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Social Tension  (Japan)

Macbethia  (1989,  47.20)  ***½
It Remainds Me of Those Days  (1990,  35.46)  ***½

Social Tension were an ELP-ish Japanese progressive trio, operational in the late '80s, towards the end of that country's strangely decade-late prog period. They only made two albums, the first being 1989's Macbethia, a mostly instrumental effort with a couple of unfortunate vocal tracks; is it an accident that no-one's credited with vocals? Better tracks include opener Go On My Way (subtitled 'Dedicated to Mr. K's Picture', presumably referring to Kazuhiko Kishi's vibrant fantasy cover art), Bolero and the lengthy title track, but there's nothing really horrible here, while the playing's as excellent as you'd expect. Nobuo "Kodomo" Endoh's full equipment list (thankfully in English) on the sleeve tells me that his Hammond was a later, solid state version, although there's some analogue gear dotted amongst the digital stuff. No Mellotron, though, meaning that the strings on Inner Vision are possibly the earliest example of someone sampling a Mellotron, in this case, presumably onto a Roland S-550 sampler. Surprisingly good samples, all things considered, to the point where they'd almost fool the ear, although I'd imagine a good deal of care was taken over getting them right.

The following year's It Remainds [sic] Me of Those Days is almost as strong as their debut, particularly the side-long title track and closer Out Of March, although the presence of vocals on almost every track is a minor problem, as is the occasional heinous digital synth patch. More of Endoh's sampled Mellotron, with flutes on Purple-esque opener Evil Intention and strings and flutes on the title track, although all other string sounds appear to be generic. Neither of Social Tension's albums were released outside Japan, although Musea released a compilation in 2000, It Reminds Me of Macbethia, that includes their entire debut plus two tracks from the follow-up, giving you the chance to hear a worthy yet almost-forgotten outfit.

Maria Solheim  (Norway)

Frail  (2004,  36.37)  ***
In the Deep  (2012,  37.28)  ***

As a Norwegian singer-songwriter, it's no great surprise that Maria Solheim's chief audience is Scandinavian, although her English-language material would easily translate to a wider market. Her third album, 2004's Frail, is a decent enough effort, if lacking any particular individuality, at its best when she drops the alt.rock stylings of the likes of Mr Iceman and Restless Girl and concentrates on more acoustic material (Kissing Me, closer Because I'm Dead), allowing her fragile (frail?) voice to sit more naturally in the mix. David Wallumrød is credited with Mellotron, but the flutes on The Snow Has Killed and Restless Girl and strings on Mr Iceman are clearly sampled, particularly the strings. Eight years on and Solheim seems to have discovered her own voice on In the Deep. It's a rather guileless one, her love songs as straightforward as they get, but the end result of her emotional honesty is an album that is better than it has any right to be. Alan Brey's 'Mellotron' credit is for the blatantly sampled strings on Run Away.

Ben Sollee & Daniel Martin Moore  (US)

Dear Companion  (2010,  36.42)  ***

Ben Sollee is that most unusual of rock instrumentalists, a vocalist/cellist, whose second album, 2010's Dear Companion, is a collaboration with fellow Kentuckian Daniel Martin Moore, produced by a third, My Morning Jacket/Monsters of Folk mainman Jim "Yim Yames" James. Essentially a rather mournful singer-songwriter effort, the duo are at their best when keeping the tempos lethargic, as on My Wealth Comes To Me and Flyrock Blues, although there's nothing here that would've been better off left on the cutting-room floor. 'Yames' is credited with Mellotron, but the strings on closer It Won't Be Long are far too clean for their own good, in my humble opinion, so 'samples' it is until/unless I'm informed otherwise. A good, trad American folk album, then, with the addition of cello to keep things interesting, but almost certainly no real Mellotron.

Something Completely Different  (Germany)

Megacatz  (2001,  53.47)  ***½

Boele Gerkes has opted to name his EM project Something Completely Different; in homage to Monty Python, perhaps? Stranger things have happened... I believe 2001's Megacatz is his debut, a surprisingly varied effort that shifts through almost Jarre-esque poppy EM (opener Microwaves 1999, Heavenly Thoughts), through quiet, reflective pieces (Dawn, Languages) to dancey material (S.O.S.) and ambient piano work (Megacatz IV, closer Love), not to mention several more 'typical', loosely Tangs-esque things. Gerkes plays fairly rotten Mellotron string (and flute?) samples on Dawn, Languages and The Cross, of the 'never going to convince you they're real' variety. This is quite a pleasant surprise; properly composed EM that isn't just the usual 'improvise over a sequence' stuff. Recommended.

