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Concept Album

NEAL SMITH: KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE

(KACHINA RECORDS; 2014)

GreenfireEmpire-Front

As I’ve undoubtedly mentioned elsewhere, anyone who has read any of the various publications that I’ve been involved with over the past twenty years, knows that I am a huge Alice Cooper fan; anyone who has known me personally for the past 42 years (give or take), knows that I have a particularly soft spot for the band, especially drummer Neal Smith. I own a copy of virtually every recorded project that Neal has been a part of. Most recently, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame drummer (class of 2011) has recorded the KILLSMITH trilogy, including the slutty KILLSMITH: SEXUAL SAVIOR (2008), the slightly more approachable KILLSMITH TWO (2011) and the final installment, the brand-spankingly new, progressive-leaning (in a totally non-political, musical sense) rock opera, KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE. The album shows an amazing growth in the writing and arrangement skills of the solo Neal Smith entity, with keyboards, ballads and even a Christmas-themed tune to close the proceedings. Neal has expanded his own instrumental involvement on these albums, too, adding guitar and keyboards to his standard repertoire of percussion instruments and vocals.

Neal Smith's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)
Neal Smith’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech, flanked by Michael Bruce, Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway, 2011 (uncredited photo)

Blessings and Curses” introduces the character of Diablos, the Emerald King, a South American drug lord from lowly beginnings who discovers an ancient drug known as GreenFire, as deadly as it is addictive. The song itself is full-on Alice Cooper, Billion Dollar Babies (the band), PLATINUM GOD down and dirty rock ‘n’ roll. Neal’s gravel-throated voice has aged quite well over the course of his solo career and, of course, he is THE man as far as rock drummers go. The guitars (Doug Wahlberg on lead and Smith on rhythm) definitely have that old Buxton/Bruce fire that made those original seven Alice Cooper records so great. Neal steps out of the spotlight for “Good Morning Blue Soul Land,” casting Hubert Martin, of the What Up Funk Band, in the lead as a ’30s crooner. The track is a very cool and unexpected divergence from the hard rock that the boys from Alice Cooper are best known for; think “Crazy Little Child” (from MUSCLE OF LOVE) without all the crime and death. It has it all: A bluesy tack piano (courtesy of Pete “Keys” Hickey), some doo-wop style vocal backing and a snaky Joe Meo sax part that comes in for the last minute or so. “Screaming Bloody Murder” features a chiming, piercing Wahlberg lead, a direct contrast to the heavy, pounding drums and dark subject matter, with a chorus of “Screaming bloody murder/It was a murder, murder Christmas/Screaming bloody murder/For Christmas.” The song ends with Neal intoning those famous words of ol’ Saint Nick himself (well, kinda): “Merry Christmas to all and to all, a deadly night.” Listen for a wonderfully sloppy solo (Wahlberg again) as it slices and dices its way through the bridge.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)
Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

With “The KillSmith Overture,” Neal shows his guitar-slinging chops with a reverb-drenched intro that also features some very cool flamenco guitar from Mister Hickey, who also adds some very progressive sounding synthesizer parts. Neal provides the castanets and Lady Elizabeth Dellinger (of the upstart soul/jazz conglomerate Snooty Garland) offers a dream-like vocal intonation, somewhere between humming and scatting. There are points where the cut almost has the feel of a field recording, with wind, thunder and rain intermingling with the music. This is definitely one of the more effective pieces on the album. The showers that end “The KillSmith Overture” bring new life on “Palacio de Esmeraldas,” with birds, frogs and crickets all chirping away. Despite the exotic name, the song is far less Latin sounding than the previous track; there’s a distinct Blue Oyster Cult vibe, with tales of a lost South American treasure, voodoo spells and zombie slaves. Neal’s vocal growl is back out front, with his heavy, chunky rhythm guitar and rock-steady drumming driving the tune. And, lest we forget, there’s another great solo from Wahlberg. “Greenfire Born of Poison” is total ’90s hair metal bombast, with absolutely brilliant soloing from Doug and Kevin Franklin (on loan, like Hubert Martin, from the What Up Funk Band)… think of a heavier version of Damn Yankees. The tune features a typical Alice Cooper meltdown at the end, as everything collapses in on itself.

