Art By Machinery
Arti & Mestieri
Ash Ra Tempel
Ashcroft & Bacon
The Akallabeth (2009, 66.29) **½/T½
|Gift of Love
The Shade of Numenor
See Myself in You
Rings of Power
Raise the Sword
The Faithful and the Faithless One
|Red Clouds War
The Downfallen: 39 Days of Madness
Archangel are the creation of Gabriele Manzini, ex-The Watch and Ubi Maior, whose debut album, The Akallabeth, is a prog-metal concept effort based on Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Are you running away screaming yet? If not, why not? It's a pompous, overblown, deeply unoriginal monstrosity of an album, guaranteed to sell to Ayreon and Lana Lane fans, or anyone who doesn't start crying when the phrase 'rock opera' enters the conversation. I suppose it's possible this could've been reasonable, but only if its considerable excesses were heavily trimmed and Manzini could compose a few decent melodies. Although the album features several guest vocalists, the vocals are, frankly, terrible, whoever's singing; not actually tuneless, but certainly toneless, in a portentous, declamatory kind of way that sets the teeth on edge.
Manzini plays Mellotron, amongst other keys and 'stun guitar', proving his Blue Öyster Cult fandom, which puts him into Planet Mellotron's good books on that front, at least. However, said 'Mellotron' is kept low in the mix, for the very good reason that, along with much of the other 'vintage' gear onboard, some of it's almost certainly sampled, so at least he's had the good sense not to push it too high in the mix. However, the strings on Power Within, The Faithful And The Faithless One and Red Clouds War have that certain something that's only possessed by a real Mellotron, although the choirs throughout are muffled and distant-sounding (Mellotron choirs sample notoriously badly). Maybe the available Mellotron has no choirs on its tape-frame?
So; overblown prog-metal rock opera. Help! Some of you will go for this, though, and good luck to you. I find it almost unlistenable, but maybe that's just my '70s-attuned ears having trouble with modern sounds/concepts/production techniques. Or maybe it's shit. I dunno. I can't see myself playing this again for, well, quite some time, which may well be a euphemism for 'never'.
See: The Watch
Bloom (1996, 40.25) ***/T½
|Sweet Little Truth
One More Good Night With the Boys
I Like it So
Breaking My Back
I Would Love to Be Right
You Made a Fool of Me
Give in With Grace
In Your Garden
Tasmin Archer hails from Bradford, rarely regarded as one of the finer places to live in our small island (sorry, Bradfordians) and even more rarely recognised as a hotbed of musical talent. Archer is actually a fine singer-songwriter, even if her second album, 1996's Bloom, has something of a pop tinge about it. It's one of those middling kind of albums, where every now and again it grabs your attention (a hook, a witty lyric) before letting it go again.
Producer Mitchell Froom plays Mellotron, with a strong string part on opener Sweet Little Truth and an uncredited one on Give In With Grace, although Froom is credited with 'keyboards' on the track. So; not a bad album of its type, if a little unexciting, with a couple of 'Tron tracks. Good God, call that a review??
Lights (2006, 62.02) ***/TTT
Sit Back Down
I Will Fade
Taste of Blood
Archive formed in the mid-'90s, working their way through a succession of vocalists over the ensuing decade or so. They started off as a Massive Attack-style trip-hop outfit, elements of that style staying with them to the present day, adding in generic indie and electronica along the way. 2006's Lights is their fifth album, and could almost (but only almost) have 'progressive' added in as an influence, especially on the 18-minute title track. But is it any good? Matter of opinion I suppose, like everything, really. It seems to do what it does well enough, but I rather suspect you'll have to be a fan of the style to get very much out of this album.
Mellotron on several tracks from noted owner and Rick Wakeman/Take That bassist and all-round nice guy Lee Pomeroy, with strings on Sit Back Down, Veins and Headlights, plus shedloads of choir and strings on the title track, particularly towards the end. Dense, murky choirs on Black and more strings on Taste Of Blood make for a reasonably satisfying 'Tron album, rather unexpectedly, as until I saw Lee was involved, I'd assumed sample use.