Peter Sommer  (Denmark)

Alt Forladt  (2013,  43.52)  **½

Since his run of albums in the 2000s, singer-songwriter Peter Sommer has taken a turn for the electronic, in a 'shitty vocal and synth effects' kind of way, which does his music no favours at all. Perhaps it was a producer's decision? After his apparently real Mellotron work on previous recordings, Palle Hjorth doesn't so much use samples, as, despite a credit, seemingly uses nothing at all.

Sons of Bill  (US)

Sirens  (2012,  51.25)  ***

Three of Sons of Bill are, indeed, sons of Bill (Wilson), a roots-rock outfit who shift, in classic style, between raucous, country-tinged rock and pretty much pure country. Sirens' best tracks? Storming opener Santa Ana Winds, Angry Eyes, as much for lyrics and music and Turn It Up. Alan Weatherhead may very well be credited with Mellotron on Radio Can't Rewind (is that still the case? You can rewind TV now [irrelevant ed.]), but... it isn't.

Sore  (Indonesia)

Ports of Lima  (2008,  58.30)  **½

I have no idea how Indonesian outfit Sore actually pronounce their name, although strongly suspect it doesn't rhyme with 'more'. Their second release, 2008's Ports of Lima, sounds, more than anything, like an early '60s pre-psych album, incorporating elements of doo-wop, Phil Spector's legendary productions and even The Beach Boys (notably on Ernestito, one of its better tracks). To be honest, this isn't one of the more interesting albums I've heard lately, but it's as difficult to fault as it is for me to like it. Ramondo Gascaro is credited with a wide range of instrumentation, including, of course, Mellotron, but are those really supposed to be Mellotron strings on Merintih Perih, Essensimo, closer Karolina and (particularly) Vrijeman? They're at their most convincing on the last-named, until we get to hear them duetting with the vocalist, at which point their fakeness becomes apparent. Am I/are you surprised? The chances of there being a real Mellotron in Indonesia (there's a first for this site) is somewhere in the region of zero, although it might've been recorded abroad, I suppose. Anyway, south-east Asian pseudo-early '60s pop, anyone?

SoulenginE  (Italy)

Mind Colours  (2012,  54.00)  ****

SoulenginE (please ditch that capital 'E', chaps) were formed by Ettore Salati and Fabio Mancini, both ex-The Watch, although their new project has a far wider range of influences than that estimable outfit. It's difficult to pin their sound down to a nice, snappy soundbite, although more tracks fall into the 'instrumental symphonic' category than any other, highlights including opener Polheim, the piano-led Rain Flower and lengthy closer Challenge To An End. Stylistic deviations from the norm include the fusion thing going on in Rain Flower, while one of only two vocal tracks here, Down The Street, has far more of a Watch feel about it, the other (Asleep) being a near-dead ringer for mid-'70s Genesis, as is Challenge To An End. Mancini is credited with Mellotron, but the strings on most tracks and (especially) the choirs on Asleep just don't have that 'zing' to them, not to mention, where would he source a machine? The Watch's Simone Rossetti? Anyway, they haven't overused the sound (bar the solo strings part in Rain Flower), so buy this because it's a bloody good album, not because of a spurious 'Mellotron' credit.

Souls of Mischief  (US)

There is Only Now  (2014,  40.17)  **

Souls of Mischief are an Oakland-based hip-hop crew whose sixth album (in over twenty years), 2014's There is Only Now, eschews the musical violence of many of their contemporaries for a more soul-based approach, aided by producer Adrian Younge. Is it any good? I have no idea; try as I might, the appeal of this stuff continues to elude me, although I note, to my amusement, that Miriam Got A Mickey samples (appropriately) the sample-and-hold synth from ELP's Karn Evil 9. Allow me to quote Younge on the Mellotron strings all over Narrow Escape: "I sought to produce a track that King Crimson would have made...to create a Mellotron-based tale depicting an epic life journey". Fail.