Neal Smith (uncredited photo)
Neal Smith (uncredited photo)

Gigantic, Leslie West worthy power chords open “I Want Money” before Smith’s massive drum sound comes in; Lady Elizabeth is back on vocals, dueting with a slightly subdued Neal. Pete Hickey’s synth is featured more prominently here, with a weirdly effective solo dropped in mid-song. This tune is where we learn the Emerald King’s true motives behind the decisions he’s made in his life: “I Want Money.” On “Pandemonium,” the frantic drums, frenzied feedback-heavy guitars (this time, with leads by Rick Tedesco), and heavily processed vocals really do have the sound of the number’s title; sound effects and a crazed, backward Tedesco solo add to the vibe. Even though we haven’t called his name yet, the bass work of Peter Catucci (who has become Neal’s rhythm section partner of choice, as Dennis Dunaway has increasingly busied himself with other projects) is the rock that anchors the groove here and throughout the record; the bass/drum interplay – especially here – actually rivals that of Dunaway/Smith… no small feat.

Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)
Neal Smith with Alice Cooper and Dennis Dunaway at Rock and Roll Hall of Fame rehearsals, 2011 (uncredited photo)

A beautiful acoustic guitar from Tedesco opens “I Remember Blue Soul Land,” with a much more subdued Smith vocal (showing that his voice is much more than the growl we are most familiar with… the guy can actually SING!) and Hickey’s piano adding to the overall balladic sense of the song. As the drums, bass and electric guitars are introduced, the track takes on more of a metal power ballad feel; the number really takes a stratospheric leap with the introduction of a choir (compliments of a synthesizer, perhaps?), led by Catucci’s solo voice as a counter to Neal’s lead and a Wahlberg guitar solo that’s definitely worthy of the great Dick Wagner/Steve Hunter tandem from Alice’s early solo career. “Death To the King” is a kind of slow blues with Lady Elizabeth again sharing vocal duties with Smith; while Neal sings, “Hail to the king,” Lady E counters with “Death to the king.” This is the song where Diablos gets his just desserts, as a vengeful “subject,” KillSmith, takes revenge for the death of his wife, Noelle. Aside from a great Joe Meo sax line weaving in and out of the mix, this is a classic type of early ’90s HEADBANGERS’ BALL tune, with power chords, sound effects and keyboards aplenty. All in all, a catchy little number. I went to great extremes to tell you the name of the wife from the last cut because it directly relates to the final piece of the album, the Christmas song, “Noelle No Wonder.” It would appear that Neal really was paying attention to those first two or three solo outings from Alice, as he softens the feel with an orchestra (synthesizers again), a very nice piano lead by Pete Hickey and not a lot else… except, of course, those drums! I think that Neal’s decision to feature Peter Catucci as the lone vocalist was brilliant, as Peter delivers one of the greatest performances you’re likely to hear on a Christmas song this year. Billion Dollar Babies could have rode this one to the top of the charts about 35 years ago, though I’m not sure that Michael Bruce could have done it justice, vocally.

KILLSMITH AND THE GREENFIRE EMPIRE is available at nealsmithrocks.com, in CD and digital versions. Neal has also written a story of the exploits of KillSmith, available in a limited edition 30 page book that also includes the CD version of the album; he personally autographs each copy of either version of the CD purchased from his site.

IAN ANDERSON: HOMO ERRATICUS

(CALLIANDRA RECORDS/KSCOPE MUSIC; 2014)

