Jesse Sykes & the Sweet Hereafter
System of a Down
Walking Without Effort (2005, 30.13) ***½/TTTWalking Without Effort Theme
In the Air
As I Go
Above and Beneath
Not Wasting Time
The Atlantic Ocean (2009, 40.28) ***/T½
|The Atlantic Ocean
The Original Thought
Ballad of Old What's His Name
The First Time
Bat Coma Motown
|The End of an Age
A Song for Milton Feher
Richard Swift was briefly a member of US indie types Starflyer 59, playing Mellotron on their 2003 album, Old, before leaving to record his debut solo album, 2005's Walking Without Effort. How to describe this? Melancholy, almost 'old-time' music, maybe, with waltz times abounding, and faint hints of old country here and there, though nowhere near enough to fit this neatly into the 'Americana' bracket, although I can imagine listeners of that style finding things to interest them here.
Since Swift played Mellotron with Starflyer 59, it seems reasonable to suppose he plays it here, too. In places, it's difficult to tell where it's being used; is that muted 'Tron brass on Mexico (1977)? Is it a Chamberlin? Has it anything to do with tape-replay at all? Definite 'Tron or Chamby on several tracks, with muted brass and cellos on Walking Without Effort Theme, strings on In The Air, a poly flute part on Above And Beneath and strings elsewhere, though given the range of sounds used, as with Starflyer 59, I think their veracity is a little suspect. Innocent until proven guilty, though... There's a nice pitchbend up into the strings on Losing Sleep, so maybe I'm wrong? The sustained solo male voices at the end of the album (almost certainly Chamby) seem to go on a while, though I think they're within the eight-second limit. Jury's out.
By 2009's The Atlantic Ocean, Swift's shifted into a kind of quirky singer-songwriter style, mixing folk, indie, big band stylings and synthpop into something that's a lot more interesting than yer usual nonsense, but less likely to sell in any quantity as a result. I can't honestly say this appeals to me very much personally, but at least it's well-crafted and (relatively) original, a quality at a premium in most music (most art forms?) these days. Mellotron from Swift and Pat Sansone, with strings on R.I.P., more obvious ones on Hallelujah, Goodnight! and The First Time, the latter sounding as if it's doubled with a real violin, plus a descending flute line on A Song For Milton Feher
Anyway, a nice album in a melancholy vein, with some decent tape-replay (whether real or not). This only seems to be available with Swift's follow-up, The Novelist, although I suspect the latter is 'Tron/Chamby free.
See: Starflyer 59
Lay Down the Law (2008, 37.25) ***½/½
Snakes and Ladders
Lay Down the Law
The Need to Be Needed
Message From Yuz
Every Second Counts
Stepkids in Love
Going by their third (and last) album, 2008's Lay Down the Law (also the title of their first single, two years earlier), Switches sat in the middle ground between indie, powerpop, Britpop and psych, amongst other related genres. Stuffed with songs of the quality of opener Drama Queen, Coming Down, with its irresistible synth hook, Every Second Counts and Stepkids In Love, the album still managed to fail commercially. Too good, chaps... You didn't dumb down enough, did you?
Vocalist/guitarist Matt Bishop plays Mellotron, with, er, something (distorted flutes?) on The Need To Be Needed and are those single choir notes on Every Second Counts? Anyway, one for those who always thought Supergrass were better than Oasis and melody beats moaning. Sadly, the band have split, but this is still well worth picking up.
Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles (2005, 51.16) ***/T
To All of You
Middle Class Men
Syd Matters (named for a loose cross between The Floyd's Syd Barrett and Roger Waters) are based around Jonathan Morali, a French singer-songwriter who sings in English, also sometimes personally known as his band's name. His/their third album, 2005's Someday We Will Foresee Obstacles, is a perfectly pleasant, folky effort, although few of its songs especially stand out, better tracks including gentle opener City Talks, Flow Backwards and English Way.