Sound of Ceres  (US)

Nostalgia for Infinity  (2016,  43.43)  **½

By all accounts, Karen and Ryan Hover's Sound of Ceres aren't dissimilar to their previous band, Candy Claws, both outfits producing a kind of 'dream pop', full of ghostly synths, half-whispered vocals and soothing percussion, where it's used at all. You'll have to take my word for it that a little of this stuff goes a very long way, unless the thought of drifting, rather unadventurous, indie-derived music floats your boat. Is there a 'best track'? Yes, actually: closer Dagger Only Run, with its strong sequencer line, stands out as something slightly different. Given that members of Apples in Stereo played on the album, it's hardly surprising that the 'Mellotron' is clearly sampled, with flutes all over pretty much everything, plus occasional strings. The trouble is, when it's used merely as part of the wash of sound that characterises the album, it loses its distinctive edge, becoming 'just another sound'. I dunno; perhaps that's all it is.

Wim Soutaer  (Belgium)

Een Nieuw Begin  (2003,  47.47)  **

After finding a small level of fame with Bodhi, Wim Soutaer went solo in 2000, entering the Belgian version of Pop Idol (American Idol if you're from that side of the pond) in 2003, coming third and gaining a contract as a result. His first album, Een Nieuw Begin (you guessed it: A New Start/Beginning) mostly comprises breezy, Flemish-language pop/rock, with the occasional obligatory ballad thrown in for good (?) measure. As you might expect, it's exactly the kind of bland, mainstream fare that most people 'like' because they've never heard anything more interesting. No, that isn't a plea for more prog on the radio; just something - anything - less faceless than the usual tripe that appears to be served up in any country you care to name. Alain Van Zeveren plays Mellotron samples on the vaguely Beatles-esque Wat Zou Je Doen, with really obvious fake flutes, barely sounding like a Mellotron at all, frankly. Even (especially?) if you're a Flemish speaker, you're most unlikely to get anything out of this album, unless your taste is so bland that you'd be most unlikely to read this site in the first place.

South Normal  (US)

No More Songs About Girls  (2006,  42.46)  ***½

South Normal play a kind of punk-end-of-powerpop on No More Songs About Girls, highlights including the opening title track, Ashamed, Tattoo, Gift That Gives... It's more a case of, what isn't a highlight? Excellent, powerful-yet-melodic stuff, quite certainly a killer live act. Kurt Wolak's 'Mellotron'? What, the string line on King & Queen?

Sparkler  (US)

Wicker Park  (1997,  50.45)  ***

Sparkler's lone release, 1997's Wicker Park, was produced by Flaming Lips/Mercury Rev producer Keith Cleversley, so it comes as no great surprise to learn that their powerpop is infused with a form of indie-influenced melancholy. Better tracks include opener Hey Long Hair, the jangly Discover and Don't Despair, but the whole seems to be slightly less than the sum of its parts, for some reason. Rick Parker is credited with Mellotron, but the strings on Magic Lantern (and possibly a couple of other tracks) sound a lot like late '90s samples to my ears, which, given Mercury Rev's major sample use, also shouldn't come as much of a surprise. This is a decent enough effort, but allowing the band's powerpop tendencies full rein might've made this a better album.

Speedmarket Avenue  (Sweden)

Way Better Now  (2008,  37.21)  **½

Speedmarket Avenue are a six-piece Swedish indie outfit with joint male/female vocals, which, sadly, doesn't really give them much of an edge over their monosex-vocalled brethren. Way Better Now is their second album, and despite starting vaguely promisingly with lengthyish opener Sirens, quickly peters out into a welter of second-hand indie clichés with a vague mid-'60s pre-psych feel to them. Sirens is chock-full of 'Mellotron' strings which finally give themselves away as the mystery musician plays a note a good two tones above the 'Tron's top key. Less of the same on closer Final Wall, with a couple of vaguely possible parts elsewhere, but it's all fake, anyway. Do you like half-arsed indie? Then you may well like this. Do you hate half-arsed indie? Me too.

Spice & the RJ Band  (Sweden)

The Will  (2007,  47.40)  ***½

Spiritual Beggars' Christian "Spice" Sjöstrand played in The Mushroom River Band at the end of the '90s, who mutated into Spice & the RJ Band by the mid-'00s. 2007's The Will is their debut, a retro/stoner hard rock effort where every track actually sounds different from every other; remember when albums used to do that? Amongst its highlights are See Ya, the gentler Don't Tell Me and the fab jammed-out eight-minute closing title track, but truth be told, there isn't a bad track here. Olle Blomström is credited with Mellotron, but I'd be amazed if the smooth, distant strings on Hold On were anything other than samples, especially given the Beggars' sampledelic history. So; another entrant in the 'good retro hard rock' stakes, as against the 'generic, Sabbath-channelling doom stakes'. Worth hearing.