Ian_Anderson_Homo_Erraticus_Packshot_Large

Like that dotty old aunt that just refuses to go away, since the apparent demise of Jethro Tull, the band he’s fronted since 1967, our Mister Anderson has been a very busy lad (and clever, as well), releasing two albums in less than two years and launching at least a pair of world tours with another currently underway (for full details, go here: jethrotull.com/tour-dates/). The first album, a sequel to Tull’s 1972 opus, THICK AS A BRICK, rather ingeniously titled THICK AS A BRICK 2 (or, for the acronymically advanced among us, TAAB2), prompted a solid round of touring, occasionally featuring a Jethro Tull Favorites set but – more often – a performance of the original TAAB album followed by the playing of TAAB2 (with an intermission between… our hero is, after all, no longer as spry a fellow as when this game was begun – but, then, who among us is?). The maestro absconded from the band he created with two then-current members, adding three new names to the credits section. This is the apt and able crew that toured with Ian on his most recent stage jaunts and who are here returned to the studio for the recording (and subsequent release) of HOMO ERRATICUS, a collection of tunes written by the man himself and the fictional wunderkind protagonist of the TAAB albums, Gerald Bostock.

Ian Anderson (publicity photo)
Ian Anderson (publicity photo)

As our boy Ian (with a sparse few exceptions) was the primary songwriting force in his previous engagement, it is no surprise that – but for the name on the label – this HOMO ERRATICUS could, in fact, be another installment of the Tull canon. Don’t think of this statement as a condemnation; it isn’t, just an observation. Besides, writing with a fictional entity about a non-existent tome written by an equally non-existent historian seems to have endowed the “laird of the manor” with a renewed vigor for the process. There hasn’t been a Tull record this well thought out and featuring such a strong set of songs from bow to stern since CREST OF A KNAVE (for which, no doubt in an effort to prove the point, they won a Grammy for Best Heavy Metal Performance). So, the premise – and there’s always a premise – of this newest of Mister Anderson’s recorded output is this: After a trip to Mathew Bunter’s Old Library Bookshop in Linwell, Gerald Bostock comes across a dusty, unpublished manuscript, written by local amateur historian Ernest T Parritt. The book is entitled “Homo Britanicus Erraticus.” Two years prior to his demise (the Year of Our Lord, 1926), Mister Parritt, after a fall from his horse during a hunt, “awoke with the overwhelming conviction of having enjoyed past lives as historical characters: a pre-history nomadic neolithic settler(“Doggerland”), an Iron Age blacksmith (“Heavy Metals”), a Saxon invader (“Enter the Uninvited”), a Christian monk (“Puer Ferox Adventus”), a Seventeenth Century grammar school boy (“Meliora Sequamur”), turnpike innkeeper(“The Turnpike Inn”), one of Brunel’s railroad engineers (“The Engineer”), and even Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria (“The Pax Britannica”). These past lives are revealed through the first portion of the album, subtitled “CHRONICLES.” The endangered Parritt’s delusions also extended to his prophesying events yet to come (the second part, “PROPHECIES”) and the fanciful possibilities of future Parritt lives (part the third, “REVELATIONS”). The poet Bostock then took it upon himself to render this Parritt’s lives in a more lyrical fashion. As with his award-winning entry of 42 years previous, the work was introduced to our Ian, who then reworked Mister Bostock’s reworking, adding his own musical flourishes. And, now, the hue and cry is heard the world over (or, at the very least, throughout several large cities in the industrialized nations): “Well, yeah… but is it any good?”

Ian Anderson (Scott Hammond, David Goodier, Ryan O'Donnell, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle, John O'Hara) (photo credit: Carl Glover)
Ian Anderson (Scott Hammond, David Goodier, Ryan O’Donnell, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle, John O’Hara) (photo credit: Carl Glover)