Arena (UK) see:
Argent (UK) see:
We Are the Ark (2000, 47.24) ***½/T
|Hey Modern Days
It Takes a Fool to Remain Sane
Ain't Too Proud to Bow
Let Your Body Decide
|This Sad Bouquet
You, Who Stole My Solitude
In Lust We Trust (2002, 44.09) ***½/½
|Beauty is the Beast
Father of a Son
Tell Me This Night is Over
Calleth You, Cometh I
A Virgin Like You
Tired of Being an Object?
2000 Light-Years of Darkness
The Most Radical Thing to Do
The Ark are a difficult one to categorise, to be honest; usually referred to as 'glam rock', this seems to refer more to their chosen mode of dress than their music, although I can see where that description's coming from. Going by the two albums I've heard, they bear comparison with Mott the Hoople, another 'glam' act who were so much more than that. Basically, we're talking tuneful, literate pop/rock with a glammy edge, with lyrics that tackle uncomfortable subjects and tunes that stick in your head without the crassness of most modern 'commercial' stuff. Somehow or other, these guys actually played Sweden's 2007 Eurovision entry, although they failed dismally...
Their debut, 2000's We Are the Ark, sets their stall out nicely with memorable material like the (very) slightly Bowie-esque Hey Modern Days, the near-electropop of You, Who Stole My Solitude with its insanely catchy synth coda and the sleazy piano ballad Bottleneck Barbiturate. Vocalist/bandleader Ola Salo plays Mellotron on Joy Surrender, with strings all over the thing which are cranky enough to possibly even be real.
Two years on, and In Lust We Trust repeats the formula, with highlights including the controversial Father Of A Son, the chugging Calleth You, Cometh I and more Bowie-isms on Tired Of Being An Object? Calleth You, Cometh I features some rather grungy 'Tron strings that may well be sampled, apparently from Peter Kvint, but nothing you can't live without. I've seen references to 'Tron use on 2000 Light-Years Of Darkness, but it sounds like real strings to my ears.
So; a current band playing music inspired by the best of the early-'70s UK glam scene, who actually know how to write a tune or three. These are essentially fun albums that should probably be played in your car with the top down; not that many people bother with them here, 'cos you'd get wet, but you know what I mean. Not a lot of Mellotron, but these albums' charms lie elsewhere.
Arsnova (Japan) see:
Supernatural Fairy Tales (1967, 37.06) ***½/½
|I Think I'm Going Weird
What's That Sound (For What it's
Room With a View
Supernatural Fairy Tale
Love Is Real
|Come on Up
Brothers Dads and Mothers
Talkin' to Myself
Alive Not Dead
Rome Take Away Three
Art were essentially precursors to the ever-changing Spooky Tooth, sans Gary Wright, but they seem to do just fine without him, thanks very much. It's been pointed out that it's actually exceedingly heavy for the time, with Luther Grosvenor (later of Mott the Hoople, of course) seriously overdoing the fuzz-guitar on most tracks; this is well ahead of the first Yes album. The songwriting is pretty typical 'it's the Summer Of Love, maaan' stuff, although somehow... nastier, including a cover of Buffalo Springfield's cynical For What It's Worth, retitled What's That Sound, although they'd probably have been better off sticking to their own material, to be honest. I Think I'm Going Weird opens like The Who on steroids (!), and the title track rocks like a bastard, as does Come On Up, so don't expect too much 'hello trees, hello flowers' stuff here...
Only one 'Tron track, with strings on Supernatural Fairy Tale itself, presumably from Mike Harrison; not the most essential use, but worth hearing if you're going to buy the album anyway. I don't know if the CD is still available, as it came out some years ago and I can't trace a website for the label, but if you see a copy, buy it to hear an undiscovered slice of proto-hard rock psych, well ahead of its time.