Spider  (US)

The Way to Bitter Lake  (2006,  33.47)  ***

I'm not sure what possessed Jane "Spider" Herships to adopt that particular nom de plume; does she not realise what a ubiquitous band/artist name it is? Discogs.com lists over forty alone, not least the early '80s Status Quo copyists and sole exponents of 'Merseyboogie'. Ahem. Anyway, her choice. Her debut, The Way to Bitter Lake, was originally privately released in 2006, gaining a 'proper' issue on Storyboard the following year. It's a sparse, haunted half-hour or so of intimate, personal material that transcends the usual 'boring singer-songwriter' effect, not to mention one of the quietest albums I've heard in a while, making it all the more shocking when a squall of feedback introduces the album's first electric guitar part (of all of two) several minutes into Maggie's Song For Alice. That isn't to say that I find it particularly engaging, but that's probably more my fault than hers. Matt Boynton is credited with Mellotron, but if those thick string notes under the real violin on The Bitter One are a genuine Mellotron then I'll be etc. etc. So; an album sounding as though it's sitting on the edge of desperation, whether or not it actually is. Probably a grower.

Malka Spigel  (UK)

Every Day is Like the First Day  (2012,  53.32)  **½

A couple of tracks, at random, of Every Day is Like the First Day, would be fine, but the better part of an hour of Malka Spigel's monotonous voice set this listener's teeth on edge, as did the dreary, indie/post-rock instrumentation and arrangements. The album's probably at its best on the propulsive Two Dimensions In A Single Frame, but I think it's fair to say that this is aimed at people other than myself. Colin Newman (as in Wire?) is credited with Mellotron, but the vague strings and choirs on opener Ammonite and the slightly more upfront strings on Back In The Old City refuse to ring true.

Spiral Stairs  (US)

The Real Feel  (2009,  46.13)  ***

Spiral Stairs are/is Pavement's Scott Kannberg's solo project, named for his original Pavement nom de plume. They/he released The Real Feel in 2009, possibly best described as indie Americana, which is less bad than it sounds, at its best on the rip-roaring Subiaco Shuffle, although some of the slower material drags somewhat. The Posies' Jon Auer supposedly plays Mellotron, just as he did on his own Songs From the Year of Our Demise, in other words, whatever's here is sampled. To be honest, I'm not even sure what is supposed to be here: vague choirs? Even vaguer flutes? No honest-to-goodness Mellotron, that's for sure. Not bad then, but no classic.

Spirit Nation  [a.k.a. Era]  (US)

Spirit Nation  [a.k.a. Sacredness]  (1998,  56.50)  **½
Winter Moons  (2001,  59.01)  **½

Spirit Nation's eponymous album appeared in 1998, but seems to have been reissued as Sacredness, expanded and slightly resequenced, with the artist name changed to Era. Dodgy small label reselling? I think so. They actually seem to be the duo of guitarist Steve Rosen and keyboard player Jimmy Waldo (New England, Alcatrazz), who combine Native American rhythms and chants with electronica and new age synth washes, which is almost exactly as dull as it sounds. I'm sure there's a huge market for this kind of stuff, but it's soporific in the extreme, especially when the expanded version runs over an hour. Waldo supposedly plays Mellotron on several tracks, although it's fairly obviously sampled, as on his work with his old cohort Hirsh Gardner. Anyway, we get strings on Earth Walk, Spirit Path, It Is A Good Day, The Thunder Beings and the title track, with very clear flutes opening I Am Water, for what it's worth.

They followed up, three years later, with Winter Moons, essentially more of the same, making it almost unreviewable; if you've heard their debut, you're heard this and vice versa. More is it?/isn't it? samplotron from Waldo, with strings on Spirit Medicine and a chordal flute part on the title track, although it's possible one or two other string parts are sample-generated. Overall, then, albums more new age than anything, leaving you quite certain what you're getting should you splash out. Samplotron on several tracks on their debut, less on its follow up, little of it particularly overt, making these a bit of a 'don't bother', I think.