Yes. Yes, it is good. There are several differing versions of the “Ian Anderson sound” (and, by extension, the “Jethro Tull” sound) and most are on display at various junctures, nestled cozily amongst the fifteen tracks here presented. Oddly enough, the Tull-like “Doggerland” also features a very Ken Hensley-an (he of Uriah Heep fame) heavy Hammond organ sound (provided by Tull ex-patriate, John O’Hara) that is not unwelcome. Mister Anderson’s proclivity for Scottish, English and Celtic folk melodies is highlighted on “Heavy Metals,” featuring the hammer and anvil as sole percussive instrument. Two late 1970s and early 1980s Tull offerings, STORMWATCH and A, are evoked on “Enter the Uninvited,” which features a rather lilting, if forceful rhythm. Though the tune is driven more by the keyboards, there are some very nice guitar flourishes (by the aptly titled Florian Opahle), a quite nifty bassline (by another Tull refugee, David Goodier) and, of course, the very essence of Tullitude, the Laird Master Anderson’s unique and masterful excursions on the flute. As befits the song’s title and this particluar imagined pre-life of Mister Parritt, the introduction to “Puer Ferox Adventus” has a very churchy feel, with mantric chants (the Monking around of the clerics, no doubt), leading to remembrance by Brother Parritt before the song becomes a canticle with lyrics that recount the life of Christ as told in the Gospel of Luke. As a counter-balance to the lyrics, the music takes on a much harder edge. The piece is the longest on HOMO ERRATICUS – over seven minutes – and is a solemn, stately affair. If not the centerpiece of the album, it is certainly one of the best of a truly grand offering from Mister Anderson and his musical conspirators. “Meliora Sequamur” continues the Psalmic bent of the previous number, though from a decidedly different point of view. The song is far more pastoral than the previous and introduces the pipe organ and a monastic choir to great effect. Highlighted by a more powerful presence of both organ and bass, “The Turnpike Inn” also features an inventive guitar signature running throughout. There is also a very nice flute chart and just a hint of accordion bleeding through toward the end of the piece. The subject matter (Parritt, the Engine Driver) of “The Engineer” demands and receives a heavier, virtually metallic sounding guitar part over what is, essentially, a Celtic folk tune. The dichotomy, which should be quite jarring, is actually an asset. The final piece of “CHRONICLES” is one of those Ian Anderson specialties, where our man Ian experiments with the number of syllables that can be comfortably fit into a standard four bar blues. Bassist Goodier and percussionist Scott Hammond drive “The Pax Britannica,” with minimal obstruction from other instrumentation, outside the Laird’s flute and rather unobtrusive work from Opahle’s guitar and O’Hara’s keyboards. Lurking somewhere around the edges, I’m sure, is the vocalist Ryan O’Donnell.

Ian Anderson (Ryan O'Donnell, David Goodier, Scott Hammond, Ian Anderson, John O'Hara, Florian Opahle) (photo credit: ALEX PAVLOU)
Ian Anderson (Ryan O’Donnell, David Goodier, Scott Hammond, Ian Anderson, John O’Hara, Florian Opahle) (photo credit: ALEX PAVLOU)

The next three numbers encompass Parritt’s “PROPHECIES,” beginning with “Tripudium Ad Bellum,” an instrumental that is very reminiscent of the early (as in, Mick Abrahams early) progressive Blues of Jethro Tull. There is a certain jazzy feel to the near-apocalyptic proceedings as England (and, indeed, the world) is off to war, with the improvisational bon vivant himself, Ian, providing the lead instrument via the flute. “After These Wars” is an extension of the previous song, featuring many of the same musical themes. The setting is now a post World War II England, where the rebuilding of a continent has seen many a miraculous discovery (including television). The number has the lilt and bent of a folk song, but the muscular bass work and power-chording guitar (and subsequent solo) belie that folkiness. Skipping ahead ten years or so, “New Blood, Old Veins” finds a more stable, more adventurous England spreading wings and taking flight to discover the world about them, while inextricably moving toward a new “English Invasion” spearheaded by four fabulous minstrels, Liverpudlians by birth. Again, the themes of “Tripudium Ad Bellum” repeats here, with the jazzier aspects of Mister Anderson’s flute; the new elements introduced in “After These Wars” are also present, with forceful guitar work and a powerful rhythm section, highlighted by a slightly menacing organ. Whatever his presumed mental status, this imagined Parritt fairly well hit a nail or two rather solidly with his “PROPHECIES.”

