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Prashant Aswani — Visions
Prashant Aswani - Visions
Instrumental Guitar Rock

The next great guitar god keeps getting better!

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.5
Production & Engineering: 4.0
Vibe: 3.5
Overall Rating: 4 Stars3.75

Although Prashant Aswani’s name isn’t as well known as other top instrumentalists like Satch, Vai, and Johnson, it very well should be, since he’s a player and songwriter of the same caliber. Along with the other maestro who belongs in your CD collection, Andy Timmons, Aswani stands leaps and bounds above the long list of “wanker-shredders” who each indignantly ask why they haven’t achieved superstar recognition for their playing. Aswani doesn’t ask, and thus proves to be one of the most deserving.

It’s the song, stupid. Nobody cares about endless wanking in the name of shred if the song is crap, and that’s why Aswani has risen to the level of short-list greatness. Here is a player who writes superbly crafted instrumental songs. They have hooks. They have melodies. They have grooves. But wait! There’s more. They have chops, and… impeccable tone!

On his fourth-ish album, Visions, we find Aswani in familiar top shape, with a great collection of songs that cover a range of rock, hard rock, blues, and fusion styles. While deftly handling guitar duties, he is joined by Incubus drummer Jose Pasillas, and bassist Gabe Rosales on all tracks, plus a guest appearance by guitarist Jeff Kollman on the song, "Left of Center."
From the opening blues-inspired guitar of “Your Call,” which then morphs into an Eric Johnson-esque melody, you’ll be drawn to this album. By the time you get to track four, the tight and hard rocking “Crispy” groove, you’ll be hooked. A few tracks later you’ll hear some cool vintage flanger effects on “Brain Burn,” and then wonder why you’re just first discovering Aswani.

Aswani’s lead style is extremely fluid and melodic. At times, I feel like the songs were written around a vocal arrangement and then Aswani said screw it, and replaced the vocal line with his guitar. This is a good thing: it speaks to his songwriting style and sense of melody.
Sometimes, as a musician gets more and more involved in the technical aspects of record making—the recording and production, things tend to suffer. But in this case, Aswani’s attention to detail in the engineering paid off handsomely, as the recording sounds truly fantastic, and his best to date.

There are plenty of great guitar layers and textures, with clever rhythm parts behind the melody lines and solo, and everywhere, the mix is outstanding, with great clarity among all instruments. We appreciate that all members of the band sound like they belong on the record, whereas we’ve all heard far too many wank-fests in which the rhythm section is really just there to provide an eighth-note backdrop for shredding.

Fortunately, Aswani brings us back to the songs, and despite his being a rocker at heart, elements of jazz fusion creep up in his songwriting even when he doesn’t seem to notice it being there. Maybe it’s that he was raised on classical Indian music and he spent years playing tabla (which you can hear on earlier releases of his). Whatever the case, fans of the great instrumental guitarists will be right at home with Aswani’s sound and style, and discerning ears will notice some very cool ways in which he distinguishes himself from the other masters. Consider this release a must-have, and a great gift for non-musicians who love great instrumental guitar music. And about that “fourth-ish” album reference? Check out our in-depth interview next month to find out what we’re talking about.

— SK

Jimi Jamison — Never Too Late
Jimi Jamison - Never Too Late
Melodic Rock/AOR

Even better than 2008’s superb Crossroads Moments!

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 4.0
Production & Engineering: 4.0
Vibe: 4.0
Overall Rating: 4 Stars4.0

Back in 2008 I reviewed the excellent Crossroads Moments, and I could barely contain my enthusiasm.  Not only was Jamison once again teamed with former Survivor member, Jim Peterik, the man was singing as if his life depended on it, and the songs were fabulous. Naturally, that album featured a decidedly “Surivor-esque” feel, which for this Survivor fan was manna from heaven.  Never Too Late is Jamison’s latest release, and even though Peterik is absent here (guitarist Erik Martensson is the co-conspirator) this album also recalls the best of Survivor’s recorded output, as well as a taste of Jimi Jamison the solo artist.

As the up-tempo and energetic opener, “Everybody’s Got A Broken Heart,” began to play, it didn’t take me long to realize two things – this album rocks harder than its predecessor and Jamison is singing in a much higher key. In fact, this particular track recalls Too Hot To Sleep-era Survivor (the bands criminally ignored 1988 release), which (ironically) featured the band rocking harder and Jimi singing in a higher key!

The album continues in the big chorus, big vocal tradition with standout tracks such as “The Great Unknown” with its heavy dose of Keyboards and a gritty Jameson vocal.  “Street Survivor” is almost anthemic and is easily the heaviest and hardest rocking tracks contained here.  “The Air I Breathe” is an especially stirring and moving ballad in the way it builds to a crescendo—  Jimi’s voice is out of this world here, reaching notes he hasn’t stretched for in years.

