PENDRAGON - Not Of This World
(Toff Records, 2001)

After five years of waiting, the pioneers of English New-Prog are finally back with their 6th full-length album, still featuring the same line-up (Nick Barrett: guitars, vocals; Clive Nolan: keyboards; Peter Gee: bass; Fudge Smith: drums). Anyone who liked the last three records ("The World", "The Window Of Life", "The Masquerade Overture") will not be disappointed with this release: the five long pieces here featured are filled with the classic Pendragon elements, i.e. a great display of melody and technique. But don't imagine a carbon copy of these predecessors, because some hints of change can be found between the lines: some intimistic section for voice & piano only bring a new kind of vocal interpretations by Nick, maybe inspired more than usual by very personal lyrics (dealing with his divorce and the separation from his son), as well as some cyclic repetitions of some main themes, every time performed with a different arrangement.
So if we can't talk of a "concept album", yet the songs are strictly tied up with related lyrics and recurring melodies, though this time some of the typical cristalline moments are lacking, in favour of much more narrative moments; in fact it seems that the lyrical contents gained more importance now than in the past, so the overall listening may result a little less "easy" , but still rewarding.
Anyway, the first 3 minutes of the title track are possibly the most symphonic piece of music Pendragon ever wrote. My favourite from the album is the ever-changing opening track, called "If I Were The Wind", featuring different moods and a shiver-provoking, almost moving end-section. The song that differs most from what you can expect from this consolidated band is maybe "A Man Of Nomadic Traits", with an unusual verse and a strong instrumental middle-section.
The CD contains two bonus tracks: they are the acoustic versions of older tracks "Paintbox" and "King Of The Castle", originally included in the Polish compilation "The History 1984-2000"

(Stretchy, 2000)

This time in full Egyptian environment, the nearly-annual appointment with the masters of space rock brings us seven more gems of brilliant weirdness. For those who are not familiar with this essential band, maybe it's enough to say that they are responsible for the revival of psychedelic instrumental music in the 80's/90's. Mixing rock, eastern folk, reggae-dub, progressive and sometimes a techno-ambient flavour, their style is now a reference in itself. Led by guitar wizard Ed Wynne, the current lineup also includes "Jumping" John Egan on various flutes (he's also the front man in their live appearances), Seaweed on keys and knobs, Zia Geelani on bass and Rad on drums/percussion.
The tracks on this album can be divided into guitar-led ones ("Holohedron", "The Hidden Step", "Pixel Dream"), keyboards-led ones ("Aramanu", "Ashlandi Bol", "Tight Spin") and the wonderful hypnotic piece of work that closes the record: "Ta Khut", seven minutes of magic featuring the Kaval, a Bulgarian flute, some acoustic guitar arpeggios, an atmospheric synth soundscape and windchimes.
A little more rock oriented than their previous effort ("Waterfall Cities"), this is an album that cannot disappoint the dedicated "Erpmen" (Ozric fans), though the recipe is basically the same as always, I really don't find any argument to feel unhappy with the result...another highly recommended record!

IQ - The Seventh House
(GEP, 2001)

Seventh studio album for this legend of English new progressive, the latest one being the high acclaimed masterwork called "Subterranea", a double concept album that showed a harder and riff-based edge, beside their traditional melodic and dreamy sound. This time a more 'simple' collection of songs, in the way we already appreciated on "Ever", the 1993 album that marked the return to the fold of singer Peter Nicholls (the lineup is completed by Martin Orford on keyboards, Mike Holmes on guitars, John Jowitt on bass and Paul Cook on drums).
The album is opened by a very long track called "The Wrong Side of Weird", starting with an uptempo section followed by Nicholls' characteristic vocal lines, an ever changing track, unusual and unpredictable. "Erosion" is the shortest track of the album, yet it's one of the best, with fragile vocals interrupted by heavy riffs and choral keys. The title track is a sort of mini-suite, starting again with emotional vocals and acoustic guitar, the middle section is full of instrumental breaks, for the delight of our ears, then Nicholls goes back to the inital theme, this time played by the full band for the symphonic finale. "Zero Hour" is much more simple, with a nice acoustic/electric guitar solo. "Shooting Angels" belongs to a simpler side to the typical IQ sound, with a saxophone adding colour to a nice melody. The record is closed by "Guiding Light": the piano and vocals start leaves way to an explosive instrumental break with guitars and keyboards chasing each other in a nearly prog-metal way (!), until the singer comes back for the finale, eventually taking the emotional, subtle, beautiful lines of the start. Great!
All in all, another masterpiece from this band, the formula is the same as in the last three albums, but why change when the result is so enjoyable? It's not so easy to find songs well crafted as these: melody, power and wonderful vocal lines. Recommended!