Ian Anderson (seated: David Goodier, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle; standing: Scott Hammond, Ryan O'Donnell, John O'Hara) (photo credit: CARL GLOVER)
Ian Anderson (seated: David Goodier, Ian Anderson, Florian Opahle; standing: Scott Hammond, Ryan O’Donnell, John O’Hara) (photo credit: CARL GLOVER)

As far as Parritt’s “REVELATIONS” go, the first two seem to be spot on, as they depict “future” occurrences from 2013 and 2014. For a gentleman that never existed, his fictional fortune-telling was on a par with Nostradamus or HG Wells. “In For a Pound” is, one supposes, the love story of HOMO ERRATICUS; it’s all our man, Ian, performing vocally and joining himself on the acoustic guitar with everything fitting in rather nicely at just over half a minute (proving, in fact, that love is fleeting). The problem of ever-widening urban sprawl amid growing societal and economic discord is addressed in “The Browning of the Green.” As more and more city-dwellers seek to “get back to the country,” they unfortunately drag all of the “comforts of home” with them, despoiling every acre of the idyllic rural landscape. The music has an edginess about it, not quite heavy metal but definitely leaning in that direction. Looking into our future another ten years, Parritt has a message from the stars: “We don’t like your kind ’round here, Earthman!” The spoken word piece is called “Per Errationes Ad Astra.” The final of Parritt’s “REVELATIONS” and the final musical offering is called “Cold Dead Reckoning.” The song leaps ahead another twenty years (to the year 2044) and foretells of the ultimate demise of the crumbling society of man and an eventual rebirth of humanity and spirituality, all to a pounding beat. About ten years ago (uh… from present day… that would be 2004), there was a television series called THE 4400, a science-fiction tale with very similar aspects to “Cold Dead Reckoning.” I mention this not only because of the similarities in theme, but also because, somehow, the melody of the song reminds me of the series’ theme song. Coincidence or… did our nonexistent Parritt have something to do with it? As he’s been gone these 86 years (longer, if you consider his fabricated existence), we may never know. The only certainty regarding his writings and the reworking there-of by the equally mythical Gerald Bostock – and by extension, their collaboration with Ian Anderson and his musical minions (who, I am told, are quite real) – they most assuredly make for an enjoyable listen! In fact, this HOMO ERRATICUS is the best music to come from the Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull camp since CATFISH RISING, more than 20 years ago. (There are several versions of HOMO ERRATICUS to choose from: a standard CD version, a CD/DVD version, a 2-CD/2-DVD version with a hardback book, a downloadable version at iTunes, and a double set of glorious vinyl… choose wisely! Going here: www.kscopemusic.com/ can help.)

OUR LAST ENEMY: PARIAH

(ECLIPSE RECORDS; 2014)

Our Last Enemy album

I gotta be honest here, boys and girls: I have not listened to industrial metal since… oh… the late 1990s or there-abouts, when Fear Factory was tearing it up, in the studio and on the road. Having said that, I gotta be honest about something else: I absolutely love Our Last Enemy’s new album! Now, I don’t know how much this has to do with my liking the record so much, but it is produced by former Fear Factory bassist Christian Olde Wolbers. There are FF references and head-nods (head-bangs?) aplenty, alongside healthy dollops of Type O Negative, Black Sabbath, Ministry, Korn, Alice Cooper and Zakk Wylde’s Black Label Society. That, of course, means that aside from the full-throated growls of Oliver Fogwell (how apt a name is that?) and Matt Heywood and the down-tuned guitars of Bizz Bernius (of Genitorturers fame), there is plenty of metal, hard rock and just plain ol’ rock tossed into the mix to make things truly interesting.

Our Last Enemy, 2013 (publicity photo)
Our Last Enemy, 2013 (publicity photo)