Anytime an album features the aforementioned big chorus/big vocal sound you can’t help evoking the 1980s, which means you also can’t help evoking some cheese! “Not Tonight” is one of those songs I must classify as “guilty pleasure,” with its light and airy chorus that is impossible not to sing along to.  “I Can’t Turn Back” also recalls the big ‘80s, this time with big guitars and a cool synth intro.  And speaking of guitars, I would be remiss not to mention the consistently superb axe-work of Erik Martensson, who manages to straddle the line between the ‘80s and today nicely.  His playing remains melodic throughout, never overplaying yet occasionally reminding us he has some serious technical chops.

Quite simply, this is a monumental release and an essential purchase not only for Survivor fans, but all fans of ‘80s  melodic rock that appreciate these types of songs delivered by world class musicians.  Way to go Jimi!

— JQ

Mixerman — Zen and the Art of Producing
Zen and the Art of Producing, by Mixerman
Music Education — Producing 101

A great read for anyone interested in producing bands, or artists who want to have a better working relationship with their producers.

Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars

I had to do some digging to find out just who author Mixerman was (Eric Sarafin, for the record), because here is a book so full of practical and useful information for the current producer, aspiring producer, and producer wanna-be that I had to confirm for myself that he was in fact an authority on the topic. Well, with numerous major label credits to his name, I feel good recommending this book.

Of course, even if all he ever did was produce basement tapes, I’d still feel good recommending Zen and the Art of Producing because Mixerman so beautifully hits the nail on the head regarding this topic. In a book I half expected to be a sleeper, Mixerman’s gift for story telling compelled me to keep reading. This is a fun title, filled with essential, non-technical information that makes a fantastic read for anyone interested in the art of producing, and perhaps more importantly, the business of producing.

This is not a book about getting your bass guitar to play nicely with the kick drum. This is a book about producing, and it is mostly centered around producing for rock/pop bands and related musical artists and singer/songwriters. Topics include building your relationship with the artist so that they trust your influence/opinion, various contractual relationships you might make with artists, a clear delineation of songwriting from producing, preproduction, running the session (everything from sticking to your preproduction plan to who orders dinner), and much more.

If you’re a young band hoping to work with a producer on your next indie release, or a band singed to a major label that is going to place you in the studio with a producer you didn’t specifically select, there’s a lot of great information to be learned from reading this title. Remember this: a producer’s role is to bring out the best of who you are as an artist/band. Mixerman does a great job ensuring that his minions don’t lose sight of their proper role as producers. Well done.

— SK

Michael Wood Band — Occupy This
Michael Wood Band - Occupy This
Alternative Rock

Young, fresh, alt rock with only a subtle nod to the ‘80s.

Musicianship: 3.0
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.0
Vibe: 3.5
Overall Rating: 3 Stars3.13

Who says you can’t have summertime fun in the dead of winter! Canada’s Michael Wood Band thinks you can, as evidenced on the album, Occupy This, a fresh alternative rock album that seems to straddle an interesting line: it’s almost as if REM had been fused with Toad the Wet Sprocket, playing music with more of a modern Kings of Leon vibe (and thankfully, better vocals).

Strong points are the songwriting, Wood’s voice, and the vibe. It’s catchy stuff. We loved tracks like the rockers “End of the World” and “How Does it Feel” in particular, the kind of songs you’ll want to play over and over again.

These young musicians are solid, the engineering/mixing was pretty decent, and the entire record has a very live and organic feel. However, the track “I think I’ll Just Go To Bed,” with drums panned left in mono and a shaker to the right, sounded just awful and was hard to listen to. It was an unnecessary effect, no doubt trying to capture a vintage vibe and then ultimately failing. However, these guys are young and talented, so we’ll cut them some slack on this otherwise fine first release. Looking forward to hearing more from them.

— SK


Yngwie J. Malmsteen — Spellbound
Yngwie J. Malmsteen - Spellbound
Neo-classical Shred

The absolute nadir of this virtuoso’s career!

Musicianship: 2.5
Songwriting: 2.0
Production & Engineering: 1.0
Vibe: 2.0
Overall Rating: 2 Stars1.89

No, I am not trying to be funny here, but if there was an award for “Craptacular Album of The Year,” this release would win hands down!  Yngwie has been a favorite of mine since the early ‘80s. I simply love the man’s playing and cite him as a direct influence on my own playing style.  However, even a fan such as me (who admittedly has viewed some of his past work through rose-tinted glasses) cannot ignore the epic failure of his latest release, Spellbound.

Yngwie’s approach has always been a bit totalitarian, meaning it was his way or the highway, leaving little room for collaboration.  In recent years this approach became even more draconian, with Yngwie going as far as telling his drummers what drum kit they have to play.  And now we have this…

Spellbound finds Yngwie completely alone, handling all duties including vocals (gasp) and whatever is providing the percussion (is that a drum machine?). I have said it before and I will say it again: Yngwie is a horrific singer!  His overwrought style and attempts at delivering a big, wide vibrato are painful to listen to.  Yes, it’s only three songs to suffer through, but it’s three songs too many, especially considering all the great former singers Yngwie undoubtedly could have called to provide the vox (i.e. Jeff Scott Soto, Mark Boals, Joe Lynn Turner).