Someone irritatingly calling themselves Funky Chicken plays Mellotron, with uncredited flutes on Someday Sometimes, although whatever's credited on the amusingly-titled Watcher (it's a Genesis/Mellotron joke) is inaudible, leading me to think that it's a mis-credit. This is an album that works better as a whole than split into individual tracks, its strength lying in its overall vibe. Don't bother for the Mellotron, though.
Reckless Burning (2002, 42.31) ***½/T½Reckless Burning
Your Side Now
Don't Let Me Go
Drinking With Strangers
Made of Wood
Love Me, Someday
Jesse Sykes plays a particularly spooky kind of alt.country, haunted by the ghosts of failed relationships and death. Her debut album, Reckless Burning is a minor triumph of the genre, filled with mournful songs like the banjo-driven (at 0 m.p.h.) Doralee or Lullaby and an overall 'late-nite' vibe, to use a well-worn cliché. It's one of those albums that's actually going to take more listens than I can currently find time to give it to describe it properly; suffice to say, if you're intrigued by the more downbeat end of the Americana spectrum, you're almost certain to like this.
Steve Moore guests on piano and Mellotron, which sounds more like real strings than tape-replay; are you sure it isn't a Chamberlin? Or samples? Anyway, strings on Lonely Still and strings and flutes on Drinking With Strangers, and while there may be cellos on another song or two, there also may not; it's rather hard to tell. So; a damn' good alt.country/Americana album, some passable though not very 'Tronlike 'Tron work. Your choice.
Sylvia (1976, 35.55) **½/TL.A. Sunshine
You Sure Love to Ball
He Don't Ever Lose His Groove
Next Time That I See You
Standing at the End
I believe 1976's Sylvia was Sylvia van der Pool Robinson's second album, a pretty typical mid-'70s soul/soft funk effort, albeit one with a higher than average synth presence (programmed by none other than Larry Fast) on a few tracks, notably some trademark trills on opener L.A. Sunshine. I've heard worse in this area, although Sylvia's breathy, spoken vocals on the somewhat provocatively-titled You Sure Love To Ball (written by Marvin Gaye, it seems) and Taxi are a bit tedious. At least it doesn't descend into Disco Hell.
It seems that the album's three Chamberlin/synth tracks were recorded at a different studio to the rest of the album, explaining Fast and Brian Cuomo (Fireballet/Intergalactic Touring Band)'s contributions on the same songs. Cuomo played Chamberlin, with nothing audible on L.A. Sunshine, background strings on You Sure Love To Ball and fairly obvious ones on closer Standing At The End, although the rest of the album's strings are real. Sylvia's greatest claim to fame is as founder of New York's Sugarhill Records, early adopters of hip-hop, although I'm sure '70s soul aficionados go nuts over her solo career. Anyway, perfectly acceptable within its genre, but a bit pointless otherwise, with next to no tape-replay work.
Symphonic Slam (1976, 41.32) ***½/T
I Won't Cry
Let it Grow
Times Run Short
How Do You Stand
Symphonic Slam were guitarist Timo Laine's baby, although they're best known for providing Rainbow with their third keyboard player, David Stone. Laine actually lists his main instrument as the '360 Systems polyphonic guitar synthesizer', although guitar synthesis of any sort was a somewhat inexact science in 1976. It's fairly easy to spot where he uses it, as synth lines track the guitar parts (listen to the unaccompanied solo on How Do You Stand), with Stone often being used in a rather background role, which may explain his defection to Blackmore's crew. The band were a trio, with no bass, so although the low frequencies are covered by Stone's keys, the album is rather lacking in the bottom end.
