
Hard Rock
Rating:
3 Stars
Bottom
Line:

Spotty engineering mars an excellent performance.

Touring in support of their most aggressive recent (2007) release, Winger IV, this two-CD set captures the band in top form. Featuring Kip Winger on vocals and bass, Reb Beach on guitars, Rod Morgenstein on drums, and John Roth on second guitar, and everyone contributing to the backing vocals, the musicianship is superb as the band spends a few hours tearing up select tracks from the current CD, IV (see our review from last March), as well as a huge collection spanning the bands first three studio albums. Winger rocked back in the day, despite the trendy clothing style and Beavis and Buthead jokes, and this performance certainly affirms that they still do rock.

All of the hits were present, but we have a few minor quibbles: Someone needs to build Reb a guitar with piezo acoustic pickups for classic songs like “Down Incognito” — it really suffered from the lack of true acoustic guitar tones. And while Kip played piano on a few tunes, the lack of keyboards in the band’s overall sound was a bit disappointing since fans of these amazing musicians already liked them with keyboards in the sound. Perhaps we would have enjoyed “Easy Come Easy Go” more if Rod had held the tempo back. Played too fast and without the familiar synth/horn section, this classic lost some of its groove.

Our final issue is one of engineering and audio production — we could hear some real distortion/clipping on a couple of the audio tracks (“Madalaine” and “Loosen Up” stood out in particular)! Hopefully, these aren’t present on the concert DVD, also recently released, which we hope to check out in the next month or two.

But once you get past these minor gripes, you get back to the fact that the band really rocks, notably on tunes like “Rainbow In The Rose” and on some of their newer, heavier tunes like “Generica” and “Your Great Escape.” The band did a nice job of handling vocal harmonies throughout the performance, and Kip deserves accolades for really still having “it” in his voice.

Reb Beach was one of the ‘80s most respected shredders, routinely capturing magazine cover spotlights and awards along with players like Nuno Bettencourt, Yngwie Malmsteen, and Paul Gilbert. Well guitar fans, we’re happy to report that he still totally has the chops to make you weep with envy. Listening to his soloing on tracks like “Seventeen” are inspirational — he tears through classic solos with studio-recording precision, and if that’s not enough for you, both he and Rod have their own featured solo songs in the concert.

Things settle down near the end for some great acoustic-based tunes (like “Who’s The One”) and an acoustic version of IV’s “Blue Suede Shoes” (a bonus track available on the European release). 

Winger are currently on tour, so try and catch a show near you if possible. We just missed their NJ performance thanks to the one big snow storm that finally blanketed the NY metro area this winter. Oh well, at least we’ve got the concert DVD and some interviews to look forward to!

— SK
 
The Tangent — Not as Good as the Book
Artist:
The Tangent
Album:
Not as Good as the Book
Genre:
Classic Progressive Rock
Rating:
3.5 Stars
Bottom
Line:

A conceptual double-album that melds theatrical pop/rock/fusion with excellent musicianship and creative writing, plus ties into a written short story.

In matters of The Tangent, tangent must be synonymous with the word eclectic. Due in part to the involved story line about a man lost in time, the album takes the listener through many different passageways and musical genres. Though all of the music was written by keyboardist / vocalist Andy Tillison, the album is supported by a diverse group of musicians including Guy Manning / acoustic instruments and vocals; Jonas Reingold / bass guitar; Jaime Salazar / drums; Jakko M Jakszyk / electric guitars and vocals; Theo Travis / sax and flute; and Julie King on vocals.

At first listen, the opening selection of Disc 1, “A Crisis in Midlife,” took us right back to Styx with a strong ‘80s keyboard intro and progressive rock groves. Though the vocals don’t compare to Dennis Deyoung, we can’t help but think of Frank Zappa’s influence due more in part to the story line lyrical content and musical passageways layered with huge keyboard riffs and pads reinforced by some heavy guitar. The instrumental near the end of this piece features some nice guitar work by Jakko before returning to the opening verse. Fusion in style, his execution is clear and concise ranging from melodic lines to flurrying interludes.

Throughout Disc 1, many progressive influences are experienced. Spacey effects ala Pink Floyd abound, and vocal harmonies are interspersed with spoken lines. Tracks like “Celebrity Puree” get more aggressive, with bass and drum lines doubled by keyboards while Jakko solos on top. Saxaphone and flute come out on some tracks, and the title track has a cool Spanish feel.

Disc 2 pours on a heavy dose of The Tangent’s early Pink Floyd influence and features two compositions each ranging between twenty and twenty-two minutes in length. The first selection, “Four Egos One War,” features Julie King on vocals to start. As the selection transitions from section to section, so does the lead role from vocalist to instrumental soloist – again taking you through multiple passageways and genres while still maintaining that theatre musical style and vibe. Track two, “The Full Gamut,” starts out featuring a piano/vocal accompaniment layered with some synth pads leading in to a progressive rock interlude giving way to another vocal passage. As the selection moves on, the musical interludes get more and more progressive and aggressive exhibiting some nice jazz fusion lines and flavors throughout before returning to a strong vocal/piano accompaniment leading into an orchestral close.

Perhaps a bit too self-indulgent at times and seeming to amble along for longer than perhaps it should, this double album is one musical piece that will require multiple listening sessions in order to grasp the entire movement. Lyrically, you’ll want to understand the story line in order to appreciate the whole movement. In fact, the story is actually based on a 100-page illustrated novella that is packaged with a special edition of this CD. For those who prefer to listen instead of read, though, the music alone will surely take you through a journey of its own. We recommend turning out the lights and putting on some headphones for maximum visceral effect. And definitely don’t attempt to operate heavy machinery while listening.

— DD
 
   
             
             
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