See: Spooky Tooth
The World as it is Today (1981, 31.17) ***½/T½
|The Song of Investment Capital Overseas
The Song of the Martyrs
|The Song of the Monopolists
The Song of the Dignity of Labour Under Capital
The Art Bears originally formed as a Henry Cow side-project, named for an abbreviated quote from Jane Ellen Harrison's Ancient Art and Ritual: "...Art bears traces of its collective, social origin". Suitably intellectual and enigmatic, I think, also drily witty. The trio's last album, 1981's The World as it is Today, is difficult to compare to anyone or anything else, frankly. Political avant-progressive? Marxist RIO? A bloody racket? All of the above? Dagmar Krause's most singular vocal style dominates proceedings, which isn't to say Fred Frith's guitar, keyboard and nearly everything else work and Chris Cutler's mad percussives aren't of equal importance. Best track? Funny kind of question to ask, really. Opener The Song Of Investment Capital Overseas, perhaps, or closer ALBION AWAKE!? And most unlistenable? Dagmar's unearthly screams on FREEDOM duke it out with the exceedingly dissonant piano on The Song Of The Dignity Of Labour Under Capital. Call it a draw.
Frith plays Mellotron (as he did on two contemporaneous solo albums), with wonky strings on FREEDOM, more regular ones on (Armed) PEACE and CIVILISATION (plus choirs on the latter?), leaving closer ALBION AWAKE!, with its mental string part as the album's chief Mellotron track, although I suspect the strings on DEMOCRACY are Frith's overdubbed violin and viola. Now, there's something of a story attached to the last-named: The Art Bears were clearly a major influence on Cardiacs, to the point where I have it on excellent authority that ALBION AWAKE!, reversed and heavily amended, is the basis for that band's ever-changing intro tape. This is an album of deeply uneasy listening and is all the better for it; I'm not sure when I'll listen to it next, but that's hardly the point. Music like this needs to exist, if only as an antidote to the vast quantities of shite pushed on us by commercial concerns. Play it to the kind of person that listens to daytime radio.
See: Fred Frith
Deus ex Machina (1995, 50.13) ***/T½
One Inch Closer
Deus ex Machina
Melon (1996, 40.04) **½/½
I Remember California
Art By Machinery were a slightly proggy goth/metal bunch from Norway who released three albums in the mid-'90s, the first of which was Deus ex Machina. It's... a slightly proggy goth/metal album from Norway, actually; most tracks either crunching or etherealing (hey! A new word!) their way through a few minutes of doomy stuff with sub-Jim Morrison vocals - pretty much as you'd expect, then. In fairness, it doesn't offend, but nor does it really impinge itself on the listener at all, which may've been the band's problem. Best track? Deus Ex Machina itself, the one point on the album where they really combine their influences properly and make a genuinely progressive piece of music. Producer Lars Lien (Badger, Dadafon, 3rd & the Mortal) plays Mellotron strings on Junk, Mushroom and the title track, the best use being on the latter, making it easily the most worthwhile thing here.
The band followed up the next year with Melon, but whatever had fuelled their debut was gone, leaving merely a rather empty set of goth/electronica/metal efforts of little substance, with few obvious highpoints, closer Gummy being possibly the best thing here. Lien on Mellotron again, with only a brief string part on I Remember California to relieve the boredom. Given that their albums are clearly long out of print, the band have taken the enlightened step of making two of them available as free downloads from their site; goth types will probably go a bundle on these, so grab 'em while you can. Mellotron? I'm never convinced that Lien's productions use real 'Tron, but what's here is decent enough without ever being in any danger of being outstanding.
Big City Secrets (1997, 55.47) ***/T½
|Big City Secret
Good About Me
Daddy's on Prozac
Crying Like a Man
Bottle of You
Redemption's Son (2002, 73.14) **½/TT½
Honey and the Moon
You Could Be in Jail
I Would Rather Hide
Nation of Slaves
|Buy a Bag
You Are the Dark
In the Night
You've Been Loved
Akron's Joseph Arthur struck lucky when Peter Gabriel's A&R man played him one of Arthur's demos, resulting in him becoming the first American signing to Gabriel's Real World label. His debut album, 1997's Big City Secrets, is a reasonable enough record in a modern singer-songwriter vein, although it starts with some weak (and therefore probably considered 'commercial') material. The songs seem to improve as the album progresses, with Daddy's On Prozac proving to be a highlight, although, overall, the album's overlong, with too many of those 'crescendo' songs for its own good. Mellotronically speaking, Nick Plytas plays a great strings part on Birthday Card, while Simon Edwards adds cellos to Haunted Eyes, with a string part later in the song, heard unaccompanied and in-yer-face at the end.