The music's a sort of hard rock/pomp hybrid, with a progressive edge in places, although the sleeve suggests a far proggier proposition. Laine's vocals are in the North American rock'n'roll tradition, which you will probably either love or hate. I know I do. The band sound like they needed to decide which way they were going to go, as Symphonic Slam tries too hard to be all things to all men, with funky clavinet parts one minute (I Won't Cry), and, er, symphonic keys the next (Universe). Actually, the most 'progressive' part of the album is the first three tracks, which segue into a rather good 13-minute piece, after which things go downhill a little, I'm afraid. Stone's Mellotron use is pretty sparse, to be honest; opener Universe has choir and flute parts, with cellos on Everytime, while closer How Do You Stand has some fairly overt choirs, but that appears to be it.
I've seen references to a second Symphonic Slam album, which may have appeared under the name Timo Laine, but I don't seem to be able to trace them at the moment. Symphonic Slam itself is... OK. Nothing spectacular, although the first half of the first side is pretty good, while the Mellotron work is unremarkable, with Laine's guitar synth taking up most of the bandwidth. File under 'also-rans'.
A year or two back, I stated: "Interestingly, it appears that Universe isn't actually Laine's own song, as stated in the credits, as the music's been ripped off hook, line and sinker from Road To Hades, from fellow Canuck Neil Merryweather's Space Rangers album from two years earlier. I don't know if there's an untold story here, or whether Laine just decided to 'borrow' the piece - anyone out there know? (Thanks to Joe Ellis for that one - hi, Joe)." Weeeellll... There certainly is an untold story... I've just been written to by Timo Laine himself, who tells me that he didn't rip off Merryweather - Merryweather ripped him off, and the rest of his band. Laine wrote nearly all the material on the album, but had his writing credits stolen, making him feel more than justified in re-recording his own work! Apologies to all concerned for my inadvertent faux pas, but the story's hardly common currency... Let's hope this mention (and the one I've added to the Merryweather review) help to set the record straight.
See: Neil Merryweather
Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975, 46.46/49.46) ****½/TTTTLegacy
Slaughter on Tenth Avenue
Classical Gas (1975 version)]
Synergy was, and is, Larry Fast's perennial solo electronic music project. Fast has guested with more bands than you can shake a stick at (just off the top of my head, Peter Gabriel, Nektar, FM and the woeful Intergalactic Touring Band), and has been generally regarded as a serious synth-whizz for over 25 years. Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra was the first Synergy album, and possibly the best; all electronic, the writing is excellent, with none of that 'set the sequencers off and noodle over the top' attitude of some of his less illustrious genre-mates. All five tracks are extremely good, but top marks probably have to go to Slaughter On Tenth Avenue for its deeply eccentric main theme, although, to be honest, it's difficult to elevate one track above any of the others.
Fast's entire equipment list for the album consists of a MiniMoog, an Oberheim expander and a Mellotron, which he has subsequently claimed 'was only used on about 6% of the album', to which I say: Rubbish. Its use may be fairly sparse in places, but it's audible on all five tracks, particularly Slaughter On Tenth Avenue, with chordal string and flute parts all over the place. It's less upfront on much of side two, until closer Warriors, with great slabs of strings backing the synths throughout much of the piece. Basically, while you shouldn't expect to hear it throughout, this is definitely a Mellotron Album in the truest sense of the phrase. Buy.
See: Samples etc. | Nektar | Annie Haslam | FM | Intergalactic Touring Band
System of a Down (1998, 40.36) ***/T
Steal This Album! (2002, 43.28) ***½/T
Fuck the System
System of a Down began as an Armenian/American post-thrash outfit, quickly shifting into more interesting territory, to the point where many progressive fans tacitly admit, 'er, they're actually quite good'. Heavily political, in a good, anti-war, left-wing kind of way, the band have written songs about the 1915 Armenian genocide by the Turks, and aren't afraid to tackle issues seemingly considered verboten by 'normal' (i.e. right-wing) society, putting them to music influenced by Black Sabbath, the first wave of thrash bands (Metallica et al.) and, if guitarist Daron Malakian is to be believed, The Beatles.