Spirits Burning  (US)  see:

Spirits Burning

Spiritual Beggars  (Sweden)

Mantra III  (1998,  53.37)  ***½
Ad Astra  (2000,  54.17)  ***½
On Fire  (2002,  45.54)  ****
Demons  (2005,  49.00)  ***½
Return to Zero  (2010,  52.44)  ***½

Spiritual Beggars are a Swedish retro hard rock outfit, thus combining several of this site's favourite things (Sweden, the '70s, hard rock, Mellotrons), only really missing full-on prog to complete the set. 1998's Mantra III was their third album and, I believe, the first to feature keyboards, with Per Wiberg guesting on Hammond, Rhodes and (fake) Mellotron on several tracks. The music is that sort of pseudo-retro metal thing, with too many modern influences to be really full-on '70s; it works in places, but a lot of it's a bit too much for me at times. Can't really pinpoint standout tracks, although Superbossanova surprises as the band suddenly go all Santana on us. Not much 'Mellotron', as it happens, although the strings on Euphoria and flutes on Inside Charmer are very upfront and sound real, even though they're not. Shame about the 'Mellotron overdubs recorded at' credit, all things considered...

by 2000's Ad Astra, Wiberg had become a full member, adding digitised Hammond and Mellotron to their early-'70s smorgasbord. The only thing about their sound that really gives the game away is the raw-as-fuck vocals and the occasional guitar line, which simply don't ring true for their chosen era, but at least add a smidgeon of modernity to the mix. Wiberg sticks mostly to the organ, although there's a couple of 'Tron' tracks of varying intensity. Wonderful World has some background strings, to the point where you have to listen closely to make sure they're there at all, but Mantra has some quite full-on strings and flutes, before the inevitable heaviosity kicks in again.

The band changed vocalists for 2002's On Fire, and for some reason, I find the end result far more listenable than its predecessor, although I suspect that's partly to do with the more sympathetic production. The riffs are even more '70s than those on Ad Astra, with one shocking Black Sabbath cop on Fool's Gold (a subsidiary riff from Killing Yourself To Live, from Sabbath Bloody Sabbath, for what it's worth), but with a concomitant reduction in '90s doom stylings, this really doesn't present a problem. Wiberg expands his sonic palette slightly here, with some (mono)synth on a couple of tracks, and a little more 'Tron'than before, with string parts on several tracks, and flutes on the short instrumental Fejee Mermaid.

Three years on, Demons is as listenable as its predecessor, giving the impression that this is where Spiritual Beggars' collective hearts really lie. Standouts include the Queensrÿche-esque Salt In Your Wounds and the funky (!) wah pedal-driven Dying Every Day, but in truth, there ain't a bad track here. On the 'Mellotron' front, Wiberg plays choirs on instrumental opener Inner Strength, with flutes and strings on another short instrumental, Born To Die (Reprise) with a background flute part on closer No One Heard, rounding things up nicely. For some reason (everyone's very busy?), it's taken the band another five years to produce 2010's Return to Zero, with another new vocalist and all to prove that nothing much has changed. Another good album, never in any danger of being considered 'great', better tracks including Star Born, Coming Home, Dead Weight and the Japanese bonus version of Uriah Heep's Time To Live, Wiberg adding 'Mellotron' strings to Lost In Yesterday, The Chaos Of Rebirth, Dead Weight and The Road Less Travelled.

Spock's Beard  (US)  see:

Spock's Beard

Sportfreunde Stiller  (Germany)

MTV Unplugged in New York  (2009,  109.00)  ***

Sportfreunde Stiller? Nope, never 'eard of 'em. Seems they're a well-known German indie band, though surely not well-enough known to record an unplugged show for MTV in the States? Correct: it was actually recorded in Munich. This is effectively above criticism; a competent band who can clearly write songs playing a semi-acoustic set to a home crowd. Meaningless to us; presumably heaven sent to their fans. I'd guess that's a Memotron providing the nice polyphonic flute part on Wie Lange Sollen Wir Noch Warten.

Spotlight, Floodlight  (US)

Polarized  (2010,  40.10)  ***

Spotlight, Floodlight appear to be keyboard player Peter Adams' solo project, a kind of ambient/post-rock/electronica mashup, possibly at its best on May and closer Ending. Adams is credited with Mellotron, but the flutes and strings across the album really aren't; listen for the flute notes in Ending that drop below the Mellotron's range.