After 2000's Come to Where I'm From, Arthur's second (and, to date, last) Mellotron album is 2002's Redemption's Son. I'm sorry, but this time round his style merely bores, and what's more, bores for over seventy long, long minutes. OK, it's not actually terrible, but I don't think I'm being unfair in describing it as a somewhat lacklustre release, which could have done with a little less emoting and a little more... mystery. Loads of Mellotron this time round, from Pat Sansone, with strings on the title track, flutes on Honey And The Moon and September Baby, upfront flutes and cellos on I Would Rather Hide (the album's top 'Tron track - spot the key-click) and cellos on Innocent World and You've Been Loved, although little of it's as upfront as on Big City Secrets.
Overall, then, Big City Secrets is better than Redemption's Son, and both have their Mellotronic Moments, but we're not exactly talking the most exciting records you're ever going to hear. Ordinary.
See: Peter Gabriel
Tilt - Immagini per un Orecchio (1974, 36.46) ****½/TTTGravità 9,81
Giro di Valzer per Domani (1975, 44.21) ***½/½
|Valzer per Domani
Nove Luna Prima
Da Nord a Sud
Nove Luna Dopo
Consapevolezza parte 1
Consapevolezza parte 2
One from Scott Hamrick
The Italian progressive rock scene of the 1970s is legendary and was incredibly prolific. There were literally hundreds of bands, many of whom produced albums that were as good as much of what came out of England at the time. However, many of these bands did little to distinguish themselves much from each other - thus creating a fairly homogeneous, but original style of prog rock unique to Italy. While much of this music was of high quality, only a few bands from this scene really stood out due to originality or other exceptional qualities. One of these standout bands was Arti & Mestieri.
This band's first album, which blends symphonic prog and aggressive jazz fusion laced with occasional hints of the avant-garde, put them on a level with the most original and best of their contemporaries. Think of them as a largely instrumental blend of the best of Area and early PFM, add in the supercharged, jaw-droppingly precise jazz drumming of Furio Chirico (formerly of The Trip), and you may have a hint of what to expect on this wonderful album. While Chirico is almost surely the star player of the band, all members give top-notch performances on guitar, violin, saxophone, bass and various keyboards, including ARP synths and Mellotron. These players seemed to thrive on stops, starts and rapid changes in direction. Check out how the band alternates faultlessly between gallops at blazing speed and gentle swing on Articolazioni. Tilt is delicate and mellow one minute, and fiery and muscular the next. All the while, it maintains a polish of professionalism and clarity of vision rarely equalled in Itaprog. This is celebratory, robust music that is rich with emotion as well as technique, but devoid of pretension.
Even though Mellotron is used on every track but one, the Mellotronic content on Tilt is not overwhelming in terms of how much it is used. They didn't slather it on like early King Crimson or Anekdoten. It's just another instrument in the orchestra (the subtitle for this album translates to 'images for an orchestra'). Its string section does provide rather dry sounding chordal backdrop more often than the other keyboards, but it's always in a tasteful, non-gratuitous manner. Mellotron flute makes a very brief appearance on the 13-minute Articolazioni, sounding beautiful and introspective in its usual way. It also appears briefly as a double to the violin melody in Positivo/Negativo. Only Tilt, the odd closer of this album, shows the Mellotron in a more unusual light. This slightly demented sounding reprise of several of the instrumental themes of the album uses random synth blips, multitracked sax and violin playing odd harmonies on top of a bed of rather ominous Mellotron strings. It must be a Cramps label thing, as Area was fond of doing experimental little instrumentals like this at the end of their albums too.
