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Jordan Rudess —Notes on a Dream
Artist:
Jordan Rudess
Album:
Notes on a Dream
Genre:
Classical piano
Bottom
Line:

Love great piano music?A fan of Dream Theater’s lighter melodic songs, buy this now. Buy copies for your parents, too.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 4 Stars 3.89

Keyboard virtuoso Jordan Rudess just released one of the finest classical piano records of our time. Dream Theater fans (some) will love that it’s filled with reinterpretations of classic material from Jordan’s band, while classical piano fans will just love the clever song arrangements and Chopin-like piano pyrotechnics.

You definitely do not need to know anything about the music of Dream Theater to enjoy this breathtaking CD. In fact, Jordan took such huge liberties in some of his interpretations that even diehard fans won’t recognize some songs until they reach the second or third section, at which point Jordan will introduce a familiar melody or motif.

“Through Her Eyes,” “Lifting Shadows Off a Dream,” “Hollow Years,” “Another Day,” and other classic songs are represented. Twelve songs in all, totaling almost an hour’s worth of piano arrangements, are presented with such formidable skill that you won’t be able to play the majority of this CD without a serious dedication to practice. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Jordan’s Online Conservatory expands to include the Online Institution for players who melt their brains trying to nail some of the keyboard lines that are executed with the razor-like precision that Jordan is known for.

Don’t mistake Jordan’s precision for sterility, however. Recorded without a click-track, the songs breathe and flow wonderfully as Jordan knows just where to push and where to hold back.

There’s no point in dissecting the individual tracks on Notes On a Dream. Every track is fantastic, and we loved the random embellishments that Jordan throws in once in a while that showed off his whimsical sense of humor. As much as these songs are incredible piano accomplishments, they also provide Jordan with the opportunity to take some serious music and just have some fun with it. We’re so glad that he did!

Be sure to read our interview with Jordan Rudess to learn more about the making of this fantastic record.

— SK
 
IQ — Frequency
Artist:
IQ
Album:
Frequency
Genre:
Melodic Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

Good melodic stuff from one of Europe’s well known and long-established prog bands.

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3 Stars 3.13

IQ have been around since 1981, but never really made a mark in the U.S. With high speed Internet access so commonplace these days, it’s easy to forget that new bands were historically discovered on FM Radio and (later) MTV, neither of which really embraced progressive rock bands other than the few giant bands that are now regarded as “classic rock” despite still making records today.

It’s too bad that it’s taken so long for IQ to get noticed here, because fans of groups like Asia and Genesis will really like their music, especially on Frequency, the band’s ninth studio record.

Despite the 2007 departure of keyboardist and band co-founder Martin Orford, the new record is still largely a keyboards-driven affair, now fueled by Mark Westworth. It is the dominant use of keyboards that makes us think of Asia and Genesis more than any other artists. Virtually the entire album is written around Westworth’s synthesizers, while Michael Holmes provides the requisite fluty, melodic lead lines over lush pads and soundscapes. He has some nice acoustic sections on the album, too, but none of the songs are really driven by dominant guitar hooks.

Sequencing is a topic that comes up among our crowd regularly. No, not keyboard stuff, but song order for albums. In the case of Frequency, the opening title track is probably the weakest song on the entire outing, which is otherwise excellent. When we listen to melodic prog rock bands, we tend to hold production values to a higher standard, and the guitar tone, while the heaviest rhythm parts on the record, come across as solid state stuff that was poorly recorded — the tone is just weak. But once the piano kicked off “Life Support,” the much needed life support did indeed kick in and took us on a fantastic journey for the rest of the trip. And lead guitar lines like the melody in “Stronger Than Friction” definitely evoked a Steve Howe feel.

Peter Nicholls delivers a solid vocal performance, and songs like “The Province” deliver the all the great hallmarks of finely crafted progressive rock tunes — flowing melodies, emotional singing, great acoustic guitar work, cool synth lines, rhythm section work in multiple time signatures, and so on. Kudos to bassist John Jowitt, who this month becomes the first musician we can think of to end up being featured in two new CD reviews in the same month (he also plays in the band, Frost). He and drummer Andy Edwards do a great job gluing things together throughout Frequency.