Their eponymous 1998 debut is an unusually diverse album from a modern metal band, although that's in keeping with their experimental ethos. Surprisingly, even the full-on metal end of their sound (occasional death grunts and all) prove far more listenable than expected, although to call this 'prog' would be pushing it a bit. OK, more than a bit. Anyway, possibly real Mellotron on one track, probably from vocalist Serge Tankian, with a pretty real-sounding strings part on War? that improves an already pretty decent track.
Steal This Album! is their third release, although it consists of leftovers from previous projects, largely album no.2, the previous year's Toxicity. I'm usually allergic to this kind of stop/start metal stuff, but there's hardly anything on the album that made me blanch, proving various friends' points that they're vastly more interesting than yer usual thrash crew, because...? I'm not even sure, but they're very listenable, and don't sing the usual violent crap we've come to expect from the genre. Someone (Tankian?) plays Mellotron on Roulette, a nice little song consisting of woefully out of tune harmony vocals, acoustic guitar and 'Tron cellos, strings and flutes; it appears to be the real deal, too, which is always nice.
So; two surprisingly good albums of varied material with unusual twists and turns for a band often ghettoised as 'metal'; SoaD go way beyond such limitations, and deserve to be heard. Lovely 'Tron on War? and Roulette, too.
See: Scars on Broadway
Limited Addition (1994, 33.20) **½/½Sirènes (Marshall Jefferson mix)
Sirènes (System 7.1)
Sirènes (fire edit)
Coltrane (fire edit)
Alpha Wave (water edit)
Gliding on Duo-Tone Curves (water edit)
'System 7' is the answer to the question, 'what did Steve Hillage do next?' Actually, it isn't exactly; he spent most of the '80s working as a producer, forming his new project with long-term partner Miquette Giraudy in the early '90s, their name probably inspired by Apple's then-current OS. I was bemused at this turn of events at the time, although in retrospect it's blindingly obvious; the whole 'hippy' thing was always about hedonism, really, including ecstatic dancing. How much more ecstatic can it get than the early '90s dance scene?
1994's Limited Addition (ho ho) EP seems to be a variation on that year's Sirènes four-track 12", both containing the same two mixes of the title track before diverging. It's... well, it's trance, I suppose; if you like the style, it seems to typify it, if you don't... Carl Craig plays Mellotron on Sirènes (System 7.1), although were it not credited, you really wouldn't know that the background strings on the track had anything to do with tape-replay.
Overall, one for those into the style; fans of Hillage's excellent late '70s work need not apply, unless they're determined to own everything he's done. Ditto those looking for anything particularly Mellotronic; although this is an early British 'second wave of 'Tron' effort, it really isn't worth the effort.
Demos 1999-2000 (2000, 42.52) ****/TTTUnder Oriental Skies
Breakdance in Hell
Where Titans Sleep
The Boy Who Gazed at Stars
Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies (2004, 74.16) ****½/TTTT½
|Green Miata Baja Bound
The Cool Vibe of Asia C
Four Piece Suit
A Wolf in Sheep's Breeks
Larks Loons in Linen
Solar Flared Trousers
A Lifeboat, Tallulah and Me
|Water Through Fingers
Zero Sum Equation
One Step to Freefall
Last Letters From Stalingrad
Codetalkers (2007, 76.15) ****/TTTT½No Deli in Delhi
Car Crash Messiah
SohCahToa (the Lost Tail-Wagging Dog)
Memory of Ur (Parts 1 and 2)
Berlin Night Express
Red Sun Fading
Systems Theory describe themselves as an 'Internet project', and given that two members live in southern California and the third in Scotland, you can see why. Although they describe themselves as a 'progressive electronic/world music/prog-rock/fusion hybrid', it's fairly safe to say that they effectively fall under the banner of 'electronic music', with other bits thrown in. It seems that British ex-pat Steven Davies-Morris and Greg Amov met at high school in the late '70s, working together on and off over the years, before coalescing into Systems Theory in the late '90s. Mellotron owner Mike Dickson (scourge, or 'official cynic' of Streetly Electronics) came aboard initially as a collaborator, becoming a full member later.