Spyra  (Germany)

Etherlands  (1999,  73.57)  ***

Wolfram "DER" Spyra has been releasing albums since the mid-'90s, '99's Etherlands (ho ho) being something like his seventh in four years. His particular brand of EM borders 'Berlin School', but with a heavy trance influence, giving it a (not necessarily welcome) contemporary edge many other current artists in the field lack. Nothing wrong with listening to what's around you, but it can sound terribly dated a few years down the line... Or not. Highlights include the reflective Birds On A Wire and brief closer Mellotron Etude, but too much of the album sounds like the plinky Radio Noordzee or the rather dull Etherlands Part II for its own good. The odd Mellotron sample crops up across the album, principally cellos (unusually) and choirs, although closer Mellotron Etude is, unsurprisingly, the major 'Mellotron' track, featuring cellos and particularly unconvincing flutes. Etherlands is for the trance fan looking to broaden their horizons, rather than the hardened EM fan, I suspect; it has its moments, but too much of it sounds like late '90s TV background music for it to really convince.

De Staat  (Netherlands)

Machinery  (2011,  40.54)  **½
I_Con  (2013,  47.21)  ***

De Staat fall fairly and squarely into the 'alt.rock' bracket, I think, their second release, 2011's Machinery, pointing towards the American scene of the late '80s and early '90s, with maybe a hint of Beefheart, only, er, not as original. OK, I've heard a lot worse (no, a lot worse), but tracks like Old MacDonald Don't Have No Farm No More could've been left off without harming the overall effect. Vocalist/mainman Torre Florim plays 'Mellotron' on two tracks, with nothing obvious (distant choirs?) on opener Ah, I See and distorted choirs on Rooster-Man, but I can't say it sounds particularly authentic. 2013's I_Con (or I_CON) carries on the good work, the band's aggressive indie/electronica crossover doing what it does faultlessly. Samplotron? Hard to tell. Strings here and there? Anyway, catchy yet underwhelming alt.rock, anyone? Thought not.

Stackridge  (UK)  see:

Stackridge

Dave Stafford  (US)

Sky Full of Stars  (2011,  64.40)  **½

This must be the most ambient 'ambient' album I've ever heard: eight tracks of drifting keyboard chording with other things drifting over the top. The most startling thing about it is Stafford's assertion that, "[it] was recorded using the remarkable m-tron pro mellotron software - an entire ambient record made with a mellotron". ??? Are ANY of the sounds here Mellotronic? Just shows what can be done with studio manipulation, I suppose.

Doru Stănculescu  (Romania)

De-Alaltăieri... Şi Până Ieri Vol. II  (2005,  44.31)  ***

I'm having trouble locating any useful biographical information regarding Doru Stănculescu; pretty much everything online is in Romanian. For all I know, he's recorded thirty albums, but the only thing of which we can be reasonably certain is that 2005's De-Alaltăieri... Şi Până Ieri Vol. II, which seems to translate as From the Day Before Yesterday Until Yesterday, isn't his debut. It's a strange album, combining central European folk stylings and mediæval tonalities, amongst other influences, mostly done very well indeed. It isn't all good, mind; the brief Copiii Pedepsiti is an uncharacteristically jaunty effort and the material tails off towards the end of the album, notably on the countryish Maria Si Marea, docking the album half a star. I'm sorry, but I really don't believe that Dan Andrei Aldea actually played Mellotron; all we get is a too-clean-by-far flute part on Epifanie, anyway. I actually doubt whether there's ever been a real Mellotron in Romania; I know that the one that used to reside in Bulgaria, at Studio Balkanton, now lives in Norway, owned by Wobbler's Lars Fredrik Frøislie, but that doesn't count. So; modern Romanian folk: don't knock it until you've tried it.

Chris Stapleton  (US)

Traveller  (2015,  63.07)  ***½

Although I've never previously heard of him, it seems Chris Stapleton is a big name in the country world, albeit chiefly as a songwriter. Had I read that before listening to his first solo release, 2015's Traveller, I'd probably have dreaded putting it on, but it's actually a very pleasant surprise, much of the album being rockier and/or bluesier than expected. Best tracks? Parachute powers along nicely, as does Might As Well Get Stoned, while many of the lyrics are superb. Try this couplet from Whiskey And You: "I drink because I'm lonesome and I'm lonesome 'cause I drink". Pure country, maybe, but his faultless delivery lifts what could've been very ordinary country songs into another league altogether. Mike (or Michael) Webb is credited with Mellotron, while producer Dave Cobb is apparently keen on using a real machine, so... where is it? It's not even as if there's anything I can point at and say, 'real or not?' There's nothing. As a result, rightly or wrongly, I'm sticking this in samples, as I find the idea of recording a real Mellotron, then dropping it out of the mix, entirely bizarre. But that's me. Anyway, good album, no obvious Mellotron.