The first track not withstanding, we found the album to be well written and performed from start to finish, and we especially loved the closing ballad, “Closer” that has beautiful piano layered with classical acoustic guitar arpeggios and then builds to an epic melodic rock finale.

— SK

 
 
Paul Gilbert & Freddie Nelson United States
Artist:
Paul Gilbert & Freddie Nelson
Album:
United States
Genre:
Classic Rock, Hard Rock
Bottom
Line:

Infectiously catchy hooks, soaring vocals, and shredtastic guitars!

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.63

We have nothing but respect for guitar talent Paul Gilbert. There are many great musicians who stick to one thing and rarely branch out, but as long-time fans of Paul’s have known, he’s not a one-trick pony. He rose to fame in guitar circles with Racer X, a band that helped define the term speed metal. Then, he achieved superstardom in the melodic hard rock band Mr. Big, and then he embarked on a solo career that has been mostly instrumental, but with Paul singing on a number of tunes.

After releasing his last solo CD, Silence Followed By A Deafening Roar (which we somehow forgot to formally review despite having the CD for months), we really had no idea what to expect from this auspiciously titled collaboration. Wow – what a record!

Unites States is undoubtedly one of the catchiest feel-good rock CDs of the year. It belongs on a major label with a real band name, and if only the marketing budget were in place, this could touch more fans than even Mr. Big connected with.

The collection of songs is a joint effort penned by Paul Gilbert and longtime friend, singer/guitarist Freddie Nelson, joined by Matt Muckle on drums and Paul’s wife, Emi Gilbert, on keyboards (she plays regularly on his solo work, too). The best description we can offer is to call this CD a cross between Cheap Trick and Queen. If you like those classic bands, you’re going to love, love, love this CD.

We loved songs like the rockin’ “Girl From Omaha,” the Queen-tinged “Waste of Time,” and the harmony-rich acoustic ballad “I’m Free” in particular.

Let’s talk about Freddie for a moment. This Freddie should have been the replacement for that other Freddie in Brian May’s band. Brian, are you listening? Consider this CD Freddie’s demo tape. Check out the track “Paris Hilton Look-Alike” and then pick up your phone immediately. He’s got Mercury’s phrasing. He’s got Mercury’s soprano voice, right down to the tonal quality. And he writes songs in your style! This man was born to sing with Queen. He’d make for good company and wouldn’t need a separate name credit tagged on behind the band’s name.

And Paul… ah, yes, our beloved Mr. Bigbert. He knows how to play for the song — that’s part of what’s so great about him. Yes, there are some rifftastic solos, but don’t come to this listening party expecting a collection of shred tunes — that’s not what it’s about. This is catchy, radio-friendly, classic rock with periodic bouts of guitar mayhem, restrained and stuffed into short sections that suit the songs. Of course there’s Paul’s requisite tapping, and he sings on a few songs with his Ace Frehley-like voice.

This CD is the summertime feel-good rock album we haven’t heard in years. It’s fun stuff, so don’t try to over-analyze it. Just buy it for yourself and then tell every mainstream AOR rock fan you know all about it. This deserves to be charting on Billboard. Help make it happen.

— SK
 
Vail Johnson —Come Together
Artist:
Vail Johnson
Album:
Come Together
Genre:
Smooth Jazz
Bottom
Line:

Great bass player lays down an instrumental smooth jazz tribute to the Fab Four

Musicianship: 2.5
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 2.0
Overall Rating: 3 Stars 2.88

For many musicians, The Beatles have had a tremendous impact on our musicianship: they provided a foundation for great music and great writing that influences so many of us even today. It is no surprise that the music of The Beatles is routinely re-recorded, reinterpreted, and performed live.

Vail Johnson, bassist for The Kenny G Band, just released the solo CD, Come Together, which features the bass guitar as the lead instrument supported by a few of his band mates including Kenny G (Soprano Sax); Ron Powell (Percussion); Hans Z (Piano and Rhodes); Danny Bejarano, Steve Stephens, Russ McKinnon, Sergio Gonzales and Vail Johnson (Drums); John Raymond, Tommy V, Tom Strahle (guitars). In short, it’s a long list of talented jazz musicians most of whom are members of the Kenny G Band.