PARIAH is a loose fitting concept album. The “Pariah” is a poor soul who somehow finds himself reborn at the center of great upheavals throughout history, sometimes as a mere witness, other times as the epicenter of whatever crisis happens to be unfolding. This chaotic theme is played out very well – musically and lyrically – by the apocalyptic Australians. For 13 tracks (and three remixes… of which, more later) the often crushing musical feel compounds the sense of misery (and hope for redemption) related in the lyrics. So, let’s take a look at the high points of a very fulfilling album, shall we? The first few tracks are standard industrial metal, but gain points for a few things. “Devour the Sun” is basic pummel-you-into-submission metal with some very cool “horror movie” keyboard accents. The glass-gargling vocals take some getting used to but, by the end of the track, you can tell that they are a major asset to the ongoing success of this band. By the second tune, “Wolves of Perigord,” the concept emerges, full-blown. This song, in particular, showcases the percussive side of Our Last Enemy. Seemingly every instrument – including the guitars – is used as a percussion instrument. Drummer Zot Cillia thunders his way through the track, as he does throughout the disc. The music kinda takes a back seat as the vocals move the story along on the lyric heavy “10.000 Headless Horses.” A creepy, atmospheric video for the tune has been produced by the Blackley Brothers (check it out below). Some biting guitar jabs open up the instrumentation on “Internus Diablos Verni,” giving the song the feel of a heavier Guns ‘n’ Roses. The whole vibe, however, is sorta reminiscent of Black Sabbath… without sounding anything like them. A kinda stun guitar sound (rather like Zakk Wylde) gives “Low” an odd hair band air to it. As always, the vocals and keyboards (provided by Jeff Ritchie) are exceptionally spot on. “Carrion” has a funky sort of Red Hot Chili Peppers thing happening at the start and introduces a synth pattern that wouldn’t have been out of place in Gary Numan’s “Cars.” The pace, quality, and diversity of the music continues to pick up.

The Fear Factory factor comes into play on “Pariah BC,” which also features a disjointed vocal melody that reminds one of Alice Cooper’s late ’80s/early ’90s work (“Poison,” anyone?). There’s more Fear Factory comparisons on “Don’t Look Now,” as Fogwell vocally channels Burton C Bell. The rest of the band adopt a cool Deftones stance. “Pariah AD” is all Type O Negative/Black Sabbath gloomy, doomy stuff… which is awesome! An added bonus is the guitar solo, with a lot of single, bent notes that sounds a lot like “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” from the Coops. “Decoy” is, quite simply, heavy, abusive and stifling. There’s an awesome groove to “What You Say,” with synched melodies from guitar and voice. It also has that big, chanting monks sound that Sabbath used to great effect on more than one occasion. “Ants In the Farm” starts with a nifty, spongy sounding bass line and evolves (de-evolves?) into another FF-like song, with heavy doses of Korn tossed in. The boys saved the best for last. “Into the Light,” with its atmospheric, mostly whispered lyrics (’til at least mid-song). It also features a great, reverb-drenched guitar coda, adding to the funeral dirge menace. Bizz’ guitar takes an exceptionally cool hard rock turn toward the end of the song, echoing to a great sounding piano outro (as these types of songs often do).

Our Last Enemy, 2014 (publicity photo)
Our Last Enemy, 2014 (publicity photo)

And, there you have it… a feast for metal-heads and industrialists the world over. Well… except for… the three “bonus” tracks. Anybody who has ever read one of my reviews over the last 20 years will know that I am not a fan of remixes. Especially remixes of brand new songs. I’m one of those hard-headed people who thinks that if you liked the original version well enough to release it, why mess with it? Anyway, the remixes are for “Internus Diablos Verni” (by Mortiis… I actually kinda like it), “Devour the Sun” (by Angel from Dope Team Cybergeist… uh… yeah… not so much) and “Pariah AD” (by Divine Heresy’s Travis Neal, it’s called a “Karloff Mix” and plays up the horror movie keyboards… I guess it’s okay but… it’s still a remix, right?). For me, that makes 13 (the originals) up and three down (the remixes) but, I guess, if you are into remixes, then that truly is a bonus for you.

THOUGHT CHAMBER: PSYKERION

(INSIDE OUT MUSIC; 2013)

Thought Chamber album

Guitarist Michael Harris and vocalist Ted Leonard (of Spock’s Beard, Enchant and Affector fame) are big-brain, virtuoso musicians. Leonard and Harris asked other big-brain, virtuoso musicians (Mike Haid, who has played with David Chastain and with Harris on his solo projects; Bill Jenkins, Leonard’s bandmate in Enchant; Jeff Plant, session musician extraordinaire) to join them for this, their second album under the Thought Chamber banner. The album, PSYKERION, is what happens when big-brain, virtuoso musicians get together. A word of advice: I suggest you don protective gear before entering into this piece of sonic sci-fi bliss. This just may be the single most enjoyable piece of progressive rock to come along in the past year!