The rest of the album is an all-instrumental shredfest. This is good, right?  Wrong!  Perhaps if Spellbound was not so abysmally recorded, we could enjoy what sounds like some fairly technical instrumental work a la Alchemy.  The production literally makes these unlistenable, everything is drenched in reverb, and Yngwie’s once enviable guitar tone now sounds like it was plugged into a POD and left on whatever preset first came up.  The drums (or drum machine) are buried in the mix and some of those “strings,” I swear were delivered via a cheap Casio keyboard from decades ago! 

To add insult to injury, what I started to fear around the time Perpetual Flame has apparently come to fruition: the man is in a rut.  Yes, he still possesses more technical skill than five of your favorite guitar players put together (his guitar and bass playing warrant a four-star rating for musicianship if we could just overlook the drums, keys, and vocals), but there is also a constant element of “haven’t I heard this before?” running throughout the album. The tracks “Turbo Amadeus” and “Majestic 12 Suite” come to mind in particular—rehash city.

If Yngwie continues down this path, it is quite simply the end.  The man needs to hire a competent producer and put together a world-class band that is allowed to contribute fresh ideas to the music.  The man is simply too good to release something of this caliber, which evokes almost a basement tapes or DIY project feel.  Unfortunately, the evidence points to the contrary, and I would hazard a guess that Yngwie probably thinks his one man band is the cat’s meow.

Someone needs to tell him how dreadfully wrong he is.

— JQ

Dan ErlewineHow To Make Your Electric Guitar Player Great, Second Edition
How To Make Your Electric Guitar Player Great, Second Edition, by Dan Erlewine
Guitar Maintenance

A must-read for anyone who wants to be his/her own guitar tech..

Overall Rating: 4 Stars

If you play guitar and have any interest in doing your own guitar work: setups, intonation adjustments, replacing/upgrading pickups, re-wiring, and more, get your hands on this book and its accompanying DVD.

The preceding summary pretty much encapsulates what the book is about, and it’s a real wealth of information on guitar maintenance for anyone looking to have more of a direct say in how his or her guitar performs.

The book is written in an informal manner and has a wealth of information that any player will benefit from. It even comes with some ready-made punch-outs for measuring fretboard radius! There are tons of close-up photos, descriptions of all of the guitar components, and useful tips on how (and why) to adjust all of those parts. Don’t just take our word for it, though. Check back in mid-January to read our feature excerpt all about truss rod adjustments, taken directly from Dan’s awesome book (with permission, of course).

The accompanying DVD shows you how to make many of the necessary adjustments, like setting up a Floyd Rose Tremolo, rewiring a Stratocaster, and more. 

— SK

Marillion — Sounds That Can’t Be Made
Marillion - Sounds That Can't Be Made
Progressive Rock

Sounds kind of like Marillion, and that's a good thing.

Musicianship: 4.0
Songwriting: 3.0
Production & Engineering: 3.5
Vibe: 3.0
Overall Rating: 3.5 Stars3.38

This month’s review collection features at least three recordings from artists who have been around for decades. While one of them sounded particularly inspired and the other dreadfully embarrassing, I find myself listening to Marillion’s latest, Sounds That Can’t Be Made, with a touch of disappointment, as it falls somewhere between these two extremes, and I really wish it were just a bit more energetic.

It’s a solid Marillion album, and the opening pair of songs, the politically charged “Gaza” and the title track, are beautiful sounding pieces, even if the opener seems just a wee bit long at over seventeen minutes long. But the tracks sound like a summary of so much classic Marillion that they don’t really hit me as being especially fresh or exciting. In earlier decades, each new Marillion release found the band exploring new sonic territories to a much wider degree. But ever since 2004’s amazing album Marbles, the band has stayed in a relatively familiar place sonically.

The band does break out of the mold a bit on Sounds That Can’t Be Made, though, and tracks like the single, “Power,” have a nice modern vibe and edginess to them, and the second half of “Invisible Ink” has that humongous, uplifting (and up-tempo) movement that many of the band’s finest works have delivered.

Steve Rothery’s fantastic guitar work feels a bit more front and center on this album than on many others, and bassist Pete Trewavas cuts through the mix with surgical precision. Drummer Ian Mosley plays with his familiar style, and keyboardist Mark Kelly continues to innovate with bold new synth textures (not to downplay his great piano chops, too). Vocalist Steve Hogarth, surprisingly, sounds a little reserved on this release— he doesn’t really shoot for as many high parts or powerful epic moments as we’ve loved him for in the past. Of course his voice is still beautiful, but he seems to play things a bit too comfortably on STCBM, and when he does go for it—like on songs like “Lucky Man,” it just sounds like he’s re-hashing other classic Marillion moments (“Invisible Man” came to mind straight away).

This is a fan’s album, for sure, filled with more “album tracks” than singles material more likely to win legions of new fans. The musicianship on display is in top form, and it’s well engineered as is to be expected of any output from this band. The closing track, “The Sky Above the Rain,” is an especially strong closer, and leaves me waiting for the next album.

— SK

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