From the perspective of the bass guitar, Vail Johnson displays excellent talent and musicianship in his performance. While staying true to the melodies of The Beatles, Vail demonstrates a sense of control and adaptability in his playing. With his ability to play smooth flowing melodies, solid groves, and monster funk lines, Vail’s abilities go far beyond the depth of this CD. We would love to hear him in a more aggressive jazz fusion or funk setting that would really allow him the room to breath and exhibit his talents to their full capacity.

Not to take away from the CD Come Together — it provides an excellent easy-listening, smooth jazz collection sure to satisfy the Beatles enthusiast or anyone looking to sit back and relax over a nice dinner and glass of wine. Throughout the CD, the rhythm section really lays back providing a basic support for the bass lines to play a prominent role. In some selections, it would have been preferred to hear more support and contribution providing better texture and overall excitement.

One of our favorite tracks, the title track “Come Together,” opens up with a nice funk groove. Vail definitely demonstrates the capability to control his instrument and provide rhythmic lines with extreme articulation and definition. During the first verse, Vail plays the melody in unison, then an impressive double-stop harmony lines in the second verse, and that’s followed by Kenny G and his signature improvisational section — there is no mistaking Kenny’s contribution on this CD.

Track 2, “Eleanor Rigby” offers a great display of Vail’s ability to lay back and play a flowing melody line interwoven with Kenny G’s melodic harmonies and improvisations. The keyboards also provide some nice background texture in support of the leading instruments. This arrangement provided an excellent ballad and painted a great feel for the song.

Funk Master Vail demonstrates some more of his hidden talent on track 5, “Get Back.” His popping funk lines are prominent throughout in support of his melody lines while the supporting rhythm section supplies accent stabs. This track, much like the title track, contribute to the sense that Vail really has a broad spectrum of talent that should be explored and showcased more often. His solid grove and ability to generate funk excitement seems endless.
From a bassist perspective, Vail Johnson demonstrates some excellent technique and tone throughout the CD, but we felt that the band, particularly the drumming style, really limited the overall performance level.

With Vail’s obvious talent, the right group of musicians behind him could have transformed this into a monster jazz fusion Beatles interpretation that pushed the envelop, but with the built-in Kenny G crowd listening, perhaps Vail just erred on the side of caution and released a CD sure to appeal to that crowd.

The CD is extremely laid back overall, and at some points it came across as being a bit sterile, but there were glimpses of fire when Vail opened up into the funk atmosphere. We suggest that Vail get together with drummers like Virgil Donati, Steve Smith, Simon Phillips, or Gavin Harrison for his next release — they would really unlock the fiery talent that was held on too tight of a  leash this time around. For now, though, give us a poolside drink while we relax to Vail's smooth jazz Beatles tribute.

— DD
 
Fractal — Sequitur
Artist:
Fractal
Album:
Sequitur
Genre:
Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

Prog for the Krimson-minded and less melodic prog fan. Hard to take in one sitting unless your IQ is nearing genius.

Musicianship: 3.5
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 2.5
Vibe: 2.5
Overall Rating: 2 Stars 2.25

What do you get when you combine mid-period King Crimson in a pot and stir in a dash of Pink Floyd, Porcupine Tree and a few other progressive powerhouse groups?  You end up with Fractal, one of Northern California’s progressive/experimental bands.  Initially conceived around 2000 and fully formed in 2004, Fractal is currently enjoying the release of their sophomore CD entitled Sequitur.  Within the walls of Sequitur, the listener will hear a wide array of styles that range from classic Progressive Rock to Ambient Music to Improvisational Instrumental passages as well.  And though the first listen through the recording might be somewhat challenging to endure (especially in one sitting), Sequitur has a way of growing on you after repeat airings.

The CD opens up with the heavily King Crimson-influenced instrumental entitled “Ellipses” in which the multi-guitar (and instrumental) layering is very reminiscent of the Crimson masterpiece, “Discipline.”  The Crimson lover will find solace in other tracks throughout the CD such as the improvisational tracks “Pataphysics” and “Coriolis” or the spoken-word (or vocally sampled) “Churn: Part ii.” 