Though Chamber (publicity photo)
Though Chamber (publicity photo)

Obviously, in a genre steeped in legendary performances and performers, there are going to be comparisons. Likewise, studying the pedigrees of the players here, we cannot help but compare Thought Chamber to their other projects – especially Spock’s Beard. Those comparisons come fast and furious from the first few seconds of the first track but, they are only comparisons, as this music is utterly unique to this group of musicians. The first thing you’ll notice, as with all great prog rock bands and concept albums, the songs seem to meld into each other (in fact, of the 16 tracks on PSYKERION, only one is a stand-alone piece). The first three tracks are kinda like the overture, introducing themes and concepts that will repeat throughout the record. “Inceptus” sounds like a more progressive Deep Purple, with definite similarities to Ritchie Blackmore’s fleet-fingered fretboard work, as well as Jon Lord’s keyboard mastery. Flipping a coin, so to speak, it’s also rather reminiscent of a heavier Kansas or UK, with its jazzier elements and powerful Terry Bozzio like drumming. The track morphs into “Exodus,” a moody interlude with beefy power chords, lightning-quick soloing and the odd computer “blip.” Ted Leonard makes his first vocal appearance on “Psykerion: The Question.” His voice is what you’d expect – smooth and confident, with a definite touch of Steve Walsh. Harris offers up some cool Zappa-like guitar runs, while an acoustic rhythm part cuts through occasionally. “In the Words of Avakus,” a gentle, Steve Howe type of guitar piece with beautiful keyboard washes and strings, serves as an intro to “Light Year Time,” which turns into full-on Yes overload. The vocal melody and overall vibe is closer to something off the woefully overlooked DRAMA album, with Leonard’s vocals coming off as a cross between Trevor Horn (Yes vocalist during the DRAMA period), Jon Anderson (THE… ) and the schlock-meister general of pomp rock, Dennis DeYoung. Mike Haid’s percussion on the piece is an interesting Bill Bruford style jazz workout, while Haid’s rhythm section co-hort Jeff Plant lays down an equally intriguing bass line. Even though Bill Jenkins drops a few unfortunate DeYoung-like synth farts, the song is still a strong rocker. The single “stand-alone” tune, “Kerakryps,” starts as a funky kinda “Doctor Feelgood” thing before kicking into a jazzy workout, bordering on Emerson, Lake and Palmer style bombast. A closer listen reveals a dollop of Rush influence, as well. A very interesting piece, indeed.

Thought Chamber (uncredited photo)
Thought Chamber (uncredited photo)

The Black Hole Lounge” is a kind of fusion thing, sounding a lot like something that you’d here from Joe Zawinul’s Weather Report if George Benson were playing guitar. It works as the intro to “Circuits of ODD,” a continuation of the fusion feel, but heavier. Haid’s powerful drumming certainly adds to the cool feel of this one. “Behind the Eyes of Ikk” is a big time metal beat down, kicking off the next triptych. It’s like a heavier “Children of the Sun,” with an awesome piano-driven break before a guitar versus keyboard stand off (shoot out?). Harris doesn’t pull any punches on this tune. Another gentle Yes type song, of the Howe/Anderson variety, “Isle of Bizen,” features yet another blistering Harris solo and Plant doing his best (and that’s pretty darn good!) Jaco Pastorius imitation. The final piece of the medley, the instrumental “Xyrethius II” has a title that would suggest a Rush vibe. It really reminds me of a keyboard driven something that Gregg Giuffria might have produced with one of his mid-’80s-early-’90s groups (Giuffria and House of Lords). Much like the very best Dream Theater, “Recoil” is almost suffocatingly heavy and leads into “Breath of Life,” which finds us returning to the Kansas comparisons, with a solid organ riff and slightly religious/metaphysical overtones. Those overtones continue with “Transcend.” There’s more Steve Howe comparisons, though maybe from his Asia work, while Plant ups his Jaco imitation to a solid Chris Squire sound. There are two separate break-downs, the first is jazzy and a little bit funky; the second is heavy and more progressive sounding. From “Transcend,” we move to “Planet Qwinkle,” which sounds like Keith Emerson and Robert Fripp dueling for supremacy in the Prog Rock Olympics, as Jenkins and Harris push each other to ever greater heights. Leonard brings another Steve Walsh-worthy performance on the album closer, “Inner Peace.” Jeff Plant finishes strong with a great, upfront bass performance.