Tilt is probably not a Mellotron classic, but it is a very classic example of the best of Italian prog rock that is made all the better for its Mellotron content. Buy it!
Back to me... I still haven't heard Tilt, but Giro di Valzer per Domani is an energetic, jazz-flavoured prog album, unlike the bulk of the Italian progressive scene of the time. Much of the credited 'Mellotron' is undeniably string synth, making me wonder whether a real 'Tron ever got within spitting distance of this album. I'm assuming the distant strings on Nove Luna Prima are tape-driven, but I wouldn't absolutely swear to it. Incidentally, the CD adds a couple of tracks, inserting them after the original album's fourth track, rather than at the end, as you'd expect.
A revitalised Arti & Mestieri appeared around 2000, though it seems that First Live in Japan (reviewed here) features samples, despite protestations to the contrary. Anyway, Giro di Valzer...'s a good album, but I suspect their debut will blow me away more.
See: Samples | Beppe Crovella | Cantina Sociale | Romantic Warriors | Secret Cinema | Tower
Tradition & Renouveau (1978, 34.29) ****/TT
Quand Je Menais Mes Chevaux Boire
J'ai Mon Ami Sous les Brandebourgs
L'Alouette est sur la Branche
D'ou Venez-Vous Belle
La Petite Hirondelle
Ce Soir Francois Villon
Le Lac d'Argent
Les Landes d'Harou
Asgard (not to be confused with the ropey early-'90s Italian band) were originally a folk trio who released their debut, L'Hirondelle, in 1976, before adding a keyboard player and becoming more progressive. Their second (and seemingly final) album was '78's Tradition & Renouveau (Tradition and Renewal), a beautiful example of what happens when folk musicians play progressive rock and get the balance right. Side one is more acoustic, but on side two they allow Guy Printemps to let rip on the keys, mostly Moog, piano and Mellotron, which he uses with great subtlety, dovetailing nicely with the approach of the rest of the band. Vocals are in French, but as with Gallic folk gods Malicorne, you really shouldn't let this put you off if you don't speak the language.
Despite having a flautist (Bernard Darsh) on board, J'ai Mon Ami Sous Les Brandebourgs definitely features 'Tron flute at points, alongside the real thing, as does Le Lac D'Argent. However, the album's chief 'Tron use is the surprisingly full-on overdubbed strings and choir on La Petite Hirondelle, with more choirs on Ce Soir Francois Villon and closer Les Landes D'Harou, making for what ends up being a pretty reasonable Mellotron Album.
So; recommended, I think. I'll need more time to get to know this album properly (this and about 1000 others), but on a first hearing, it has staying power, and some decent 'Tron to boot. Buy.
Starring Rosi (1972, 34.31) ***/TLaughter Loving
Interplay of Forces
The Fairy Dance
Bring Me Up
My only contact with any of Manuel Göttsching's work before now has been Ashra's decidedly ropey Correlations (see below), so Join Inn and Starring Rosi are absolute revelations. The Mellotron-free Join Inn (***½) consists of two side-long jams, featuring the mercurial Klaus Schulze's drumming on one side, while on Starring Rosi Göttsching uses a different set of musicians, including his girlfriend Rosi Müller, who also guested on Join Inn. Confused? Good. Starring Rosi couldn't be more different to its predecessor, to be honest; it's as if it was recorded by a different band (OK, to an extent it was). It's a mixture of Allman Bros-type jams (!) and a more trippy, typically German style of stoned-out hippy stuff, with the inimitable Rosi, er, 'doing her thing'.
As far as Göttsching's Mellotron work is concerned, there might be something on Schizo, but the only seriously audible use is a nice string part on The Fairy Dance, so don't go splashing out on this on account of its 'Tron use. So; while Starring Rosi is OK, I'd say Join Inn is the noticeably better album, and I'm told that Ash Ra Tempel (as against Ashra) made better albums anyway. Buy according to taste.