Perhaps the CDs two best tracks are back-to-back toward the front portion of the recording.  “Aftermath” is a strong track that contains some of the more memorable vocal melodies throughout the CD.  The song displays a variety of alternating musical textures ranging from very heavy rhythm section riffs to melodious piano arpeggios and also includes an interesting drum feature over a musical vamp in 9:8.  Following “Aftermath” is the Kansas- or perhaps Yes-inspired track called “Mantra: Eternal Spring of Life.”  Largely an instrumental-heavy track, the instrumental tones, time signature changes and the compositional approach to this song will perk up the ears of the classic prog lover.  Finishing out the CD, the more accessible and melodic “Churn: Part iii” instrumental and the electronica-based “Bellerophon” will round out the broad array of styles Fractal displays on Sequitur.

However, production-wise, the CD is not top shelf, and primarily the use of Roland V-Drums may be distracting to the listener who wants a bigger, more defined  “band” sound.  In addition, someone searching for extremely melodious vocal passages and memorable hooks might feel a bit short-changed. Listeners admiring more ambient and/or experimental vocal textures (ala Crimson) will find this CD a much more appealing purchase than the admirer of more melodic progressive rock.  Regardless, Fractal’s musicianship and ability to create many different levels of texture throughout the recording make for a very interesting journey.

—JG

 
 
 
   
Frost* — Experiments in Mass Appeal
Artist:
Frost*
Album:
Experiments in Mass Appeal
Genre:
Modern Rock, Progressive Rock
Bottom
Line:

Crossover album brings some prog to the modern rock crowd.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars 3.38

British prog rockers Frost* are back with their second full-length release, and it takes the band into new territory that firmly plants them in the genre crossover category of “breakthrough artists.” While parts of the CD appeal to their prog rock audience, this album is also very much a mainstream modern rock record — and that’s a good thing.

We loved their first release, Milliontown, for its melodic prog rock, and wanted more of the same from their sophomoric follow-up, but we applaud the band for branching out the way that they did. With songs like “Dear Dead Days” and “Toys,” they have some singles destined for success on American modern rock radio (well, maybe not the first one since it’s six minutes long, but definitely the latter three minute pop rock tune).

Drawing the modern rock crowd in with stuff like this can really help to save our children from the boredom and monotony of the radio crap they’ve been listening to for the past decade. Songs are catchy, but executed with sophisticated musicianship that emo rockers and punksters just can’t deliver. And then, the rest of the CD gently lulls them into progressive rock that sounds like something new and pure to their virgin ears. Hey, you have to convert the masses one listener at a time, right?

It makes sense that there’s a more commercial aspect to some of this music, of course. Singer and band founder Jem Godfrey used to have a pop-friendly band with a string of hits (Atomic Kitten). Following the band lineup changes within Frost* is almost an exercise in futility — we’re not going to try and identify everyone in this review. The band broke up, reformed with some new guys, and then bassist John Jowitt announced his departure from the band (perhaps since he’s so busy with the new IQ release, plus he also plays in the prog band, Arena). There were some changes behind the drum kit, too, and so on…

But don’t be mislead into thinking this is some mainstream modern rock release, because it isn’t. It’s filled with clever time changes that keep you on your toes, tight performances with great guitar work from John Mitchell and especially fantastic keyboard work from vocalist Jem. And those mainstream rock listeners won’t be prepared for the fantastic progressive “Wonderland,” a fifteen minute long song that showcases every band member’s talents.

There are great guitar-driven moments, and the rock songs (like “Pocket Sun”) hit you with a sense of urgency that are well juxtaposed against the softer ballads like “Saline” that feature acoustic guitars, piano, and nice vocal harmonies.

— SK
 

New and Expanded Ratings

Our ratings for CD and DVD reviews just got more detailed! Rather than just provide you with one overall rating, we've added ratings for the four categories that matter to us when evaluating new music:

  • Musicianship — How well the parts are performed (with consideration given for the genre of music), how well the vocals are sung, etc.
  • Songwriting — How well we think the songs are written. Interesting changes? Boring yet familiar song structure?
  • Production & Engineering — How good does the CD/DVD sound? How are the production values?
  • Vibe — A great engineered album with strong musicianship may lack a cool vibe, while a poorly sung home studio recording might have a vibe that makes you want to keep listening.

Each section has equal value, and the overall rating is the average score.

 

             
             
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