MADMEN AND DREAMERS - The Children Of Children
(MadElf Productions, 2000)

Reviewing a double concept album is somehow peculiar, indeed. It's because of the length of the opera and the lyrical contents, often bearing the same importance of the musical one.
This is the case of Madmen and Dreamers' debut album. This five piece band from New Jersey (Mark Durstewitz: keyboards and composition, Mario Renes: bass, Vince Genella: guitars, Bob Dunleavy: drums, Christine Hull: vocals, with the collaboration of three more singers) have released an original Rock Opera, as is stated on the cover, dealing with teenage parenthood, divorce and the consequent parent/children alienation. The characters in the storyline are the Mother, the Father, the Son and the Daughter.
I had a dilemma: a general review or a detailed one? Well, the former would be a short statement: forget progressive rock musical and lyrical stereotypes, there are no knights and castles, only everyday life, and no trace of self-indulgent virtuosism, only serious musicianship. I know this is not enough, this work deserves a description in depth, so here we go.
Act One starts with a symphonic
Overture, featuring a Floydian electric guitar solo, as well as classical guitar and piano, then we're projected into the title track The Children Of Children (pt.1), a male/female vocal duet enriched by a sharp guitar and a dramatic melody. Conception is an instrumental intermezzo, the piano here echoes "The Great Gig in the Sky" or "Us And Them", but Floydian influences are only one side of M&D's sound, and there will be time to discover it. The Big Belly Blues is completely different: a bluesy guitar, a jazzy piano, sax and hyronical lyrics, the guitar sound recalls something from Spock's Beard, sometimes. Piano and bells for the instrumental Birth, featuring some creative drum fills as well. After the reprise of the title track, and a husband/wife/children 'discussion' (What About Me?), it's the time for Love at a Distance, the female vocals are very emotional here, the piano/bass/cello complete the moody atmosphere. Madmen and Dreamers starts like another slow-tempo song, though some heavy guitar chords and drums add energy to this ballad; in the mid section tempo increases, then the singer resumes the vocal theme, sounding a bit like some tracks from Pallas' "The Sentinel", but less bombastic; one of the highlights. Another Joyful Day is a jingling funny little tune. I Will Not Fight features some soprano female vocals from Christine, contrasting with a rocky electric guitar, but we begin to guess this is the strength of the formula; a strong rhythm section is the icing on the cake. A bass line à-la "Careful With That Axe Eugene" introduces Retreat, the guitar solo here is quite Gilmouresque ("Division Bell" period), this long (11 min) multiform song turns into an acoustic ballad and then again into something else, with a mysterious melody, only to end wih a vocal duet. The arrangement here is of a top-class group; one of my favourites. Running Wild is splitted into four sections, starting with a musical box tune and a Gentle Giant-like multivocal lullaby; next section is straightforward rock with Hammond, though the singer (Dennis) is not so appropriated for this style, he shows a good vocal range. After a vocal duet, the lullaby comes back. Listen to Me is a mid-tempo piano led song, The Shell echoes the same melody. High pitched female vocals give character to Your Fault, Christine here recalls Sandrose's vocalist or even a sort of female Peter Hammill (!), the feeling is enhanced by the melanchonic melody. I Don't Know You Anymore is a rather anonymous uptempo song, while Why Did You Stay is a vocal/piano/orchestral reflective piece, with a pleasant 'musical theater' flavour; All I Need is Life closes Act One in a rather narrative way, but with a rock arrangement this time, featuring a nice distorted guitar solo.
Act Two starts with a reprise of some themes (namely Listen To Me, The Shell, Your Fault), then a short piano/synth atmospheric piece (
One Moment Please) leads us into another piano driven song, Such as it is, with bass in good evidence (the sound of the piano is the 'trait d'union' in the whole opera). An Eagle and a Dove features very poetical lyrics, giving a sense of serenity; the romantic feeling is enhanced by a classical guitar solo à-la Steve Howe, while the electric guitar solo at the end makes you willing for more. Tell Me is plain rock-blues with a sax, even the vocals are in perfect style, though a bit monochord, while The Life You've Given Me is another typical mid-tempo piano-driven moment. And As For Me is an intimistic vocal/keys tune, much more original is Where Are You Now, a Peter Hammill-like vocal/piano melody with a moody feel to it, preparing the listener for the "grand" finale (and the happy ending) Daddy Can We Talk?: sung by Erika (the daughter), the vocals and piano bring a strong Renaissance (the band!) feeling, although at this point we can recognize Mark's original piano lines; this is one of the most "classic prog" songs of the album, with a Brian May-ish electric guitar adding a Queen touch to it. The fast solo is perhaps more in the vein of Dream Theater's John Petrucci. The end section, with the return of Dennis' vocals is highly emotional, a worth conclusion of this musical journey.
The only thing I need to add is that all the resemblances I noticed are merely a way to make description easier, the originality of this work is the same, for example, of Coda's "What a Symphony", that is a way to be progressive without necessarily recurring to 70's patterns or clichés. The length of the opera means that a higher level of attention is required to fully appreciate it, and a certain number of listenings are needed not to lose themselves in these 2 hours and more of music, although the several theme reprises help in this sense.
I recommend this album not only to prog-freaks, it can surely be appreciated by all clever-rock listeners!