Official Ashra site
See: Klaus Schulze | Ashra
Truth: Volume One, Edition One (1974?, 33.13) ½/T½
|Why Me, Lord
Reach Out to Jesus
Jesus Hold My Hand
The Broken Vessel
Didn't He Shine
I Find No Fault in Him
|More About Jesus
We've Come This Far By Faith
Come Holy Spirit
Jesus is Lord of All
Ashcroft & Bacon. Ashcroft & Bacon. Hmmm. So which Ashcroft, precisely, might this be? An immediately recognisable John Ashcroft, as it happens, subsequently Dubya's attorney general in the early 2000s. Yeah, that John Ashcroft. It seems that he and his equally creepy pal Max Bacon formed a 'gospel' (i.e. Christian country) duo during their joint tenures as Missouri state self-appointed 'leaders' of some description in the early '70s, releasing the abominable Truth: Volume One, Edition One around 1974.
So, how bad is it? How bad d'you think it is? It's beyond bad, that's how bad it is. Its least awful moments include the upbeat, banjo-driven Jesus Hold My Hand and Unseen Hand, where the dynamic duo's backing band briefly manage to kick into a decent country-rock groove, but everything else (and, if truth be told, those two as well) is maudlin, mawkish country-CCM slop. Low points? All of it, really, although the repeated title during I Find No Fault In Him's chorus is particularly bad, while the titular clean-cut God-botherers' vocal 'talents' display vastly more enthusiasm than actual skill, with a distinctly cavalier approach to, y'know, pitch.
An unknown (but perfectly competent) musician adds Mellotron to several tracks, almost certainly due to the project's obviously low budget, with strings on Why Me, Lord (good question, good question), The Broken Vessel, Didn't He Shine (particularly Mellotronic on this one) and closer Jesus Is Lord Of All. Does it improve the album? Does it fuck; this actually goes beyond kitsch, into a hitherto unknown dimension of pure, undiluted awfulness, where screaming with laughter is the only relief from the searing pain induced by the 'harmonies', for want of a better word, never mind the lyrics. Actually, I have several better words, but just for once, I shan't use them. Truth is one of a handful of albums on this site to earn the coveted 'half star' award, for albums so utterly godawful that beating one's head against a brick wall until oblivion is attained seems like a good idea in comparison. To be honest, I go into 'the zone' while listening to albums this bad, where disbelief is suspended, taste is revoked and normal rules don't apply. Good job, really. Oh, and the Mellotron use is actually pretty decent, all things considered.
Alone With Everybody (2000, 59.52) ***/T
|A Song for the Lovers
I Get My Beat
Brave New World
You on My Mind in My Sleep
On a Beach
Money to Burn
|Slow Was My Heart
C'mon People (We're Making it Now)
After The Verve imploded in the late '90s, various members went various ways; vocalist Ashcroft elected to record Alone With Everybody, producing what I suppose could be called a modern singer-songwriter album; largely mid-paced, plenty of acoustic guitar, pedal steel (B.J. Cole, of course), real strings - you get the idea. There are the requisite number of tracks with programmed percussion to keep radio programmers happy, and Ashcroft's voice veers between 'sensitive' and a more macho style, particularly on the upbeat New York. This is the sort of album that fulsome reviewers often describe as having a 'lambent beauty' or somesuch; I'm afraid that to my ears it's just plain dull, but then what do I know? You may have gathered by now that I'm not wild about this sort of stuff, but it's done well enough that I can't find it in myself to give it a real slagging.
There are plenty of 'real' instruments on display, along with the programmed stuff, including an all-too brief Hammond part by Chuck Leavell on You On My Mind In My Sleep. Ashcroft plays Mellotron on two tracks: Slow Was My Heart is a balladic number with a little 'Tron flute near the beginning, though I can't tell whether the strings later in the song are real or 'Tron. Everybody is another mid-paced effort, and this time the strings are definitely 'Tron-produced, along with some more flutes. Like the rest of the album, the Mellotron parts are decidedly average without actually being bad, so I find it difficult to recommend this on any grounds, really, unless you're a Verve fan, in which case you've probably got it already.
See: The Verve