Now, I know that I may get grief for the continual comparisons to other groups but, when you’re working with five decades of great music, it is really hard not to find those similarities. That in no way diminishes the talents of the five gentlemen of Thought Chamber and the powerful performances found on PSYKERION, which may, in fact, be the best progressive records in the past year.

SCYTHIA: …OF CONQUEST

(SELF-RELEASED; 2014)

Of Conquest Art

Canadian metal-merchants Scythia’s third full-length album (and fifth release overall, including a Christmas single called – what else? – …OF SANTA) is an impressive display of power, melding progressive metal with ancient folk balladry and a medieval Dio-like mysticism in an hour-long conceptual piece, recalling the nomadic Scythians, a people who, through the second century, inhabited what is now Central Asia. The breadth and scope of this epic piece (the twelve tracks flow seamlessly together) lays out like a latter-day heavy metal primer, touching on everyone from fellow Canuckians Rush to Iron Maiden to Kamelot to Lamb of God and everything from power metal to pagan folk metal to orchestral metal. In other words, if you’re a metal-head, this is the album for you!

Scythia (Dave Khan,Celine Derval, Jeff Black, Terry Savage) (photo credit: CRYSTAL LEE/VANDALA CONCEPTS)
Scythia (Dave Khan,Celine Derval, Jeff Black, Terry Savage) (photo credit: CRYSTAL LEE/VANDALA CONCEPTS)

Fanfare 1516” opens, offering an epic Maiden sound. Dave Khan’s vocals, in particular, brings to mind the powerful voice of Bruce Dickinson. As the first song melds into “Merchant of Sin,” the comparison momentarily shifts to late ’80s/early ’90s Alice Cooper (TRASH and HEY STOOPID) before the progressive power metal evokes the mighty Maiden. Lyrically, a nod to the legendary Ronnie James Dio, as “Bear Claw Tavern” blends a Saga-like pomp rock sound with a cool Irish reel vibe. Bassist Terry Savage adds his harsh vocal delivery to the track, sounding very much like Conrad Lant (better known as the leather-throated Cronos) of famed black thrash metal icons, Venom. There’s a wickedly funny video of the song available at the band’s web-site (www.scythia.ca), proving that, while the music is seriously good, the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously. Later, “Reflections,” again ramps up the pomposity – in a kinda Rush overload – and introduces a female voice to the mix (drummer Celine Derval perhaps, or a guest vocalist?). “The Kraken,” amazingly enough, is heavier than anything yet heard on …OF CONQUEST, with an abundance of power chords and drums that relentlessly pummel your brainpan ’til you’re fairly certain that you can feel gray matter oozing out of your ears. “Into the Storm” follows suit before the folky, Maidenesque “Land of Scythia” brings you back to the ancient, legendary feel of the album. There’s plenty of guitar shredding, harmony work (everything overdubbed by Khan, the only guitarist in Scythia), nice acoustic playing and rhythm work on this record, but for me, the solo on “Land of Scythia” stands out as one of the best. “Wrath of the Ancients” is yet another progressive piece, with definite Kamelot overtones and an acoustic part that reminds me of Ritchie Blackmore’s work with his band, Blackmore’s Night. “Path Through the Labyrinth” is a 13 minute tour-de-force, incorporating every style and genre previously mentioned in this review (and a few others, to boot!), with layers of textured guitars and keyboards (by musical wunderkind, Jeff Black). It may not be the centerpiece of the album (as most longer tunes are), but for pure pomposity, it does have everything that you could possibly want in a metal record. …OF CONQUEST is the kind of record that you can listen to over and over again and evoke a different emotion each time. And, that, good friends, is a good thing!