Star One  (Netherlands)

Space Metal  (2002,  55.47)  **
Live on Earth  (2003,  113.55)  **½
Victims of the Modern Age  (2010,  53.09)  **½

Arjen Anthony "Ayreon" Lucassen's Star One, to give them their full name, are one of the titular Lucassen's many projects, apparently originally a proposed collaboration with Bruce Dickinson, until Lucassen mentioned it in an online interview and Bruce pulled out (so to speak). Well, that's what happens when you mess with the Dickster, innit? 2002's Space Metal isn't actually very good, frankly; imagine an off-Broadway prog-metal album, not helped by the dodgy female vocals that dog several tracks and the gratuitous synth solos (including a couple from Rocket Scientists mainman Erik Norlander) that sound like something instrumentally contemporary, although Lucassen infamously owns a pristine MiniMoog. Samplotron on several tracks, unsurprisingly, with choirs on Lift-Off (which sounds suspiciously similar to Colin Towns' Second Sight, from Gillan's debut, Mr Universe), also heard on High Moon, along with pretty crummy strings, both sounds cropping up elsewhere, to no great effect. The bonus disc's Hawkwind Medley, despite being co-vocalled by Dave Brock, is terrible, ditto the drastic rearrangement of Bowie's Space Oddity and the untitled final track, which turns out to be an awful version of Donovan's awful Intergalactic Laxative.

The following year's double Live on Earth is an onstage recreation of most of the album, with a large chunk of Ayreon material thrown in for good measure; given that the two bands are so similar in concept and sound, it's hardly a huge leap of faith for the audience. Although every bit as pompous (and rather longer) than Space Metal, it somehow pulls the trick of being slightly less tedious, although any prospective listeners should ensure that they are already aficionados of Mr Lucassen's work. I would guess it's Joost Van Den Broek who plays the Mellotron samples scattered across the two discs, but it hardly matters, does it?

After a considerable break, Lucassen resurrected the Star One project and released their second studio album in 2010, Victims of the Modern Age. Unfortunately, although I can report that it's better than its predecessor, that's because it's a less individual record, not more, disposing of the bulk of the sub-Lloyd-Webber stuff and ending up sounding like just about any other prog-metal band you could name. Yes, this is an improvement. The formula goes something like this: guitars riff like mad, strident vocalist sings in an epic manner, keyboard player adds synth solo played on a modern instrument. Repeat. Marvellous. The first sound you hear on the album is the samplotron choir on Down The Rabbit Hole, with strings on Digital Rain and bits of choir elsewhere, but you were never, never going to mistake it for the real thing. Star One have improved by dint of becoming less individual. Is this really the sort of example we'd like to set our children? Eh? Maybe they're following some weird kind of Dutch governmental diktat regarding 'the inadvisability of individual approaches in the prog-metal genre and their practical applications' (in Dutch). Maybe.

Starbelly  (US)

Everyday & Then Some  (2002,  43.11)  ****

Produced by Myracle Brah's Andy Bopp, Starbelly's second album, 2002's Everyday & Then Some, is a gorgeous powerpop release featuring all the 'right' influences and actually outdoing Bopp's mob in the process. Top tracks? Beauty Mark is particularly ripping, not least its superb backwards guitar solo, while Plateau, Ordinary Now and Doubt are all top-notch. Your task, should you choose to accept it: find a bad track on this album. Greg Schroeder is credited with Mellotron, but the only vaguely Mellotronic flutes on Plateau really don't convince; it's no surprise that The Myracle Brah's contemporaneous Bleeder also features samples. Alleged Mellotron use is pretty much irrelevant here, though; the quality of the music is the reason you should own this album.

The Starfolk  (US)

The Starfolk  (2013,  36.07)  **½

The Starfolk play 'adult-oriented indie pop', according to iTunes, so who am I to argue? Their eponymous LP is certainly unimaginative enough to be classified as 'indie', even having something of the Coldplays about them, which isn't any kind of recommendation. Now, someone called Andy Thompson is credited with Mellotron on the album. Nothing to do with me, squire! Ah, the perils of a common name... Anyway, he doesn't appear to be using a real one, giving us an upfront string part in Sow The Seed.