Demos 1999-2000 is exactly what it says on the box, although the hoped-for album following their recording didn't happen. Five instrumental pieces, although I believe some of them were originally intended to be vocal numbers (can't work out how, but there you go). Different feels on each track, with the laid-back yet oddly insistent Under Oriental Skies in stark contrast to the rhythmic Breakdance In Hell, with the highlight possibly being The Boy Who Gazed At Stars. Mike's Mellotron work only features on three tracks, the other two being recorded before his involvement in the project, but what he's done reaches far further than the 'usual suspect' sounds. Incidentally, his actual working methods involve 'doodling' onto tape, which is then sampled and layered onto the tracks where suitable by Steven, although given that the parts were played on a real 'Tron, this shouldn't be regarded as using samples. Anyway, while Breakdance In Hell features some string work, it's mainly characterised by its choirs, while there are more strings on Where Titans Sleep, and 'Tron 'Ian McDonald' flutes at the beginning of Strange Obsession. Incidentally, the 'Mellotron' work on the two Mike-less tracks is Steven on the Pinder CD-ROM.
Their second set of demos are no longer available (reviewed here), but they finally released their first proper album, Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies, in 2004. Unsurprisingly, it has a great deal in common with their two 'official' sets of demos; three tracks from 2001-2 are available here in rerecorded form. The sound? Very obviously Systems Theory, integrating their various influences to the point where their original description of themselves (see above) has actually reached fruition, and they are barely recognisable as a 'typical electronic outfit' any more. Truly progressive rock. The album is split into three fairly equal virtual 'sides' of material, making a future vinyl release a possibility, giving the CD more of a 'good old-fashioned record' feel than is usual these days.
Mike Dickson assures me that he used just about every Mellotron voice he owns on the album, though they're not all readily apparent, adding both bass clarinet and cor anglais to his previous arsenal. His use across the album veers between full-on strings and choir (much of Four Piece Suit) to church organ (Silent Service), clarinet (A Lifeboat, Tallulah And Me) and flutes (Zero Sum Equation). The end section of Water Through Fingers is apparently no fewer than 18 'Tron string sounds stacked up, and sounds like it. Not sure where the slightly more esoteric sounds are used; I'm sure subsequent listens will reveal them eventually. Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies is proof that bands shouldn't rush their first albums; it's a mature work that transcends its influences to create something genuinely new. Highly recommended.
Codetalkers was supposed to appear in 2006, but serious illness delayed the project until it presumably didn't seem worth releasing in the usual fashion. It's finally been made available as a download in 2007, and proves itself nearly as good as its predecessor, featuring the by-now familiar mixture of electronic, progressive and world stylings. If the album has a fault, it's that, like Soundtracks..., it's too long to listen to comfortably in one sitting, being as long as a double LP. I know it's great 'value for money' (especially when it's free), but it does slightly outstay its welcome. On the 'Tron front, apart from the 'usual' sounds (strings, choirs and flutes in various combinations on most tracks), I presume that's 'Tron brass four minutes or so into Riverrun (Harmelodythm), and I'm sure there are a raft of more exotic sounds that aren't nearly so easy to spot (Steve Hackett sustained guitar, an unidentified woodwind in Red Sun Fading, maybe?). Huge amounts of choir on Spamivore, although it basically just repeats the same riff for several minutes, rather in the way Harmonium did with strings. 'Stabbed' choir chords in SohCahToa just wouldn't sound like that if sampled, and the flute intro on Red Sun Fading is sublime. Mike assures me that SohCahToa actually has ten different 'Tron sounds on it, and Car Crash Messiah features the MkII moving strings, too.
So; both collections of demos would stand up perfectly well as albums 'proper', but are seriously outclassed by Soundtracks for Imaginary Movies itself. Spend your hard-earned on the album, then download Codetalkers, followed by the demo sets. Now.
See: Unreleased | Mike Dickson